When you have veteran and first-time marathon runners saying that the mile through your campus is the best mile — ever — you know you’re on to something big.
An experienced distance runner who has completed more than a dozen half and full marathons, Zach Klein thought the Blugold Mile sounded kind of corny when he first heard about it last year before the Eau Claire Marathon.
But when the UW-Eau Claire junior hit the 11-mile mark of his half marathon race last year, he was happily surprised by the party-like atmosphere and the many high-fives he received from the crowd on campus.
The live music, hundreds of spectators waving signs and students spraying him with squirt guns as he ran through UW-Eau Claire’s central campus helped to re-energize him on a hot race day morning in a way he never expected, Zach says.
“It was super awesome and gave me the motivation to drive through the last couple miles,” says Zach, a music theory major from Rochester, Minnesota, who finished third in the 2015 half marathon. “The Blugold Mile comes right at the spot where I usually tank, or hit the wall. It was the perfect spot for me to see a bunch of my friends and classmates cheering me on.”
Race organizers say that Zach and the other 3,000+ runners who are part of the 2016 Eau Claire Marathon on May 1 will find an even bigger and better version of the Blugold Mile, which comes as runners hit mile 24 in the full marathon and mile 11 in the half.
With the Blugold Mile now part of the race, it’s no surprise that the Eau Claire Marathon is one of the fastest growing racing events in the country, says Traci Gerharz Klein, Zach’s mother and a veteran distance runner as well as a UW-Eau Claire grad.
Traci has competed in four half marathons and numerous other shorter races, but the Eau Claire Marathon’s route through campus and its surrounding neighborhoods has made the spring race her favorite, she says.
“Running through the Third Ward was so fun because we lived on McKinley Avenue for several years so it felt like being home,” Traci says. “But the Blugold Mile was the icing on the cake.
“Hands down, the Blugold Mile was my favorite part of the race; the students made my day. I honestly did not think that many students would be out there at that time of the morning — I was impressed. The band playing was a great way to start the mile, and the energy and support of the students throughout the mile really helped me at that point in the race.”
Traci and Zach aren’t the only runners to say that the mile through campus takes an already great racing event to a whole new level.
“Best mile ever” and “amazing” were among the words runners shared over and over again on social media when describing last year’s inaugural Blugold Mile, which had members of more than 75 student organizations, the Blugold Athletics Band and others cheering, playing music, providing water, and even spraying the hot and tired runners with squirt guns as they made their way through the center of campus and over the footbridge to Water Street.
The energy from the students — and fun race features like Blu's Birdbath, where runners were doused as they ran under a sprinkler — created a racing experience that many runners won't forget.
“The Blugold Mile is a unique experience, and I'm excited to hit that part of the race again this year,” says Zach, who already has completed 15 half marathons, two full marathons and a 50K.
Another Blugold Mile feature that also was a hit among the 2015 runners was #Bridgeface, a social media hashtag campaign that includes photos of each runner taken as they cross the campus footbridge.
Many runners later tagged and shared their photos on social media; last year there were five Facebook albums full of runners using their bridge photos to share their race story with family and friends.
While fun for all the runners, the Blugold Mile is even more meaningful to runners like Traci and Zach, Blugolds with strong ties to the campus.
For Traci, who lived in Eau Claire for nearly 25 years before moving to Rochester, Minnesota, the run through campus and the areas around it gave her a sense of coming home.
“The university holds such a special place in my heart,” Traci says. “For the last 10 years we lived here, we lived near UWEC and spent a lot of time biking and walking around the campus when Zach and his little sister, Risa, were young.
“It was such a smart idea for the marathon organizers to partner with the university, and the students seemed to really get into it. Running races with Zach — but always behind him — is a big hobby for me, but running the EC Marathon is particularly special because we both have a relationship with the university.”
As a current student, it’s motivating to see the familiar faces of his fellow Blugolds as he hits what often is the most challenging part of a half or full marathon, says Zach.
While organizers expect even more Blugolds to join in the race-day hoopla May 1 to support the runners, they know there also will be even more students running the half or full marathons this year.
Last year, when the marathon route brought runners through campus for the first time, the race caught the attention of current Blugolds in a way it never had before, inspiring many students to run their first half or full marathon.
Read what students have to say about the Eau Claire Marathon.
To support the student runners, UW-Eau Claire offered a long-distance running class that attracted 85 students. It was so popular that it was expanded this year, and now is helping more than 150 Blugolds prepare for the 2016 Eau Claire Marathon.
Increasing the number of student runners means more opportunities for UW-Eau Claire student organizations to raise dollars for local charities and scholarships. This year, student groups hope to raise at least $10,000 for local charities by sponsoring student runners.
For an event that nearly ended just a few years ago, the future looks amazingly bright for the Eau Claire Marathon — the 26.2 mile race and relay race sold out earlier this spring.
The full marathon will start at 7:30 a.m. May 1 in Carson Park, while the half marathon will begin at 9:15 a.m. also in Carson Park.
The first runners are expected to reach the Blugold Mile around 9:45 a.m., with a majority of the runners making their way to campus between 11 a.m. and noon.
Roads will be closed around the campus beginning around 9 a.m. so those planning to cheer on the runners should plan to arrive early or prepare to park off campus.
Top photo: Blugold Zach Klein says the party-like atmosphere on campus during the Blugold Mile helped to re-energize him during the half marathon in the 2015 Eau Claire Marathon. Zach finished third in his race.