Grunt to "Goddess" - Marathon Internship Brings Opportunity for Hilgendorf

Release Date: 5/4/2012

Max Hilgendorf has "Goddess" status, and he's proud of it.

Max Hilgendorf

Max Hilgendorf, a sophomore Strategic Communication major, recently spent four days interning for the operations director of the Little Rock Marathon.

Hilgendorf, a sophomore Strategic Communication major from Fort Smith, recently served as an intern to Gina Pharis, operations director for the Little Rock Marathon. During the four-day internship, he worked his way from being a volunteer doing manual labor into being trusted with complete access to all areas associated with the marathon. His "Goddess" access badge reads, "All rights, privileges, favors, liberties, and string-pulling are bestowed upon the holder of this credential. Basically, I can go anywhere I want and need to go."

Hilgendorf's journey to the marathon began as part of an assignment in Dr. Heather McFarland's Interviewing in Professional Settings class last fall. For the assignment, students were to contact and interview a professional working in the student's desired field. Hilgendorf, who is a member of the university's cross-country team, interviewed Pharis over the phone. At the end of the conversation, Pharis offered to let him shadow her and do an informal internship as she prepared for this year's Little Rock Marathon. The arrangements were finalized by November 2011, and Hilgendorf met Pharis for the first time at the end of February, only a few days before the marathon.

His first assignment as an intern was less than glorious—an afternoon of manual labor with other volunteers. When he arrived in Little Rock, Pharis sent him to help put medals on the racks at the finish line, and later he met her at the Statehouse Convention Center to set up the Health and Fitness Expo. It wasn't what Hilgendorf had expected to do as an "intern."

"She said I would get to do all this work and shadow her, but I got there and did manual work in the sun for four hours," Hilgendorf said. "I got sunburn. It was grunt work. It helped, though, that she saw my work ethic, and things changed after that. I became the actual intern.
"But I still had to do the grunt work," he added. "Everyone did. Even Gina and Geneva did some dirty work. That's just what it takes, as I soon realized, to put on an event like that."

Hilgendorf was integrated into the committee of volunteers who, along with Pharis and marketing/promotions director Geneva Hamilton, make the Marathon happen.

"I was incorporated into their family right away," he said. "She told me what I would be doing and I was still skeptical—I didn't really believe I would be more than a volunteer. But then she pulled me out of the Expo setup and took me to the medical meeting at Baptist Hospital. That was my first inside look."

That was the first of several meetings Hilgendorf attended during the next three days. The Little Rock Marathon, as a Boston Marathon qualifying race, is considered an elite marathon in the running world. In addition to the marathon itself, the event includes a 5K Fun Run/Walk, the Little Rockers Kids Marathon Final Mile, the Health and Fitness Expo, a Half Marathon, and two massive parties, one before and one after the race. As operations director, Pharis was in charge of all the events, and as her intern, Hilgendorf was also involved.

"It was day-by-day," he said. "Even for her, things weren't really scheduled other than meetings."

At first, Hilgendorf was doing the normal "intern"-type activities—running errands, making copies, shadowing Pharis—but over the three-day event, his role began to change and take on more responsibility. By the Little Rockers race, Hilgendorf was the official "Tweeter" for the event, going through the course to post updates and pictures to Twitter throughout the race. By Saturday evening, he was helping at the Expo, where some important work, including registration check-in, was being done literally the night before the race.

"There are 12,000 participants total for the three races," Hilgendorf said. "That means a huge number of boxes of forms people have sent in, so there are lots of problems. I was answering lots of questions, and I sort of developed my own position and got my own tasks. I had my own to-do list of things I had seen that needed to be done. There weren't many times Gina actually gave me instructions. A lot of the time, I just had to watch and figure it out.

"Saturday was a week in itself," Hilgendorf joked. "It was crazy how much got done that day."

Besides working the two races (the 5K and the Little Rockers), Hilgendorf went out with the course director, Norm Pingley, to put out barricades and lay down the direction arrows to mark the course for runners.

