Surprise marathon winner relishes 'incredible' local trails
'Running is when I feel most like myself,' Stanford grad student says
It wasn't exactly a fluke that Stanford University graduate student Keith Bechtol ran his very first marathon Sunday — and won.
"When you read a lot of the news stories and stuff, it comes across as if I woke up on Sunday morning and decided I was going to run a marathon," Bechtol said Tuesday in an interview on the Stanford campus.
Actually, the lanky, freckle-faced astrophysicist has been running for 11 years — ever since a pulled muscle took him out of soccer training at his Northern Virginia high school.
But Sunday's San Francisco Marathon was indeed his first official marathon, and Bechtol shattered the men's course record, set in 2007, with his time of 2:23:28.
Bechtol said he was pleased, but not entirely surprised, to win.
"I considered (winning) a possibility because I would go to the Paly track and run 5:30 miles, which means about 2:25 for the marathon. I knew if I could hold that pace I'd be in a good position, but I'd never run a marathon before so didn't really know if I could hold that pace."
When he began running in high school, "I wasn't even good at all," Bechtol said.
"I wasn't at all the fastest person on my team. I just really liked running. It was a sport that I connected with, and I knew it right away.
"At least for me, running is when I feel most like myself."
In the time he can spare from his work on the Fermi Gamma Ray Space Telescope at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, Bechtol is running — around the Paly track, in the foothills, around Lake Lagunita, on the trail toward Gunn High School, in the baylands.
He runs by himself, or with fellow grad student Spence Green of the computer science department or with his wife, Ellen, who works at the Zombie Runner shop on California Avenue. The two, who met as runners at Virginia's College of William & Mary, were married last October.
"The campus is a great place to run, and it gets really good if you just start going west into the mountains," he said.
"All the open space preserves are incredible. I don't know if people who've lived here all their life appreciate how great they are — miles and miles, open 365 days a year with no entrance fees.
"When you're up on the (Skyline) ridge, there are places you can go where you'd never realize you're so close to San Jose and San Francisco."
And how does Bechtol get all the way up to Skyline?
He runs there, of course.
Does he ever get winded?
"Frequently," Bechtol said.
"I certainly have days in which I feel very humbled, days when I feel really bad, but that's part of it, right?
"Things will be hard and you sort of see it in the big picture and the long range. It's very rewarding when things go well because you feel like it wasn't easy, it took a little while, so when you've accomplished something it feels good and it's very satisfying."
In his day-and-night job as a grad student, Bechtol commutes by bicycle from his College Terrace home to SLAC.
He works on a particle detector launched into orbit by satellite, studying high-energy particles in the cosmic environment to learn about supernovi, black holes, cosmic explosions.
He also leads public tours of SLAC.
"It's really important for scientists to make an effort to communicate what they're doing," he said.
"There's a misunderstanding, and it goes both ways. A lot of times, scientists get very impatient. They can't understand why people aren't excited, and why they don't get things the first time or understand the significance of some result.
"And a lot of time people are closed-minded and say, 'Oh, physics — I could never do that.'
"If people can sort of meet halfway, that's really great. I try to make an effort so that can happen, to be in places where you can have a positive exchange."
Though undecided about long-term career plans, Bechtol said he likes working as a teaching assistant for Stanford undergraduates.
"Often I learn more from the students than they learn from me, to be completely honest. They'll ask some question I'd never considered and I'm so amazed and I end up thinking about it for a couple of hours later that night."
Bechtol expects to be at Stanford a few more years, hopefully long enough for his wife to complete a master's program in museum studies she recently began at JFK University.
The couple last year together ran the American River 50 Mile Endurance Run.
"She convinced me to try the ultramarathon — there's a huge community for it here. You can find ultras every week if you want to."
But mostly Bechtol just runs in his spare time — sometimes early in the morning, sometimes at midnight, with or without a running partner.
"A lot of people think of running as being a very lonely sport, but I don't look at it that way," he said.
"I enjoy the social aspects. You don't necessarily have to be talking, but just being with somebody else, knowing they're seeing the same things and feeling the same things.
"You can go for an hour run and exchange 10 words, and feel like that was time well-spent."
Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.