Beloit College Magazine

Fall/Winter 2012 (November 16, 2012 at 12:00 am)

Going the Distance

November 16, 2012 at 12:00 am
By Hilary Dickinson and Lynn Vollbrecht'06

Zac Freudenburg’01Beloit boasts some impressive runners. The sport has long been a part of campus life, with records of a Field Day as early as 1880. By 1903, a cross country club had formed, and for some 40 years—from the late ’30s through the late ’70s—the college was renowned for the Beloit Relays, then one of the nation’s premier small-college track meets.

It’s a tradition that continues today. Students run for fun with members of the administration during New Student Days, go out for track in the spring and cross country in the fall as Buccaneers, and turn out for the Olde English Classic.

The Olde English is a race as unique as the school, says David Eckburg, longtime Beloit College cross country coach. “In stark contrast to the bland homogeneity of golf-course race sites, it offers a rare alternative, which in a way is analogous to the peculiarity of the liberal arts school itself,” Eckburg points out. “It is not too much of a stretch, then, to understand why some of Beloit College’s cross country alumni would take the road less traveled (both figuratively and literally) to join the rarefied group of extreme long-distance runners.”

Even the local landscape lends itself to running—head out of town in any direction, and you’re in rolling country hills or flat farmland. One former Beloit College runner, Sean Hartnett’77, still stops off in Beloit on his way to Chicago in order to take a quick run on the Olde English cross country course he designed while a student. “Beloit was a nice place to run,” he says. “Still is.”

A sport requiring such persistence and stamina is a natural fit at a place like Beloit; now five alumni who ran at Beloit College—and never stopped—explain where their running has taken them.

Sean Hartnett’77: The strategist

Sean Hartnett and Haile GebrselassieSean Hartnett’77 remembers exactly how he started running. He was in eighth grade, watching the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City on television, and it made him want to go out and run around the block. The next year he went out for his high school track team, and he chose Beloit College partly because of the track and cross country programs. It was at Beloit that he honed his skills, even working as an assistant track coach.

Though 13-year-old Hartnett knew he wanted to start running, what he did not imagine is that someday elite athletes would be seeking out his expertise and using his advice to set world records. Or that the organizers of the London 2012 Olympics would come calling, asking him to create an elevation map of the marathon course for the summer games.

Hartnett’s cross-section of knowledge is unique. He teaches geography at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and works as a journalist. He’s adept at meticulously charting the geography of a race course and using it to create detailed elevation maps, which athletes can then use to their advantage in pacing themselves during a race. When he’s not making maps, he’s constructing a narrative to report in the pages of Track & Field News, a monthly magazine.

“Being a geographer, I’m not just sitting there with a notepad getting a few quotes and a few observations. What I like to do is more or less document a race,” Hartnett explains. “When I am on a course, I always have a map of it, because there are all sorts of subtle things.” Like which way the wind is blowing for example. No detail is too small for Hartnett to take notice. “I’m mapping out those things, and usually have an elevation profile that I compare it to, and then I’m taking pictures,” he says.

He has been writing for Track & Field News for close to three decades, and it was during a stint reporting for the magazine at the 1996 Olympic trials that he first employed a GPS unit to map how far each runner was progressing every minute of the race. “And remember, this was ’96, so you had to explain for 20 minutes what GPS is,” he recalls.

Though he initially coached track at the college level while teaching at UW-Eau Claire, Hartnett eventually decided to focus on his writing, covering high-profile international events for Track & Field News. The ’96 Olympics also marked his first interviews with the runners Paul Tergat of Kenya and Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia, who won the silver and gold medals respectively in the 10,000-meter race.

In 2002, Hartnett and Tergat met up again in Ireland, when the geographer/journalist was covering the Kenyan’s fifth consecutive World Cross Country Championship win. They missed the same bus, and started chatting. “He said, ‘You ask different questions from other journalists—why is that?’” Hartnett remembers. Then Tergat invited him to visit Kenya. Hartnett didn’t take it too seriously, until six weeks later when Tergat called and asked again.

“This was February, right in the middle of the academic year, and I said, ‘Well geez, I’ve got classes now, I’ll think about it.’” It didn’t take long for him to make up his mind. “I went out for a jog that morning, and I got about two miles and I just stopped, and I thought, ‘Paul Tergat is asking me to come to Kenya, and I’m worried about the details?’”

At the time Tergat was transitioning into running marathons, and Hartnett’s knowledge came in handy. “He asked me to help him learn the marathon, explain to him how the races were run. He had a coach, and a manager, and some training partners, but I helped him plan how he would try to break the world record. I helped him get his mind around the event,” Hartnett says. It paid off. In 2003, Tergat set a world record of two hours, four minutes, and 55 seconds in the Berlin Marathon. Hartnett was there to see his friend cross the finish line.

