Break­through victory

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - By John Meyer

BOUL­DER» As Cat Bradley cov­ered the fi­nal few hun­dred yards of the renowned West­ern States 100-mile en­durance run across Cal­i­for­nia’s Sierra Range two weeks ago to cap­ture her first big win in the sport, the fin­ish on a high school track felt like a meta­mor­pho­sis.

“It truly felt like I was shed­ding a layer of skin,” said Bradley, a rel­a­tive un­known in the sport be­fore this year. “I had this fo­cus and al­most ar­mor on, all day, and felt like that just dis­solved right off me, and for the first time I was able to ab­sorb the day. It was in­cred­i­ble. And still, that fin­ish, that West­ern States win, does not feel real. The only mo­ment that felt real was run­ning around that track.”

The meta­mor­pho­sis im­agery is apt, be­cause the mo­ment marked an­other stage in the trans­for­ma­tion of a deeply in­tro­spec­tive woman who moved from Cal­i­for­nia to Win­ter Park four years ago to dis­cover her­self, to iso­late in a place where she could con­tem­plate her ten­dency to iso­late from peo­ple. She has made progress, and that’s a good thing be­cause sud­denly she is a star in a sport that was only a hobby for her un­til a few months ago.

“I over-an­a­lyze,” said Bradley, 25. “I think that’s some of the rea­son I was kind of in my own head be­fore. I was try­ing to fig­ure out where my self­worth lied. I think that’s why I strug­gled so much. I’m re­al­iz­ing now that your self-worth lies in your re­la­tion­ships and how you treat peo­ple.”

Two years ago Bradley found a boyfriend in ul­tra run­ner Ryan Lassen — she didn’t date in high school or col­lege — and moved to Boul­der where he lived. Through him she slowly opened her­self up to the lo­cal ul­tra com­mu­nity while work­ing as a kinder­garten teacher. Now spon­sors are lin­ing up be­cause of her West­ern States win. She may do a lit­tle sub­sti­tute teach­ing in the fu­ture, but mostly she will run, and get to en­joy the fruits of be­ing paid to run.

“I have a lot of things on my radar, but it’s go­ing to take some time to nar­row in,” she said. “There’s so much out there, and I just need some time to ab­sorb what hap­pened and the op­por­tu­ni­ties and nav­i­gate through that.”

The West­ern States 100 crosses the Sierra Ne­vada west­ward from Squaw Val­ley to the gold rush town of Auburn. It starts with a climb of 2,550 feet in the first four and a half miles to a pass at 8,750 feet. From there the race has an­other 15,540 feet of as­cents and 22,970 feet of de­scents. This year’s race was com­pli­cated by the epic snow that in­un­dated the Sier­ras last win­ter. Bradley still has scrapes on her knees from post-hol­ing in the snow.

“It was that deep for miles,” she said. “You can­not run on it, and you can get re­ally hurt on it. All the top women blew by me. I just did not want to get hurt. I wanted to fin­ish that race.”

Be­low the snow­fields were long stretches of steep mud slopes strewn with downed trees that had to be hur­dled. Twice the mud sucked a shoe off her foot.

“I looked down and my shoe was so deep I couldn’t see it,” she said. “I had to get on my hands and knees and dig for it. It was su­per frus­trat­ing, but it prob­a­bly was great for me be­cause it slowed me down. Once I got past that, every­one else was kind of fall­ing apart in front of me be­cause they tried to push that sec­tion.”

With those ob­sta­cles be­hind and 75 miles in front of her, Bradley made a vow to her­self: No more get­ting passed. She spent the rest of the race pass­ing oth­ers, in­clud­ing ul­tra he­roes Mag­dalena Boulet (the 2015 win­ner) and Kaci Lick­teig (2016), tak­ing the women’s lead at around 65 miles. Boulet, a for­mer marathoner who ran at the 2008 Olympics, was only eight min­utes be­hind at mile 78 but Bradley ex­tended her lead to 18 min­utes, fin­ish­ing in 19 hours, 31 min­utes, 30 sec­onds.

An un­wel­come sou­venir of the race made the 17-hour drive back to Boul­der a lot less pleas­ant than it should have been. While squat­ting in the woods on a potty break dur­ing the race, Bradley didn’t re­al­ize there was poison oak in the spot she picked. That, she fig­ured out later with great dis­com­fort.

“It’s been hor­ren­dous,” Bradley said. “Luck­ily I didn’t re­act un­til the next morn­ing, or maybe I did but I didn’t re­al­ize be­cause I was run­ning so hard. But man, the car ride home, it was ter­ri­ble. All I could think about was the itch­i­ness.”

Mov­ing to the moun­tains

So much has hap­pened, ac­com­pa­nied by so much per­sonal growth, since Bradley moved to Win­ter Park in 2013 after grad­u­at­ing from the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Santa Bar­bara.

“I just needed a change,” Bradley said. “I wanted to go some­where where I didn’t know any­one and fig­ure things out. I was a phi­los­o­phy ma­jor, su­per in­tro­spec­tive, thought I needed to go through all these changes to get to know my­self. I’ve al­ways been some­one who has iso­lated my­self. It’s got­ten less and less so, which I think is re­ally healthy, but I’ve al­ways needed my time by my­self.”

In Win­ter Park she worked as a ski in­struc­tor and got cer­ti­fied to be a back­coun­try ski guide. She worked sum­mers as a raft­ing guide and got in­ter­ested in ul­tra run­ning, first as a bucket list item, then as a hobby.

The move to Win­ter Park had been im­pul­sive, and so was the move to Boul­der two years later. It was there that she be­gan to emerge from her co­coon. At first she would run with Lassen and his friends but headed home when they went out af­ter­wards to so­cial­ize. Now she joins them.

“It helped me to blos­som and pull my­self out of my own head,” Bradley said. “When you don’t have any­one, you’re com­fort­able in your iso­la­tion but it’s not healthy. I’ve been com­ing to this for the last cou­ple of years, as I’ve been grow­ing as a more so­cial per­son and blos­som­ing. Which is cheesy as hell, but it’s what hap­pened.”

John Meyer: jmeyer@den­ver­post.com or @john­meyer

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