Bethany Graham has plenty of reasons to fuel her running with frustration.
Despite brilliant starts to the past two cross country seasons, she hasn’t made the state meet since her freshman year. Stress fractures in 2017 and a sprained ankle in 2018 have kept her out of postseason racing.
Yet, she falls back on positive thinking. Back to something she learned through Girls on the Run.
“You just take the negative plug out,” she said. “It sounds silly but it still works for me today. Mentality is a big part of racing. If you’re not mentally confident, you’re not going to do well. You won’t have the confidence to compete with the best.
“I had to work on that for a while, but now it’s one of my strongest points.”
She’s on the same tear that has typified her last two years, winning the Great Meadow and Pole Green invitationals by wide margins. Since last winter, she has been reunited with the middle school club coach who knew her when she was much different.
“In sixth grade, she was our slowest runner,” said John Stegmeier. “She loved it and stuck with it and really broke out in eighth grade.”
After running some short-distance track events while living in England, Graham tried a variety of sports and pursuits, swimming, dancing, tennis, but nothing stuck the way running did.
“Running was simple,” she said. “I liked it.”
When she reached John Champe High School, she adapted quickly, finishing in the top 10 at the Oatlands Invitational within her first few weeks.
“When I started high school, my coach told me I had potential, but I had to believe that myself,” Graham said. “It took a little bit, but I realized I did belong here.”
She finished 25th in her first state championship–in Virginia’s 4A division. The next year she notched three invitational victories before stress fractures in her second and third metatarsal shut her down into track season. As inconvenient as that was, she spun it to her advantage.
“It was good for me,” she said. “I needed to take the hit and get motivated to do well.”
Though her track season was less than she hoped, she had consistency and the drive to make up for lost time.
“I wanted to work my butt off and improve,” she said.
Once her junior year started, she hammered people, unafraid to take the lead and be vulnerable to anyone targeting her. In fact, it empowered her.
“I just was more confident in my racing,” she said. “I don’t like sitting around and waiting. It’s scary to go out and take the lead because sometimes you feel like there’s no way I can win the race because this girl has a PR that’s 30 seconds faster than mine, but sometimes you just have to go for it, that made a difference in my training.”
Like any front runner, she’s chided for leaving it on the course early, but she doesn’t want to run any other way.
“People tell me I could go a few seconds faster if I held back early but that’s just not how I race,” she said. I’m here to race, it’s not about winning at all costs, it’s about the effort.”
Her front running wasn’t the problem. She sprained her right ankle on the Rock Ridge course during the Loudoun County Championships. Despite the injury, she raced a week later, dominating the junior race at the DCXC Invitational. She took a few weeks to cross train before lining up for the Third Battle Invitational with a bulk ankle brace, but after a mile she was out of the race.
“I was sad and embarrassed because it was the first race I’d ever dropped out of,” she said. “I had to tell myself it was smart to drop out.”
She gave her distract meet a shot and finished seventh, then shut the rest of the Virginia season down before trying, and finishing 50th at the Foot Locker South meet.
Though her second consecutive cross country season ended in injury, it wasn’t nearly as serious as her stress fractures, and she was back quickly for track, where she won 5A titles in the 1600 meters (4:50) and 3200 meters (10:29) and ran a leg on Champe’s winning 4×800 relay team.
Stegmeier joined the Champe staff at the beginning of 2019 and has picked right back up with Graham, who he continued to work with during the summers.
“She’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever seen,” he said. “She has confidence in the work she does in practice. She’s great at pacing but she’s tough.”
Though she is a relatively low-mileage runner, she spends a lot of time on strength training, including regular 7 a.m. sessions before school.
“We work on efficiency and spend a lot of time on form drills,” Stegmeier said. “She’s a lot stronger than she looks.”
Her strength plus her efficiency is critical.
“If you watch her, it never looks like she’s running very fast, but she is,” he said. “That’s all of her efficiency working for her.”
Graham committed to Furman University, which the USA Track and Field and Cross Country Association ranked 15th nationally before the start of the season, giving her one fewer thing to worry about as she continues her senior season, which will include stops at the Oatlands Invitational and Great American Festival, close to her future Greenville, S.C. home.
“She’s always been a better cross country runner than track, so as long as she’s not unlucky this season, I think we’ll see two more gears out of her,” Stegmeier said.
RunWashington is throwing in a season-long surge of cross country coverage. In September, we’re featuring our All-RunWashington team. So far we have profiled: