The Thrill of the Unknown

The Thrill of the Unknown

The one thing you can expect when you compete in an ultramarathon is that something unexpected will happen.

Ultramarathoner Riccardo Tortini has had his share of surprises. Running drenched and freezing for 28 hours during Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, a 107-mile circumnavigation of Europe’s highest peak with 33,000 feet of vertical gain, was pretty brutal. Though a temporary bout of rhabdomyolysis, a condition in which skeletal muscles break down rapidly enough to cause kidney failure, in the last stretch of a 100 miler in Oregon was probably worse.

But facing challenging situations is exactly what keeps 35-year-old Tortini coming back to these types of races roughly four times per year.

“Off-road, there are a number of variables that you have to take into account—things you have no control over,” says the Los Angeles-based ultrarunner. The rugged terrain, the mercurial weather, plus the double-digit hours of pushing through extreme elevation changes are just a few. “You have to bring in other skill sets. You have to troubleshoot, because there is always something going wrong. It’s a matter of knowing when to take action.” Next up for Tortini - he will bring his experience to the 100-km Canyons Endurance Run in Foresthill, California.

Though he’s been a long-distance runner since his early twenties, Tortini’s love of the outdoors has a much longer history. Growing up in Secugnago, a small, rural town in Northern Italy, he spent his summers hiking in the nearby Alps with his brother and his parents.

Tortini discovered long-distance trail running by accident around 2011, when he first moved to the States for a Ph.D. program at Michigan Tech. New to the area, he kept himself busy by gradually increasing his mileage to longer and longer stretches within the cities impressive trail system.

While the mileage was significantly longer, he found running on trails more appealing than the road, because it wasn’t as taxing on his body. “There’s a broader range of mechanics that you have to adapt to, and it requires a different type of strength than road running,” he says. “Trail running requires adapting your climbing, descending, and technical approach. The pace is more controlled and sustained.”

It also requires a great deal of mental rigor. “You know you are taking your body to an extreme, and at some point, the mind wins over the body,” he explains of his motivation. “Twelve or sixteen hours into a race, it’s the mind that’s driving you through.”

A postdoctoral scholar in geography at UCLA, Tortini’s daily academic grind and his passion for ultrarunning are a surprisingly complementary combination. Most of his day at the university is spent researching with incremental improvements—long, controlled processes with no end in sight. “You never have hard deadlines, and you can go on forever,” he says. “Having a training program is the complete opposite. It’s a well-established plan with a deadline where you have to perform.”

Well, except for navigating those unknowns. But his simple mantra for running and for life help propel him forward: Keep showing up. Even when things don’t go as originally planned, keep doing what you’re doing and it will eventually pay off.

Photography by William Callan. Story by Sandra Nygaard.
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