Although she’s only 25, Lucy Bartholomew has been competing in ultras for a decade. She ran her first, the Surf Coast Century 100k, alongside her father, and the successes kept coming. In 2017 she raced in fifteen ultras and was the first place female in eight of them.
The following year she ran her first 100 mile race, Western States, and finished third in the women’s race. All of those medals came at a cost, however, and for a time she lost her love of running. Today she talks about how she regained her joy in the sport and now appreciates it more fully than she ever did before.
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“People asked what happened when the numbers went up, but when the numbers were so low that I was clearly unwell, no one asked any questions. In fact I was put on a pedestal.”
Lucy participated in a project at a heart institute in 2018, the year she triumphed at Western States. Her numbers were incredibly low – body fat under 12% and a heart rate so slow that it didn’t register on the lab’s equipment. The doctors were amazed and impressed; it was “like a hall of fame moment,” she recalls.
But those levels were impossible to maintain, and when she went back a year later, the numbers were all higher. She was stronger and healthier, but the reaction was, “oh, you’re out of that elite athlete percentile and you’re like, normal, God forbid.” “ I remember sitting there,” she says, “and just being like, my photo’s just gone off the wall of fame, and I’m now this normal human, which is just not good enough for their standards.”
“Overnight I gained 50,000 followers on Instagram. So 50,000 people started following me and they started following a version of Lucy that was not sustainable.”
After Lucy crossed the Western States’ finish line in 2018, she suddenly had tens of thousands of new followers, who only knew her at her thinnest. When she gained weight after the race, people’s comments made her start to question herself. “It just puts a grain of sand into your mind, just kind of like, am I doing everything wrong?” By the end of 2019, that grain of sand had become a sandcastle.
“I think that I had lost the race of Western States before I had even begun.”
Running Western States in 2018 had been a joyful experience. She remembers an article that was written about her, saying how super-stoked she was. “And I was,” she says, “I was just like, oh my God, I can’t believe I’m in this position. I didn’t come here to lead the race. I’m in front of Courtney freaking Dauwalter, like what is going on?”
When she ran it again the next year, everything had changed. She was in the worst headspace of her life, and says, ”if I have one regret in my running career – I don’t use the word regret – but I disrespected that race. I ran it, but I didn’t love it. I despised the fact that I was out there. I endured it, which the previous year, I enjoyed it, not endured.”
She hadn’t looked at her watch for the first nine hours of the 2018 race because she was loving it so much. But in 2019, she says, “I looked at my watch for the first time probably a mile in and went, ‘is that all we’ve done?’”
“I don’t love this anymore, and I’ve always said that I would stop the moment that I outrun my love for running.”
In retrospect, she knew that she should have rested after the 2018 Western States, but she kept racing. “Then the Christmas season I chilled out a little bit,” she says, “had my three days off for the year, God forbid.” She resumed her schedule of back-to-back ultras in the new year. Thinking about her racing calendar, she says, “I’m like, you are an absolute goose, Lucy. Who do you think you are, standing on all those start lines and doing that to your body?”
“I learned from Western States that I won’t stand on the start line if my head and heart aren’t in it.”
Lucy had raced the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) seven times and loved it, but when she arrived in Chamonix in 2019, she says, “I was like, I really just want to sit at a cafe and chill out, and sit in the river and do something else. I just want to get the chairlift up. Like, do we have to run?”
“To be a great runner, you have to have the ability to run but then also to be able to cheer on others.”
She dropped out of the UTMB, but instead of sulking because “this was just turning into the absolute crumble of the year,” she decided to support the people who were racing. She explains that when she was younger and would spectate as her dad raced, “I started to realize that you can be on the sideline and you can just be miserable about the fact that you’re not in the race or you can be on the sideline and you can make people’s day.”
She left Chamonix feeling proud that she’d respected herself enough to pull out of the race, and happy that “I was able to still be a part of the sport that I love, because whilst I wasn’t loving the act of running, I love the philosophy and the community of running, and that’s more important to me than any race ever.”
“It was just the most beautiful experience that put me in a position where it was kind of like, this is what matters.”
The lockdowns in Australia during the Covid-19 pandemic gave Lucy an opportunity to reset. After only being allowed one hour of running a day, 5 km from her house, she was ready for a challenge.
She and two friends decided to run the extremely difficult Larapinta Trail in the Northern Territory of Australia. There were times on the trail that were “really, really tough,” but at the end, when the community came out for the finish, she realized that “this is why I love this sport and this is what I want to do. I want to tell stories and I want to show places to people and I want to create community.”
The past few months presented Lucy with a different kind of challenge. She was diagnosed with cancer in one eye and has undergone surgery to remove the tumor. But the love and support she received when she revealed her diagnosis on social media have made her realize that people care about her as a person, not only about her appearance and her ability as a runner. Now she’s eager to get back out on the trails.
“I can be a part of the community and I can be out where I love, in nature, and that’s kind of what I’ve taken away from a really challenging few months.”
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“Thank you” to Lucy. We look forward to hearing your thoughts on the show.