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: email@example.com or @johnmeyer