Monday, November 25, 2013

Catra Corbett's 100th 100-miler: for the love of running and more...

Run d'Amore... what an ideal event to celebrate Catra's love for ultra running in particular, and life in general!

I still have one last post I'm working on to conclude my series of stories about my recent trip and stay in Senegal but it will have to wait for a few more days. Indeed, this weekend was Run d'Amore, directed by friends Alan Geraldi and Rajeev Patel, and, although I didn't run it this year (that's where I broke 15 hours for 100 miles last year), I had to make the trip down to San Martin to witness an amazing ultra running milestone, Catra's, the Dirt Diva, 100th 100-mile run. Actually, to make it even more impressive or generous from Catra, these 100-mile runs include quite a few runs way over that distance, 125, 131 and even 144 miles recently for the Tahoe Lake Double Dare!

To celebrate this milestone and pay some respect to THE trail diva, I thought of doing a running interview. Not just an interview about running, but an interview while running. Catra was cool enough to accept on Friday afternoon and go though my 50 questions on her race day as we ran one of the 25 4-mile laps together (I went on exploring the rest of the Coyote Lake-Harvey Bear Ranch County Park trails for 16 more miles afterwards). For those who have run Run d'Amore or Run-de-Vous before, Alan and Rajeev extended the 2-mile asphalt loop with a 1-mile stint up the hill on Willow Springs Trail, certainly adding some variety to the course but also some difficulty with the extra elevation.

Without further ado, here is a glimpse of Catra's ultra life story... a transcript of our recorded running interview (without our respective breathing as we covered one 4-mile loop! ;-).

So, Catra, here is THE day of your 100th 100-miler, how do you feel about it?

Excited... I never dreamed I would be doing that many 100-milers back in 1999 when I ran my first one, Rocky Raccoon.

Was your first one a good experience?

Oh, yes, awesome, that's why I had to do more, I had to sign up right away for another one! Although I had very bad blisters it was a great experience. There wasn't much on the Internet back then so I didn't know anyone running ultra back then, I learned on my own.

Rocky Racoon is in Texas right, why did you pick that race?

Because I had started running ultras 3 months before and I wanted to ramp-up quick, Rocky Racoon was the first 100-miler on the calendar.

Wow, 3-month ramp-up, did you still start with a 50K?

Yes,  2 50K, Skyline and Tamalpa Headlands, 1 50-mile, Dick Collins Firetrails, and my first Quad Dipsea, all at the end of 1998.

Any coaching?

No, everything self-taught, on my own.

What did you learn from your first hundred?

It was quite humid and I didn't know much about hydration, electrolytes and all this stuff. My hands got swollen, people were offering advices but I pretty much had to figure out what to do. I was proud of being a newbie and certainly determined to finish. My feet were covered with blisters for the last 40 miles, I thought "oh my god, they feel like they are on fire!" I didn't know about the tip of using bigger shoes. I did change my socks but my feet were swollen, I had to pop the blisters, and I finished!

I picked on a long list of 100-milers you ran: HURT, Western States, Rio del Lago, San Diego, Wasatch Front, Javelina Jundred, Mother Road, Rocky Road, Rocky Racoon, PCTR Headlands, Run-de-Vous, Umstead, Razorback Endurance, Coyote Two Moon, Tahoe Rim Trail, Angeles Crest, Bighorn, Massanutten and of course Run d'Amore, 19 different events, you are a living guide book for 100-milers in the US! 

Yes, if anyone needs advice I can give it to them!

You ran these races in 11 states, what are your favorite states?

I like Utah, Wasatch, and Hawaii, HURT, they both have very challenging courses. I hope to do Hard Rock in Colorado next year.

So what's your take on the toughest courses?

By far, HURT and Wasatch, they are both very challenging... Wasatch is point to point, so easier to keep moving, and you have more time. HURT is tough with the 20-mile loop format. And the 36-hour cut-off, you are always pushing... Although I'm fine with the mental aspect of having to leave the finish area after each loop, it's still hard to get back on the big, huge, climb, that you just struggled going down on.

Speaking of HURT, you did both 100-mile and 100K distance?

Yes, I ran HURT every single year, I did complete the 100-mile 7 times and 100K 4 or 5 times, the other years. I like this race because it's challenging, it... hurts!

What is the most challenging about HURT?