In the meantime, Tergat’s Ethiopian rival Gebrselassie also sought out Hartnett’s advice. Like his rival, Gebrselassie knew that he needed to learn the intricacies of a race beforehand, “to have the hard thinking done ahead of time,” as Hartnett puts it.

These days, Hartnett’s own running is limited to regular jogging, and he’s amped up his course-mapping game by riding along in the photographers’ truck behind the lead vehicle at marathons, uploading live data onto a message board so the frontrunners can adjust their pace accordingly.

“What’s neat is that a marathon has this narrative of its own. It’s sort of this epic distance, and sooner or later people struggle in it, so it’s got that drama,” he says. “I gather all this data, then I put them down in these graphics that are part map, part photographs, part data, part story.”

Todd Braje’98: The ultramarathoner

Todd Braje’98When students at San Diego State University search for their anthropology professor Todd Braje’98 on the Internet, looking for his research or papers he’s authored, they often stumble across an unexpected piece of biographical information: he’s an ultramarathoner.

He’s been quite successful at it, in fact. He’s traveled the world, and won 50-mile and 100-mile championships. Now, he shares what it takes—mentally and physically—to win a race that long.

How did you get started as a runner and athlete?

I started when I was in eighth grade, and only because my brother decided to join the high school cross country team. So I started running with him and in high school after that.

What kind of running did you do at Beloit College?

I was a distance runner, so I ran cross country and track, and primarily the longer race distances like 5 kilometers and 10 kilometers. All those Beloit guys and gals that I ran with, they have been lifelong friends. That’s sort of what happens with running. You spend so much time with these people, building these friendships. It’s great.

And when did you start transitioning to the ultra-long-distant running?

It wasn’t until probably 2007 that I ran my first ultra. I was focused on the marathon until then, and thought I could qualify for the marathon in Olympic trials, until they moved the standard to make it about five minutes harder to qualify. I wanted to run trail races and longer stuff, and that took me off the road, away from the marathon.

When did you start to realize that you were really good at this long-distance, sustained running?

I had some success pretty early, and I think it’s because I was used to training pretty hard for the marathons. I would run 50-kilometer races, and I felt that I was even more competitive at that distance. And then I tried 100 kilometers, and ultimately 100-milers, and I’ve done fairly well at 100-milers. It’s my best event, but they’re really tricky to get right, because so many things can go bad.

What are some of the things that can go wrong?

For me it’s primarily been things like nutrition, and salt, and hydration. At lot of these races tend to be run in sort of extreme conditions. People enjoy sort of torturing themselves, I guess. The races are run in the summer, a lot of them are up and down mountains, and you get a lot of temperature fluctuation. You’re burning calories at a rate that you’re not used to in training, and before you know it, things can be really bad. Sometimes you can fix that, sometimes you can’t. A lot of it comes from experience.

Hydrating and taking in calories while you’re running—how do you do that? It sounds like a science, like you have to know the right calibration.

Absolutely. It can change depending on the day. You can be planning to run a race, and then the weather is abnormal for that time of year, and you can be fairly unprepared for that.

It’s more than just running. It’s getting yourself prepared for these races, it’s knowing about hydration and nutrition, it’s having a crew that’s going to help you get in and out of each aid station, it’s learning to get in and out quickly and not really stop, and monitoring your body and making sure you know the subtle signs that tell you what you need.

And it’s kind of funny, you run these races, you get 10 hours into it, you have calories, you’re hydrated, you can think clearly. And then as you get closer to the aid station you get more dehydrated, more deficient, you stop remembering what you needed when you get to the aid station. So part of it is having a good crew, and having people that can help you.

Who’s on your crew?

Generally my wife (a marathoner), but also just running friends. When I travel to different races around the country, I recruit those running friends to help me out.

What is your training regimen like?

I’m running probably anywhere from 100 to 120 miles a week, with a track workout and a long, marathon-pace run on the weekend.

What is the reaction you get from non-runners—or even runners who don’t do this kind of distance?

Across the board, people think we’re crazy, and I can kind of understand that. Because even when I was a marathoner, I knew that my high school coach ran ultras, and I thought he was nuts. He would go run 24-hour races, and it was something I was never really interested in. Even in college I knew ultra-runners; it was just sort of a fringe sport, and kind of crazy.

I think there’s a really cool community of ultra-runners that make it great, and you can see really beautiful places; it’s not just running on the road, it’s running in the mountains and on trails. I’ve had a lot of opportunities, too, to go to Europe and race, and it’s opened a lot of doors. For me, it certainly seems less nuts now than it used to.

