During one practice in 2012, the George Mason University cross country coaches gave their runners a simple task: Go to the outdoor track located near the school’s field house and run 1,000-meter repeats. The two-and-a-half laps around the 400-meter track helped break up the monotony of distance running, and provided runners with a chance to test their speed.
But there was a problem. Bethany Sachtleben, one of the team’s newest members, had no idea what the coaches’ directives meant. She had never run a track workout before.
“I literally did not know running had workouts in it,” Sachtleben says on a recent afternoon, sitting just a few feet from the school’s indoor track. “I never watched track. I watched the Olympics, but I was like, ‘Oh, track’s boring. I don’t want to watch.’ So I never watched those events … I watched gymnastics, figure skating, all the fun sports.”
Sachtleben laughs at those thoughts now. Less than seven years after her first track workout, she’s a professional runner. Her name fills the George Mason record books, and next February, she will line up in Atlanta for the 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials. Sachtleben has the 17th fastest marathon qualifying time—2 hours, 31 minutes, and 20 seconds—on a list that includes Olympians Shalane Flanagan and Molly Huddle, two of her running idols. “I still feel kind of intimidated by them,” she says. “Maybe I’ll feel more like I belong when I get faster.”
This April, the 27-year-old from Fairfax will also be one of the elite runners at the Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run in D.C., where she hopes to be the top American female finisher.
Even if she did have a late and non-traditional start, it didn’t take Sachtleben long to figure out this is what she wanted to do.
“I can’t imagine a life where I wake up, ‘Ah, I don’t want to run today,’” Sachtleben says. “I love it. It’s not even an option. I’m just like, I’m going to get ready to run. It’s just what I do. And I enjoy it.”
Sachtleben could run all day long during soccer games. She had played the sport for most of her life, and around 15 or 16, joined a new club team with her younger sister, Keri—a star goalkeeper who ended up playing collegiate soccer.
But during one tournament, Sachtleben sat on the bench the entire time. Afterward, frustrated and confused, she approached the coach. “I asked him what [could] I do to get some playing time,” she says. “He was like, ‘I’ll give you your money back if you want.’ He told me to leave my uniform in his mailbox.”
A few days later, Sacthleben turned in her uniform and never saw the coach again, marking the end of her soccer career.
She turned to tennis, a sport she played growing up in Manassas. But Sachtleben mentally struggled with the competition, and as the losses piled up, so did the discouragement. Since she was homeschooled, she decided to run outside during the day to maintain her fitness, a routine she continued during her year at Northern Virginia Community College.
At that time she also worked 12-hour shifts as an ambulance dispatcher. The sedentary lifestyle began to take its toll. “I felt like such a lard,” she says, “just sitting in my chair for 12 hours.”
So she ran. First to see how far she could go before having to turn back, and then eventually just for fun. “That was the beginning, I guess,” Sactleben says.
In 2012, she registered for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon in D.C. At that point, she had started running nearly every day for 30 minutes up to an hour. She didn’t wear a watch, or look up a marathon training program online. She says the thought never crossed her mind.
“I was so ignorant,” Sachtleben says. “My mind is blown, like, ‘Bethany, what were you doing?’ I just didn’t understand running at all. I had no idea people were training for it.”
The day before, in a last-minute panic, Sachtleben decided to run 20 miles on a treadmill at the Planet Fitness in Manassas. Her previous longest run had only been 8 miles. She showed up to the race with soccer shorts, a pair of old Nike Free running shoes, and headphones in her ears. She doesn’t remember wearing a watch during the race, and didn’t care about her mile splits.
None of that mattered.
Sacthleben took second place with a time of 3:08:43. A few weeks later, she emailed the George Mason coach about walking on to the cross country team. She finished first for Mason at every race that fall season.
Before Sachtleben established herself as the program’s top runner, she quit the team. She found the structured workouts and the demands of being a full-time student to be too difficult, and wanted to go back to running for fun. She told her coach, Andrew Gerard, she was quitting, cleaned out her locker, and walked out.
The next day, an elderly woman appeared in front of Sachtleben while she was out for a run on the Route 234 trail. As the two crossed paths, the woman stopped.
“She was like, ‘Don’t stop running … I’ve run my whole life and I loved it and it helped me, so you should never quit running,’” Sacthleben recalls. She took it as a sign. The next day, she texted Gerard and told him she planned on returning.
Her parents, siblings, and coaches all breathed a sigh of relief. She hasn’t stopped running since, and is now a volunteer assistant coach for George Mason in addition to working full time as a financial operations analyst at a tech company in Tysons.
This year, in addition to the marathon trial, she hopes to also qualify for the Olympic Trials in the 10K. (The U.S. qualifying standard has yet to be set.) Sachtleben recently finished second at the USA Track & Field 15K Championships.
“I’m not terribly religious, but she is very devout and I know she believes in that side of things a lot more probably,” says Gerard, who adds that he does not know the woman who spoke to Sachtleben. “Everyone has periods of where things are going great and periods where they’re not, but you look at pivotal moments in someone’s life and rarely do they come down to that one thing, and she’s got it, and it definitely changed the trajectory of what she’s gone on to do.”
A large signed, framed photo of American half marathon record holder Ryan Hall, whom Gerard coached at Stanford University, hangs from the wall of the coach’s office. There is also one of Ian Dobson, an NCAA champion for the Cardinals, and another of David Verburg, the gold medalist in the 4×400-meter relay at the Rio Olympics.
Then toward the bottom of the wall is a photo of Sachtleben, her arms stretched high above her head, and her mouth wide open. She looks triumphant—and happy. It’s from the time she won the 5K at the 2014 Atlantic 10 Outdoor Track and Field Championships her junior season.
That year she confided in Gerard about her career aspirations: to qualify for the Olympic Trials and run professionally after college. A few years later, she accomplished both, and Sachtleben, as her coach will tell you, is just getting started.
“This is something I really want to do for a long time,” she says.