Trevor Van Ackeren is an extremely accomplished distance runner native to Bethlehem. His tremendous collegiate achievements include winning Ivy League and Big-12 Conference individual titles, leading multiple relay teams to victory at the Penn Relays, and running the 1500 meter-run in 3 minutes and 39 seconds (converts to 3:57 mile), a time that was well under the 2012 Olympic Trials standard. Though he works as a history teacher at Liberty High School now, Van Ackeren still runs on a national-class level. The former sensation at mid-distance and cross country running has now transitioned to marathons and has posted some impressive times. Despite his busy teaching schedule, Van Ackeren has run as much as 120 miles per week with hopes of qualifying for the 2020 Olympic Trials. The Bethlehem resident also spoke highly of his city and emphasized its fantastic running culture.
Before becoming a teacher at Liberty High School, Van Ackeren was a student there. A member of Liberty’s cross country and track teams, he grew up running routes which looped through South Bethlehem as well as those that follow the canal path. Likewise, many of his meets took place on Lehigh University’s Goodman Campus. He commented enthusiastically on how his running began in Bethlehem, but was able to take him all over the country. Despite exploring the globe, Van Ackeren claimed a small part of him always knew he would end up back in Bethlehem. “This is home,” he said.
A decade later, Van Ackeren still runs on some of these same courses. He discussed how valuable the construction of the South Bethlehem Greenway has been to runners, calling it “monumental” for its ability to link South Bethlehem runners with the Saucon Rail Trail and Lehigh’s Goodman Campus. He also talked about what a great location Bethlehem is for runners. I can say from personal experience that, when in the middle of a week of high mileage, an interesting loop can make the difference between having the fortitude to finish a run. It’s no wonder, then, that the man who runs over sixteen miles a day praises his city for its ability to provide a large variety of routes. He commended Bethlehem for being an urban environment with nature-based escapes. If you’re in the mood for a quiet, peaceful run in the woods, just a few minutes of jogging can transport you to the serene Canal and Greenway trails. By contrast, there are many amazing routes that go through the bustling hub of the Southside. Van Ackeren mentioned that he does a brutal hill workout which involves running south across the Hill to Hill bridge, making a right, and then running up a two-mile long hill past St. Luke’s and up to Summit Street. Similar to this tough Southside route, Van Ackeren says that being from the area, he’s always identified with the Southside’s gritty, urban culture.
The Runner’s World Half Marathon & Festival, a popular and competitive race series, begins and finishes at the SteelStacks. The festival offers four races, including a 3.8 mile trail race and then a 5k (3.1), 10k (6.2) and half marathon 13.1. Van Ackeren won the Half Marathon for the third time last October. He said that the race “puts Bethlehem on the map” and has “really started to define running culture in Bethlehem.” He expressed excitement about where the running culture in Bethlehem is going; passion for running in Bethlehem has been gaining momentum in recent years, in part because the Runner’s World Half Marathon. For instance, Aardvark Sports Shop has a training group of over one-hundred members who meet to prepare for the race. Leading up the event, the group meets at the store every Saturday for a long run. The Runner’s World Half Marathon also had a major impact on Van Ackeren’s running career. He told me that, following a hiatus from intense training, his first time winning the race helped reignite his fire to run at an elite level.
It’s fitting that Van Ackeren would rekindle his love for running in the city he loves. He enjoyed his childhood in Bethlehem. While he remarked with pride about experiencing the world by moving away for college, he ultimately chose to return to his hometown. Van Ackeren realized that he “[n]ever felt like the grass was any greener anywhere else.” He commented on how Bethlehem is never stagnant, noting that, as a child, Bethlehem Steel was still active, and the buildings along the river on the Southside were abandoned. The talented runner stated that his favorite part of this city is its constant evolution. He expressed how much Bethlehem has changed during his short five years away from home for college and graduate school. Upon returning from graduate school, Van Ackeren said he “fell in love with the city all over again because it had changed so much.” He’s now excited about the growth of Southside’s Third Street and seeing the whole area revitalized.
It’s this passion for Bethlehem that’s motivated Van Ackeren teach at Liberty High School. He explained, “My goals, in both career and life more broadly, are to positively impact the next generation. That’s why I became a teacher and a coach.” He notes that, “When deciding where I wanted to pursue my career goals, I was naturally drawn back to the community I care most about.” This charismatic history teacher said he greatly enjoys teaching at his alma mater because he can directly give back to the next generation of children who attend the same schools, play in the same parks, and participate in the same athletics leagues as he did.
Van Ackeren’s story excellently illustrates the fantastic running culture present in Bethlehem. Just our short interview clearly highlighted the many races, training groups, and running routes available to locals. Additionally, his experience showcases how unique and special Bethlehem is. Van Ackeren is truly remarkable in many ways, and I wish him continued success in chasing the Olympic Trials standard in the marathon, all while continuing to impact the next generation of Liberty High School students.
Feature photo credits: Trevor Van Ackeren