Katie Wright had run 36 hours virtually non-stop, with no end in sight, when things started to go a little pear-shaped.
Wright, a doctor at Nelson Hospital, had been running around a 6.7km loop – on repeat – in the hickory-covered hills of Bell Buckle, Tennessee. She was hoping to win the Big’s Backyard Ultra – a race with no finish-line, where competitors just keep going, completing a lap every hour, until there’s literally only one person still standing.
She’d won her golden ticket to this race by becoming the first woman in the world to win a last person standing ultra – as champion of the Riverhead Relaps in Auckland last May, where she outlasted all-comers after 30 hours.
At the unofficial world championship of backyard ultras – run in the actual backyard of race director Lazarus Lake (and his little dog, Big) – Wright thought she was handling the pressure okay. Yes, she was sleep deprived, with blisters all over her feet, nausea and a niggling ache in her hip, but as one of just 10 women in an international field of 72 runners, she was still well in the reckoning to win.
Heading into her second night on her feet, though, Wright discovered a problem that many of her competitors would never have faced: her period had started.
It wasn’t really an issue, she says; she’d been expecting it. “But the issue was that I use a moon cup, and I’d left that back in the Airbnb,” she says. She had a spare cup, but it wasn’t working.
“To put it into perspective, it’s like not having a head torch; then you turn on your spare, and the batteries are gone,” Wright says in an interview with the Dirt Church Radio podcast.
So she turned to her friend and No. 1 support crew, Auckland ultra-runner Emma Bainbridge, to find a solution while she continued to run. Bainbridge managed to get tampons from other women at the race – not so simple at an event where the majority of the competitors are male.
For four laps, it put Wright a little off-balance – trying to sort out her menstrual issues in the precious minutes when she should have been napping between loops.
But, in a race where the slightest deviation can play with your mind, it’s as much about problem solving as it is about athletic achievement. Wright overcame the disruption to run for another 14 hours.
She got down to the final four runners in the field – before succumbing to that niggling hip injury after 50 hours, and 335km on the go (that’s 135km further than she’d run back in Riverhead).
Of those four who were still running in Tennessee, two of them were women. And one of them eventually became the winner – Colorado woman Maggie Guterl, who ran 250 miles (402km) over 60 hours. She became the first “last woman standing” in the race’s history.
The significance wasn’t lost on Wright.
“Maggie and I definitely had the chat of ‘wouldn’t it be cool if it were just the two of us at the end’?” she says. “It went through my head that we were representing.
“But, equally, it went through my head that there were two Kiwis in the top four as well.”
The other was New Zealand-born, Hong Kong-based professor Will Hayward, who made it to lap 60 before his race was over when he began to sleepwalk and hallucinate. Guterl was then declared the winner (in this race, there’s only one placegetter – the rest of the field get a ‘Did Not Finish’ next to their name).
As a full-time doctor at Nelson Hospital, the English-born Wright is accustomed to putting in long hours without sleep. In fact, in training for this race, she worked a day shift then through the night at the hospital, before heading off on a 30km run as soon as she’d clocked out.
She learned how to take a two-minute micro-nap, how to pop blisters on her feet, when to change socks and how to eat enough food in the scant time she had before starting the next lap (during the race, all she wanted to eat was potatoes).
But, with sleep deprivation and exhaustion, Wright says, it got harder and harder. “It’s like a game of Tetris, and with every lap it starts getting quicker,” she explains.
The hip pain – which she’d never experienced before – grew worse over 45 hours. On her second-to-last loop, she fell twice.
As soon as she started her 51st hour at dawn on day three, Wright’s legs gave out on her. She tried to limp her way around the now all-too-familiar trail or hills, rocks and trees, but tiredness simply won out.
“So, I just stopped. And as soon as I stopped, I couldn’t walk anymore,” she says.
“One of the reasons I was gutted I had to stop was because I still don’t know if I was using that hip niggle as a ‘get out of jail free’ card. Or was it just that my mind caved and I should have pushed through?”
Wright cried, then stayed out on the course to say goodbye to the remaining three runners. “I waited for them on the side of the track, and they all stopped and gave me a hug,” she says.
Guterl later wrote on Wright’s instagram post: “That was one of the classiest bow outs of any competitor I have seen. I don’t usually cry but I almost felt a tear roll down when I saw you standing there as I came out of the woods. Well done Katie.”
Wright then treated herself to a couple of beers, a 40-minute nap and a “wet wipe wash”, and then waited another 10 hours to see who would be the last runner standing.
Although she was gutted, 335km was easily the furthest Wright had ever raced – an incredible feat considering she ran her first 100km ultramarathon in Taupo just 12 months ago.
“I’m still processing it, and I think I will be for quite a while,” she says. “It was long, but it wasn’t quite as long as I wanted it to be,” she says.
“Like a lot of people, I had the magic 72 [hours] in my head. But it didn’t happen for anyone. Equally I wanted to be the last – that’s the game.”
Undeterred, Wright wants to return to Big’s Backyard next year. She’s already asked Lake if she can have a special golden ticket.
* Dirt Church Radio is a Kiwi trail running podcast hosted by Eugene Bingham and Matt Rayment. Learn more at dirtchurchradio.com