The roots and the rocks. And through the years, the trail has washed away so it became a lot harder. The ground and mud has been pushed off, leaving roots hanging out at 2 feet above the ground, every year they keep getting higher, so it's getting harder. It's also very slippery.

Do you remember the best year you had there?

Yes, 33:59 in 2003!

33 hours... indeed many of your races go beyond 24 hours, how do you cope with running through a second day, do you train for that, for the lack of sleep?

Oh, I'm used to that. It's nice when I can finish under 24 hours but running challenging courses can take much longer. My second 100 might have been HURT or Wasatch, so I had to be on my feet for more than 30 hours! Fastpacking and doing long stuff on my own at night on the trails help, so it's not a problem. I do use caffeine in the middle of the night. Also, I try not to drink any caffeine for the week leading to the race so caffeine is more efficient once it has been out of my system for a few days. It's kicking in so well then, it feels like I'm wired!

Hey, so it's not carbo-loading, it's caffeine-loading?


After your most challenging hundreds, any easy one, or if any 100-miler can be easy, at least easier?

These ones, with a loop format, such as Run d'Amore or Run-de-Vous, or Umstead. Although, the asphalt tends to hurt my legs more than trails. Umstead has more dirt and loops are longer too.

The most scenic?

Bighorn! The beauty of the mountains in Wyoming, they are so gorgeous. Everywhere you looked, it was beautiful.

That's why you are attracted by Hard Rock... what about UTMB?

Oh yes, that one I would like to do too. We are talking about doing that one. I can get there, I have a friend who works for Air France, and I talked to Nico from Hokas, he thinks he can get me in. By the way that's one that you can do too hopefully...

The most friendly experience?

I think all the races are pretty friendly. Every race I did had the friendly spirit from ultra running. Maybe HURT is at the top of the list.

The worst weather conditions you got?

Oh my gosh... oh well, count down, it must be Coyote Two Moon. I ran it the year when it started raining, then it started hailing, then it snowed. It was so bad, even for the poor folks at the aid station at the top of the hill. Thankfully the volunteers held on and stayed at the aid station. I don't know how I finished this one, just keeping moving. It was definitely the worst weather ever, it was so freaking cold! The first year I ran it, in 2009, I told the race director that I needed 38 hours because I had been injured (some people get 48 hours). And I finished in 33 something, so he accused me of sand bagging and the next year he put me in the 34-hour group but the weather was so bad I finished with 2 minutes to spare in 34:58, fighting against the clock thinking I wasn't going to make it. And the weather when you were down from the mountain was fine, it was hot, but I didn't have time to take my extra layers off, I ran the whole thing with GoreTex pants on, I didn't have time to stop, I had to go and finish. I ran it twice but I don't think they have it anymore.

Your most pleasant experience?

I'd say my first HURT because there were 25 starters and only 6 of them, 6 of us, finished. So when I did this race, after 4 or 5 100s, people were saying "oh my gosh, you finished HURT that year, you are one of those!" It was such a tough one. I had done 80 miles and I was really thinking "I don't want to go."

Hmm, so your most pleasant memory is of a tough race which did hurt, we can see what you are looking for in ultra running...

Exactly! And the second year I ran it, it rained the entire time. So finishing the second time was even more challenging. Maybe 10 finished that year. I did fall, but nothing serious. The whole trail was like a river... a lot of walking and hiking.

Your fastest 100-mile?

The Razorback, 21:20. And I beat everyone, yeah, my first win overall!

Are you trying to get more competitive?

I'm in a tough age group, you know, like you... But when I run it's mostly to have fun as you can see in my pictures. I'm not that fast, I need to work at it, I prefer to focus on the fun. Now, on race day, sure, if there is a girl ahead, I will want to pass her but I know what I need to do. At night is when I feel the best and I'm experienced, so patience usually pays. But even if we say we are not competitive we still are. You need some of it to keep going and finish anyway.

Did you run marathons?

Well, I didn't run a marathon for the past couple of years. 10 years ago I did a 3:45. Then later I did 4:15 but then I ran back home, making it a 35 or 40-mile run! But I'd like to do more of that, you know, just for the challenge, and gain more speed.

You don't do track workout, do you?

No, only trails. But, from time to time, I'd set a goal to run faster to a certain point, some sort of speed work.

There is actually one of your 100-milers which I have not mentioned yet, do you see what I mean?

Oh, must be my solo Ohlone stuff?

Exactly! You have a very special connection with the "Ohlone 50K" race, can you tell us more?

