CAPE TOWN - At just 21-years-old, Lucy Bartholomew, hardly appears a candidate for ultra-trail running, a discipline whose physical and mental challenges are arguably more suited to older athletes and where many of the world’s toughest ultra-trail races are won by athletes more than twice her age.
But whether the talented Australian athlete is the exception to the rule, or pointing to a new era where younger, faster athletes are taking ultra-trail running to new levels, Bartholomew is undoubtedly the real deal.
Incredibly, the Salomon global team trail star is anything but a newcomer to ultra-trail running and has more ultra-distance races under her belt than the majority of the field who will line up at the Gardens Tech Rugby Club at the start of Saturday’s 100km Ultra-Trail Cape Town.
When Bartholomew crossed the line after her first 100km outing in Australia, she was just 16.
“I just ran for the fun and enjoyment and to be with my dad, who had already run several 100km races,” explained Bartholomew.
“People said it could be dangerous to both body and mind, but they didn’t really see the whole picture. I trained hard for the race and took it seriously.
“And I wanted to run with my dad - that was the best part.
“He kept me from starting too fast and we helped each other through tough patches. We crossed the finish line together, feeling happy.
“I like to run with a smile on my face - I guess if you’re not having a great time out there, you’re running for the wrong reasons.
“As soon as I no longer feel passionate about the sport, I will stop running. But up to now it’s been great, and I have been injury free.
“Part of the enjoyment is being able to explore new places. I think my most beautiful race so far was the 45km Skyrun in Tromso, Norway - it was magical running with fjords and snow-capped mountains around you. I felt I could carry on for days without getting tired!”
For Bartholomew - a self-confessed stubborn, never-give-up, person - running is not just about winning.
“One of my proudest race finishes was at the TDS 120km in France, when I felt dreadful almost right from the start, and couldn’t eat for the first nine hours," she said.
“I went from 2nd to 35th, but I just preserved and kept going and ended up in 5th place.
“But perhaps my best win was in the Ultra-Trail Australia 100km in the Blue Mountains this year.
“I had raced it when I was 18, so it was great to return on my 21st birthday! My brother and dad were also running and everyone was pulling for me and shouting happy birthday. It was amazing and special when I managed to set a course record.”
Bartholomew is cautious about predicting outcomes for Saturday’s race.
“The route is a lot more technical than I had imagined. There are not many places of easy running and the rocky sections will likely be tough, both physically and mentally. My first goal is simply to finish the race, empty but strong," Bartholomew said.
“I’m looking forward to running against some of South Africa’s top athletes, especially Robyn Owen, but I’m sorry that Landie (Greyling) is not running.
“We’ve become good friends on the Salomon team and it’s great to see her doing well.
“Meg Mackenzie has opted to end her season to prepare for next year, but I’m so pleased that she will be crewing for me on Saturday. It will be great to have her at the checkpoints to assist and offer support on the route she knows so well.
“I know I’m the young one out there - Andrea Huser (the Swiss ultra-trail elite athlete) is 43 - more than twice my age! So we will just have to see how it goes on the day.”
And although she has yet to race, Bartholomew appears to have fallen for the allure of the Mother City.
“I’m loving being in Cape Town - it’s so incredibly beautiful," Bartholomew said.
“I’m here for two weeks and it feels like I’m on a running holiday. It’s my first time, but I can tell you now it will not be my last!”