With the world's toughest endurance race just months away, 21 year-old runner Lucy Bartholomew is looking down the barrel at her biggest challenge yet.
The holy grail of endurance trails, California's Western States 100 mile (161km) looms large over the heads of any runner with a desire to throw themselves at the pinnacle of their sport and see if they make it out alive or crack under the mental pressure. Since its inception in 1974, athletes from all over the world have journeyed to the course, which ascends more than 5000m and descends more than 7000m. It's remote, rugged, and hazardous, with zero forgiveness for those who are not mentally or physically prepared for its relentless wilderness challenges which include, among others, a dangerous fording of the American River.
For 21 year-old Lucy Bartholomew, of Melbourne, there is nothing she would rather do more in 2018.
She has hit the ground running already - pardon the pun - with three races under her belt by March: the 56km Two Bays in Victoria, along with the 62km Tarawera and the Shotover Moonlight Marathon, both in New Zealand. She also has the Motatapu Ultra and Ultra Trail Australia lined up before she leaves for the US.
While her training regime is well underway, Lucy admits that being on the ground in the US will intensify the butterflies.
“I feel so inspired at the moment and in a really good head space,” she said.
“I am hoping to be there for a big recce on Memorial Day weekend at the end of May.
“This will probably open up lots of questions, excitement and nerves, but will make it easier to plan.
“Prior to this, I am just looking at working out ways to train for some hot temperatures as it can be 50 degrees in the canyons.”
The intense training and mental preparation before the event on June 23 is undoubtedly huge, but the significance of Western States for her athletic record holds heavy weight. When she crosses that finish line, Lucy will be the second youngest woman to have completed the race in its esteemed 44 year history. Kathy D’Onofrio was 20 when she finished in 1985, 21 in 1986, and 22 in 1987.
A RUNNER IS MADE
Ultra-runners are a unique breed of athlete. They do what mere mortals only do in dreams, or in the fictional montage that runs through the head as one struggles through a five or 10km event, with Survivor's Eye of the Tiger as the soundtrack. They are athletes that are created, not born. They're made on the trails, in the wilderness, out of sweat, tears, and bleeding feet; emerging from rocky mountains forged in the fire of determination. Lucy Bartholomew is one of them, and in her own words “wasn't born a runner, but I'm teaching myself, travelling the world learning”. There is no doubt that she is off to a flying start. Running her first 100km event at the tender age of 16 alongside her father, Lucy maintains that she never thought about it being more than a hobby until 2017.
“People ask what it's like being a full time runner, but I personally feel like I'm still on my gap year,” she laughed.
If that's the benchmark, then she's on one of the toughest gap years of all time. In 2017 alone she competed in 15 races ranging in distance from 22km to 119km. The longest was the TDS in France, where she finished fifth in the women's category. Before the end of the year, she also managed to squeeze in Ultra Trail Cape Town with a stunning result, finishing first in the women and 11th overall, beating competitors double her age with years of experience. That's not to mention the 30 or so other races on her resume, dating back to 2012.
PUSHING THROUGH PAIN
With such an extensive list of races over a relatively short period of time and at such a modest age, Lucy has been quick to learn the mental techniques that are necessary to make it through such gruelling distances.
“I think for me, the worst thing you can do is think of it as 100km, it's such a big number,” she said.
“I'm very much someone who looks at it as checkpoint to checkpoint. You know, that might be 20km, which to some people might seem a long way. And when times get tough, it might just be to get to that tree up there and in the real bad moments, it's like, let's just take one more step.”
Sure, these tactics make sense – but deep in the heart of the race, has she ever got to the point where she feels like she cannot go on?
“Yeah I get to that point in every race,” she laughed.
“Sometimes you just need to stop, and I have done this in races, I've stopped and taken a deep breath and gone, 'ok, right now sucks.'
“But if that's as bad as it's going to get, it can only get better.”
She recounted such a moment during Ultra Trail Cape Town, where she was forced to draw on these reserves of mental strength.
“I was on Table Mountain and I'd fallen five times through this boardwalk... I was getting worked up so I stopped and looked out and was like, wow look at where I am.
“I've got Cape Town to my left, the sea to my right and I'm on Table Mountain, there are worse places to be!”
NO PLAN IS THE BEST PLAN
Having once been a 21 year-old woman, with none of this discipline or drive, I'm fascinated by Lucy's determination and maturity at tackling such a task. I'm interested to know whether she has had much chance to speak to other young women her age, to encourage them to engage more with the outdoors, and embark on similar personal challenges.
“It's such a bizarre thing to do,” she said.
“You know, to say, go run 100km to a 21 year-old... I look at my friends and I know that's not going to happen!
“But I'd love to be able to bring people together, and it doesn't have to be 100km, it's just about getting out there.
“I went to the Junior Running Academy with Salomon when I was young, and I'd love to bring that kind of thing to Australia to bring young athletes together to tell them this is actually a sport and something you can do. You can travel the world with it, and you can dare to dream of doing it.”
While she may have a mature outlook on mental performance in her sport, Lucy admitted that she doesn't really have a long term career plan.
“I just don't plan” she said.
“I'm taking every opportunity that comes my way. When I initially missed out on the lottery for Western States, I went, 'ok cool, that can go on the back burner and I'll make another plan'.
“Then I got in and I was like, 'ditch those plans, we're going to Western States!'
“When I got the offer to compete in Cape Town, it was like a month before. That excites me, it sets my heart on fire.”
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