Indeed, I have done that for at least 10 times now, I love this race and this course. I wanted to do a solo hundred, that was way before anybody came up with the idea. I thought "I'm going to run 100 miles for my birthday!" But a big storm came that year so I wasn't able to complete 100 miles but I still ran 100K. So I decided to try again, before the weekend of the Ohlone (50K) race, as the weather was better, and I had a few folks crewing or pacing me. So I ran the 100 miles and it was amazing, people were saying "you don't do that, you don't go out on your own and run 100 miles..." And I liked the fact that nobody else was doing that indeed. I got some advice about how fast I should run the fist 50K, like 7 hours, but that wasn't a good advice because the course is tough, so that wasn't going to happen, that was too fast. Later I did that run on race weekend, asked if it was ok for me to start earlier and finish with the normal race and they said, "sure, whatever!" Park Rangers had already been lending me a permit to do solo runs. And, of course, over the years, the 100-mile goal wasn't enough so it became 131 miles...!

131 miles, wow, especially with this terrain and heat!

I know...

Last year you also ran Run d'Amore 125 miles, was it to qualify for Spartathlon?

Yes, it's part of my dream races. Since then I also ran 144 miles around Lake Tahoe, 43 hours... That was super dangerous. They have the one, two and three-loop formats but you are basically running on your own. I was the only one to finish the Double this year, but Sophia (Shi) and another guy (David Wingard) did the Triple (Double and Triple Dare results)!

43 hours, did you sleep?

I stopped once for 20 minutes, then a second time for 30 minutes, that was it! So, yeah, that was really dangerous, the most dangerous run I've ever done. You are kind of on your own, on the road, with the traffic. I am the first person to do the double, the two laps, in a row. So they have you start on Thursday at 10 pm, then you do one loop, then you wait for another 14 or 16 hours until the other races start. I said, no way, I'm going on. The first loop, you are fine, it's kind of a warm-up so you don't want to stop. Plus, at 1 am the traffic is light, but then you have to pass though Tahoe City, and the road around Lake Tahoe can be pretty dangerous. And of course, as soon as I finished I first thought it was too dangerous, I'll never do it again but, then, you know, I may reconsider... The next day I was already thinking of the three loops... One day... It's like my quadruple Ohlone, it hurts the next day, but then I still want to do it again! It's like my birthday runs, you know, I run my age in hours. Next year will be 49... I started that when I turned 40. Would be much easier to just run the number of miles. After I turn 50 maybe...

People think that Quad Dipsea is hard, although it's "only" 4 times 7 miles. How long does it take you to cover the 131 miles?

I'm giving myself 48 hours but I've done it in 42 hours, my fastest, but otherwise around 47 hours.

We covered 2 miles and you kept talking, you need to drink... So, back to the Quad Ohlone, how do you find the strength to go back on the trail, and forth?

Yes, it's not easy to keep going after I complete the first 100 miles and reach my home. But I don't think too much about it. I get my stuff, change, and go! And, yes, I'm at my house, I could quit, I'm home! But, no, I go, I like to inspire people. Some people are out, doing the 50K for the first time, and they will be struggling, but they can think "hey, Catra has done 131 miles, I can do 31, I can do this!" To put one foot after another, to inspire others, you know...

Do you see most of the 50K runners at the top of Rose Peak?

Well, I see you guys, lead people. I start earlier so I get to the finish line around mid day, among the top 15-20 runners. 

Crew or screwed (no support crew), what's working best for you? How many of these 100-milers did you run without a crew?

Well, it doesn't matter so much to me because I've done this for so long without any crew. I've had a crew lately and I do like it! It's good to have someone keeping you motivated, and handing you stuff. But it works for me either way, like take it or leave it. Although it's certainly nice to have a crew when you are having a bad day, and it gets you slightly faster.

Speaking of speed, you are getting faster, aren't you? How do you explain that?

Hey, yes, this year I've done pretty well. I'm a fruitarian now. I started out in January, after being vegan for many years. Mike Arnstein, the Fruitarian, is pretty fast so I thought, why not? It's based on a book called The 80/10/10 Diet by Douglas Graham. 80% raw fruits, 10% raw vegetables, 10% raw nuts. Actually, Monday through Friday I eat 100% raw fruits. On weekends I add some carrots or spinach, and some nuts. Like today, I'm eating bananas and dates, and that other fruits I have up there.

Do you count and track the calories the same way?

