May 27, 2007
I know Catra Corbett caught me eyeballing her many colorful tattoos and body piercings because she quickly said something that put both of us at ease when I interviewed her this week.
“I don’t look like your typical Pacific Crest Trail hiker, do I?” she asked, flashing a huge smile.
She’s right. I’m not a psychologist, nor do I play one in the newspaper and just guessing here, but Corbett’s wild body and hair statements say much about what’s raging inside.
Corbett, 42, of Fremont, has a dream to break the speed record for hiking the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail in 78 days. She set out Thursday with Julien Chauchepart, her 26-year-old French hiking buddy she met on the Internet and has been corresponding with for over a year. They met in person for the first time this week.
“Julien had a poster of me and really wanted to meet me,” said Catra, a competitive ultramarathon runner whose poster for running shoes was plastered all over Europe. Chauchepart is a sales rep for outdoor retailers.
Think of Catra as Generation X’s or Generation Pain’s Farah Fawcett, who was the poster girl of male Baby Boomers like me in the 70s. When I was 26 I would have hiked barefoot over hot lava to trek along with Fawcett for 78 days, so I kind of see where this French dude’s coming from. Now he will spend around 2½ months hiking and running and trying to keep up with his poster girl.
Good luck, Frenchman.
The speed hiking record is 78 days for men, 91 days for women, and Corbett thinks she can break both.
“I’m confident I can do it faster,” Corbett said. “It will mean a little running down the passes once we go to lighter packs up north. And it will mean some 24-hour pushes. But we can do it.”
I figure any 42-year-old woman who is comfortable enough in her own skin to wear pink and purple braids, endure and sport 22 body piercings and endure and display over 100 tattoos can do just about anything she sets out to do.
Reinhold Metzger believes she can do it, but he wonders about the Frenchman after watching him struggle on the first leg to Lake Morena. Metzger, who hiked with them on that stretch, is the speed-hiking elder from Point Loma who had the record for fastest unsupported hike on the John Muir Trail until Corbett broke it.
Metzger calculated that Corbett must do 35-mile days with no rest days at all.
“That is a BRUTAL schedule even for a hard-core hiker chick like Catra,” Metzger wrote in an e-mail.
Metzger trekked the first section of the PCT from the Mexican border to Lake Morena with Corbett on Thursday and noticed the Frenchman was struggling to keep up with her. Turns the man from the Alps saw a lot more of Catra when she was a poster on his wall than hiking with her.
This hike surely will toughen up. The good news is it was a mild winter and there’s very little snow on the Sierra trails. The bad news is the two years of drought have left Southern California bone dry. Corbett worries about the water situation before reaching the High Sierra.
When I’ve written about people such as Catra Corbett in the past I’ve received e-mails from critics. They say hikers such as Corbett and Scott Williamson, who yo-yo’d the PCT last year for the second time, are lost souls whose answer to life’s challenges is to run away from reality and subject themselves to pain and suffering on endless trails like the PCT.
In Corbett’s case, she’s running to stay in reality. She once was addicted to amphetamines and alcohol.
“I was a party girl,” she said. “But I’ve been clean and sober for 12 years. I’m an ultrarunner now, addicted to running.”
She cleaned up and went to work for Whole Foods and specializes in nutrition. She’s a vegan and can’t eat wheat or soy products because of allergies. She owns a home and a vehicle and took a leave of absence to fulfill a dream. Take away the piercings and body ink, and she’s your basic middle-aged career woman.
“I like to challenge myself,” said Corbett, who is divorced. “You only live once, and this is my way of seeing the beauty in California. I set goals when I stopped doing drugs and drinking, and hiking the PCT was one of them.
“The way I look at it is I’m not hurting myself or others around me. I was a drug addict and an alcoholic. That was hurting myself. This is a much better addiction.”
Her good friend, Jerry Roninger, 61, also of Fremont, inspires her because he’s running faster now than he ever has in his life.
“People don’t give Catra credit for the athlete she is, but she puts her body through things most people can’t,” Roninger said.
When she was doing drugs, Corbett wore all black, a Gothic queen who seldom saw sunlight. These days she wears colorful braids and even has added color to her old black tattoos.
One of her favorite tattoos is a cartoon caricature of herself that says, “Pain Is Pleasure.”
Good luck, Frenchman.