By Kevin Zhang
It seemed highly unlikely that a Stanford graduate student and first-time marathoner could win the San Francisco Marathon on July 25, but Keith Bechtol, a 25-year-old astrophysics student on the Farm, didn’t just win the marathon — he beat the 26.2 mile course record by two minutes.
Although this is only his first marathon, Bechtol has significant experience in competitive running. He ran track and cross country at the College of William and Mary and was 14th in the 2007 NCAA 10K Championships. Even with his time commitments, Bechtol had an intense six weeks of training.
“I trained fairly hard for four weeks and went lighter the last two weeks,” Bechtol said. “I aimed for a 20 mile-long run each of the hard weeks and practiced running at a goal race pace on the track to build confidence and get a sense for the speed I needed to maintain over the full distance.”
After his training, Bechtol had a unique mindset going into the marathon by not setting certain time or placement objectives.
“San Francisco was my first attempt at the marathon, so I did not set any specific goals,” Bechtol said. “I had experience at longer and shorter distances, but it had been a couple years since I had trained or raced competitively. After a while, you learn to listen to your body and so mostly, I was going for a specific effort rather than a particular time or place.”
Listening to his body, Bechtol finished the course with a time of two hours 23 minutes and 28 seconds, two minutes ahead of the second-place finisher Michael Wardian, a 36-year-old from Arlington, Va.
“I am still pleasantly surprised with how smoothly the day went,” Bechtol said. “I certainly have strong days and also days when I really struggle during training. You never know exactly how you will feel on the day that counts, but it is always satisfying when you feel like you reached your potential for that given day. Mostly it gives me motivation to see how much I can improve from here.”
When Bechtol finished the race, his wife, Ellen was there to greet him. Ellen, who Bechtol met running track and cross country at the College of William and Mary, is part of Bechtol’s new support system here at Stanford, which has helped him manage the transition to the Farm.
“When I first arrived at Stanford, I felt very alone, having just moved across the country, and my running felt unfocused and disconnected,” Bechtol said. “College also felt like a time of intense personal development and now I feel much more responsibility in many aspects of my life.”
He has gradually found his place on the campus, however, and running, including with his training partner, computer science graduate student Spence Green, has played a big role.
“Over time, I have felt more and more comfortable here and have been able to share my sports enthusiasm with others and draw off their energy and support,” he said.
Within this newly positive atmosphere, Bechtol has found ways to balance his numerous activities: life as a student, work at NASA and family commitments.
“I try to run every day and use basically any time that is available,” he said. “I often wish I had a more predictable schedule and have found that extremely difficult while balancing my academic goals and the general day-to-day life. My priorities go in the order family, school and running and so it is a delicate balance, although not in a conflicting way at all.”
As Bechtol celebrates his victory and enjoys the enthusiastic support from his peers in the physics department and at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, he is just beginning what seems to be a string of marathons across the nation.
“I hope to enter more marathons over the coming year. Right now I am looking at Chicago [in October] and Boston [in April], but it will all depend on my academic schedule and staying healthy.”