What does it take mentally to be an ultramarathon runner?

People of all ages, of all shapes and sizes, get through these really brutal races. And they certainly trained hard, but I don’t think it’s anything that someone who is healthy can’t do. I really think anyone can do it. They have to be wired that they’re going to accomplish it no matter what. And there’s a time to say “I’m injured,” or “it’s dangerous,” but for the most part it’s just this will to finish.

What advice would you give to someone who’s at the absolute ground-zero start of running?

I would build up slowly. But the thing that you need to do is build consistency, where it’s a part of every day, like putting on your socks: you’re going to run. It’s no option. Because once you start giving yourself the option “oh, I’ll run tomorrow,” and then it becomes the next day and the next day and then a week has gone by and you haven’t run and then you’re starting all over again and all that progress is gone, and you’re back in the painful place that you began.

Michelle Mitchell’96: The globetrotter

Michelle Mitchell’96From the Ukraine and the Netherlands to Italy and Gibraltar, one Beloiter’s love of running has taken her all over the globe.

“What I like about what I do is it allows me to travel to places I’ve never been,” says Michelle Mitchell’96.

Mitchell began running in high school, but admits she “wasn’t that good”—or very serious about it.

It wasn’t until her time at Beloit that she began developing as a distance runner, thanks to the mentorship of her college coaches: Dan Copper in her first three years, and David Eckburg in her senior year.

Looking back, the Russian and education double major says she’s glad she didn’t strongly pursue running in high school. She witnessed many fellow runners quit in their sophomore year of college, after being pushed too far and too hard when they were young. “Years later I thanked my high school coach for sparing me the rod as a teenager so I didn’t end up injured or burnt out early,” she says.

After Beloit, Mitchell taught Russian and Spanish in Alaska and earned her master’s degree from Middlebury College. In 2005, she decided to move to Moscow—a beloved city where she studied abroad—to teach English and to focus on running.

“I thought, ‘If I don’t move overseas, I’m never going to do it. I don’t want to be one of those woulda-coulda-shouldas,’” Mitchell says.

She hit a rough patch in 2007, however, when her mother died of breast cancer. Mitchell was in France at the time and did not learn of her mom’s passing until she returned to Moscow.

For the next year-and-a-half, Mitchell found herself in a slump (which she later discovered was partly due to an iron deficiency), and she almost retired from running.

By mid-2008, she began to slowly come out of it. “After that nasty period when my mom passed, I pretty much run each season like it’s my last because you just never know,” she says.

Mitchell joined the Latvian national team in 2010, and went on to win the 50-kilometer and 100-kilometer Latvian national championships the following year.

This past spring, she placed 38th in the 100-kilometer World Championships, which were held in Seregno, Italy, and in August she finished second in the 50-kilometer World Cup in Latvia.

Mitchell is now gearing up for the 100-kilometer Euros scheduled for March in Paris and the 100-kilometer Worlds in October of 2013 in Korea. In February, she plans to go to the Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan for several weeks of altitude training.

“It’s races like these that keep me motivated,” Mitchell says. “Especially when it’s negative 30 degrees in January!”

Mitchell, who spends half of every day training and the other half tutoring students, plans to return to teaching eventually; she says she has the whole rest of her life for that, however.

Right now the Illinois native plans to keep chasing down her running dreams. At the top of her “running bucket list” is to win another 50-kilometer national championship. She plans to continue running competitively for as long as she can. Several women in their mid- to late-40s still compete at a high level in Russia, and Mitchell says that’s possible as long as runners take care of themselves and listen to their bodies.

“When I start to get slower, I’ll keep training, but I probably won’t want to race,” Mitchell says. “I’m too competitive to relegate myself to the middle or back of the pack.”

Eric Koenig’11: The trailblazer

Eric Koenig’11In the time since Eric Koenig’11 left Beloit, his running aspirations haven’t slowed down.

The summer after his graduation from college, the Colorado native ran 200 miles from his Boulder home to the Wyoming border via the Continental Divide Trail with Beloit Cross Country Coach Dave Eckburg. Over the course of eight days, the two got lost more than once, and even wound up hitchhiking across a lake by boat.

Koenig and Eckburg traded the Rockies for the Appalachians last summer when they ran 166 miles from the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in six days. Most of this adventure was filmed and is set to premiere at the 2013 Beloit International Film Festival.

Also this year, Koenig placed fifth in the Run Through Time Trail Marathon, ninth in the Desert Race Across the Sand Trail Festival 50-Miler, and sixth in the Kettle Moraine 100-kilometer trail race.

