“I Only Have One Regret:” The Bethany Patterson Story

AJWs TaproomAs a 20-year-old college student at Liberty University, in Lynchburg, Virginia, in the fall of 1999, Texan Bethany Patterson (née Hunter) found herself in need of a course to satisfy her physical-education requirement. After looking at the offerings, she found herself enrolled in, of all things, a running class with an outspoken professor named David Horton. Having never really run before, Bethany had no idea what to expect. Little did she know, at the time, how her life would change as a result of taking this course.

To fulfill the course requirements, Dr. Horton demanded that all students participate in an ultramarathon race. So, not really knowing any better, Bethany signed up for the Holiday Lake 50k in February 2000. After a solid winter of training and listening to Horton’s advice, Bethany completed the race in 5:53 and, as she says, “I was hooked.” Later that year, she ran the Mountain Masochist 50 Mile in 10:31 and then returned to Holiday Lake the next February and finished 25th overall and second-place woman.

After graduating from Liberty in 2001, Bethany remained in Lynchburg and trained. At the 2001 JFK 50 Mile, Bethany turned heads with a 7:22 third-place finish and in 2002 ticked off wins at Holiday Lake, the Catoctin 50k, and The Ring to go along with a second place at JFK. Bethany signed on with the Montrail-Patagonia Ultrarunning Team which, at the time, included such luminaries as Scott Jurek, Ian Torrence, Krissy Moehl, and Dave Terry.

Bethany Patterson - UltraRunning Magazine cover - 2003

Bethany on the cover of UltraRunning magazine in 2003. Photo courtesy of Bethany Patterson.

In 2003, Bethany continued her string of success with wins at the Uwharrie Mountain Run, Massanutten 100 Mile, Mountain Masochist, and JFK. She had clearly arrived!

In 2004, Bethany set her sights on the Western States 100 and under the tutelage of Dr. Horton, she trained hard through the winter. Back-to-back long runs, tempo efforts, and hill repeats became a staple of her training and she parlayed that hard work into early-season wins at Uwharrie and the Umstead 100 Mile. She felt primed and ready for a strong run at Western States.

I got together with Bethany earlier this week over a couple beers at the Legend Brewery in her hometown of Richmond, Virginia. She had rushed over from her job at a local hospital still in her scrubs and showing absolutely no ill effects from her second-place finish at the Mountain Masochist 50 Mile two days before. One thing that is immediately apparent about Bethany is the ‘ultrarunner’s look’ she has in her eyes. At once calm and intense, I could not help but think that Bethany’s toughness, honed over 15 years on the trail, is something that is both seen and felt.

Our conversation was wide ranging and broad. Over the course of an hour, I learned about the last decade of Bethany’s life, I learned about her marriage to Mike Patterson in 2005, her twin four-year-old boys, her one-year-old daughter, her belief that pregnancy is not the same as altitude training, and her desires for the future. Most of all, I learned how an extraordinarily successful young ultrarunner can return, stronger and wiser, as time moves on.

Bethany Patterson and her family

Bethany, Mike, and their three children. Photo: Casey Hollins Photography

In two decades of ultrarunning, I have seen many runners come and go. Some are extraordinary young runners who wander away while others are more wizened runners who discover the sport rather late. Rare, indeed, is the 35-year-old ultrarunner who has been running ultras for 15 years and still has success and drive. Like me, Bethany is a strong believer in the runner’s collective ‘Body of Work.’ She adheres to the belief that fitness is built not over weeks and months but years. And, the longer we run, Bethany believes, the more our experience hones who we are.

Bethany Patterson - 2004 Western States 100

Bethany running Western States in 2004. Photo: David Horton

 

As our conversation wound down on Monday’s sunny afternoon, the topic drifted back to Western States, and, more specifically, to Bethany’s DNF there back in 2004. Bethany shared with me the self-imposed pressure she placed on herself that year as a “Montrail runner,” her intense desire to do well, and the deep disappointment she felt as she sat at the El Dorado Aid Station for 30 minutes, slowly giving up on her dream. I saw something in Bethany’s face as she told the story that suggested to me she is not done yet.

“When I look back on it now, I know I should have just finished. Walked it in. Whatever. I gave up. That may have been who I was, but it is not who I am. Looking back on those early years, I really only have one regret, dropping at Western States.”

Now, 10 years later, it is clear that Bethany has unfinished business with the historic stretch of trail between Squaw Valley and Auburn. And, she is committed to the patient, deliberate resolve that it will take for her to get back there. As of today, she does not even have a Western States qualifier, but intends to get one at the Hellgate 100k in December, and, then, try her luck and bide her time until she can return to the Big Dance perhaps by “racing in” or possibly getting lucky in the lottery. One thing is clear, Bethany realizes that she has been given a gift and takes nothing for granted. She is a 15-year ultra veteran who is still in the prime of her running life. And, like many experienced ultra veterans, she is not in a hurry.

