What's it take to put on a world-class sporting event?

| Judy Berthiaume

When thousands of runners come to Eau Claire in the spring to participate in what is becoming one of the fastest growing marathons in the country, Courtney Roszak will have a front-row seat.

A senior integrated strategic communications major at UW-Eau Claire, Roszak is the media relations and social media intern for the Blugold Mile, a stretch of the Eau Claire Marathon that runs through the campus.

While the knowledge she’s gained in her communications classes is valuable, Roszak says a geography class that put her in the midst of the Chicago Marathon earlier this month will go a long way in helping her excel in her internship as well as in her future career.

“This experience has given me real work experience as part of my education,” says Roszak, a native of Sheboygan who plans to graduate in May 2017. “There is only so much one can learn in the classroom, but by gaining real-world experience I can stand out when applying for jobs.”

Roszak was one of 11 Blugolds who spent six days in Chicago in October as part of a “Geography of the Marathon” class.

The course is taught by Dr. Sean Hartnett, a professor of geography who also is recognized worldwide for his work with marathons and marathon mapping. Martin Goettl, a geospatial technology facilitator, assisted with the class.

The idea is to put students within the inner workings of a major world-city marathon, be it in the media room, the race operations camp, the start and finish areas, the lead vehicles pace display system, the refreshment tables or the Forward Command Center, Hartnett says.

“They gain an appreciation of what is involved in producing a world-class sporting event that involves more than 40,000 athletes, a half of million spectators and a worldwide television broadcast,” Hartnett says of the field experience.

Being immersed in the race also gave students a look at the many aspects of the marathon that have geographic components, Hartnett says.

Those geographic components include everything from the 26.2 mile course, to the delivery of sports drinks and bananas, to the 20 aid stations and the timing of runners via chips that track them from start to finish, Hartnett says.

The geography aspects also include the race command center, which coordinates with race staff, police, fire, medical and the FBI via a wall-sized array of TV monitors with feed from 150 cameras along the course, as well as the GPS tracing of 80 vehicles on the course, he said.

The intensive job shadowing gave the Blugolds an up-close look at four distinct segments of the marathon event: public relations, media events and marketing; runner registration and tracing; setup and take-down of the course; and race management and monitoring.

“They got to see a little of everything,” Hartnett says. “It was a liberal arts education on the complexity of staging a world-class sporting event stretched out over 26.2 miles.”

While in Chicago, Roszak’s work was primarily focused on media relations tied to the marathon.

Her varied duties included working with a social media company for a press conference and a Facebook Live event, photographing the first Chicago international 5K and handing out race bibs.

Roszak also was a photographer at the start and finish of the race, and worked in the media center during the race.

A highlight, she says, was attending the champion press conference and interviewing the men’s race winner, Kirui Abel.

“I was excited to have the opportunity to work with a marathon such as Chicago, which attracts runners from all over the world,” Roszak says. “I knew I would be working with many different people in the marathon industry.”

Students met weekly in September to prepare for their field experience, and they will meet weekly throughout the semester to continue to study marathon events, as well as reflect on their experiences in Chicago, Hartnett said.

While this was the first time Hartnett took a class with him to the marathon, he has a long history of working with the Chicago Marathon, and he has brought two Blugolds along in past years, Hartnett says, noting that both of those alumni now are pursuing careers in race management.

Sam Krueger, who earned a geography degree from UW-Eau Claire in 2012, traveled to Chicago with Hartnett when he was a student. Krueger, now a GIS consultant who built an app that integrated many race elements for the Forward Command Center, joined the current Blugolds at this year’s marathon.

Nathan Schaffer, who graduated in 2016 with an economics degree, twice worked alongside Hartnett at the Chicago Marathon when he was an undergraduate.

This year, Schaffer, who recently was hired by the Houston Marathon, assisted the current students throughout their week in Chicago.

During the race, Schaffer also joined Hartnett’s brother, Tim, and Hartnett’s German colleague, Professor Helmut Winter, on the lead vehicle, recording and displaying pace data on a message board for athletes.

“Nathan provided real-time updates of this data worldwide via Helmut's website,” Hartnett says, noting the website had more than 130,000 hits.

During the marathon, three Blugolds and Goettl were stationed in the media area, mapping in real time the race progress, Hartnett says. Printed copies of the maps were distributed among media in the press room, athletes and managers.

“Students made a real-time race map in the press room that documents pacing data sent in from the lead vehicle,” Hartnett says of the students’ innovative work. “This was the first-ever press room mapping.”

The students’ maps are featured on the Track and Field News website, with links to the students’ maps.

While discussions leading up to the Chicago immersion gave her an overview of the event and a general understanding of the timeline of events relating to the marathon, there was no way to truly prepare to be part of an event like the Chicago Marathon, Roszak says.

“Personally, the biggest challenge was not knowing what was going to happen on Sunday,” says Roszak, who had no previous experience with marathons. “While I heard a lot about what the marathon would be like, nothing was able to fully prepare me for the experience.”

She knows now that the knowledge gained from being immersed in that kind of event will be of great value in her internship with the Blugold Mile.

As the media relations and social media Intern for the Blugold Mile, she will be involved in videography, photography, philanthropy, social media posts, news articles, graphics and advertising for the distance running class.

Hartnett says after seeing Roszak in action in Chicago, he knows the Blugold Mile PR is in good hands.

Roszak expects that her experiences as an intern at the Eau Claire Marathon, along with her hands-on work with the Chicago Marathon, will help her break into the highly competitive professional sports public relations industry.

“While giving me real-world experience, these opportunities also allow me to network and make connections in the field I one day hope to work in,” Roszak says, noting that she’d like to work in PR for either football or marathon organizations.

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Pictured, from left, are Blugolds Marcus Sessler, Luke Praschak, Madie Shaw, race winner Kirui Abel, Zach Nemeth, Kelsey Olson, James Erickson, Joe Decker, Courtney Roszak, Max Harding, Callista DePauw and Chad James Licht.