By Missy Schrott | [email protected]
When Bethany Sachtleben registered for the Anthem Richmond Marathon, her priority wasn’t to win; it was to qualify for something bigger.
With a time of two hours and 39 minutes, though, Sachtleben not only met her goal of qualifying for the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team trials, she won the marathon.
Sachtleben said she hadn’t started training for the marathon until about three weeks before she was set to run it on Nov. 11. She had been prepared to run the half marathon, when she realized the window of time to qualify for the half wasn’t open yet.
A 73-minute half marathon and 165-minute full marathon would both qualify a runner for the Olympic trials. The window to qualify with a half marathon time, though, doesn’t open until Sept. 1, 2018. To qualify for Olympic trials at the 2017 Richmond Marathon, Sachtleben realized she’d have to run the full, whose window opened Sept. 1, 2017.
Adjusting her game plan, Sachtleben said she went into the marathon with a “conservative pace.” Her average time of 6:04 per mile drove her to victory; her two-hour-39-minute finishing time beat the Olympic Team trials’ qualifying standard of two hours and 45 minutes.
“When we jumped over to the marathon, it was actually like no pressure because I had no expectations,” Sachtleben said.
It was around mile 10 of the marathon that Sachtleben noticed the leader at the time starting to slow down. She said she remembered thinking to herself, “I think I could win this if I’m just smart.” With 16.2 miles to go and a hunger for triumph, Sachtleben began gaining ground.
“With the time goal, it was pretty easy for me,” Sachtleben said. “I knew what I had to click off for every mile, rather than looking at the ladies around myself and comparing myself and trying to beat them at the beginning of the race.”
At 25, Sachtleben has only ever run two marathons – the Richmond marathon earlier this month and the Rock ‘n’ Roll USA marathon in which she placed second in March 2012.
Sachtleben said she started running to stay active after graduating from high school. When she placed in the Rock ‘n’ Roll marathon, however, her parents encouraged her to pursue the sport.
“I was just doing it to say I ran a marathon, and I thought that’d be cool,” Sachtleben said. “Then my parents said, ‘Why don’t you try and walk on to a team and see if anyone will take you?’”
“To see her find something that she not only enjoys but comes so easy for her … for any parent that’s certainly exciting to watch,” Bethany’s father Doug Sachtleben said.
George Mason University turned out to be the school most interested in Sachtleben. Shortly after emailing the coaches, she walked on to the team as a sophomore and scholarship athlete.
“It was just something that neither she nor we had expected at all,” Doug Sachtleben said, “that it would turn into something where she could be on a team and receive scholarship money, and she was certainly gifted in a way that we hadn’t anticipated.”
Andy Gerard, Sachtleben’s coach of six years, also said when Sachtleben first joined he hadn’t expected her to be as successful as she’s become.
“Her credentials when she arrived were decent, but not anything that we thought, ‘Wow, this is gonna take off,’” Gerard said.
At first, it took Sachtleben a couple of weeks to hit her stride. Doug Sachtleben said his daughter came to him after the first few practices and told him she wanted to quit.
“I didn’t even know there was such thing as a workout that you had to do to when I started running,” she said, “so I was shocked when I got there and it was actually really hard.”
The encouragement of her parents and coaches helped Sachtleben persevere in the long run; within months, she had become a GMU Cross Country star in the 5K and 10K events. She graduated from college in 2015, but still trains with Gerard and the GMU track team as a volunteer assistant coach. Now when she competes, she is sponsored by Saucony.
Gerard said Sachtleben’s greatest strength as an athlete is, predictably, her endurance. While certain athletes excel in a sprint, Sachtleben thrives making gradual progress toward an end goal.
“If you lined her up for a 100 [meter race], she’s probably gonna get her butt kicked,” Gerard said, “but it’s just her ability to keep going, to find that red line and stay on it, where she’s operating as close to 100 percent as she can for a tremendously long period.”
Doug Sachtleben also applauded his daughter’s ability to push past mental obstacles. While endurance comes naturally to Sachtleben, she has had to work to improve her mental game and confidence.
“We knew she could do it because we’ve seen her improve so much over the last couple of years,” Doug Sachtleben said of watching his daughter win the marathon. “But to actually see her finish as well as she did and be as confident I guess afterwards – she just didn’t seem worn down; it seemed like she had been out for a jog – it was just really exciting.”
On the day of the Richmond Marathon, Gerard hadn’t been able to watch Sachtleben because of a GMU track meet, but he said he had been eagerly keeping up as online results came in.
“We had set up a pretty conservative race plan,” Gerard said, “so when I saw her splits at 10K, great; when I saw her splits at the halfway point, fantastic; 20 miles, fantastic. Over two hours and 40 minutes, you kind of get more and more excited as she gets closer and closer to the finish line.”
After celebrating the win with a burger, Sachtleben is back to training for her next challenge: the Olympic team trials. She said her goal over the next two and a half years is to get her marathon time down to two hours and 37 minutes. That time would earn her an “A” standard and a free trip to the Olympic trials. “B” standard competitors also qualify for the trials but have to pay their own way.
“I think she can run a lot faster with some more specific preparation and some specific things we can do to improve on it and a little bit more aggressive race plan,” Gerard said.
Moving forward in training, Gerard said Sachtleben is going to spend time on the track this spring building her speed, then she will most likely run another marathon in the fall of 2018. He said the location of the Olympic trials has not been announced yet, but they will take place in early 2020.
To train for a big race like the trials or a marathon, Sachtleben follows an intensive program that includes covering 100 miles per week along with varying workouts.
“It’s not an easy sport,” Gerard said. “You see those T-shirts that say, ‘Our sport is your sport’s punishment.’ I mean, if you screw up in soccer or in basketball what does your coach make you do? They make you go run. Well, we run, that’s what we do.”
Sachtleben’s daily routine involves waking up at 5 a.m., driving to the George Mason campus and running four miles (her definition of a “short run”). After the run, Sachtleben stays on campus for her day job, where she works from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. as an accountant in GMU’s facilities department.
The flexed work hours allow Sachtleben to practice with the track team every day at 3:15. When practice ends at 6, she goes back to her apartment to study for the CPA exam and relax with her cat before she has to wake up the next day and do it all again.
“One of the things about being a distance runner, there’s no off-season,” Gerard said. “You basically do this sport 365 days a year … Her ability to make room for it in an otherwise normal life is relatively unique. She’s certainly very hard working, very diligent, very willing to make the sacrifices that you have to make to be a top-quality distance runner.”
While winning races is rewarding, Sachtleben said she sticks with running simply because she’d go crazy if she didn’t.
“I just love it,” she said. “Going on a run every morning, you feel like you accomplish something. It’s stress relief, and I just want to get faster; that’s always the reason I go out and run and do workouts. I want to be fast, and I want to be good at it.”