[Editor’s Note: This is Cat Bradley’s report from setting the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim fastest known time in 7:52:20 on November 15, 2017. ]
Since we’ve known each other, Ryan Lassen and I have joked about ‘the many faces of Cat.’ There’s ‘Teacher Cat,’ who spends the evening prepping for the next day in the classroom with glitter-paint-stained fingers. There’s ‘Training Cat,’ dedicated and diligent, who is strict about her 9 p.m. bedtime, her 5 a.m. alarm, and who might be hard to hold a conversation with while she habitually self-massages.
Ryan’s favorite version of myself, ‘Fun Cat,’ makes an appearance most frequently during times of recovery and is best known for having an extra drink or two with dinner, is more likely to hike, ski, or raft than run, and who will eat an entire cake in just a few days.
Then there’s the obsessive, unrelenting, and stubborn ‘Canyon Cat.’ Although ‘Canyon Cat’ was born in the Grand Canyon, she’s by no means limited to it. It’s the Cat that drives Ryan the craziest, and honestly, the version of myself that ignites most of my own crazy. The kind of crazy you can only tap into at mile 80 at the Western States 100 or the glimpse of inspiration stemming from insanity which accompanies near-impossible goals.
From my first 16-hour double crossing in 2014 until the moment I emerged from that canyon as the FKT holder last month, I lived and breathed R2R2R. At any given point, including my build-up to Western States this year, I was training for an FKT attempt at Grand Canyon, and everything else that followed was a pretty big bonus.
In retrospect, my obsessive intuition around my Grand Canyon goal kept me grounded, especially leading to the ever-prestigious and intimidating Western States earlier this year. I told myself at the base of the Escarpment at the beginning of the race, surrounded by world-class athletes that I had only had the opportunity to look up to and was now competing against, that Western States was not the real goal. Getting to the finish line as best I could was just a step in achieving what I had declared the real prize. So I deflected whatever pressures that surrounded Western States, and all other races, in the name of the canyon.
That’s not to say I didn’t put everything I had into the races in which I’ve competed. Instead, I was able to approach the start line with a displaced, casual demeanor (because the race didn’t matter, the canyon mattered) and turn on the competitive fire derived from my canyon goals when the gun went off.
The Canyon Cat approach to racing has served me well in what I can now call my running career. However, the paradoxical consequence was that Canyon Cat was the demise of the goal on which Canyon Cat originated. If I’m honest with myself, the gravity I had given the Grand Canyon sunk me down to the depths of the Kaibab Trail with no hope of fulfillment. I spent my first two FKT attempts fighting the burden of my own, unreasonable expectations. The power of the mind cannot be underestimated just as the enormity of the canyon must be respected.
After years of dreaming and shortcomings, the record was starting to feel as elusive and torturous as a siren, luring me in for the sake of handing me my defeat. But, just like the sailors who sailed toward the beautiful creatures and their fatal serenade, I returned to the Grand Canyon on Wednesday, November 15 despite a high probability of defeat.
This time, I dropped the shit and shed the pressures I’d created around the Grand Canyon. It was just me, two friends Jim Walmsley and Nico Barraza, on a long, slightly uncomfortable, immensely beautiful run where I’d get to call the shots and set the pace. Sounded like a pretty ideal day to me.
I reflected on the past three years and where my canyon dream had taken me while warming up, running circles around the South Kaibab Trailhead roundabout so I wouldn’t be too far from the bathrooms in the case of some pre-run results. About a mile (equivalent to over 25 parking-lot laps, I lost count after that) into my meditative warm up, Jim hollered in a panic that the mule trains are headed down the trail and were gracious enough to give us a two-minute warning. This shattered my trance and forced me to forego a sit-down break on the potty.
Like a NASCAR pitstop, Jim pulled off my sweatpants while Nico and Ryan loaded my pack and dug my headlamp from the black hole that is my purse. Feeling rushed and panicked, I thought of Rob Krar and how the start to his successful FKT attempt was expedited by mule trains threatening to delay his descent down South Kaibab. I usually try to leave superstitions at home with my lucky running socks, but I couldn’t help but think it might be a good omen.
