Ruth Anne Bortz was more than just a runner, though her age-group accomplishments made her one of the country’s finest competitors throughout the final three decades of her life. She was a mother of four, grandmother of nine, and wife to Dr. Walter “Wally” Bortz for 62 years.
And, as was evident for more than 30 years, she and Walter were the drivers – the graceful symbols of aging gracefully – behind the oldest female and male finisher awards presented each year following completion of the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run.
Ruth Anne, 84, with Wally presented the oldest finishers’ awards three weeks ago at Western States’ annual ceremony. She passed away on July 14 at her Portola Valley, Calif., home.
Ruth Anne, Wally, and Gunhild Swanson at the finish of WS.
She was remembered by longtime Western States board members Mo Livermore and Tony Rossmann as a kind and gentle woman who, despite her 5-foot-2, 100-pound frame, was also a strong, determined runner.
Her Western States legacy, both Rossmann and Livermore agreed, was the pioneering path Ruth Anne blazed, both as a competitor and as inspiration for runners of all ages who run Western States.
“Ruth Anne was an extraordinary presence throughout her life,” Livermore said, noting that Bortz’s 1986 finish at age 56 in the time of 24:34 was one of the Run’s age group highlights. At the time, Bortz became only one of a handful of women over the age of 50 to ever finish the Run. “Ruth Anne’s buckle at Western States meant a great deal to her; the awards, which she and Wally have provided to the oldest finishers over three decades and have served as inspiration to the larger running community, seemed to mean even more. The Bortzes’ loyalty to the WSER has been constant, and the event has been enriched by their enthusiasm.”
Added Rossmann: “Ruth Anne embodies the Western States spirit to us all, and especially to me, who was privileged to train with her in that magical spring and summer of 1986, camping out in Foresthill before the first official Western States official training camps and runs. Although she ended her 1986 campaign as one of the then-oldest women to finish our race, and darned close to the sub-24-hour mark, she was still a young college kid at heart. Her vibrant spirit enriched her marriage to Wally, and enriched us all. We are grateful that Wally will continue to present their awards in the years ahead.”
Ruth Anne excelled at an early age. She grew up in Boston and was a star athlete and president of student government at the Brimmer and May Schools. She was a 1952 graduate of Mt. Holyoke College, marrying Walter Borz in 1953.
The two had met at summer school at Harvard.
Walter Bortz, a world-renowned physician whose research and writing has appeared in all of the major health and medical journals as well as the mainstream media and whose professional mantra has been to dare all to live past 100, wrote in a Huffington Post essay published on July 18 of the couple’s meeting: “We met during college days, summer 1949. I after my second year at Williams, and she after her first year at Mt. Holyoke. We met at Harvard Summer School, romanced, and were affiliated for the next 65 years. Such an experience is for few to experience.”
Added Livermore: “Theirs was a great, lifelong love affair.”
Bortz recalled that his wife, after raising the couple’s children, became enamored with running during the first significant boom of popularity for the sport in the late 1970s. Ruth Anne was 48 years old, and running, her husband recalled warmly, “became the bastion of her life.”
Ruth Anne and Wally ran races all across the globe over the next 30-plus years. Ruth Anne was a first-place age-group finisher at age 60 at the Boston Marathon, and again at age 70, and was the second at age 80.
She was a two-time finisher of Western States; her first finish came in 1984 when she ran 28:11.
In his Huffington Post essay, Wally wrote candidly about Ruth Anne’s ascendancy in the world of running.
“I had begun running as a grief reaction to dad’s death several years before,” he wrote. “She did not really accept my running, and figured that at my age it was not decent to be running around the neighborhood in my underpants. She felt it was inappropriate for a distinguished gray-haired physician to be so much on display. But she became infected with the running bug, and my little, sweet, retiring wife became committed. ‘You can’t do that!’ ‘WATCH!’”
After the couple’s son, Walter III, had finished Western States, it was only a matter of time, the elder Bortz said, before his wife found her way to the starting line at Squaw Valley as well.
“In a flash, it seems, Ruth Anne and we were gathered at the starting line, under the chairlift at Squaw Valley ready to run to Auburn, 100 miles over the mountains,” Wally Bortz wrote. “‘You can’t do that.’ ‘Watch.’ In 1986, at the age of 56 she completed the 100 miles in 24 hours and 34 minutes – truly unreal for my tiny Boston-born bride. Her feats were widely celebrated in the major women’s magazines and every local news outlet – Ruth Anne Bortz, famous long distance runner. MY WIFE.”
In a recent conversation, Wally recalled to friends how much he enjoyed watching his wife run. He said she had the most “lovely” stride – a little knock-kneed, “almost like a fawn” but also determined and efficient.
“Watching her run was one of the great pleasures of my life,” he said. “She was so damn good at it. And she made it look so easy. It was truly lovely to watch her run, to listen to her talk about her training, to help her prepare for her next race. Finishing Western States was one of those milestones that was remarkable – remarkable for Ruth Anne, remarkable for our family, and remarkable for me, too, to see my wife do something that few people in the world can do. From age 48 on, she was the star athlete in our family – and she deserved every accolade she got.”
Bortz added in his essay: “She made her mark, and in so doing gave vivid evidence of the human potential, my mantra.”
Ruth Anne is survived by her husband, Walter; by her daughters Danna Breen of Portola Valley and Gretchen Lieff of Montecito, California; sons Edward Bortz of Portland, Oregon, and Walter Bortz of Ukiah, California; her sister Joan Bryson of Weston, Massachusetts; and nine grandchildren. In lieu of a memorial, Wally Bortz plans to assemble Ruth Anne’s friends and admirers for a group run near their Portola Valley home.