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'My Brother Told Me To Live': A Story Of Loss, Discovery And Ultramarathoning

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Michael after finishing his first 100-mile indoor run. (Courtesy Michael Ortiz)
Michael after finishing his first 100-mile indoor run. (Courtesy Michael Ortiz)
This article is more than 2 years old.

Not so long ago, if you had asked Michael Ortiz if he’d consider running 100 miles in his living room, his answer would have sounded something like this:

"No way. No. That's insane. That's crazy. You know, like, it's bad enough running 100 miles outside. Who on earth is going to do that in the living room? No way."

But, 10 weeks ago, Michael was thinking about doing just that.

One hundred miles is nearly four marathons back to back to back. Michael had run 58 100-mile races over the previous 58 weekends. His goal was to run 100 100-mile races in 100 weeks. But in mid-March, the COVID-19 pandemic hit New York, and Michael was stuck inside his Brooklyn apartment.

"The guidance at the time was to stay inside as much as possible," Michael says. "Stay in your houses as much as you can, because you want to flatten the curve. And I thought, 'OK, well, it would be very easy for me to go outside and run 100 unofficial miles in New York City streets. But that would send the wrong message."

"It's bad enough running 100 miles outside. Who on earth is going to do that in the living room?"

Michael Ortiz

Michael ordered a treadmill online, but the delivery date came and went. And the machine hadn’t even left the warehouse. If Michael wanted to keep his streak going, he was gonna have to get creative. And do some math.

He started by measuring the perimeter of his living room. It came in at just 40 feet. That meant Michael would have to run 132 loops to log 5,280 feet, which is a mile.

"Multiply that by 100. It would take 13,200 loops to hit a hundred miles," Michael says. "And then I thought, 'Oh, my God. That's a lot.' "

Michael had already spent a year and a half working toward his goal of 100 100-mile races in 100 weeks. He’d be sad to see it end because he was supposed to stay inside.

"But there is a solution," Michael remembers thinking. "And the solution is running 13,200 loops of your living room."

Michael took the night to think it over.

The Brother Who 'Brought The Party' 

If we’re going to have any chance of understanding what Michael did next, we’re going to have to go back, all the way back, to Michael’s childhood.

A collage of photos of Michael and David Ortiz as kids. (Courtesy Michael Ortiz)
A collage of photos of Michael and David Ortiz as kids. (Courtesy Michael Ortiz)

He grew up on Manhattan’s Upper East Side with his mom, his brother, his grandparents and two aunts with intellectual disabilities.

"We were in public housing," Michael says. "Things aren't necessarily handed to you. So you need to work hard. You need to go to school. You need to get good grades. And all that requires dedication, hard work and focus."

Michael and his older brother, David, were best friends. But in many ways, they couldn’t have been more different.

"I'm introverted by nature," Michael says. "I was quiet. You know, I would rather play video games indoors. [David] was more outgoing and extroverted — very lively and charismatic — and he sort of brought the party."

As Michael and David grew up, they developed pretty different world views.

"He valued experience and seeing what life has to offer," Michael says.

David and his wife loved to travel. They visited Machu Picchu. They flew to Europe. They set out to see all 50 states.

Michael worked seven days a week on Wall Street, building his net worth. As for travel, he didn’t even like going to the outer boroughs.

"The number of times I'd ventured out to Brooklyn? Gosh, I could count them on my hands," Michael says. "Seriously, I just don't go there at all. ... I never went."

And these differences between Michael and David would sometimes lead to arguments.

"He would tell me, 'Hey, you should go and travel more.' And I would tell him, 'Hey, you should, actually, I don't know, think about not taking that vacation and putting that towards a retirement fund.' "

A Marathon That Never Was

Michael (left) and David (right) on David's 26th birthday. (Courtesy Michael Ortiz)
Michael (left) and David (right) on David's 26th birthday. (Courtesy Michael Ortiz)

In 2010, David and his wife moved to Southern California. And they started training for a marathon. Michael was impressed.

"To be totally honest, I didn't ever think he’d ever want to do something like that," Michael says. "I know I didn’t. I would think, like, 'Oh, man, after a long day of work, just go home and relax and watch TV. Who wants to go outside and run for three hours? Are you kidding me?' "

So, while Michael was spending all his non-work hours sitting on his couch, David and his wife were spending nights and weekends logging miles. For cross-training, David started riding his bicycle to work. It was about 10 miles each way.

But David never got the chance to run his marathon.

"One day in March — March 23 in 2012 — he was hit by a car," Michael says. "There was a woman who —  it was very early in the morning. She had the sun in her eyes. She didn't see my brother. And she had hit him on his left side. He fell off his bike and onto incoming traffic.

"And that moment, that life event, really hit me hard. That was, you know — David was my best friend. He was the person I always went to for advice. And now he was gone."

The family held two memorial services for David. One in California and one in New York.

Michael (left) with David. (Courtesy Michael Ortiz)
Michael (left) with David. (Courtesy Michael Ortiz)

"Everyone who spoke said the same things about him. You know, like, 'He was a great person.' 'He was very lively, very charismatic,' " Michael says. "But the one thing that really stuck out was this is a man who lived. You know, it's very tragic that he died at 29 years old. But he lived."

