CATRA CORBETT IS AN UNSTOPPABLE FORCE IN ULTRARUNNING AND AN UNMISSABLE ICON ON THE TRAIL.
It would be hard to miss her fluorescent and usually matching athletic wear, bright-pink locks twisted into twin buns on the top of her head, tattoos and facial piercings a blur in the California sun as she whisks by you with a smile (and at least one dachshund running alongside).
Catra Corbett turns heads. She’s impossible not to notice at the dozens of ultras or, if you happen to be in the California backcountry, solo trail excursions she runs every year. Now 56, Corbett, of Bishop, California, holds the FKT for a double run of the John Muir Trail: over 400 miles in 12 days 4 hours 57 minutes. Now she runs it nearly every summer, just for fun.
She is the first American woman to run 100 100-mile races. She’s podiumed in 64 ultras across the country, including placing third at the Beyond Limits 72-hour ultra just this April. She’s the only woman to complete the San Diego 100 10 times, and she regularly orchestrates solo hundred-milers just for the heck of it.
And this year, she plans to be the first person to run the Triple Crown of 200s (the Bigfoot, Tahoe and Moab Endurance Runs) three times.
“She is persistent,” says her friend and fellow runner Mike Palmer. “She’s unique in that most of the time she accomplishes what she says she’s going to do no matter how outlandish it may seem to others.”
However, Corbett wasn’t always a picture of such confident, determined energy on the trail. In fact, her running career didn’t start on a high-school track or a college cross-country team. It began in a jail cell.
In The Beginning
At 28, tears stinging her eyes, quaking from fear and cold, Corbett wondered where she had gone wrong. She didn’t deserve to be there behind bars.
It appeared that her high-octane, punk-rock, wild and reckless lifestyle had caught up to her. For years she had managed to maintain what she would later describe as a half-existence, tumbling through life high, drunk or strung out, bouncing from club to club all week long, working at a salon and dancing at a strip club just to afford her drug of choice—meth. At some point, she began selling the drug for more cash and easier access.
For years she survived as that high-functioning addict: she kept her job, spent her nights at goth clubs and concerts, all while maintaining a virtually uninterrupted high. She had friends. Love. Life seemed good.
Until she was arrested for dealing.
Then, terrified at the thought of spending another night— or longer—in a cell, ashamed and broken, she had to decide if this was how she wanted to live. Or die. She didn’t want to die. She didn’t want to spend more nights in more cold, lonely jail cells. So, that night marked the end of life as she knew it.
“I sat there thinking, How did my life get to this point? I knew I wasn’t a bad person and I needed to change, but how?” Corbett asked herself. “I just knew I wanted a better life for myself.”
A Fresh Start
It was her father who had planted the running seed years before with a seemingly innocent plea for his teenage daughter: watch the televised Western States ultramarathon with him in their living room.
She rolled her eyes, as teenagers are wont to do, and wrote off those runners and the whole concept of ultrarunning as crazy. But years later, after her night in jail, after leaving friends and boyfriends behind in the name of a fresh start, and after Corbett’s father had passed away from a heart attack, in 1996, Corbett, then 30, started running.
She didn’t know anything about running but just felt a pull to it. Maybe it was a need to test her limits, maybe it was her father’s exuberant spirit and passion bubbling up within her, maybe it was simply to survive the pain and loneliness she was feeling now that she had left everyone and everything she knew behind. Whatever the motivation, she laced up her shoes and went out the door.
Awkwardly, slowly perhaps, and in nothing more than a pair of cutoff shorts and a black T-shirt, she ran down the block. Around the neighborhood. Found the Mission Peak Trail near her home in the Bay Area. And ran.
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