No. Dates are very caloric, high end calories. Like 3 dates are 120 calories. So I thought I got more energy out of those, rather than eating anything else, and bananas too. That's what I learned when doing the Marathon des Sables in Morocco, that's what the top guys, the Moroccan, carry and eat, dates. They are packed with calories and super nutritious.

Any issue with digestion?

No, I never had any problem with fruits.

You have already registered for another 100-miler in January, Coldwater Rumble in Arizona, so the addiction continues?

Oh yeah ! I was going to do HURT again but I took my name out of the list so others have a chance to run it, somebody else needs that chance to do it. But I'm still going to be there to crew and pace someone. Coldwater Rumble is one week later, and I like Javelina, it's a fun race, so I'm excited about that one. Different course but same organization, I like their races.

One more year before the big 50 --you are so young! ;-) -- how does that make you feel?

Well, let me turn 49 first! But I'm in a better shape that I've ever been in my life, and I just aspire to be who I am, I feel good, I feel strong, I feel healthy, some people think I'm 10 years younger!

Speaking of other people, you work at Whole Foods in Cupertino. How is your employer supportive or considerate of your running regimen?

I don't work Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, so I don't need to take time off. I travel and go to race briefings on Fridays, and race over the weekend, back to work on Monday morning or afternoon! And I think I recover faster because I keep walking at work! I work standard 8-hour shifts.

Do customers know about your running achievements?

Oh, yes, because I've been working there for so long. 14 years total, first in Palo Alto, and in Cupertino since 2008.

Are your colleagues also supportive?

Oh yes. Our store manager's brother has run Western States this year, so he knows about ultra...

Ok, so you have one more year before turning 50, any idea of a special "project" for that milestone, a mid-life craziness, something crazier than running 100 100-miles before turning 50?!

Well, it will be running for 50 hours... No, I'm thinking of new races, in different countries, different things. Like this Tahoe 200 (mile) looks good, I would love to run it. You know, I already ran the whole TRT (Tahoe Rim Trail, 165 mile) in 72 hours, with some support. I may go after the unsupported record on TRT. For women. JB Benna just improved the record but I saw him at Javelina, his legs were still pretty beaten up and he struggled to finish and get his Western States qualifier...

If you are not tired about telling how you got into this running addiction, do you mind telling your story for those who don't know? How many magazines covered how you rebuilt your life with ultra running in particular?

A lot of magazines, because I always talk about where I come from. I was used to doing drugs, drinking, being a party girl.Got arrested, spent one night in jail, I got basically squared straight, never did it again since then. That was 19 years ago and it took me another two years to get into running. I first started working out at the gym, and walking a lot.

Did someone inspire you to change?

No, just me! I went from friends to no friends, then working out hard at the gym, then walking more, then eventually got to try running, ran my first 10K and a marathon 3 months later!

And on Facebook you shared that you wished your Mother was still alive to see you running your 100th... yet how crazy she thought you were running ultras...

Ah, yes! She actually didn't know much about my previous life because I wasn't living in Fremont at the time and I wasn't sharing about that. But when she found out, she was glad I changed, that I got healthy. But she thought that was too much running. At least, when I did my first 100-mile solo on the Ohlone trail, she thought it was god because at least I didn't have to pay for it! No, Mom, you don't understand...

You ramped up so quickly, any related injuries?

No, not a single one! Well, some foot pain here and there, but nothing to side line me. I strained my calf one day and couldn't run Miwok a couple of years ago, but nothing serious. I attribute that to the weight for one part, and also because I cross-train at the gym, do Cross-Fit, getting my body strong. People who only run tend to get injured much more. You need to cross-train, especially as you get older I think.

Are you trying to get folks in trouble inspired and changed by your story? Like visiting schools or shelters?

No, but I would love to. And that's my big project for next year, to write a book! I've thought about it for a while and people suggested, but I feel ready, and I have lot of stories, some time to think about it while running!

Any success story you can share of people changing for the better?

Oh yes, I have people mailing me every week. Quitting drugs, starting running because they saw my story and thought that they can do it too.

You have more than 5,000 friends on FaceBook, including more than 1,800 followers, wow! How do you manage this popularity?

I don't!   I post my status, I want people to see what I do so I can inspire them. And I blog too ( I blog less today, not as much as I would like or should, I'm all over Facebook now.

And you have a new and very special friend...

