After a crazy last 18 months of lockdowns and cancelled races, many athletes sought out ways to challenge themselves that were different from what they were used to. Professional trail runner Lucy Bartholomew has carved out a stellar career for herself, winning and placing highly in some of the toughest trail ultras around the world. Along the way, Lucy has become one of the most popular athletes in the sport. And all by the time she was in her early 20’s.
In order to find a way to express herself on the trails, Lucy turned to a ‘track’ in her backyard. The difference being that Lucy’s backyard is the interior of Australia – a place of almost unfathomable distances and challenges. The Larapinta Trail is 230km long, stretching from Mount Sonder to Alice Springs through a rocky, dusty wilderness, where sign-posting is not particularly consistent.
In the new film Running Out– due for release on 2 November – we see Lucy face up to some of the hardest physical and mental challenges of her life, in an environment as unforgiving as almost any on earth.
In advance of the film’s release, we had the chance to ask Lucy a few questions about her running career, the challenge she took on and what it means for her future in the sport and beyond.
LtW: How did you come up with the idea of running the Larapinta Trail? What was the attraction of taking on this particular challenge?
Lucy Bartholomew: Larapinta has always been something my Dad and I have spoken about. We have watched and heard of the thru-hiking experience that is huge in the USA on trails like the John Muir and Pacific Crest Trail. My Dad was especially keen, because as he gets older he feels a greater desire to slow things down and spend his time out in the wild. We always thought Larapinta was a good ‘local’ track we could dip our toes into.
For me – mid-pandemic with all hope of international racing fading and another year of training with no goal on the horizon – I realised that I didn’t need to chase a bib but maybe chase my curiosity. I saw an opportunity to do something different in a year that was so incredibly different to the last nine years I have been in this sport.
I wanted to go back to how I started running; into unknown territory that breaks you down and builds you up. I wanted to remind myself what this sport is about – the people, places and my passion, not bibs, racing and times. I was drawn to the Larapinta track for many more reasons than the actual running aspect.
LtW: How did running the Larapinta trail compare with some of the long trail races you have done in the past – Western States, UTMB for example? What were the similarities and the differences?
LB: The Larapinta Trail is the most brutal track I have ever encountered; not just the rocky, hot, dusty, dry and incredibly demanding surface but the mental toll it takes to navigate and plan. The logistics were the most exhausting part for me. It was like no other track I had run in terms of it’s enduring technicality. ‘Unrelenting. is the best way to describe it. But then again, so are races like Western States and UTMB. But without a bib, aid stations and the comfort of people around you, this challenge felt like a totally different way to endure.
LtW: Your Dad is clearly a big influence in your life. What do you think he made of what you have achieved doing this challenge?
LB: My Dad knew I needed this, more than I knew. He rarely encourages me towards something incase I feel his pressure or as though he may be forcing me into something I am not keen on. After more than two years of not feeling great running or as though I was the athlete I used to be, Dad was strong in his belief that what I needed was something where there wasn’t a clock ticking, eyes watching, people to pass or be passed by … He knew I needed to give myself a chance to go back to the basics of why I run and how simple that is.
LtW: You talk about the controversy that came from certain people in the trail running world about how young you were when you started competing and taking on big challenged. Was doing the Larapinta trail another ‘up yours’ to those nay-sayers? And if so, in what way?
LB: Truthfully at the start there was a little part of me that wanted to do the Larapinta Trail to tell everyone that I can still run, that I still had ‘it’. But in the first 30km I called my Dad in tears saying I was not who I used to be, I was no longer strong enough to do this. That brought me back down to earth. Dad reminded me that I can’t do this to prove anything to anyone other than yourself and that if I spend my energy worrying about what other people think then I’d miss the most important part of what I am.
I was out there for me. What that looks like to anyone else is totally up to their perception and their assumptions. I hope the movie shows that.
LtW: What did it feel like to have such a positive response from the people in Alice Springs and indeed around the world to your Larapinta Trail challenge?
LB: It felt incredible. The way the world embraced the trip, came along for the ride and sent messages of support and encouragement was another reminder of what I love most about the community support in trail running. Even from across oceans and thousands of miles away, it felt like I was connected to so many people and that even in the hardest of moments and darkest of nights I was not alone.
I had been told about the Alice Springs community; that there was something special about these people that live in the heart of Australia. And I wasn’t told a lie. The selflessness of everyone was incredible – sharing knowledge and support beforehand, trekking out onto the track to see me and join me, even for a sweaty hug or a few steps. And then checking in after the adventure was done.
They are my family out there and I can never thank them enough for sharing their land and backyard with me.
LtW: How do you feel now about your place in the trail running world and your future in the sport?
LB: I feel more confident in what I am doing, what I am representing and where I am going in this sport.
It makes me love the sport I am in and whether I choose to put a bib on, stand on a podium or take a shot at something else, I know that this sport will always be a huge part of me and I will always have ‘it’.
Thanks to Lucy for taking the time to talk to us. You can find her on Instagram here. And watch the trailer for her upcoming film – Running Out – below.