Ridgefield mom celebrates 35th birthday with 35-mile run

RIDGEFIELD — It might be hard to imagine that someone who ran the New York City Marathon can admit they once hated running.

But such is the case for Ashley Ortelli, who, despite being on the track team in high school, used to average 13-minute miles.

Ortelli, however, has improved her time and her perception on running. To celebrate her 35th birthday on May 13, she ran an ultramarathon on May 16 from Fairfield to Ridgefield, spanning 35 miles.

“It takes me an hour of running before I get into the zone,” Ortelli said. “(On) 10-mile runs or longer, I actually enjoy myself more — shorter runs are miserable.”

In her 20s, Ortelli wanted to challenge herself to exercise more, so she signed up to run the NYC Marathon in 2008. Four years later, she gave birth to her son, Renzo, and struggled to prioritize exercise, she said.

She initially scoffed when her husband, Damian, came home with a used Peloton bike two years ago before signing up for the app, which includes runner-targeted workouts. She also bought “an ancient treadmill” from a neighbor to get back into a running regimen in late 2019.

Months later, when the pandemic hit, “running helped me deal with everything going on in the world,” Ortelli said. “I kept it up all summer.”

On your mark . . .

Last year, as Ortelli drove along the scenic Hemlock Reservoir off Route 58, she thought the route was the perfect place for an ultramarathon — which is any run longer than the strict 26 miles and 385 yards. When she told her friends and family she would run a 35-miler for her 35th birthday, they said, “that’s kind of nuts,” she recalled.

“At first I kind of brushed it off, to be honest,” said Ortelli’s friend Mikey Kiselak, a fellow runner. “Then she would tell me she went out for a 10-mile run, then 15, 20, 25. … Somewhere in there, I noticed how dedicated she was to it.”

Ortelli ramped up her mileage from September to January, with the attitude that there was nothing to lose. “I thought, ‘it’s not a race, I don’t have to sign up for anything, so if I burn out, it’s not a big deal,’” she said.

Ortelli intensified her training in January by doing back-to-back long runs two days a week. But her stride was stonewalled in February when her chronic Lyme disease flared up, causing “terrible pain” in her legs and joints.

“There were some days where I couldn’t even walk,” she said, “and then I realized it will matter if I can’t do this — it had become such a huge focus of our lives.”

Get set . . .

To reduce inflammation, Ortelli put herself on what she calls the “Why Bother Living Diet” and cut out dairy, sugar, alcohol and other “fun stuff.” The diet kept Ortelli from enjoying some of her favorite running snacks: Oreos, crunchy Cheetos, peanut butter M&M’s and chocolate-covered espresso beans.

While running, Ortelli likes to play “roulette” with the candies by mixing them up in a bag — “You never know what the brown ones will be!” She also keeps a small bottle of pickle juice on her to sip occasionally during her runs.

On the day of the ultramarathon, Damian and Renzo prepared to follow Ortelli in the car with changes of socks, snacks and a whole lot of emotional support. “One of my friends asked me if I was her coach,” Damian said. “I was more like her running doula.”

Go!

Ortelli’s journey began in a parking lot across the street from Chip's Family Restaurant. She sprinted through Fairfield’s business district toward Route 58 and cruised for the first 17 miles.

“I like to calculate what my mile splits are as I’m going (and realized) I was running faster than expected,” she said.

But as the breeze waned and the day’s temperature climbed to 70 degrees, Ortelli hit a wall when the route took her uphill for a mile and a half. Damian, however, had orchestrated friends to cheer for her on the side of the road as she passed their homes there. The presence of familiar faces persuaded Ortelli to push through as she ran the next two miles up and down hill.

The last 8-mile section of the ultramarathon started at the beginning of the Ridgefield Rail Trail at Cooper and Florida roads. Ortelli convened there with Kiselak who offered to pace her for that part of the run.

“I think having me there for a few miles really took her mind off of the actual running — she had done about a full marathon’s worth at that point,” he said. “It’s such a grueling mental thing when you’re all alone for that long … (but) she seemed to be in good shape — she wasn’t out of breath or anything.”

The finish line

Ortelli clocked her last mile in eight minutes. As she turned onto her block, she sprinted down the hill toward her driveway “screaming and shouting,” her favorite song “From Now On,” from “The Greatest Showman,” blasting through her headphones.

“One of the lyrics is about coming back home, so it felt really good in the moment,” she said.

Neighbors shot off confetti cannons as Ortelli crossed the finish line, and a mix of emotions came over her: surprise, relief, joy and gratitude.

Damian said the accomplishment was yet another example of his wife’s “extraordinary perseverance.”

Next month, Ortelli will begin training for the virtual Boston Marathon in October. She admitted the pandemic is likely the only reason why she considered the ultramarathon, and finding a silver lining made it all “a little less terrible.”

“If you find something that brings you joy, lean into it,” she said. “Spend a little time on what makes you happy.”

alyssa.seidman@hearstmediact.com