A ‘girl power’ moment as Gasparilla 15K women’s champ outdistances field

TAMPA — Bethany Sachtleben soaked in the moment.

The 32-year-old had entered the Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic 15K with her training partners to get a longer-distance run in. Coming off the starting line Saturday, Sachtleben broke free and was the sole female runner the whole way, but she felt the support of all the women in the race.

“It was so nice to have all the women coming in the other direction, like cheering on the first woman and yelling ‘girl power!’ and it was so fun,” said Sachtleben of the runners who were coming off the starting line behind her as the course snaked back around. “I loved it.”

That is the spirit of the Distance Classic. Race director Susan Harmeling was pleased the event had a dry, cool morning Saturday, which she said set the tone for the competitors and the crowds.

“The weather itself can determine what the outcome’s going to be,” she said. “So we knew going into this weekend that finally we were going to have a beautiful weekend. And we got it; the runners are thrilled, we’re thrilled. The energy is so much different when you’ve got cooler temperatures.”

That helped the runners and the times.

Sachtleben finished the 15K in 52 minutes, 22 seconds, more than two minutes ahead of St. Petersburg’s Christina Welsh (54:55), who won both the 15K and half-marathon here last year.

“I never saw any of the women,” Sachtleben said of her competition. “I think I got out pretty fast. … I was by myself the whole race. So it was a very long solo run.

“But I really enjoyed the women yelling and supporting me along the route.”

A finance manager who lives in Boulder, Colorado, Sachtleben was a recreational runner as a child who saw a meteoric rise while running for George Mason University. A silver medalist in the 2019 Pan-Am Games, she qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials in 2020 and finished 18th in that marathon.

That race was when Sachtleben’s path in running changed.

After winning the Richmond marathon last November, she described to the Richmond Times-Dispatch how her body felt empty. She tried running two more races after the 2020 Trials but dropped out.

She said she knew at that time she had to deal with an eating disorder she had battled for years. In 2021, she spent six weeks in St. Louis taking part in a program that helped her put on healthy weight.

When she returned to Colorado, Sachtleben began running again with her friend Hiruni Wijayaratne, a competitive runner married to 2024 Distance Classic 15K men’s winner Luis Orta. She also explored other interests, picking up a tennis racket for the first time since she was a child and even taking three weeks in 2022 to serve as a ball girl at the U.S. Open in New York.

Her return to competitive running has been slow and steady. It included that win in Richmond in her native Virginia and she hopes to compete in the U.S. Olympic Trials in June.

To that pursuit she has been working out with Wijayaratne and Orta both in Boulder and more recently in Miami, where they can get used to working hard at sea level. So she was proud to cross the finish line Saturday morning and see Orta there waiting after his own victory.

“It’s really fun. It’s fun to have a little sweat. We’ve been training really hard for the last like two months down at sea level and I just really want him to do good and I haven’t had a good race in forever. So I wanted to do really good today,” Sachtleben said. “It’s exciting.”