Yes! Not a runner, although he is going to pace me for 12 miles tonight. Super fit. In the Army, after spending a few years in the Marine Corps. He has traveled a lot, 3 times deployed in Afghanistan and once in Irak.

So he definitely knows what support his...

Oh yes! He found me during his 3rd rotation in Afghanistan and told me how much I helped him getting through that, at a time he didn't think he was going to come back. No tattoos, no piercing by the way...

Speaking of tattoos, are you still working on yours?

Yeah, I'd like a couple more. Including one special for this 100th 100-miler milestone, on the front of my leg.

You started running ultras in 1998, when did the project of running 100 100-miles form in your mind?

Certainly not when I started running. It wasn't really a goal, it came over the years, it's more of a challenge. And it's not the end game anyway, you know how it goes, you keep adding new goals as you achieve others. It's similar to when you run one 100-mile race, you have to decompose into more attainable goals. When you think this way, you are like "ok, 24 miles, I can do that again", you just have to break the distance or the goal down. By the way, for me, it really takes about 30 miles to get in the groove, to warm-up!

We talked about Mont Blanc, Hard Rock. What about Bad Water?

I'm going to do a solo there. I don't mean pushing a cart with my water, but not entering the official race, just have my own crew.


I'd like to do that one too, but that's a lot of money...


You know, I have too many tattoos for that I don't want to damage my legs. Seriously! I was thinking of it two years ago but I don't want to be chopped off!

I'm with you on that, the Rat Bites that Alan is still talking about and had for 12 months after his run there...

I would still like to run one loop to see what it is, but to finish the whole thing, that's amazing.

So, basically, you can't run Barkley because you can't wear a skirt, right?

Exactly! Not worth damaging my legs...

Speaking of skirt, let's talk about your trail running stylishness, or should I say coquetry (the French way... ;-)?

Yeah, is my sponsor and they do the cutest outfits!

When did you start wearing running skirts, did you start a trend?

Well, the funny thing is that, back in the days, I was used to wear a tennis skirt. I'm glad they made a business out of it, making cute stuff so we don't look like boys.

Any running advice for those working on their first ultra or 100-mile? 

Yeah, just having fun. Make sure to make your first ultra experience a fun one. Challenge yourself, but not beyond the point of losing fun. There are so many people just doing it for the challenge. Don't set expectations too high. Always have a backup of a backup, a plan C... By the way, there is no bad weather, just bad clothing choices! Right? Seriously! When it snows, then you need the right layers.

Any life advice?

Always think positive. You know, things will always be better, even if you hit a rough patch in life, just use what you learned from your running: go through it, keep going, always remain positive. Sunshine behind the dark clouds!

And definitely sunshine today, for your 100th, blessed California!

Yeah! By the way, why don't you run today?

I'll do a few laps or explore the Park...

Quad Dipsea?

No, I had a great ultra season again, I'm easing off. I'm running the Turkey Trot to close the season. IBM is a sponsor.  (And, readers, there is still time to register @!)

Oh cool! Hmm, I would trade places, and run a 10K instead! Oh well, it will be my 16th Quad Dipsea this year, I have to do it!

Wow, you are the Dipsea Dirt Diva, a new Dipsea demon?! Well, Catra, thank you so much for going through all these questions while running one of your 25 loops today. Sorry for taking some of your breaths away but you seem in such high spirits to complete this 100th, you are going to nail this goal down, good luck for the 76 remaining miles!

And, readers, if you have a personal story to share in particular related to one (or several!) of Catra's 100s, please leave a comment to expand on this amazing feat, thanks!

Catra ended up completing the 100 miles in 26:44, an outstanding example of sustainable running, determination, healthy living and demonstration of what the human body is capable of when driven by the right mind power! Congratulations, Catra, and to your next inspiring achievements!

[You can find a few more pictures of this year's Run d'Amore in my Picasa album]


Lorenski said...

Wow. Excellent interview, Jean. Runner. Executive. Traveler. Journalist? It is always a pleasure, and an inspiration, seeing Catra at the races.

Jennifer said...

Thanks, Jean. I really enjoyed this!

Ron Wolf said...

Great interview Jean. Thanks for putting in the effort on this post and your blog in general!

Ed Ettinghausen said...

Excellent interview Jean. Thanks for taking the time to share Catra's story with us. A true inspiration.

Ron said...

Thanks, Jean, for doing this interview and documenting Catra's amazing achievement. She's incredible!

I wonder if anyone else has run as many 100 mile races as she has.