While dropping down the 5,000 feet from the South Kaibab Trailhead to the Colorado River, my faith in myself was matched with respect for the canyon and the effort. Physically, I knew I was capable of breaking the record which was more confidence than I’d had in any of my other attempts. I ran down the 6.4 miles of steep, rutted-out switchbacks recklessly comfortable, taking a couple of diggers along the way and hit the river in 47 minutes. I was only 30 seconds slower than Krar’s split and I knew it. I didn’t know if I was moving appropriately or would implode from the reckless descent, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t happy with the split, even if it was running the line of carelessness.
Over the Colorado River bridge, I felt the change in grade and terrain as I made my way past Phantom Ranch. The slight uphill and ankle-turning sand made me aware of my quadriceps. For the first time all day, my breathing was loud enough to be heard, and the rhythmic sound of the effort made me nervous.
Nico peeled off shortly after Phantom Ranch, leaving Jim and I to “yip-yip” across the canyon. Jim puts on some big talk before races, and rightfully so. He’s a killer athlete who takes his own running seriously. But as a pacer, he is goofy and fun while still managing to keep an eye on the prize. With Jim at my heels, whispering ridiculous, non-running related remarks in my ear, I was able to run fast and with purpose while still managing to crack a few jokes. Not taking myself too seriously in this effort, and any effort, is essential to any success I’ve had. Jim encouraged me to scream at the top of my lungs to hear my own voice speak back, reverberating throughout the canyon walls. The little bit of energy I surrendered to the to the scream, energy I’d held onto tensely in the previous attempts, returned to me after traveling through the canyon and filled me with double what I had given.
We got to Cottonwood, and then to Pumphouse at the base of the big climb to the North Rim, casually. I let Jim take the reigns and steer the pace. I obediently followed. We aimed to hit the North Rim in 3:40, which Jim told me required an average of 14-minute miles from Pumphouse to the top. I focused on running between every switchback, sometimes allowing myself a quick hiking break as the trail turned. I could feel my stomach starting to flip and my knee twinging as we jogged up in silence, both of us struggling up the punishing North Kaibab Trail. Jim, who had run 80 miles of the ultra hard, ultra-competitive Diagonale des Fous two weeks prior, was not in typical Jim fashion. He made a modest effort to hide his fatigue, but by the final switchbacks, we were taking turns shouting profanities.
We hit the top in 3:43, a little behind but I wasn’t worried. Descents are my strength, and I had about 14 miles of downhill ahead of me before hitting the river again. We hit the top, Jim took a short video and filled my water bottle. Despite what the website said, the water at the North Rim was off. But by some crazy luck, someone had left a miracle gallon that had been sitting there for who knows how long. The cold nights of the turning season had frozen the gallon of water. Jim broke up the ice, filled my bottles, and we were on our way.
What kept me dutifully marching up the long ascent to the North Rim was the promise of reprieve usually granted by a long descent. But instead of the relief of gravitational pull, I was met with intense knee pain and a stomach that threatened to unveil the calories I had consumed throughout the day. Due to the heavy breathing that usually accompanies uphill running, I hadn’t taken in anything but a single GU Chew or two (certainly not the whole pack) since Cottonwood, and I knew I only had a small window before my stomach would revolt. I took out a Payday, my race-day go-to treat, took a bite, and quickly spit it out. Only 21 miles in and that was my last attempt at any solid calories.
Descending the North Rim was a game in managing the stomach and making sure the knee didn’t get any worse. Although my form changed due to the knee pain and my stomach inflated against my shirt, trying to mediate the issues kept my mind busy and the time flying. I told myself if I made it down to Pumphouse I’d be okay, so we continued down the canyon uncomfortably preoccupied. Problem solving has always been my favorite part of racing ultra distances, but ironically I’d often do without such problems if given a choice.
We hit Pumphouse, knee still twinging and stomach still turning. But we’d hit it, and I was right, it was still okay. Jim tried to give me calories, and I refused, too afraid that whatever I put in would come right back out. Somehow, I was able to convince him that I’d be able to take in food when I stopped running and started hiking up the South Kaibab Trail.
Despite the knee pain, nausea, and now caloric deficiency, the section from Pumphouse to Phantom Ranch was some of the best running I think I’ve ever managed to put forth. I pushed on the small rolling climbs and effortlessly threw myself down the gradual seven-mile descent. Aside from the occasional remark regarding my pace (“how am I moving?”), we didn’t talk much. That section was as close to the sought-after flow that I’ve ever been able to achieve. The flow overrode my discomfort, and I felt drunk with exertion. Even though we lost time going up and down the North Rim, we hit Phantom 15 minutes under my projected split and 45 minutes under record pace.
