Cat Bradley's Blazing Her Own Trail

Cat Bradley's Blazing Her Own Trail

Posted Nov 13, 2023

Cat Bradley is no stranger to pushing the boundaries of possibility and reframing failures as motivation. From her childhood in Hawaii to working as a raft guide and ski mountaineer in Colorado, she has consistently approached challenges with curiosity rather than doubt which has aided in her journey to becoming an accomplished professional trail runner.  

Despite quitting her college running team, experiencing various injuries and professional highs and lows, Cat has climbed her way to the top–winning the Western States Endurance Run, setting the Fastest Known Time in the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim trail, qualifying for the Olympic Trials in the marathon and placing sixth at Ultra Trail du Monte Blanc, just to name a few.  

Outside of her impressive running career, our Outerknown Ambassador is also a writer and coach and is regularly spotted surfing and body surfing in her free time. We had a chance to talk with Cat about her journey and learn more about what it takes to become the elite competitor she is today. 

What was it like growing up in Hawaii? 
It was so different from my life on the mainland; I almost feel like I live a double life. In Hawaii, things are definitely a lot slower—at least in my community, especially in Waimea, on the Big Island, where I grew up. It's a sleepy town where people are present and Hawaiian values are still honored and pull through the town. There's always an air of respect not only for where you are but who you're with and your community.


You went on to run Division 1 at UC Santa Barbara when you first began trail running. How did that come about? 
When I went to run D1, it was really hard on me. Not only was it hard because I was moving from Hawaii to California, where culturally it's very different, but also the team was cutthroat. While on the team, I met this guy named Louis Escobar and he told me I should start trail running. I did and ended up quitting the team. I had to work all these jobs to pay for school. I had a full scholarship, but they only give you one semester of scholarship before you’re readmitted as a regular student. I was working several jobs and one of them was at Santa Barbara Adventure Company where I learned to be a backpack guide on the John Muir Trail (JMT) and a canoe guide. But I wanted to explore more, so I moved.


You’ve also been a river guide and a kindergarten teacher. Can you share how that journey led you to becoming a professional runner in 2017?
I thought I was going to move to Telluride, but I didn't have an iPhone or a GPS, so I ended up in Winter Park by accident. I worked in restaurants, ski mountaineering, or ski shops in the winter months and was a raft guide in the summer months for Adventures in White Water—it was super fun. Through that, I was pursuing running. I was racing a lot, but also partying a lot, so it didn't go well. I was actually dead last for my first two 100-mile races because one, I got bronchitis right before, and the other, I was partying with my friend from high school the week before the race and I smacked my knee really bad while climbing through a friend’s window. So, I had this 100-mile race that I was walking on the uphills and then going backward on the downhills. It was brutal. I moved down to Boulder from Winter Park because the drinking culture was getting to me a little bit. In Boulder, there's such an elite running community. I ended up getting my degree in teaching and taught kindergarten, which only lasted for two years before I got laid off in March 2017. That gave me the opportunity to go all in at Western States Endurance Run because I had a severance package and time to kill. So, I went all in, and I won Western States which launched my pro career. 


You’ve had a pretty insane path and now you're six years into it. What excites you most about trail running right now and what keeps you going? 
What excites me right now is running healthy again. I have not had a healthy training block since 2019. And I'm finally running right now and I'm like, “Holy sh*t! My body doesn't feel like it's crumbling under me.” I'm excited to race healthy and to pursue those professional goals that were on the sidelines for a while when I was injured.


I imagine there’s a big mental component on top of the physical as well. How do you train for that?

“There's a period in every single race where I contemplate stopping. That doesn't go away. It's hard every single time—no matter how fit you are. It's so competitive these days that you're just running 100 miles through the mountains; you're competing the whole time.”

You have to be strategic and it takes a lot of focus and a lot of practice. You train not only to race but to be able to compete. You have to be okay with being uncomfortable for a very long time.

