How this 22 year old Aussie took on Western States
“Running” is a specific action, with a wide variety of meanings. Are you running for something? From something? Far, short, fast, or slow? “Racing” narrows things down a bit, but still leaves room for interpretation. For the highly competitive, a race usually involves moving your body as quickly as possible from point A to point B. However, when point B is in shouting distance, things aren’t quite the same as when point B is, say, 100 miles away.
The Western States Endurance Run is no event for the feeble-minded. 100 miles, on foot, from Squaw Valley to Auburn, California. The course’s features: unrelenting climbing, descending, blistering heat, canyons, technical trails, and river crossings are inevitable. Intense doubt, fear, pain, and existential crises are probable. I experienced this through the eyes of Lucy Bartholomew, 22-year old Aussie ultra runner, watermelon-lover, and certified badass.
It’s no secret that Lucy has a lot of fans. As a teenage phenom, Lucy turned a lot of pace-agnostic heads. A competitive, relentless, eat-my-dust athlete, Bartholomew joined a contingent of a new species of ultra runners.
These folks don’t just want to move their bodies 100 miles and have a picnic on the trail. They want to win the dang thing and do it faster than anybody else has done it before.
Some say that ultra running is an eating contest. Lucy, who had not yet competed in a 100-miler, expressed only one fear prior to the race - her iffy ability to keep calories down while running. Otherwise, she had an aura of complete confidence and eagerness to compete. When I was Lucy’s age, a prescribed two-hour long run felt like a death sentence.
This peppy, spindly, smiling Aussie, however, is no rookie at running through the mountains for longer-than-seemingly-possible amounts of time. Compared to your average 22-year old, she has an enormous amount of miles under her hydration belt. She knows how to manoeuvre long races and she does it damn well. In talking her crew through the impending event and who she might be up against, she said, “I don’t even know who I would key off of. I’m gonna run my own race.”
As myself and the devoted fans of Western States watched 369 runners scramble up Squaw’s Escarpment before sunrise, Lucy was doing just that. Composed but excited, she was pacing herself on the first major ascent. Amongst a mix of accomplished professional runners and zealous endurance athletes, Lucy began running her own race.
Fast forward 30.3 miles, when the front of the race arrives at the first crew-accessible aid station. Robinson Flat is neatly littered with the support teams of those who are expected to arrive shortly.
Ash Bartholomew eagerly awaits the arrival of his daughter, along with a handful of other fans repping Team Lucy t-shirts. The Mufasa-like support of Lucy’s dad is not just apparent, but completely moving. It’s a level of care that is hard to come by.
As Lucy rolls into Robinson Flat, the crowd welcomes the female leader warmly, and Ash asks how she’s feeling. “Great!”, she replies simply, grinning and giddy with excitement, only minutes off course-record pace. As Lucy thanks her crew for being there, as if there is anywhere else they would rather be, there are hands coming from every direction, restocking her nutrition and filling her hat with ice.
“Yeah, make it look like I have a brain in here, aye?” Lucy jokes, clearly in high spirits. She runs out of the aid station, high fives abound.
The next third of the course is a gradual net descent. With it, we witness Lucy’s ethos decline as well. I check Twitter incessantly, as I, too, am now completely emotionally invested in Lucy’s success. At the Foresthill aid station, I meet up with Lucy’s pacer, Sally McRae, who is allowed to join Lucy at the 60-mile mark. Sally, an experienced ultra runner, refreshes the live feed every few minutes, weighing the pros and cons of Lucy’s situation. The young runner went out hot, and her considerable lead is diminishing.
Eventually, we read that Courtney Dauwalter, an incredibly accomplished racer of unfathomable distances, passes Lucy in the canyons. Sally and I read into the live feed, exchanging opinions and predictions on what this means for Lucy. “She comes in and out of aid stations smiling, regardless of how she’s feeling,” Sally acknowledges. I nod my head, knowing that Lucy’s spirit is nearly unbreakable. “No matter what, Lucy is so young, and this is how you learn.”
Courtney looks effortless running through Foresthill. Soon, Lucy arrives, climbing tirelessly out of the canyons, but still smiling. Ash and Sally join Lucy before Foresthill, encouraging her into the aid station. As they carefully evaluate her mental and physical state, she assures her nervous team that she’s still doing alright. “I came back from the dead,” she says, having struggled through some incredibly hot and exhausting miles in the depths of California’s canyons.
Team Lucy is locked and loaded with watermelon, pickles, and a gamut of more sodium-rich foods. Nutrition is being forced on Lucy until, finally, she exclaims, “I’m full,” and is quickly off again, with much needed and appreciated company by her side. “It’s so good to see her smiling,” her dad says beneath his own faint smile of reassurance.
“I came back from the dead,” she says, having struggled through some incredibly hot and exhausting miles in the depths of California’s canyons.
Running Western States is often compared to experiencing life in one day. Get beaten down, get back up, repeat. 14 hours in, at mile 78, Lucy gets to the Rucky Chucky river crossing, looking like she has lived a year for each mile since I had seen her last. She is now over an hour behind course record pace, but she’s still holding on to second place, with third, fourth, and fifth not far behind. Sally repeats encouragements, and Lucy has a hard time accepting them. She is handed a life vest and ushered into the water, struggling to keep herself steady and fumbling with a bottle in each hand. While a pacer can merely keep you company, Lucy is left to her own devices to cover another 22 miles.
10:27pm. Courtney Dauwalter is the first woman to finish the 2018 Western States Endurance Run. We watch a handful of men come in after her, and at 11:40pm, the announcers tell us that the second place female is approaching the track, meaning she has less than 400 meters to go.
Kaytlyn Gerbin finishes second in 18 hours and 40 minutes. Less than 20 minutes later, we hear that third is just around the corner. It’s said that the real race happens in the last 25 miles. On the women’s side, at least 4 runners were in contention to fill the last podium spot.
Lucy crosses the line next at 11:59pm, finishing Western States in 18:59:45.
Magda Boulet, former Western States Champion, whose humility is as strong as her running accolades, tells Lucy, “You’re 22-years old. I didn’t even know what a 100 mile race was when I was 22. This is really impressive.” Behind the tears of a beaten and broken, but incredibly proud young girl, Lucy expresses extreme gratitude for the opportunity to race Western States, and completes her interview with a simple, “I’ll be back next year.”
Lucy did not toe the line on June 23rd at 5:00am thinking, I want to get second place at best. She went into this race with no qualms about her capabilities, even as the youngest woman in the field. Lucy’s third place finish would have landed her first at many of Western States’ past races, and she holds the fastest time of anybody her age.
Although a hot day and a blistering first half of the race caught up to Lucy a bit by the end, her gutsy approach to racing will never fail her, because how will anybody reach their truest potential without laying it all on the line?