Cat Bradley’s Obsessive Pursuit of the Grand Canyon
Ultrarunner Clare Gallagher says that while Cat’s been making a name for herself in trail running, this goal has always been at the top of her list
Last Wednesday, Cat Bradley set a new Grand Canyon rim-to-rim-to-rim (R2R2R) Fastest Known Time, breaking the previous record by 23 minutes. Even though Cat is best known for her prestigious win at Western States this past June, her new FKT speaks much more to her personality. Cat hates attention. She keeps her obsessions to herself. Since 2014, when her quest for the R2R2R FKT began, she’s cared far more about running the Canyon than about winning any race.
In April of that year, well before Cat had legitimate ultrarunning experience, let alone sponsors, she hiked the double crossing with friends, including ultrarunning legend Louis Escobar. She says she did it “basically off the couch,” and it took over 16 hours. Upon finishing, she decided that one day she’d go for the FKT.
Salt Lake City ultrarunner Bethany Lewis had held the women’s FKT (8 hours 15 minutes) since 2011. Considering the pace at which ultrarunning is growing, and how frequently race course records are bested, Lewis’s FKT was stout. Several women, including elite ultrarunners Darcy Piceu, Anna Mae Flynn, and Cassie Scallon, had tried to break it since.
For most R2R2R FKT attempts, runners start and finish at the South Rim. (Though Lewis started on the North Rim.) The run starts with 5,000 feet of descent, then crosses the Colorado River, before ascending 6,000 feet to the North Rim. That’s a R2R. For the double crossing, runners turn around and retrace their steps. The run is 42 miles, with over 11,000 feet of elevation gain.
A few months before Cat’s first FKT attempt, in January 2016, I met her at a group run in Boulder. Cat was quiet, but chatty when the subject was ultrarunning. She also ran a ton, tackling stupid hard efforts on her own terms, like adding nine miles of road after three laps of Green Mountain one Saturday. (One lap of Green is six miles with 2,500 feet of vert.)
'Even though it’s not a race or a high profile thing, these personal projects are what keep me coming back to the sport'
In early April 2016, Cat asked if I could help crew her for a Canyon FKT attempt, but I couldn’t go on short notice. Cat herself was still recovering from bronchitis and had just been diagnosed with celiac disease, but she went for it anyway. People like Cat were my first taste of the ultrarunning scene, so I figured that going for a huge FKT while on antibiotics must be a normal thing. Now I realize that isn’t the case—Cat was just that obsessed.
In hindsight, Cat admits she was woefully underprepared for her first attempt. She was fit, but had not trained specifically for the Canyon’s brutally long climbs and descents. “When you’re moving fast in the Canyon, everything is different,” she says. For example, Cat’s first ever hike down the South Rim took four hours. The record pace is 50 minutes. As pacer and ultrarunner Nico Barraza says, “If you really run the Canyon hard, it’s going to kick you in the teeth.”
During her first attempt, she vomited and coughed nearly the whole time, and her boyfriend Ryan called the whole thing off with 14 miles to go. After resting and refueling, they hiked the rest of the Canyon back to their car at the South Rim. Cat was heartbroken.
She ran a few races that spring and fall, but nothing major. In the fall of 2016, something changed—Cat grew visibly more serious about ultrarunning. She got a coach, David Roche, and started winning races, including the Rio del Lago 100-miler.
This past spring, Cat planned to go for the Canyon again. She knew she’d be racing Western States in June, but she says, “leading up to Western, the Canyon was my real goal.”
She trained all winter for her second attempt, but it never actually happened. Rockslides on the North Rim closed access to the Canyon for the few weeks when she had her only break from her teaching job. She channeled that training into Western States, and won. By September, she’d decided she had to go for the Canyon again.
Cat says her second FKT attempt, in early October, just wasn’t her day. Jim Walmsley, who has the men’s R2R2R FKT in a blisteringly fast 5 hours 55 minutes, paced her for both attempts this fall and says that in October, her stomach caused a lot of issues and it was hot. She ran the whole double crossing, but was off record pace by the halfway mark.
After that, she took a week and a half of easy running, recovered well, and then realized she was still fit and ready to go for something big before the end of the year. She considered racing the the North Face 50-mile Championships, which I was doing, but she decided against it. “I felt like I couldn’t move on to the next project until I got this done,” she says.
Early on November 14th, Cat set out with her pacers, Walmsley and Barraza. She bombed down the first descent in 47 minutes, ahead of record pace. She held pace throughout, even after struggling through a tough ascent of the North Rim, and hardly eating the last half of the attempt—“maybe 500 calories over the whole day” she says. Cat’s atrocious stomach had been her demise in the past, but to my amazement, she’s somehow finagled running insanely well purely on fumes and seltzer water in the final pushes of her biggest efforts.
Cat dug deep in her final ascent up the South Rim—cheered on by drunk rafters who heard from Barraza at Phantom Ranch that she was on record pace—and set the women’s record: 7 hours and 52 minutes. Cat doesn’t care that she didn’t race again this year after Western States; she’s fiercely loyal to her personal goals. “Even though it’s not a race or a high profile thing, these personal projects are what keep me coming back to the sport,” she says. While she figures out what’s next, everyone guard your FKTs.