How I Went From Party Girl To Pro Runner

When Julia Bickel found running gave her the joy she was looking for in life, she had a complete reboot – and surprised everyone with her speed on the trails. 


Julia Bickel, 31, Elite Trail Runner, 

Winner UTD 21km, Top-10 CCC UTMB. 

Runner’s World: When did your running experience begin? 

Julia Bickel: When a permanent move from Johannesburg to Cape Town coincided with a bet with a cousin, that I could run the Knysna half marathon in under two hours.

It was then I discovered a love for running that sparked a complete change in lifestyle. I’d only started running that same year. Before that I was just partying and socialising. If you’d asked me to run a hundred metres, I would have laughed at you. 

When I moved to Cape Town though, some friends and I took on the challenge of Dry January (not drinking any alcohol for a month) and I decided to take up running to give me something to do. I was doing a few 5k runs; but it was the Knysna Half experience that showed me I could run a half marathon. 

I promised my mom I would never run more than 21km – she told me it would be bad for my knees. But I was hooked, and that promise didn’t last too long! 

It was then I discovered a love for running that sparked a complete change in lifestyle. If you’d asked me to run a hundred metres, I would have laughed at you. 

When Covid entered the frame I bought myself an elliptical trainer, and used that every day. Perhaps a bit obsessively. Then, just under two years ago, an ad popped up on my Facebook page for Ultra Trail Drakensberg; and being from Johannesburg, I had a great love for the Drakensberg. I thought it would be awesome to run a race there, so I entered the 21km. I’d never run on trails before.

RW: How did you prepare for your first trail race?

JB: Reality hit, and I felt I needed to get a coach. I’d been running some of the races in the vineyards on the weekends, but the mountain was still too daunting. I felt I’d just get lost in the unfamiliar mountains, and I needed some support to get me ready for UTD. 

That’s when I got in touch with The Run Project. It was a complete game-changer. 

I told Monty James Montgomery, my coach, that I could run under 5min/km; and I asked him what I needed to do to survive this challenge. His insight made me realise I’d been totally overdoing my non-stop high-intensity training – I would run every day, at my maximum effort. 

He immediately stressed how essential it was for me to allocate time for recovery. Thank goodness I opted for coaching input! He was essential to helping me back then, and a major factor in how I ended up standing on the podium for that race. Now I’m coached by my partner, Brendan Lombard, and that works really well for me. 

RW: You went from winning a family bet to a first in the UTD 21km. How do work, running, travel all fit together?

JB: I’ve recently embraced the new way of being able to work from anywhere in the world. I took a job as a digital project manager, mainly e-commerce, in the UK. They are two hours behind us at the moment, which means their 9am is only 11am in South Africa. I can go for a good run in the morning and still be ready for work without any pressure. Often I’ll do a double session if I get another gap in the day. 

Luckily one of the directors is a triathlete, and a senior manager was excited to share with me that he did a sub-three-hour London Marathon, so they get it. I’ve found that the general running community comes together no matter where you are. And a lot of those people acknowledge what goes into it – especially the discipline, which they see as a great strength. 

Around the same time as the new job, I got a message in my DMs that New Balance were interested in supporting my running too. I still can’t believe it. Not in a million years would I have dreamed that up. So many factors coming together at the right time, it’s made a huge difference. I now have an incredible opportunity, to travel the world and take part in my dream races with freedom and confidence. 

RW: What part of the world is the most enticing for you right now?

JB: I’m so fortunate to be able to travel with my partner. Our two months in Switzerland last year was so different to the way you would travel with friends and family. Being able to run for three hours between towns, constantly immersed in the culture and the wonderful nature is just made so much more special when you are able to share that spectacular experience with someone. We would shape our whole day around exploring by running. 

After Europe we came back south, but not home to South Africa. I would never have done a trip to New Zealand before; but now, through finding people in the worldwide running community, and connecting with old friends who are also runners, we ended up taking a trip there to run the Tarawera Ultra. 

We’ll both be running the MUT in George this year; and if one of us qualifies for UTMB, the strategy is to defer to 2024 and then plan another incredible adventure around that. 

RW: Who inspires you?

JB: I think there are lots of elements that I take from different people, but I wouldn’t say I really idolise anyone… 

Wait – there is someone who gives me constant inspo: Allie McLaughlin (@alliemc3). This girl is nuts, and awesome to follow on her social channels. She also won my race in New Zealand, and doesn’t take life too seriously. 


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