Catra Corbett's Passion for Running Grueling Ultra Distances is Keeping Her Sober and Feeling Alive
I first learned of Catra Corbett when I read her 2018 memoir Reborn on the Run. She writes, “I had to be a drug addict to become an ultrarunner. I had to find a passion to overcome my addiction.”
I met Cartra at the Across the Years (ATY) multi-day running festival in Glendale, AZ in January. She was running the 10 day event. I was running the 48 hour ultra. Somewhere around day 5 of her 10 day run and at about mile 30 of my run, I introduced myself. I told her I had reviewed her inspirational book, and told her I would love to interview her.
Catra has finished over one hundred 100 mile ultras and many multi-day ultras. At ATY’s 10 day event in January, Catra placed 5th female and 16th overall with 411.77 miles.
In an email interview, Catra shared how she prepares her mind and body for grueling and arduous ultramarathon distances and multi-day events, and much more.
How does she do it? What’s her training regimen and diet? What motivates her? Why does she run physically and mentally taxing ultras?
“I want to maintain my sobriety and keep alive. I don’t want to go back to my past life,” says Catra. “I most likely would not be sober if I didn’t find running. No one would know me if I wasn’t an ultra runner.”
In her memoir, she recounts her years of drug addiction and mental illness, and how they led her to running short distances, and then on to ultrarunning. “I started running ultras in 1998," says Catra.
According to her ultrasignup.com page, Catra has completed 289 races. Her disciplined training regimen keeps her putting one foot in front of the other.
Catra’s training regimen is grueling. “I run between 80 and 120 miles a week. Sometimes much more. Depends what I’m training for. If I’m training for a 200 mile race then, I go out and do multi-day runs and carry a light pack with me and sleep on the ground if I get tired
( fast packing ).”
Such demanding training and no rest days would take a physical and mental toll on most runners, and make some miserable.
But not for Catra, “I run everyday so keeping my body moving helps. I can go run out my back gate and be on the trails and just go and go. Staying positive and being grateful keeps my mind and thoughts happy.” To keep moving some more, she cross trains and lifts weights.
Catra has no problem adding more training miles to prepare for races over a hundred miles. She simply adds fast packing to her regimen. “If I’m training for a 200 hundred mile race then, I go out and do multi-day runs and carry a light pack with me and sleep on the ground if I get tired.”
Walking is also an essential part of ultrarunning, “I practice power walking up mountain peaks where I live. I walk all the climbs and run all the downhills, and run/shuffle the flats."
Sleep Deprivation and Hallucinations
It appears that all that climbing, running, and shuffling of feet doesn't tire Catra’s body and mind much. Sensible Catra knows to sleep during 200 mile ultras.
“They have sleep stations so my goal in 200s is to sleep when I get to 100 miles for three hours. After that I usually just take dirt naps on the side of the trail for 5 to 15 minutes.” Catra adds there is no need to sleep in 100 mile runs.
But as many ultra runners experience, sleep deprivation during 100 mile and plus ultras can lead to hallucinations. Catra has had her share, especially in ultras of 200 or more miles.
“I’ve only had bad hallucinations once where I was being chased by scary monsters. I had to hide from them. I also saw mountain lions made of ice and my pacer’s shadow stabbing him.”
Hydration, Nutrition, and a FKT Record
Hallucinations or not, to help propel both feet and mind during her grueling distances, good hydration and nutrition is vital. Each distance requires specific calories. For 50K - 100 mile distances, Catra's calories come from Tailwind, liquid calories.
She adds, “I use Muir energy gel and almond butter packets. I will eat fruit at the aid stations and potato chips for salt.” In 200 miles plus ultras, “I eat a lot at the aid stations since you have to go up to 23 miles before the next aid station so you need a lot of calories. I usually eat vegan burgers/hot dogs, lentil soup, Indian food, hash browns, avocados, and fruit.”
Catra, a vegan, doesn’t care for breakfast. “I’m not a breakfast person, never have been. Occasionally, I’ll have coconut yogurt. If I’m out running, I use my Tailwind drink mix which has calories. Also Muir energy gels. Lunch I always have a huge salad with tons of veggies or a big fruit bowl. Dinner steamed veggies with quinoa. Pasta that’s made out of sweet potatoes. Basically lots of veggies and fruit.”
Catra’s hydration and nutrition keeps her going for miles and miles, and days and days. Along the way, she’s logged memorable ultras.
“They are all special but the most memorable would be my speed record, fastest known time [FKT] on the John Muir Trail. Yo-Yo record of 424 miles in 12 days, 4 hours, and 57 minutes. It’s an overall record and still stands.”
Physical and Mental Recovery
Recovering physically after ultra events is easy for Catra. "I've always been lucky. I recover fast." Her recovery routine consists of massages, and taking lots of L-Glutamine, D-Ribose, BCAA, and tumeric. "I see a chiropractor to keep my body in tip-top shape."
Recovering mentally after ultras is a bit harder. "Mentally, for me I can suffer depression after the let down of accomplishing something epic," says Catra. To take care for her mind after an ultra Catra says, "I need to be already signed up for another race."
Pain and Spirituality
As you might imagine, twelve plus days on the John Muir trail would also take a toll on her suffering feet.
“It was a nightmare. After five days I had the worst blisters all over my feet. I cried every morning after popping them. But I got up and put one foot in front of the other. After I finished, I couldn’t put any shoes on for weeks and hobbled around with pain. But the feeling I got from doing something so epic was worth the pain.”
Catra’s spirituality helps her to endure the pain of her physically and mentally challenging ultras, and her journey in life. She’s a spiritual person. “I feel a connection with the wilderness. I feel angels are with me keeping me safe when I’m out doing those long runs. I’m grateful for my life. In my past life I was a drug addict. I am here for a reason I believe. So I’m enjoying this journey.”
You can’t miss Catra on the courses and mountains of her ultrarunning endeavors. Not only is her spirit bright but so is her stylish and colorful running gear, and her many tattoos.
“My tattoos all have meaning. They are my story of my past and my current life. I was so negative when I was on drugs and was really into the goth scene. I wore black all the time. I love all colors. They make me happy. I like to look cute and have fun with my style when running.”
Cartra, 55, inspires so many and others inspire her, too. “All runners inspire me. The ones that really inspire me are the ones in their 70s and 80s getting after it year after year.”
You're never too old to start running or running your first ultra. “Just get out there and have fun. Enjoy your training and the journey,” says Catra.
To those struggling with drug addiction and mental illness, Catra offers encouragement and advice. “You can get better, you can have the life that you were meant to have, you can love yourself. Take the first step by asking for help. You are not alone.”
With that 'can do' outlook and positivity, and not one to take a break, Catra has her already registered for the California Untamed 330 miler, Beyond Limits 67 hour ultra, and Moab 240 miler.
"I enjoy the challenge of racing and doing hard things. It really makes me feel alive," says Catra. Ultraruuning "has taught me that I can do anything. It has given me confidence."
Photos courtesy of Catra Corbett
Read Next: My review of Reborn on the Run
Visit Catra's website