Side note: Jim was really excited. He was continually chatting with passing hikers, telling them that I was on record pace. Apparently, it’s a Coconino Cowboy thing and his agreeing to pace me was later admitted to be a ploy to convert me from Boulderite to Cowgirl. #coconinocowgirl!
We hit Phantom Ranch, and my flow came crumbling as we faced off with the wall guarding the South Kaibab Trailhead. With seven miles and around 5,000 feet of vert ahead of me, I knew I had some hurt coming my way.
Jim, who was plagued with the fatigue from his recent 100-mile effort, decided to hang at Phantom to refuel and make his way up the South Kaibab Trail at an unusually leisurely pace. I was sad to leave him there, but have to admit, it’s been fun telling people that I, Cat Bradley, managed to drop Jim Walmsley when asked if he paced the whole way.
Before we parted, I had started to fade too and couldn’t help but ask Jim if he had felt as bad as I did at that moment when he broke the men’s record. He merely responded with, “You have the time, just don’t stop, and make it up under two hours.”
Where Jim dropped, Nico re-joined me, armed with extra water and calories for the dry climb up to the rim. Nico had been patiently waiting to pace at Phantom Ranch for around 4.5 hours. (Bless him!!!!!) A few beers with some passing rafters made him giddy to take over pacing duties, which made him the perfect canyon comrade for my deteriorating morale. As we marched up the impossible wall, his befriended rafters who were let in on my record attempt cheered me over the bridge crossing and up every switchback in sight. I cheered back, again surrendering that extra little bit of energy. Their yelps of encouragement propelled me upward until they were out of sight, fueling me where calories no longer could.
Nico played the role of pacer well and tried to get me to take in calories often. Occasionally he’d talk me into a sip of GU Roctane Drink followed by two sips of water, but the times where I’d submit to his nagging were far and few between. The punishment fit the crime, and I was tortured with the consequences of caloric deficiency. Seven-plus hours in and I hadn’t even consumed 500 calories.
If the seven miles between Cottonwood and Phantom were some of my best lifetime miles, then the final 52 minutes I spent crawling out of the canyon had to be some of my worst. I was in such bad shape that I secretly welcomed the two mule trains heading in our same direction because it allowed me to sit down. I was grateful for the rest even though the cost was approximately 10 minutes off of what the record could’ve been.
It wasn’t until I saw the final switchbacks and heard Ryan, who was waiting at the rim with our beloved puppy, cry, “Go Cat,” that I started running again. I achieved every cliche in running those last switchbacks. Emptying the tank after years of build-up, on route to breaking a long-sought-after record, running toward the calls of my mustached boyfriend who was holding a tiny puppy, and then, finally collapsing in his arms at the top. No finish has ever felt so satisfying.
I could write a book on my canyon attempts, weaving in my failures with everything I have been able to accomplish in between. This silly little FKT goal was often the single light in the tunnel, guiding my ambitions. If I hadn’t decided to go for the FKT back in 2014, I might not have ever decided to focus exclusively on trail running and therefore, wouldn’t have the life or the community I’m so fortunate to have today.
At the same time, I don’t think I could currently write the book of Canyon Cat to completion, as I’m not completely satisfied with the effort. This record can go down. Someone who knows and respects the canyon can cut some significant time in the places where the terrain is unique to that area. I may go for it again myself, but in the meantime, I hope other women challenge my FKT and are granted with optimal conditions and a phenomenal day. Anyone who is looking to attempt the record, feel free to reach out at any time with any questions. I look forward to seeing your effort!
Lastly, although the record can be broken, it cannot be done alone. Thank you to the community and the people within it for being instrumental in helping me achieve my unreasonable ambitions and to those who exposed me to the sport by encouraging my first double crossing back in 2014.
Colorado River: 47:00
North Rim: 3:43:22
Phantom Ranch: 5:40:58
South Rim: 7:52:20
Breakfast: Glutino Pop-Tart with Peanut butter, a small RAD Boulder brownie, and black coffee
One full serving of GU Roctane Drink
1.5 packs of Gu Chews (160 calories per serving)
Sips of water and Roctane on the way up the South Rim
Around four full 20-ounce Salomon Soft Flasks of water
Shoes: Sense Pro Max
Shirt: Salomon S-LAB Exo Shirt
Skirt: Salomon Agile Skort
Socks: Feetures Crew Socks