Now a graduate student at the University of South Florida studying applied anthropology, Koenig took the time to talk about his running.

How did you get into running?

My mom urged me to go out for the cross country team my junior year of high school because I wasn’t going out for a lot of sports, and I ended up having a really good time. Somehow I made varsity my next year, and I decided to do it in college. That’s when I was introduced to ultra-running.

What was it like running at Beloit?

It was one of the major facets of Beloit that made it so special for me. Ultimately, running made me excel as an athlete and a student. I had a great time because of cross country and track.

What were your biggest running accomplishments at Beloit?

Being the captain of a great team, winning the Olde English Classic, placing ninth during the Midwest Conference Cross Country Championship, and breaking 10 minutes in the 3,000-meter Steeplechase.

What was it like working with Coach Eckburg?

He’s really passionate about running, and he brings his artistic, eclectic self to the table when talking about running. When I visited Beloit one of the reasons I decided to go there—other than the great anthropology program—was Eckburg and Brian Bliese [the track and field coach].

What drives you to run?

I’m a little obsessive-compulsive about running, so I need to run or hike every day. This year’s New Year’s Resolution is that I have to run or hike at least a mile every day of the year with hiking being only on trails, and so far I haven’t missed a day. My goal is to have a total of 3,000 miles by Dec. 31.

What do you like about it?

I like that it’s natural because humans are meant to run. We have the anatomy for it and the brains for it. The second reason is because it’s a journey every time you go for a run, and it’s a kind of meditation, which translates into stress reduction, another component that I like. It’s also a good social outlet if you’re running with a group. There’s something almost metaphysical about running.

What do you do when you’re not running?

I’m a pretty big activist for human rights and environmental issues online, so email takes up a lot of time for me, and I just started a graduate assistantship at the University of South Florida.

What’s next?

A trail half-marathon, a 15-kilometer race, and a 10-mile race­ (part of an XTERRA trail running series in Florida). I have the ambition to win.

Zac Freudenburg’01: The mountain man

Zac Freudenburg’01It’s one thing to win a race; it’s another to do it while pushing a stroller. But Zac Freudenburg’01 has done just that. In fact, he set a Guinness World Record with the stroller and his eldest son, Liam, in tow, at the Route 66 Marathon in Tulsa, Okla. in 2009.

Freudenburg had a friend who set a record in that same marathon with a stroller, and in order to simultaneously spend time with his son and train, he decided to give it a try.

“Once I committed to doing it, the guy who held the record decided he wanted to do it again, and break his own record. It was sort of this head-to-head race, and I started worrying about it getting too serious, like, ‘What if my son starts to cry?’” he recalls. Instead, Freudenburg finished in first place, creating an incredible memory. “Everything worked out perfectly, so that was a very fulfilling moment, crossing that line.” He finished with a time of two hours, 32 minutes, and 10 seconds. His friend—the previous record-holder who was also racing with his child in a stroller—crossed the line two minutes later.

“We actually pulled off in the lead pretty early in the race, so people on the sidelines were cheering us on, but there were more people pointing than normal,” he remembers.

These days, Freudenburg is more interested in running on mountainsides than behind strollers, but it’s not something he gets to do very often. He’s currently living with his family in the Netherlands, where he holds a post-doctoral position in Amsterdam. He just finished his dissertation on the topic of brain-computer interfaces.

“I miss Montana. The Netherlands doesn’t have any hills, let alone mountains. That’s more the allure for me, just being in the mountains,” he says. As a kid, he spent summers in Montana with his dad, also a runner, and he loved the landscape.

“After college, any opportunity that presented itself to run in the mountains, I’d take. And then I had an opportunity to run the Pikes Peak Marathon, and it qualified me to run in the mountain world championships the year after that, and it just kind of went from there.”

The type of physicality and endurance it takes to run in the mountains is what draws the college cross country champion to that kind of course. “Part of the allure for me is that in the mountains it’s not really about speed or efficiency. It can start off with a big climb and leave you completely dead within the first leg of a race—there’s a lot more ups and downs.” When it comes to mountain-running, he adds, “Most people are just doing it because they love doing it.”

This summer and fall he was busy training for the world long-distance championships in Switzerland, where he planned to run on a team representing the U.S.

Many people quit running seriously after college, he says, but what Freudenburg and other runners are discovering is that sometimes it’s later than in life that a runner really finds his or her stride. Living in Europe has lent itself to a continuation of post-collegiate running, as people of all ages compete in local athletic clubs. It’s a mentality he can get behind: he loved running in college, and he saw no reason to stop.

“The only secret I have is this: a lot of people stopped running after college, and I kept running. I just was consistent about it. I think that’s the biggest thing,” he says.

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