Cat Bradley arrived in Colorado in 2013 hoping to find herself in the mountains and a community that loved them. In the years since, the 26-year-old California native found a running family, a serious boyfriend and a career doing something she loves. After working as a ski and raft guide, Bradley discovered her talent for mountain running alongside fellow Boulder dynamos Clare Gallagher and Abby Levene. Last year, Bradley set a speed record in the Grand Canyon (going from the South Rim to the North and back in seven hours, 52 minutes, 20 minutes faster than the previous record) just months after claiming one of the biggest victories in ultra running, at the Western States Endurance Challenge. Now, she just wants to nest.
When did you first discover your love for trail running?
I read a blog post about an 88-mile run from the north to the south of Rhode Island when I was 21. I was just starting to learn about trail running, so I decided to attempt it, even though my long runs back then were six miles. My godmother “crewed” me, even though neither of us really knew what that meant. I made it 45 miles and realized how much your legs can hurt.
You say the fastest known time (FKT), or speed record, of the 41-mile rim-to-rim-to-rim crossing of the Grand Canyon felt as meaningful as the Western States win. Why?
I’ve always felt a connection with public lands, national parks and open space. I think these FKT projects enhance that connection in a way racing can’t. With racing, you don’t have to be as connected to the place, because you can rely on the race to know where the water stops are, where the trail goes, to clean up the trash after. With FKT attempts, you have to take charge of the knowledge of the area. And that helps foster a deeper appreciation for where you are.
What did you take away from your trips to the Grand Canyon?
I have a much better understanding of the Colorado River now, which is crazy because I was a guide on it before. I got a real appreciation of where our water comes from. During those trips, you also get an extreme appreciation for the people who maintain these areas. There are always people working on the river. I also learned what it’s like to be truly alone, in the middle of the Grand Canyon, in the dark. It’s a crazy, intimidating feeling.
What is it about Boulder that produces so many incredible runners?
I think, for one thing, Boulder attracts people with a lot of raw talent who are hungry to be good at the sport. The other is the community and the support you get here. Boulder is really a safe place to be pushed as an athlete. The female community is something special.
You’re known to be a shy person who doesn’t love the spotlight. Yet, here it is.
Before Western States I felt like I hid behind [Clare Gallagher] a little to get myself out of the spotlight. When I realized I was going to win Western States, I was thinking, “Man, a lot of attention is coming my way, and I don’t know if I can handle or want that.” The overnight change was definitely really hard. It was a big transition. I feel I’ve been able to separate Cat the runner and Cat the person. I’ve been able to make time for me and keep the things I want to keep personal, personal for me. I’m surprised by it every single day. It’s a daily topic of conversation with my friends, because it’s mind-blowing.
You were an elementary school teacher before. Any thought of going back to the 9-to-5?
I’m so happy with what I’m doing right now. There’s always uncertainty. What if running is taken away from me? I like to be able to express my creativity through running and through movement and writing. Working 60 hours a week before, that’s how I was making a means to do these things. But my happiness was definitely compromised.
You have a live-in boyfriend, a new puppy and family routines that include a weekly walk to get burritos. Are you settling in?
Sometimes I think I’m too comfortable and complacent in my little nook. I’m skiing less and less, and I haven’t been rafting like I used to. On one hand, nesting feels really good. On the other hand, I told myself I’m going to say yes to more things and get out more.
Russ Rizzo is a freelance writer and co-founder of Dispatch Radio, a Boulder-based outdoor adventure podcast. To listen to Cat Bradley discuss her Grand Canyon speed record, and hear more outdoor personalities tell their stories and discuss pressing current issues, visit DispatchRadio.com.