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Running doctor scores world-first for women

As a junior doctor, Katie Wright is completely used to working long hours, through the night, making decisions on little sleep.

So when the 32-year-old lined up at the start of New Zealand’s cruelest ultramarathon last Friday – a race that didn’t even have a finish-line - she felt confident she could last the distance. Maybe even win it.

After running 201km, almost non-stop for 30 hours until 6pm on Saturday night, Wright was back at work at Nelson Hospital on Monday morning. No worse for wear.

“I've been trained by the NHS,” English-born Wright says of the UK’s National Health Service. “They definitely work you till you drop, and I'm no stranger to having to push through a little bit of tiredness.”

But something was a little different about Wright. She had just made history - as the first woman in the world to be the ‘last person standing’ in a backyard ultra. She’d outlasted six other women, and 40 men, running on a challenging course through the Riverhead Forest to claim the honour.

And tucked in a secret pocket in her jacket was a special gold coin - the golden ticket giving her entry to the world championship of backyard ultras in Tennessee in October.

Back at work, Wright was typically humble about her achievement.

“I can’t even comprehend that. It’s crazy,” she says, in an interview with Dirt Church Radio. 

So did she suddenly see herself as a trailblazer for female endurance runners? “Being up there with the best of them is just hugely inspiring, and I've done my wee little bit,” she says.

“In years to come, and hopefully not that many years with more women coming into the sport, then I fully expect it’s going to become an everyday occurrence.”

What Wright did was prove you don’t have to be a megastar runner to be a champion. This was a woman who had no training plan, no special diet or hi-tech gear, and ran her first ultramarathon just six months ago.

The Riverhead ‘Backyard Relaps’ ultramarathon is one of a network of races contested by hardy souls around the world. The rules are pretty simple: complete one 6.7km lap within an hour, and then restart again on the hour, and repeat… until there’s only one runner left standing.  

Women have come close to winning other backyard ultras around the world. American ultra ‘golden girl’ Courtney Dauwalter finished second in last year’s Big’s Backyard Ultra, which doubles as the world championship of backyard ultras. Dauwalter ran for 449km, over 67 hours.

But Wright, who sees herself as a tortoise racing the hares – the kind of athlete “who’d get the good effort achievement prize” – was the first woman in the world to actually achieve it.

After 201km, Katie Wright finally crossed the finish-line - having run an extra lap,simply because she's "pretty stubborn". Photo: Kunal Kumar.

Wright came to live in New Zealand a year ago.

“Funnily enough part of my decision to do medicine was that I really wanted to come to New Zealand and work here,” she says. “I’d just seen photos, and it looked pretty beautiful.

“Everyone looks like they're having a great time outside. The weather looks great. There's nothing scary that's going to come bite you.”

She initially worked in emergency medicine at Blenheim Hospital, but “popped over the hill” to Nelson Hospital six weeks ago, to get some experience in psychiatry.

New Zealand has also been a great place for Wright to run. She often heads off on trails for an entire weekend. “I just like being outdoors. I like the freedom of being able to go anywhere and all you have to do is put on a pair of trainers. Or maybe not even that - I’ve been known to run in my jandals occasionally,” she says.  

Wright grew up in the town of Windsor in south-east England, and although she was relatively sporty, she was “never particularly good – always on the B team or the reserve”.

She tackled her first half-marathon at 18 around the Silverstone race track, and admits at that age, she would “walk a good number of miles”. When she started university, she decided to join the local athletics club.

“I turned up in my tracksuit bottoms and then everyone else was there in their lycra, coming from their county championships,” she says. "Then we went on an easy run and I didn't quite fit the profile, but I soldiered on."

A few years later, after graduating from medical school, Wright decided to run around Wales. Right around Wales - around the coastline and border of the entire nation.

“I've always loved Wales; I spent a lot time there growing up and we had the equivalent of a Kiwi bach in northern Wales,” Wright says.

With little planning and no training, and having never run further than a marathon, Wright headed off on her epic 1400km adventure, raising funds for leukaemia research, in memory of a close family friend who had just died. The run took her 33 days.

Wright ran her first 100km ultramarathon race in Taupo last October. In February this year, she was the second woman in the Tarawera 100-miler, finishing six hours behind American Camille Herron, who owns a handful of long-distance world records.

When she saw the notice for this year’s inaugural Riverhead backyard ultra, Wright thought it looked right up her alley. This race, which required stamina, patience and tenacity, was something that she did naturally.

“I didn't need a training plan to train for it. My standard run is to put on my backpack, fill it with a load of stuff and go run for a weekend, at a four-and-a-bit mile an hour pace. That's what I do,” she says.

“[There’s also] the fact that I'm pretty stubborn and pretty competitive when I want to be. There's never been anything where I've been quite as confident, where I've been like ‘You know what, I could win that’.”

And that attitude helped her to do exactly that. 

Wright admits there were times during the mentally brutal race where she had some “wobbles”. From laps four to eight, she ran with painful stomach cramps – brought on by trying to eat too much between laps.

In some laps, she would have only five minutes rest before heading off again. But she established a consistent pattern - going to her tent, having something to eat, and lying on the floor with her eyes shut for two minutes.

“I actually didn’t feel tired for the whole 30 hours,” Wright says. Caffeine, adrenaline and her micro-naps kept her going.

She also had the support of British-born Auckland-based runner Emma Bainbridge, who ran 67km before dropping out, and then turning her attention to Wright. 

Looking back, Wright sees Riverhead as a race of two halves. The first, where it was “all fun and games, and everyone was a bit chatty”; and then the second where, after 24 hours, there were only five runners remaining on the course.

“Suddenly it was all a bit quieter,” says Wright, who was the sole woman among the five. As each of the others dropped out, Wright would have a heart-wrenching moment for them, and carry on.

And then the final man, Adam Keen, failed to finish the 29th lap in time. Wright was so thrilled that she'd won, she kept on running. 

“I decided to go out and do another lap. I’m pretty stubborn,” she says. “As soon as I turned the corner, away from everyone, I was like ‘What the hell am I doing? Why have I done this to myself?’”

But in the last 20 minutes, she simply enjoyed zig-zagging through the forest to the finish, and savouring her victory. She was then handed her gold coin, which gives her automatic entry to the Big's Backyard Ultra, a race limited to 70 runners from around the world. 

Putting on her doctor’s coat, Wright believes women are biologically suited to endurance events.

“We’re biologically built to withstand labour for X number of hours. It’s genetically what we’re trained for,” she says.

“I think it just takes women actually getting the chance to be involved in sports, and having the mental fortitude to say, 'Actually you know what? We can do this'.

“The more women who go out and do that, the more I think we can expect this to just become a normal occurrence. Where, in a 200-mile event, you know there’s a 50-50 chance you’ll see a woman win it.”

* Dirt Church Radio is a Kiwi trail running podcast hosted by Eugene Bingham and Matt Rayment. Learn more at dirtchurchradio.com

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