After a breakout year winning Western States 100, setting the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim FKT and going pro, in 2018 Bradley is staying focused on her toughest competition.
“I can do better.” These were the first words to breathlessly exit Cat Bradley’s mouth atop the rim of the Grand Canyon moments after shattering the women’s FKT (fastest known time) for a 42-mile Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim run last November. Her 7 hour, 52 minute clocking bested the previous record by 23 minutes. Never mind the fact that she just accomplished one of her biggest running dreams, or that it was her third attempt doing so (weather and illness impacted her other attempts). Cat is already eyeing the next face-off with her biggest competition—herself.
Twenty-six-year-old Cat made headlines last year as the former kindergarten teacher who overcame the disappointment and heartbreak of being laid off to win Western States 100, the world’s oldest 100-mile trail race. Although her victory surprised many, this wasn’t a one-off incident. Persevering through setbacks until she reaches her potential is simply how Cat rolls.
When she was in high school, she channeled her pent up energy into running cross-country. She struggled at first, as most brand new runners do when they are building base fitness for the first time. But she improved quickly and fell in love with the sport. She eventually earned a track scholarship at UC Santa Barbara, but her collegiate track career racing the 800 meters never took off due to the all too prevalent combination of putting too much pressure on herself and burnout from top level training and competition that so many successful athletes face. Her solution? Drop out of school and hike the Appalachian Trail—an accomplishment she still considers the toughest thing she’s done to this date and the catalyst to push her into ultrarunning. While already a runner, the AT was her first endeavor that bridged the gap from sprinting a few laps around a flat 400 meter track to spending long hours out on technical wilderness trails. Most importantly, it is where Cat discovered her passion for being outdoors, the core of what she loves most about trail running.
After college, she worked as a river guide in Kremmling, Colorado, and saved cash by living out of her van and travelling to trail races all over the West. There, she forged lifelong friendships, regained her footing in the sport and fell in love with the Grand Canyon. Through training—consistently running more than 15 miles a week and holding herself accountable to get out of bed and run in the dark before work—she slowly inched her way toward the “overnight success” that the trail running community witnessed last year. Her first 100 miler, the Bryce Canyon 100 in 2014, was an inauspicious start in the sport—she had bronchitis and was a self-described “total mess.” However, spurred on by her friends who came out to crew for her, she managed to finish. In hindsight, this ability to complete the distance despite imperfect conditions was the first inkling of future success in a sport that benefits from perseverance through difficulty.
When asked what catapulted her into the top spot in one of the most historically competitive 100-mile races, Cat makes no excuses and is brutally honest with herself. “Consistency and accountability. I finally bought a watch. I started running more than 15 to 20 miles a week,” she says. There is no magic elixir. Cat simply ratcheted up the dial of commitment to her running, the sport she clearly loves, and the trajectory she had been on, quietly, for years.
When we talked, Cat was en route to Colorado Springs, Colorado, for a speaking engagement in between two 4-mile double runs. It’s the type of schedule only a professional athlete can understand and a lifestyle she seems so seamlessly and naturally suited for, with her ability to both focus and let go. “If I don’t feel like running I don’t,” she says. But becoming a professional runner was never her original goal. “After Western States, I still planned to go back to teaching, at least as a substitute. I poured my heart and soul into my career and my students. There was no conscious decision for any of this with running, it just happened.” It was only when she wasn’t re-offered a teaching position, yet another blow, that Cat began to explore her other clear career option as a bona-fide professional runner.
Cat’s humility, healthy perspective and ability to stay rooted in what drew her to the sport in the first place remain the foundation for her main pursuits in the sport, which she limits to only a few races or record attempts annually for the sake of longevity. Her sights this year are set both on Western States, aiming for a repeat victory, and another go at taking her own Grand Canyon FKT. “Who knows if I’ll ever have the rare opportunity to race with a target like this on my back? The only reason to not return [to Western States] would be fear and I’d regret that,” she says. When it comes to the Grand Canyon, the decision to tackle the record once more is also intrinsic, “If I’m honest, I want to give the Grand another go. It wouldn’t give myself justice not to try.” In fact, Cat admits she didn’t feel at 100-percent strength on that record-setting day in the canyon (and may have even had a minor illness). On a day that she actually feels good, matched with her prior experience, it’s not unrealistic to see her time fall again. And more importantly, Cat gets to push herself to the limit in the place where she discovered her passion for trail running, dreaming and wild places. Cat’s return to the record is as much about setting the bar higher as getting back to her roots in the sport.
“There is only as much pressure in running as you put upon yourself.”
When you understand Cat’s original draw to the Grand Canyon, her drive for self-improvement becomes even clearer. The Grand was her first introduction to long trail runs, “off the couch” in 2014. In fact, she was not even sure at first if she could complete the run. Joined by friends like race director Luis Escobar and fellow runners, Cat not only finished the R2R2R run, which includes 11,000 feet of vertical gain, but became enthralled with the beauty of the canyon. “It made me realize how small I am in the massive world.” It’s evident by the bright excitement in Cat’s voice when she talks about this run that it changed her life. There is a spark that runs much deeper than a race victory, a spark that was present the moment she stepped foot in the canyon. “During the run, I was falling in love with the canyon. I started talking shit to my friends, saying that someday I was going to get the record.” A bold statement for anyone, let alone somebody in Cat’s running shoes at the time with no regular training program or results to back up such a claim.
Cat’s advice to other runners is that, “There is only as much pressure in running as you put upon yourself.” Although that pressure may have been a struggle during her younger racing days, it is clear that Cat’s success is as much the result of her increased mileage as finding a way to now embrace, if not thrive off the pressure within. Pressure often carries a negative connotation, especially in the sports world, but in geology and specifically in places like Cat’s beloved Grand Canyon, pressure is what changes rocks forms and forges the new layers that slowly push to the surface. What we are witnessing is just the surface of Cat Bradley’s running abilities emerging above the layers of pressure, which Cat has learned to channel as a tool in her racing arsenal. The end result will no doubt something truly beautiful and grand.