You brought up how the Western States 100 Endurance Run was a big breakthrough for you. I know that you've also set Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim fastest known time (FKT). Are there any accomplishments, personal or professional, that are extra special to you?
Winning my sixth place at Ultra Trail du Monte Blanc was super impactful. The Grand Canyon rim-to-rim-to-rim Fastest Known Time was a huge goal of mine. That record, before I broke it, hadn't gone down in like 10 years and a lot of people had tried. I was the first woman to go under 8 hours, which was huge. Once you break that barrier, it gets broken a lot, so being the person to break the 8-hour barrier was incredible. I love the Grand Canyon. It’s a special place in my heart as a runner and as a raft guide. When I got the Fastest Known Time, all the rafters were cheering for me, which felt like home. So, that’s a super special one.

Is there anywhere that you're looking forward to running at for records or personal enjoyment?
I'd love to go back to the Grand Canyon to get that Fastest Known Time. I just did this big scouting trip of the Tahoe Rim Trail. Unfortunately, we couldn't go for a record this trip due to conditions, but I would love to get this Tahoe Rim Trail Fastest Known Time. 

At Outerknown, we're always encouraging folks to get offline, embrace adventure, and find their Outerknown aka what drives your passion. What is your Outerknown?

“My Outerknown is doing things that might not be possible for me. They might be possible, but they also might not be. Any race that I line up to, any goal that I have, or any Fastest Known Time is usually on the brink of not being possible.”

It’s more unlikely than likely. Doing that over and over again makes you tough, and it makes you better than you would be if you made realistic goals for yourself.Even if you fall short of those goals, you're probably going to do better than what you would have done if you made a goal that was realistic.

We also love to elevate voices that inspire us to be better humans. Are there any role models or individuals that that inspire you?
Someone who does inspire me is my mom…she is not a mountain person, but she is super brave. She's never been afraid to just go for things that were crazy. Which made me unafraid. When I was growing up, my mom never had any boundaries of what we could and couldn't do. And that's probably why I felt confident in professional ultra-running as a viable career. When I got into the sport over 10 years ago, it wasn't a viable career. There were no pros. But I saw what I wanted to do, and I don't think I would have gotten there without my mom.

I'm also really inspired by my husband who is a near-professional surfer. He would never say that, but his dad has always told me that if he focused, he could be a professional surfer and I love how he approaches it. How he approaches life inspires me to approach my racing the same way. He has taught me to race with the curiosity of what I can do. He loves surfing more than anything in the world and that’s running for me. Sometimes, I lose sight of that because it is my profession.

Amazing! That’s incredibly inspiring. Obviously sustainability is extremely important to Outerknown. What sustainable practices are important to you?
By the nature of my work, I have to travel a lot and that's one of the worst things that you can do. I have a huge footprint in doing that. There's this awesome company called Mossy Earth, and it's a really great way to offset carbon from travel. Every time I travel, I put it in Mossy Earth and it automatically calculates it. The other big one is when you see trash on the trail, pick it up. That's such a small thing, but you see people just walk by trash all the time on the beach or the trail.

Are there any other causes that are particularly close to your heart?
One is women coverage and sports. Running is one of the more progressive sports in a lot of ways, but the coverage is still like a third of what the men's is on a good day. That drastically affects contracts for a runner.

Elevating women's voices in sports is super important because you know the characters on the men's side, and you don't know the characters on the women's side so they don't get paid as much and the sport doesn't grow. Then, a little girl who runs cross country doesn't think this dream is possible. That’s why it is so important to elevate women's voices in sports especially. 

Totally, that’s so important. Speaking of things close to your heat, do you have any Outerknown pieces you hold near and dear?
The Blanket Shirt, obviously. I have like 4 of them that I circulate. Also, the Barbarella Jeans. I love those, They're so comfortable. 

The Blanket Shirt is also a favorite of mine! Any advice for anyone who wants to become a professional runner?

Don't doubt yourself. Keep the dream alive. No matter who you are, there's going to be so many people saying that you can't. Trust yourself more than anything. 

Hell yeah! Finally, is there anything on the horizon for you? Any upcoming races, projects, or challenges that you're excited about?
I'm going to try and get into Western States in 2024. You have to get in the top three in a certain race or the top two in a couple of different races. I haven't decided which races those will be yet, I'm talking to my coach about it. But now that I'm healthy for the first time in years, I'm going all in on Western States 2024.


Posted Nov 13, 2023