"Did you feel like you were really living at that time?" I ask.

"No. No," Michael says.

Taking Risks

The first year after David’s death was tough. Michael says he was angry all the time. After about a year, Michael wanted to buy an apartment. And he did something he never would have considered before his brother died. He looked at apartments in Brooklyn. He didn’t know anything about the housing market there. To Michael, it felt like a huge risk.

"But, you know, these are the kind of risks that my brother was talking about," Michael says. "And so I took the chance. I bought the place out here. But I didn't know Brooklyn at all. Like, at all. So, on the weekends, I would go for walks. Right? And it was very cold. And then I thought, 'You know, if you're jogging and moving, you’re heating up. You won't be as cold.' "

So Michael started jogging. And, on these jogs, he got to know his neighborhood.

"And it was exciting. It felt like an adventure," Michael says. "And I remember the week I hit 10 miles. And I thought, 'Oh, my God, double digits!' Right? It was such a big deal."

"My brother told me to live, right? He wanted me to go and experience the world."

Michael Ortiz

One morning, Michael woke up early and put on his running shoes.

"I knew I wanted to go to Coney Island. I didn't know how I was gonna get there, what road I would run along," Michael says. "[I] started running south until I hit the water. Who does that? Before my brother had died, I wouldn't do that. You know, I wouldn't travel to a place without some kind of idea of what I was doing."

When Michael got to Coney Island, he didn’t just turn around and run back home. Instead, he stood in line for a Nathan’s hot dog.

"That is the kind of thing my brother would have done. He would have gone to a place to try, like, their local delicacy. Like, anywhere he went," Michael says.

But that day at Coney Island was just the beginning.

"So, Coney Island weekend was a pretty big weekend," Michael says. "It was 13.5 miles. The weekend I got to 15, I thought, 'The marathon is still very far away, but I think I can get there.' And I thought, 'Oh, my God, if I run the marathon, I've got to do it for David.' "

Running For David

In November of 2015, Michael Ortiz ran the New York City Marathon in honor of his brother, David. After the runners finish, they have to walk through a series of corrals before they can exit Central Park.

"And I remember walking, like, I don't know, maybe a quarter of a mile. And I sat down on the curb, because I just had to let it sink in. Right?" Michael says. "And there were tears involved, you know, I won’t lie."

After a while, Michael asked someone to take his picture. And the smile on his face?

"It was just, like, joy. It was pure joy," Michael says. "And I just felt so connected with him in that moment. It was great. And so I went to work that next day, Monday, and I looked on New York City Road Runners website again."

Michael saw another race just two weeks away. It was called the New York City 60K.

"And I thought '60K. What on ear[th] — are you kidding me?' So 60K is 37.2 miles. Right? I thought marathon was the top distance that anyone goes. You know, what is this 37.2 business all about? And I read the description and, quite honestly, it sounded terrible. So New York City Marathon is — part of the excitement is you go through five boroughs. You know, like, it's iconic for a reason. In contrast, the 60K was nine loops of Central Park. It was mind-numbing.

"And I thought, 'That sounds terrible. I don't know why anyone would want to do that.' But, of course, that only lasted like a few minutes before I went back to the page and thought, 'Well, what is it, exactly?"

After running the New York City Marathon, Michael started looking for bigger challenges. Here's Michael at the 2019 Antelope Canyon 100. (Courtesy Michael Ortiz)
After running the New York City Marathon, Michael started looking for bigger challenges. Here's Michael at the 2019 Antelope Canyon 100. (Courtesy Michael Ortiz)

So, just two weeks after running his first marathon, Michael ran his first ultramarathon. Afterwards, his legs were so sore, he couldn’t even walk the three blocks to the subway.

But when Monday morning rolled around, Michael found himself online again, this time signing up for a 50-mile race just two months later called the "Beast of Burden."

Michael didn’t know anyone at the race. And he didn’t know much about preparing to run 50 miles. By the time he reached the 25-mile aid station, his clothes were soaked with sweat.

He went inside the tent to warm up. But when he stepped back outside...

"I was freezing immediately and shaking. One of the volunteers came to me and said, 'Hey, no, come back inside. Come back inside.' And I go back in there. And then he's like, 'Where's your drop bag?'

"So, you know, in these races, you also have drop bags that you pack things like emergency gear or sneakers or whatever it is you might think you need at that point. And I told him, 'What drop bag?'

"His name was Dwight, and he had infinite patience with me. But Dwight, at the time, said, 'OK, so you can't go back out there, because your clothes are wet, and I won't let you. What you're going to need to do is take them off.'

"And I didn't hesitate. You know, here's a total stranger. I don't know this person. I don't know anyone in the tent. The tent is packed with people. Here's a guy telling me to strip down to my underwear so that he can dry my clothes."

So Michael, the shy, introverted brother, stripped down in front of a room full of strangers. Dwight put Michael’s wet clothes in front of a heater and fed him hot soup until he was ready to run again.

"So I crossed the finish line at 50 miles," Michael says. "And, again, I felt in connection with my brother, David, because that was another milestone."

