Cat Bradley didn't spend much time taking in the scenery last month at the Grand Canyon. The 25-year-old Colorado ultrarunner achieved a new women's fastest known time for a rim-to-rim-to-rim run in the Canyon, finishing the trek in 7 hours, 52 minutes on Nov. 14. Bradley's time was 23 minutes faster than the previous record, set by Bethany Lewis in 2011.
It took Bradley a few tries to complete the 42-mile run, from the South Rim to the North Rim and back, in record time, but we caught up with her to find out exactly how she did it.
What got you started down the path of trail running in the first place?
I ran in high school and a little bit in college, but in 2011, I took a break from college and decided to hike the Appalachian Trail on a whim. That’s where I fell in love with the outdoors. I had never really camped or anything before. It was grueling and horrible, but also rewarding and wonderful.
After 115 days on the trail, I went back to school but had been taking a break from running. After graduation, I met Luis Escobar, who is one of the oldest members of the trail-running community, and he took me under his wing. He convinced me that I could pursue trail running. I fell in love with the sport, the community, being outside — it put all the things that I love into one little package.
When did you realize that you wanted to tackle the rim-to-rim-to-rim run?
I first ran the trail with Luis and a group of people — it took us 16 hours to complete it. During the run, he was telling me about how people would go out and set records for this trail. He couldn't fathom how fast people could run the Canyon. He had even been teasing me, saying, “You can’t do that, kid. You’re slow.” And it was pretty much right then and there when I decided to go for it. I’ve done it three times since then.
How did the first two times go?
The first time I attempted to beat the record was one of the most heartbreaking experiences of my life. I wasn’t properly trained, and was also coming off of bronchitis, but I wanted to go for it anyway. In retrospect, there was no way. It was poor conditions — it was a really hot day. I was not ready mentally or physically. I threw up a lot. I didn’t respect the Canyon for what it was.
The second time I went for it, about two years later, I had quit teaching to be a professional runner. I had some success in races, so I had more reasons to think that I could do it. But it just wasn’t my day. It was another hot day, and I was throwing up again. It was a huge blow to my ego — it had been my only goal all year.
After I went back home to Colorado, I had been researching other races to do, but I realized no race inspired me as much as the Canyon did. So I had booked a three-day trip with my boyfriend and dog to do it again, and I finally got it the third time.
Was it always a goal of yours to beat the previous record set by Bethany Lewis? Or did this happen by coincidence?
It was always the record. The only reason I was in the Canyon was to get the FKT [fastest known time].
How did you train for this run?
The mistake I made for the first attempt was not training for the run. But for the two times after, I did some really specific training. I worked on really long, sustained uphills and really long, sustained downhills — the downhills were very technical.
One day a week I did a road run with a long, sustained climb, at a moderate pace — about 3,000 feet in elevation gain. And then coming downhill, I ran hard to strengthen my quads. Then, every other day, I trained on trails. It was by far the most volume and intensity that I’ve ever had in training.
What challenges did you face?
Nutrition in an ultramarathon is definitely my biggest weakness and was my downfall in the first two attempts. I am notorious for throwing up in a race, and if I start getting sick in a race, I’m done — which is what happened the first two times.
I was able to manage my nausea the third time, but only because I only ate 500 calories over the course of 7 hours, 50 minutes, and 42 miles. You should eat about 1,200 to 1,500, so I was at a huge deficit. I felt so weak during the last climb, but I just didn’t want to throw up, so I sacrificed eating.
What was going through your mind while you were running?
I was extremely focused. I wasn’t thinking about anything else but my goal. I was constantly self-evaluating my state, because it was changing after so many miles — you have to be really in tune with yourself. I was asking myself questions like “How am I feeling?” “Am I dizzy?” “Do my legs hurt?” “How can I address that?” “Am I still using proper mechanics?” It’s constant problem-solving. And that’s why I love it.
When you finished, how did you feel?
Oh, my gosh. It was a wave of so many emotions. That last climb was one of the toughest racing moments of my life. When I got to the top and realized I missed my initial time goal, I was bummed. But as soon as I saw my puppy and my boyfriend, I was so happy. I just couldn’t believe it. I don’t remember this, but my boyfriend, Ryan, said I screamed, “I did it! I did it! I did it!”
What, or who, is your inspiration?
I have quite a few inspirations, but I’m mostly inspired by young women getting into this sport. It’s so daunting, but I think it’s really important for young women to push themselves like this. I think it’s great that this sport is getting more competitive, because it’s more acceptable for women to say, “Yeah, I can run a trail race, too.”
What is your advice for aspiring trail runners, whether it be competitive or just for sport?
Get out the door, no matter what. It’s so hard sometimes. You get home from work and it’s the last thing you want to do, but you have to do it. You’ll never, ever regret getting out the door.
— Brianna Cossavella