Bethany Patterson - 2014 Mountain Masochist

Bethany on her way to second place at the 2014 Mountain Masochist 50 Mile. Photo: Jena Spearin

“When the time is right, I’ll return and finish what I started all those years ago,” she says with a wistful smile.

In the meantime, I have confidence that this energetic, competitive, spirited ultrarunner will continue to enjoy all that the running life has to offer, and will inspire all of us along the way.

Bottoms up!

Legend Brewing CompanyAJW’s Beer of the Week

This week’s Beer of the Week comes from the Legend Brewing Company in Richmond, Virginia. Their Tripel weighs in at 8.7% ABV but drinks more smoothly than that. It has a kind of fruity overtone and rich body that makes it a great choice for cool, fall afternoons.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Do you know Bethany? What can you share with us about your experiences running with her?
  • Do you have a regret within our sport? Some race that didn’t go the way you wanted it to? A place you’d like to travel to or an experience you’ve not yet had?
  • Does having a trail and ultrarunning regret light a fire in you for the future, encouraging you to overcome it? If so, how?

There are 17 comments

  1. olgav100

    I happened to run with Bethany some miles at WS in 2004, sit together at the bottom of Michigan bluff climb at an AS with ice on our quads and stuffing face with watermelon…then walking into David Horton as he tried to persuade Bethany not to drop. I thought – wow, if she is dropping, I have no business continuing! (as a side note, I met Bethany at Umstead 100 earlier that year, which she won a 50M version of). But both she and Dr. Horton told me to go on. I remember fondly that such cool people, while being in a bad spot of their own race, care to give me advice to continue. It was a delight to see Bethany come back after having kids – and follow her joy of raising a family, yet being such a gifted runner. I am wishing her incredible luck with the lottery, because she's got all it takes to finish a Western States 100, and doesn't need luck there! :)

  2. scottemills51

    A Class Act from the very first time she hit the trails through today. Bethany's priorities, humility, and performances speak volumes about her character and talent. I feel privileged to have run with her, but mostly well behind her :-)

  3. wMichaelOwen

    Great to highlight such an embodiment of the sport. 15 years of ultra running at just the age of 35 with 3 children and the same drive and focus is inspiring. It is good to see the ones highlighted who have a long career in the sport and not just a few stellar years.

  4. garygellin

    I take a contrarian view and don't at all buy in to the concept of finishing at all costs. I respect Bethany's decision to drop out of Western States in 2004 – whatever her reason – and don't understand why "walking it in" should deserve more praise. Of course, I also respect her decision to make amends. I don't believe the decision to quit necessarily conditions one to be a quitter.

    I am reminded of my experience on the Tahoe Rim Trail where Victor Ballesteros was the sole survivor of our group of four attempting an FKT. A large group of crew and pacers had the mandate-of-sorts of helping get Victor through the eventual 48-plus hour slog at all costs. Our eloquent team member Ben Lewis, sums up the situation beautifully.

    "…This left poor Victor alone to shoulder the burden of our collective aspirations. It was not a burden that went unnoticed. As Victor slowly made his way into Tahoe Meadows late the next day he remarked that he felt 'held hostage emotionally.' It was an apt observation given his physical and mental state at the time, and one whose troubling philosophical and ethical implications have stuck in my brain since. Indeed, many hours earlier after going off course for 4+ hours Victor had limped into Spooner Summit announcing his intention to throw in the towel. The crew present gently sat him down, fed him, pushed fluids, tended to his blistered feet, and then cajoled him out of the aid station and back down the dark, lonely trail. This response is almost unthinking and rote for most crew and pacers at ultradistance events: it is an accepted given that 'your' runner will at one point tire, fatigue, lose heart, want to quit, and it is somehow your job to preclude this possibility. And most of the time, when the runner finishes what they've set out to do they're grateful for having at least partially outsourced their will. But this doesn't necessarily have to be the case.

    "… In endurance events often the software gives out before the hardware: beyond a certain point (for most of us at least) it becomes very difficult to care. A recently publicized example of this that comes to mind is that of Jure Robic, the Eastern European endurance cyclist who has won RAAM along with a number of other ultradistance cycling events that take course over many days. After a certain point, Robic literally loses his mind and is maintained on a delirious, disoriented, and psychotic journey solely by his loyal crew who will go as far as to lie to him about his whereabouts and distance remaining, doing whatever is necessary to keep him moving forward on his bike despite his verbal rebukes and threats.

    "As I watched Victor make his way up to the group of 30 or so cheering crew and spectators at Tahoe Meadows (still with an improbably large amount of running left to be done) I reflected on how disappointed I would be if he dropped there, and then was immediately surprised by this reaction. Sure, part of this would be disappointment for Victor, but a good deal of it was unrelated to him as a person and due only to the fact that Victor was now the only remaining member of our team: his failure- whatever that means- would be a representation of our team's failure as a whole, which, per logical extension of this argument, would simply be a stinging reminder of my own. Conversely, his 'success' would provide a validating, if substituted glow, an affirmation of us all. This is a troubling and potentially unfair synechdoche.'

