Conquering willpower and crossing the finish line - one marathoner's story

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Shen-Chia Chu
  • 436th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
It was once said, "the will to persevere is often the difference between failure and success."

Most participants of a marathon prove this verse to be true, they do not run the race to win it - they run the race to finish.

The battle a marathoner struggles with is the will from within. It is a personal goal of their finish time, as well as continuing regardless of muscle cramps, dehydration and whatever would cause one to give up the fight to finish.

For one Team Dover marathon runner, she has reached far more than she aspired to do - running as a sport and running for life.

How it all began

Tech. Sgt. Chrystal Ortega, 436th Force Support Squadron Airman Leadership School instructor, used to believe that only certain types of people could be runners.

She admitted she once was a "secret" runner because she didn't think her body fit the mold of a runner.

"I started out running to lose weight, and in the beginning I ran a very slow and painful three miles and it frustrated me," said Sergeant Ortega who began running in Jan. 2006.

After giving birth to a daughter, Josephine, it was difficult for Sergeant Ortega to get back in shape and as a result she barely passed her physical fitness test. She explained that previous to her pregnancy, she only exercised during squadron physical training, but now she knew she had to take a more control of her own fitness.

"I don't like failing and I saw it as a failure, so I decided to turn my frustration into motivation," she said.

Sergeant Ortega said she thought a person needed to be athletic and fit to run, but soon realized all she needed to do was put on her shoes and go. Soon she was running longer than three miles and decided to take on her first marathon in May 2008.

Running the endurance contest

What started out as a weight-loss alternative turned into recreation for this marathoner.

"At first the motivation was weight loss, but eventually the motivation became the run itself," she said.

She ran her first marathon with a pace group and met a recovering alcoholic who shared his story about his struggle and how marathon running helped his sobriety.

"When you're running this long of a distance, it's inevitable that you will meet new people who share their life stories with you," she said.

The runners Sergeant Ortega meets are no longer strangers to her, she says she keeps in contact with them to this day.

The sergeant has met many friends through her travels to Cleveland and Cincinnati, Ohio, San Francisco, Calif., and Washington, D.C., for marathon races, as well as locally.

The Dover marathoner will take on another challenge and compete in this year's U.S. Air Force Marathon at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, making it her fifth marathon race.

So far, Sergeant Ortega's best time is 4:40:00, but she is eager to beat her old time with a new goal - 4:15:00.

She doesn't just run long distances, her 18-week training plan also includes cross training, speed work, easy runs and trail runs average 35 miles a week, plus she does strength training to help build endurance. After running long miles, she enjoys crunchy peanut butter on a bagel with coffee as her reward.

"When I cross the finish line, I hug my daughter and grab something to eat because by then I'm starving. I look forward to the plans we've made for a family celebration outing after the race," she said.

Life lessons from the race

Being 34 years old, Sergeant Ortega said she never imagined she would be in this shape at this stage of her life. She has lost 25 pounds and gained muscle, not to mention improved her PT score by over 20 points.

"I have read that the shape you are in your 40's dictates the shape you'll retain for the rest of your life," she said. "I want to be a healthy mom, be able to spend time with my daughter and show her a healthy self image."

The sergeant believes running isn't just exercise, its definition means much more.

"Running is a defining characteristic, we're able to use skills from running in our everyday lives," she said. "Once it becomes a habit, it's a slow gradual process which becomes second nature."

Like running is an inspiration to the ALS instructor, Sergeant Ortega is an inspiration to others who see her in action on the track. Her current and former ALS students seek her for advice on running.

"My students motivate me to run faster to compete with them when we run our 5k's," she said. "I can outrun many of my students, but I use this advantage as positive encouragement for them to run faster and push themselves."

Sergeant Ortega has also inspired her mother-in-law to walk her first half-marathon.

"My family and I flew to San Diego and I helped walk part of the half-marathon with her," she said. "I would like to think that I inspired her."

This marathoner has affected the lives of many through her story, but it is the network of her friends and her family that is her reinforcement to carry on.

"My family has always been there for me every step of the way - they're at every marathon at the cheering station and my husband and I have running dates. We run a trail and get coffee afterwards," said Sergeant Ortega.

"When my husband left for temporary duty, I was very thankful to have friends who not only run with me, but also helped to babysit. And my supervisor and co-workers are also very supportive; sometimes running with me and allowing the personal time to train," she said.

In addition to the help from her friends and family, Sergeant Ortega belongs to a running club in downtown Dover that has strengthened her over the years.

When she first started out, she was the slowest runner in the group, but the group welcomed her despite.

"No one left me alone to run or made me feel discouraged for being slow," she said. "The beginners who are thinking of running do not need to be afraid of starting slow because everyone starts somewhere. I hope people will make fitness and running a part of their life-style."

Before, Sergeant Ortega lead a very different life that didn't include exercise. Now, she has transformed her lifestyle - her hobbies, eating habits and mindset for marathons.

"Running has become a part of my life. My philosophy is to always run more than four miles, otherwise it's not worth the sweat," said the marathoner.

For information about her running club, visit