There are a few staples runners can count on seeing at a marathon finish line: water, bananas and bagels. If you’re running the Salt Lake City Marathon, you’ll also see another finish line staple: Elfi Ortenburger.
Elfi is the Huntsman Hometown Heroes running coach who has dedicated her retirement years raising money for cancer research.
Elfi, a native of Bürgstadt, Germany, met Rick Ortenburger in 1969. They married and eventually settled in Agoura Hills, California, in 1977. She soon picked up running with Rick following suit. Her example encouraged others like her nephew Kipp Ortenburger to start running. Kipp excelled running in college alongside Deana Kastor.
Even while owning her own gym, Elfi continued to run, but it wasn’t until 1997 that she tackled her first marathon, the Los Angeles Marathon. She and her running partner Diane cobbled together a haphazard training plan and finished in 4 hours, 14 minutes, 55 seconds. But it was while training for the 1998 LA Marathon that Elfi sustained a hip injury that forced her to drop out at Mile 10 on race day. It was that moment that inspired her to learn more about injury prevention and proper training.
After selling her gym in 2000, Elfi was asked to be the run coach for the Aids Project Los Angeles that provides services for those living with HIV and AIDS. She attended the Jeff Galloway training method course and began her coaching career. For four years, Elfi coached thousands of runners training mainly for the Honolulu Marathon using the Galloway run/walk method.
After retiring to Utah in 2004, Elfi sought out other opportunities to coach and make a difference. She noticed an article in a Draper newspaper that mentioned a woman running the Salt Lake Marathon to raise money for the Huntsman Cancer Institute. Elfi contacted Lori Kun at the Huntsman Cancer Foundation and convinced Kun to hire her to coach and train their runners in a more formal setting. Just seven runners joined that first year, but they raised over $24,000. The Huntsman Hometown Heroes were born.
“Elfi has been a driving force behind the Huntsman Heroes program,” said Jen Jurano-Tucker, director of events for the Huntsman Cancer Foundation.
Each Saturday morning around 5:30, Elfi and Rick set out signs marking the training route and organize water stops, often recruiting other volunteers to guide the runners. Rain or shine, snow or sleet, she’s out cheering each runner through the last mile.
Amy Metler, a Hometown Hero said, “I struggle and am usually the last to finish but that doesn’t matter. I’m given the same chance, the same opportunity as the elite runners on the team.”
There are days when the training runs last well into the afternoon. Elfi’s goal isn’t just to get runners over the finish line, but to get them there safely, uninjured and strong. With 19 marathons under her belt, Elfi’s knowledge and experience have helped her coach many to successful race finishes, all while training for her running and cycling events.
“Elfi taught me to run my own race,” said Hometown Hero Mariah Mellus. “She taught me to listen to my body and, most importantly, to have fun. She’s always watching. She truly cares about the well-being of each of her runners.”
Her dedication to the runners and the cause have earned her the respect and admiration of both her runners and the cancer patients they run for.
“It doesn’t matter if you are an experienced marathoner. Elfi welcomes all with open arms and willing guidance,” said Hometown Hero Kelsey Hardy.
Through Elfi’s efforts, the Huntsman Hometown Hero program has raised over $5.5 million since 2003. She’s created a group that’s welcoming to both local elites and amateurs alike. Whether training for a 5K or a full marathon distance, Elfi is there for every Hero, many of whom are cancer survivors themselves.
Breast cancer survivor and HHH runner Erika Pedicone Larson said, “I cannot thank Elfi enough for her encouragement, advice, and most of all her kindness. I am so blessed and proud to know her.”
For more information about the Huntsman Hometown Hero program, go to www.huntsmancancer.org.
Kim Cowart is a wife, mother, VASA and 24 Hour Fitness instructor, marathoner, and Feetures! Ambassador. You can follow her running adventures at www.kiminthegym.com.