  5. evanhil02

    I've run with Bethany a few times. Or rather, she ran with me for a little while to chat before flying by me. A great, humble runner with that "at once calm and intense" look and a zeal for friends, family, and running,… for life. Best wishes Bethany. It's an honor to have shared a few miles with you, and I look forward to many more.

  6. @shiningspeidel

    My favorite memory of racing with Bethany was coming upon her at the infamous "Devil Trail" (mile 38) at the 2007 Hellgate 100k. She was having difficulty seeing the trail due to "frozen eyeballs" which are a common occurrence at Hellgate due to a combo of wind, cold, and stress. She told me she was going to drop at the next aid station a few miles away. We ran together on that rocky trail, commiserating about how awful we were feeling, and then we came to a section where the Devil Trail continues it's rocky, leaf-covered way to the left, and a lovely, smooth fire road continues to the aid station to the right. Taking the fire road is like taking the "Quitter's Road" at the Barkley: it means you are choosing to drop from the race, since it is a shortcut to the AS. We stood there at the intersection for a moment, and Bethany sighed and said, " well, I might as well take the Devil Trail back just in case I change my mind." Knowing how awful she felt and how much she wanted to drop, I was very impressed by her self discipline and sportsmanship. I ran on ahead of her, and continued on to finish the race. As I was hanging out at the finish complaining to David Horton about the rocks and leaves, around the bend comes Bethany, nine minutes later! She had decided not to drop after all. I believe that was the last time Bethany ran Hellgate, and in a few weeks at Hellgate 2014, I am very much looking forward to watching her breeze by at the start in her way to her Western States qualifier and, no doubt, a podium finish.

  7. dennisdschaefer

    I dropped out of the 1986 New York City Marathon at mile 18- First Ave. at 77th- to the promise of a beer and the effect of a marathon 1 month earlier and an 8 day stage race scheduled for the next month. Three years later I took a 20 year break from running- tendonitis/burnout. I had started ten marathons but finished nine. In 2011 I started running again at age 60. In November of 2012 I finished the Outer Banks Marathon, #10. Since then I have run 6 more marathons and am training to finish my first 50 miler. It feels good to finish business.

  8. kevinleah143

    I have known Bethany since I was 6, the calm intense fire to achieve her goals has always been part of who she is. The most I have ever run was when I ran with her in college before she started her ultras. I know without a doubt she will achieve whatever goals she sets for herself!! Go Betana! Lol!!

  9. caper

    I mean this with all due respect, if I have to read another wser articled I’m gonna puke. There’s so many othe races that put wser to shame for the challenge and beauty. I finished once and haved never even bothered putting my name in again as its more hype than substance. A good race yes…but come. That’s enough wser for a while please.

    Great article on Bethany, right up until you define her life as not finishing a race many yes ago.

    1. SeanMeissner

      We must have read different articles. The one I read is a story about Bethany. Ten years ago, she just happened to dnf WS. She mentioned that to Andy, and that she'd like to go back and finish it, and Andy wrote about this in his story about Bethany. He also wrote about others events in Bethany's life. Nowhere in the article I read does Andy define Bethany's life by any single event.

      Perhaps different stories were written for different geographical areas.

  10. loomdoggy

    I'm a bit surprised the article doesn't touch on her amazing victory and course record at one of the hardest 100 milers. (Massanutten)…which is much harder than WS by the way… Or her even more impressive Tuscarora Trail multi day stage race (252miles) finish in conditions that were awful. Both of those amazing feats should more than make up for a drop…in her mind…….. and in those of your readers.

  11. SeanMeissner

    I met Bethany in March, 2003, at the super-crazy, one-and-done, Horton/Clapper production, Tuscarora Trail 252. Out of 20 starters, she was on the short-list of 6 finishers that included legendary names such as Bakwin, Horton, Wilbur, and Clapper. That was good-and-all, but what really impressed me was when a small group of us was at one of the thousand unmarked intersections on the course trying to decide which way to go, Bethany just stood on the side of the road and nonchalantly (and discreetly) peed, still fully engaged in the conversation. It was the first time I'd ever seen a girl pee standing up. She was cool. And she still is.

    See you at a race again soon, Bethany!

  12. bpatterson21

    Thanks everyone for all the kind comments! It shouldn't be surprising that an article by AJW has some reference to Western States. The whole reason I regret it was because it's the one drop where I had no good reason to drop. I've dropped at other races with no regrets, but at Western, I just didn't want it enough. I wasn't injured, I wasn't puking, I wasn't in medical danger. I simply was having a bad day and was not racing to my potential, and I just quit. That is my regret, particularly now that Western is so hard get into. I could have finished under 24 hours and, it just irks me now. And I believe there is hype around Western States for a reason. It's not the hardest or prettiest hundred, but it is iconic, love it or hate it.

    1. JoshuaStrahl

      Thank you Bethany for writing this. I've been having a hard time dealing with my very first DNF. It happened at my first attempt at a 100M. I'm already registered for next years' 100M. Your candidness has relieved an ache in my soul. (I decided to drop due to hypothermia – I'll be better prepared next time.)

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