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Ellen Childress Bechtol ’08 knew just how to do it.
Run a 50-mile race.
The Bechtols, former cross-country and track stars at William & Mary who were wed last October, began training for the April 2009 American River 50 Mile Endurance Run in California, where Keith is an astrophysicist pursuing a Ph.D. at Stanford and Ellen is about to pursue a postgraduate degree in museum studies at JFK University.
Keith finished 74th, Ellen 56th, which wasn’t the important thing.
“I had been running (since getting to Stanford), but in an unfocused, haphazard way,” he said. “So when she encouraged me to try a new event, the experience really turned me around and got me into a better attitude. I could not have done it without her support, and eventually I built up the confidence to attempt a road marathon.”
Bechtol is being modest. He didn’t just attempt the San Francisco Marathon on July 25. He won. Heck, he didn’t just win. His time of 2:23:28 crushed the previous record by more than two minutes.
He entered the marathon – his first ever – six weeks before the event. He asked for “First Wave/Elite Athlete” status, but because he had no marathon history, race officials denied his request. That meant he started in Wave 2, about two minutes behind the elite runners in the field, a lot of time to make up, even over 26.2 miles.
Bechtol had an inkling he might be able to win because during training at a Palo Alto high school, he ran miles at all different paces, factored in fatigue, and decided the pace to maintain was 5.30 minutes per mile. The question: Could he do that against 24,000 competitors in the self-proclaimed “Race Even Marathoners Fear.”
“As it turned out, I actually exceeded my expectations,” he said of his 5:28 per-mile pace.
And had few problems doing it.
“I developed a small (cramp) at about mile 10, but it went away after a few miles,” he said. “I thought miles 22 through 24 were particularly challenging because it seemed as though each turn in the course was diverting us away from the finish line, and seemed as though we would never finish! I could also feel some blisters developing in the later stages of the race.
“But there wasn't any point that I really suffered and I never ran out of energy. There are a lot of things that can go wrong when running for over two hours, so I was both happy and surprised that I encountered only minor difficulties during this first attempt.”
Bechtol is amused by media stories that make it seem as though he got out of bed on July 25 and just wandered over to the starting line. His credentials, forged at the College, are impeccable, and suggest that nothing was ever left to chance.
He was the Colonial Athletic Association track scholar athlete of the year from 2005-2007. He was CAA cross-country scholar athlete of the year from 2004-2006, and he was CAA men’s scholar athlete of the year (all sports) in 2007.
In addition to graduating magna cum laude in physics, Bechtol was Phi Beta Kappa, a Goldwater Scholar, third-team academic All-American in 2006 and first team academic All-American the following year.
Bechtol was the fastest American at the 2004 IAAF track championships, the IC4A 10,000 meter winner that same year. He won CAA championships in the 5,000 meters in ’04 and ’07, and a conference 10,000-meter championship in 2006. A year later, he finished 14th in the NCAA 10,000-meter championship – one spot from All-American honors.
The 25-year-old Ph.D. candidate also works with the Fermi Gamma Ray Space Telescope housed at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford, studying high-energy particles in the cosmic environment to learn about supernovae, black holes and cosmic explosions. He is mindful of – and grateful for – the role W&M academics and athletics played in who he has become.
“It is difficult for me to disentangle the influences of sports and academics because they were both so much a part of my life at William & Mary,” he said. “My educational goals always took priority over sports then and still do now. However, I think sports have an important role in the university setting because they provide an immediate, tangible, and emotional connection. The majority of my closest friends during college were on the cross country and track teams and the experiences that we shared are the ones I remember most clearly.
“Please don't take this the wrong way, but I was surprised at the beginning of graduate school that it felt as though I was starting all over with physics. It wasn't so much the particulars of what I learned in college that mattered, but that I had developed a system and, more importantly, a mindset of finding a solution. All of the activities in which I had been deeply committed, whether academics, sports, or otherwise, had contributed to that confidence.
“William & Mary provided us with an abundance of those opportunities.”