Going the DistancePosted by admin on 11/16/12 • Categorized as Fall/Winter 2012
By Hilary Dickinson and Lynn Vollbrecht’06
Beloit 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’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.”