Here We Go...

OK, so you can probably guess what happened next.

"Here we go," Michael says. "It's Monday, and I go back online."

Michael went back to the Beast of Burden – it’s held twice a year in winter and summer. Only this time, he signed up for the 100-mile option. He spent the next seven months training. And, when August came around, Michael says he felt much more ready to run 100 miles than he’d been to run 50.

"The 100 was tough," Michael says. "But I finished it. Really and truly, I kind of expected that I would."

Michael didn't immediately set out to run 100 100 mile races in 100 weeks.

"It didn't start out that way," he says.

At first, Michael stuck to the relatively sane schedule of two ultras a year. But, in 2017, he had an idea.

" 'I wonder if I can do two 100-mile races back to back?' "

Michael tried and failed a couple of times. But, when he tried again in November of 2018, he did it.

"I was on cloud nine after that. But, just like every other Monday morning, after completing something really big like that, I get the idea of, 'Can we do it again?' "

So, the following weekend, Michael ran a 100-mile race in Louisiana.

David running the 2018 Chattanooga 100. (Misty Wong)
David running the 2018 Chattanooga 100. (Misty Wong)

"So now we're on three. Right? And I thought, 'Oh, my God. I can't believe this.' I decided I'm gonna go for 10," Michael says.

Michael left work every Friday afternoon. He’d be back at his desk on Monday morning.

"When I hit 10, I thought, 'Let's go longer. Let's go longer. And so it snowballed from there."

Michael told himself if he could keep the streak going through 2019, he’d announce his plan to go for 100 — that’s 100 100 mile races in 100 weeks.

Michael planned all the logistics, signed up for all the races. The brother who once barely traveled from Manhattan to Brooklyn scheduled runs in six countries and every U.S. state. He announced his plan on January 3, 2020.

"And that was it," Michael says. "All I had to do was execute."

A Slight Change Of Plans

But just a few weeks into 2020, Michael started to realize that the pandemic was going to force some changes to his very, very complicated plan.

"So mid-February is when I made the decision to cancel all the international travel and replace those races with domestic races," Michael says. "I didn't think, you know, because the communication that we received at the time, especially from the government, didn't deem it to be very serious, that it would be very serious for the U.S."

The third weekend in March, Michael flew to Utah for a race in Mesquite, Arizona. By then, San Francisco was already under lockdown.

"[I] rented a car, and it was a four hour drive from Salt Lake City to Mesquite, where I needed to go," Michael says. "And, during this drive, I was very, very mixed on what I should be doing."

Michael knew he could be an asymptomatic carrier of the virus. What if he gave it to someone in one of these small towns? Would they be equipped to handle an outbreak?

"And so I turned around, and I came back to New York. And it was — I was really sad," Michael says. "And I woke up Sunday to emails from race directors from other races for the next coming weeks, all canceling races. And I thought, 'Oh, my gosh.' "

One More Crazy Idea

That’s when Michael ordered the treadmill. But it got stuck at the warehouse, and Michael felt he was out of options. He started writing a long social media post — a sort of epic send-off for the project he’d been focused on for the past year and a half.

"And I almost published it," Michael says. "Until I decided, 'Well, before we do this, let's just see if we can potentially run in the living room.' "

Of all of Michael’s crazy ideas, running 13,200 40-foot loops of his living room might just have been the craziest.

"It was like, 'This is going to be hard. This is probably going to be the most challenging hundred miles. But, if I do this, I'd be proving to myself that I can still get done this project that I committed to for the last year and half.'

Michael set out to run 13,200 laps around his living room. (Courtesy Michael Ortiz)
Michael set out to run 13,200 laps around his living room. (Courtesy Michael Ortiz)

"So the first mile took 35 minutes. Most people can walk faster than a 35-minute mile."

At that pace, Michael would be done in 35 hours. But, of course, it took much longer than that.

"For one, you have to stop and take breaks to fuel," Michael says. "You have to sleep if you go past a day. You have to stop and stretch. There are a lot of things that are going to slow you down from this 35-minute pace. Thirteen thousand and two hundred laps took 59 hours. So almost two and a half days."

Forty-five minutes after Michael Ortiz finished his 13,200th lap, his treadmill arrived. And so, two days later, Michael ran his first 100-miler on the treadmill.

Michael has now run 10 100-milers while adhering to New York’s "Stay At Home" orders.

Remembering David

(Courtesy Michael Ortiz)
(Courtesy Michael Ortiz)

Now that restrictions are starting to lift, Michael will be running this weekend’s 100-miler around his block in Brooklyn. He hopes to soon return to the trails where he might be able to run alongside some of the many new friends he’s made in the ultramarathon community.

"You know, my brother told me to live, right? He wanted me to go and experience the world. I found a way to do that and combine it with something that I love doing," Michael says.

"If I wasn't out there doing this thing and traveling to different states or different countries, I wouldn't have the friends that I have now. Everything that I do in challenging myself, these are all things that I think my brother would be proud of me for."

We first learned about Michael Ortiz and the 13,200 laps he ran around his living room in a New York Times story by Christopher Solomon.

This segment aired on May 30, 2020.

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