Midday on November 15, a tired, slightly nauseous Cat Bradley descended the north rim of the Grand Canyon. She was roughly 35 miles into a rim-to-rim-to-rim (R2R2R) speed-record attempt—42-miles with 10,000 feet of ascent and descent, across the canyon and back again.
For five hours, she had run in silence. “It’s just you, your pacer and the canyon,” she says.
As she approached the suspension bridge spanning the Colorado River, a series of shouts broke the quiet.
A large group of inebriated river rafters waved up at her from the water, cheering. One of Bradley’s friends had tipped them off to her record attempt, and as she passed above them, they vociferously channeled their support. As she started the climb up the south rim, they continued to cheer.
“Every time I crossed a switchback, they would start screaming again,” she says.
Several hours later, Bradley arrived at the top of the south rim. Her time, 7 hours 52 minutes 20 seconds, was a new fastest known time.
An unusual beginning
Bradley, 25, of Boulder, Colorado, is perhaps best known for unexpected win at the 2017 Western States 100. But her story begins much earlier, on the Appalachian Trail.
In 2011, midway through her sophomore year at the University of California Santa Barbara, Bradley set off on an eight-day backpacking trip from Maine’s Mount Katahdin, the AT’s northern terminus. Along the way, she met several thru-hikers, and decided to hike the whole trail.
“It was completely impulsive,” she says. “I had zero outdoors experience.”
She called in a leave of absence from school, quit her job at Texas Roadhouse and kept hiking. Among her chosen gear was a jar of peanut butter and a cotton sweat suit. Her dog was with her too, and, says Bradley, “I carried more weight in dog food than my own food.”
After 115 days, she arrived at Springer Mountain, in Georgia, completely hooked on the outdoors.
Returning to UC Santa Barbara after completing the AT, she immersed herself in outdoor activities—skiing, rafting, canoe guiding and, eventually, running.
She had run competitively in high school, but stopped after developing what she calls an unhealthy, overly performance-oriented relationship with the sport. The trails changed that. By 2014, she had fallen in with a group of local trail runners. She wasn’t running much—maxing out at 20 miles per week, just for fun, with no racing goals.
That year, a friend invited her down to Arizona to attempt a double-crossing of the Grand Canyon.
“It was probably pretty stupid and dangerous for me to do,” she says. She was still averaging minimal weekly mileage, and had never run anywhere close to 42 miles in one go.
But she was excited. The other members of her group—all significantly older—urged her to slow down. “Kid, you’re gonna blow up,” they reminded her.
Sixteen hours later, she was the first one to top out the south rim. To her surprise, she felt fine.
“I decided to go for the FKT right there,” she says, “without any reason to think I could do it.”
A breakout year
Hooked after that first long day in the canyon, Bradley started to focus more of her time on running. She read about proper training, and started to track her mileage, working her way up from 20 miles a week to 70.
Her first major success came in late 2015, with a second-place finish at the Bear 100, in Utah. Bolstered, she started training with a Grand Canyon FKT in mind.
“I knew nothing about how to break a record,” she says.
She trained through the winter, and, in April 2016, set off from the south rim with her boyfriend and pacer, Ryan Lassen.
At the bottom of the north rim, she started puking. She continued puking the entire climb. Still on pace, she reached the top of the north rim and turned back for the descent. Midway down she fell, “didn’t get up, and just started crying.”
All amenities on the north rim were closed for the season; even if there were a shuttle available, bailing would cost a four-and-a-half-hour drive to get back to the south rim. The only choice was to keep going.
“You still have 20 miles left, it hurts so much and you’re putting yourself in real danger at that point,” she says. She and Ryan stopped and rested until she could keep down food, and then dejectedly hiked back out.
“I was heartbroken,” she says.
The rest of the year would bring plenty of successes—a win at the Rio Del Lago 100, fifth at the Speedgoat 50K, third at the Quad Rock 25 and, against all odds, a coveted lottery spot to the 2017 Western States 100. But Bradley’s primary goal for the new year wasn’t Western States; it was a return trip to the Grand Canyon.
A life-changing win
Bradley planned for a second FKT attempt in April 2017, but poor conditions and trail closures forced her to reschedule. Her training paid off, though, and on June 24 she won the Western States 100. Almost immediately, her life changed. She earned sponsorships, and transitioned into life as as full-time athlete.
“It’s super cool, and super scary,” she says.
For months after Western States, Bradley focused on nothing but recovery. She knew she wanted to go back to the canyon, but refused to set a date until her body had completely healed.
On October 4th, she returned to the canyon, but her efforts would once again be thwarted by gastric distress. Deflated , she declared she would not come back again.
A few weeks later, though, she bought tickets to Arizona.
Early on the morning of November 15, alongside friend and photographer Nico Barraza and overall R2R2R record-holder Jim Walmsley, Bradley set off down the South Kaibab Trail, rushing to get ahead of a mule train.
The initial steep downhill was what Bradley had been most concerned about. To her surprise, “It felt really casual. I was moving well already.”
She reached the bottom in 47 minutes, three minutes faster than her split from her previous attempt.
Barraza dropped off at the bottom of the canyon, and Bradley and Walmsley continued on.
For the first 15 miles, Bradley fueled well. But, like clockwork, nausea set in around the halfway point.
“I have a notoriously bad stomach,” Bradley says. “Every other race, I vomit. It was just about nausea control.”
She avoided gastric disaster, but wasn’t able to eat for the final 20 miles. At first, this didn’t faze her. On the return trip from the north rim to the south rim, she ran strong along the bottom of the canyon. But as she neared the climb up the south rim, where she met back up with Barraza, she was beginning to feel “bonky.”
Serendipitously, a mule train passed by. “Oh, thank god, I can sit [to wait for the train to pass],” she thought.
After a 10-minute rest, she pushed on, ultimately reaching the “finish” at the top of the South Kaibab trail in 7 hours 52 minutes 20 seconds, shaving roughly 23 minutes off of the previous record set by Bethany Lewis in 2011.
Waiting for her were her boyfriend and 15-week-old puppy, Shirley.
“Don’t limit yourself to small goals,” Bradley says, reflecting on that first double crossing three years ago, which took her 16 hours off the couch. “I had zero reason for making this FKT my goal. For whatever reason, I didn’t stop going for it, or thinking about it.”