"Norm was a gruff, construction-worker kind of guy," Hilgendorf said. "Laying out the course was hard for me, and he was hard on me when I messed up. But it was great to be out there the next day and think, 'I was out here when it was a normal street.' I know downtown Little Rock well now."
By Saturday night, Hilgendorf was included in the last-minute preparations, including the meeting with the Little Rock Police and "The Meeting," in which Pharis and her crew went over piece by piece what would happen the next morning for the Marathon.

Max's badges, including the "Goddess" badge.

During his internship, Hilgendorf worked his way from being a volunteer doing manual labor into being trusted with complete access to all areas associated with the marathon, signified by his "Goddess" access badge.

"Saturday night after we closed the Expo was so cool," Hilgendorf said. "Everyone is excited, no one sleeps. We were all gathered in one of the conference rooms of the Peabody Hotel with a view of the Old State House and the river, and it's like, 'Ok, now let's get to work.' It was a neat atmosphere, like being in a war room."

After the meeting came one of the key moments for Hilgendorf in his transition to Goddess status. Pharis was organizing her race book, a task which couldn't be completed until the night before the race. Although she told him to go back to the hotel to get some sleep before the morning race call, Hilgendorf stayed to help her.

"That was the only time I really had a chance to sit and ask her questions," he said. "In the most humble way, I'm glad I didn't go in trying to be someone I'm not, because it wouldn't have worked. I just let my true character come out, which is what impressed her most. I tried to think things through, and if I saw a need, I did something. Sometimes I figured out how to do them, but I wasn't scared to ask the dumb questions. If I didn't know what to do, I would ask. I think those two things are what made her give me more responsibility."

After only two hours of sleep, Hilgendorf reported at 4:00 a.m. Sunday to the operations truck, the control center for the race. He was one of six people in the truck, along with Pharis, the head coordinator of both the Metropolitan Emergency Medical Service and the Little Rock Police, the communications director (who was running the master radio), and the marathon committee assistant.

"The truck was awesome," Hilgendorf said. "It was full of computers and communication equipment. You could run an army from there.

"The six of us handled everything. I knew as an intern I would get to be a fly on the wall, but we were so busy, there was no time to ask questions. I knew what I had learned was what I would have to go with. I knew at that point I had arrived."

Hilgendorf spent much of his time during the race inside the truck, although he did also take care of some jobs out on the marathon course, such as refilling water stations or transporting a runner with a mild injury back to his hotel.

"At 4 a.m., even the elite runners weren't there," he said. "The next time I came out of the truck, there were 12,000 people and sunshine."

One of Hilgendorf's jobs during the first half of the race was to track the first-place runners through information coming in from the water stations, which he said was a challenge for the men's race, since the leader kept changing. For the women's race, however, local favorite and three-time winner Leah Thorvilson led throughout the marathon. When it was clear Thorvilson would be winning the women's race for the fourth consecutive year, Hilgendorf and Pharis went to watch.

"It was awesome to get to see Leah cross the finish line," Hilgendorf said. "Think about how crazy it is - she beat the Kenyans. I got to meet her at the post-race party, and she was fun, a normal person. I told her she made my job easy because she was nine minutes ahead of the second-place runner."

Hilgendorf said opportunity was the key to his internship experience.

"I took it from the perspective of, I got this opportunity and how many times will I get this before I go out to do this professionally?" he said. "If I have to stay up all night, it's more important than any sleep. Being sleep-deprived - it's part of the experience!"

Hilgendorf plans to use his Strategic Communication major and his internship experience to work toward a career in events planning.

"I love people and want to work with people," he said. "I'm a dreamer and an idea guy. How awesome is it to get to be in a meeting and have dreams and ideas be your job?

"At first I thought it was strange that I was working with Gina in operations, because I'm more like Geneva, with the creative side. But now I'm glad I ended up with Gina, because events planners have to have that other side, too. Strategic communication encompasses both—creativity and planning."

Hilgendorf was recently invited by Pharis to work with the Little Rock Marathon again next year. In the meantime, he plans to follow up this year's internship experience by working on a promotional video this summer for the Clarksville-Johnson County Chamber of Commerce.

The best part about being a Goddess?

"I could never find a parking spot," Hilgendorf said. "No matter how much clearance I had, I couldn't find a place to park - until the morning of the race, when I had Goddess clearance!"

Article submitted by Dr. Greta Marlow, Professor of Communication.