The 2,000-plus runners who participated in the 2015 Eau Claire Marathon had a surprise waiting for them as they neared the end of their race — hundreds of Blugolds were there to cheer them on as they ran through UW-Eau Claire's lower campus.
Members of student organizations, the Blugold Athletics Band and other campus groups lined the way, playing music, providing much-needed water and high-fives, cheering 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.
During and after the race, runners were quick to voice their appreciation for the students, with many saying the run through campus was the highlight of an already wonderful racing experience. Since Sunday, runners have been busy sharing their experiences and appreciation via social media.
Many runners say the Blugold Mile came at the perfect time in their race — mile 11 for half-marathoners and mile 24 for those running the full marathon. The crowds and cheers on campus gave them an energy boost that helped carry them through the last miles.
While Mother Nature (and the UW-Eau Claire grounds crew) deserve a nod for providing the sunshine, blooming flowers and blossoming trees that had campus looking its best, it was a Blugold with a passion for running that made the rest of the race-day magic happen.
As soon as he heard that this year's marathon would take runners through campus, Nathan Schaffer — a senior economics and geography major from Eau Claire and experienced marathoner — knew he wanted to be part of making UW-Eau Claire a highlight of the racing event.
Last year, Nathan spent time at the Chicago Marathon shadowing Dr. Sean Hartnett, a UW-Eau Claire geography professor who uses his expertise to help plan and enhance some of the country's largest marathons.
"After that thrilling experience, I really wanted to find a way to work with marathons more and jumped at the EC Marathon's message that they were looking for committee members," Nathan says of getting involved with this year's race.
The race director invited Nathan to work as the liaison between the marathon and UW-Eau Claire. It didn't take long for Nathan's vision for the Blugold Mile to take shape.
"Initially, I reached out to every campus organization and was able to set up more than 100 meetings over the course of a month promoting the idea of a huge event including live bands, food and an opportunity for organizations to showcase themselves while being a part of this great community event," Nathan says. "Sixty-two of them agreed to be there and came out in force on race day. They brought so much energy and passion, and formed the backbone of an event that made a huge difference for runners at the EC Marathon."
The energy from the hundreds of cheering students — and fun race features like Blu's Birdbath, where runners were doused as they ran under a sprinkler — created a marathon experience that many runners won't soon forget.
"There is no way that the Blugold Mile would have come to fruition without the vision and dedication of Nathan," says Dr. Matthew Evans, a physics professor and avid runner who helped coordinate UW-Eau Claire's involvement in the race. "Nathan personally met with almost every organization on campus to sell the idea of coming out to cheer. He rode herd on everyone from the athletic director and alumni director to the presidents of small organizations to sell the idea of showing off our great campus, and to get people into the right position on race morning."
Some of the runners enjoying the hoopla were in the race because of Nathan — he convinced them to enroll in the university's long-distance running class, which was offered for the first time this spring and helped 85 students train for the Eau Claire Marathon.
This spring, an injury sidelined Nathan, an accomplished runner who in the past has run the Boston Marathon. While disappointed he couldn't run the marathon in his hometown, he instead used his race-day energy to inspire others.
For many hours on Sunday, Nathan was on campus coordinating activities, thanking the student groups, celebrating the race's top runners and encouraging struggling runners to keep going.
"He's a silent warrior advocating for running," says Dr. Tracy Yengo, who co-taught the running class with Evans. "I don't know what the event would have looked like without him. He was never compensated, never took a credit; he is just that passionate about the sport and running. He's an avid runner and wanted to share that experience with campus."
As Nathan said in the midst of race day, seeing the joy and the determination on the faces of the runners as they passed through campus was the next best thing to running it himself.
Photo cutline: UW-Eau Claire's popular #BRIDGEFACE cameras captured Nathan Schaffer crossing the footbridge the morning of the Eau Claire Marathon.