As 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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
AJW’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?