Corbett hopes to smash speed records on trail runs
Ultra-runner Catra Corbett of Fremont, Calif., begins every day with the gratitude of a woman who rewrote her own playbook and found redemption running on trails.
A former addict, the 47-year-old is starting a monthlong, 700-plus-mile journey during which she hopes to smash several trail-speed records. She's using her run as a fundraiser for the Heroes Project, a charity that connects wounded Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans with extreme mountain climbing trips around the world.
"A double amputee just got back from climbing [Mount] Kilimanjaro," Corbett said. "Isn't that amazing? I want to go up there, and I've got two legs and two arms. For someone to go up there with prosthetics -- and make it up there -- is just awesome."
Corbett, who has been "clean and sober for 17 years now," spent three years in her 20s abusing drugs and alcohol. She made some questionable decisions when choosing friends and dated someone addicted to speed.
"I was with him for a few years, but then one night I got scared straight," she said. "We got caught and I got arrested, and that was the wake-up call I needed."
During her night in jail, Corbett had time to think. She realized she had become someone she did not want to be, so she set out to change her reality.
She tried Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous, but "I couldn't stand sitting around listening to the past. I was over it, it was behind me, and I knew there had to be a different way [to recovery]."
Corbett became a vegan and started exercising, and soon a leisurely three-mile walk on the track turned into a half-marathon, which melded into ultra-long-distance trail running. Outdoors, high above her Northern California home, Corbett began to find the peace that had eluded her. "Being in the wilderness works for me," she said.
Corbett has competed in more than 80 100-mile races and will test her body over the next month with an ambitious schedule of trail runs and an ultra marathon.
She started Sunday on Mount Whitney, traveling down to the John Muir Trail, a 212-mile length of semi-wilderness known to hikers and ultra runners as the "superhighway" because it's loaded with backpackers this time of year. She already holds the "yo-yo" (out-and-back) record on the trail and is looking to claim the women's one-way unsupported record. She's carrying all her supplies and won't have any assistance as she tries to trek the trail in less than six-and-a-half days. She runs during the day and camps at night, keeping an eye open for bears and other dangers.
"It's important to be prepared," she said, speaking about her contingency plans for illness or emergency on the trail when well out of reach of those normally ubiquitous cellphone towers. "The first couple of nights, I'm freaked out. I hear noises outside my tent and I wonder if it's a bear. But I haven't read about people being killed by brown bears on the John Muir Trail, and by the third night I'm so exhausted, I'm like, whatever!"
Corbett still has a safety plan in place and will check in with friends during the trip. A map is the most important piece gear, she said, noting that if she has trouble on the trail it can point her toward help, even if it takes two days to reach.
Once she has finished the John Muir Trail, Corbett said her plan is to run the Tahoe-Yosemite Trail, a 180-mile stretch in which she'll try to establish an unsupported women's record. She'll then take part in the 100-mile Run-de-Vous ultra in San Martin, Calif., organized by her friend Rajeev Patel. After, she'll backtrack to try for the women's record on the High Sierra Trail, a 72-mile trip that she'll have to complete in less than 36 hours if she wants the record. There will be no sleeping on that leg of the journey.
Then Corbett plans to take a few days' rest before starting the real gem of the adventure: an attempt at the women's unsupported record of the Tahoe Rim Trail, a 165-mile stretch of rugged wilderness around Lake Tahoe.
Just thinking about the vast distances she'll cover can be exhausting. Why does Corbett want to do these things? Is she running from her past or toward a brighter future? In fact, she's just enjoying the present.
"You're only here one time, so go out, enjoy it and push yourself," Corbett said.
Still, mustering the motivation to put one foot in front of the other day after day for a month is no small feat. Corbett hopes to also play the role of motivational survivor for others.
"We're all put here for a reason," Corbett said. "I believe I'm here to inspire others. And it's gratifying to know you're having an impact."
With a large following online, Corbett said she sometimes hears from people who are rewriting their own destinies.
"A woman recently emailed me saying she didn't need to drink anymore," Corbett said. "She has five kids and lives in the UK and she decided there was no reason for it anymore. She's started running, and she said, 'Thank you for changing my life. I'm loving life again. I'm so happy I'm not drinking anymore.'"
For Corbett, the message of self-reliance and self-determination that running taught her is there for others to learn, too, whispering among the trees on the trail.