In May 1994, Maria Olberding, a 1990 English major, was jogging through the tony Cincinnati neighborhood of Hyde Park, something she—and a lot of people in the area—did on a regular basis. All hours of the day and night, runners could be found plodding along in front of the well-lit, well-manicured lawns.
But then the unexpected happened. In an act of senseless, random violence, a teenager attacked her with a knife. The murder stunned the city.
Her grieving family, wanting to keep her memory alive, established an event that celebrated the 27-year-old and her two loves: Reggae music and running. So just months after her death, they organized a five-kilometer run that ended in a big party with plenty of food, drinks and live reggae. The first Reggae Run drew 3,000 people. Now, 17 years later, more than 8,000 people run the race and party into the night.
The bigger the race grows, of course, the bigger the logistical headaches for its organizer—her brother and professor of sport management Doug Olberding. Fortunately, he knows just where to find help: his classroom.
What could be a more perfect teaching tool than experience? Olberding usually finds 20-30 recruits from his class and around the sport management program who pitch in to help manage crowd control and parking. The participation can be addicting. Some students, like Dan Kaspar, who first volunteered as a freshman, come back year after year, even after graduating.
Long before Kaspar earned his sport management degree in 2002, he had earned the role of Olberding’s go-to guy for parking. Armed with only an orange vest and a walkie-talkie, Kaspar coordinated the efficient placement of thousands of cars. (Parking at slight angles and close together works best.) “We filled up soccer fields and school parking lots and side streets,” he says. “It was organized chaos to say the least.”
So many people showed up for the 5K race—and the legendary party afterward—that by the time all the cars were parked, Kaspar was miles away from the starting line. “I basically ran a 5K just doing the parking,” he says.
Volunteering for the Reggae Runs taught Kaspar about planning, people management and adaptation. He used the skills to land his current job as a district manager for a building supplies company in Dallas.
After months of planning, Olberding’s race day begins at 6:00 a.m. Setting up takes time. The food stalls need tables, the Port-o-Potties need to be situated, the music tent erected. Around midday, Olberding and his students brief the Cincinnati Police Department on their crowd control and parking plans. Runners start arriving in the afternoon, the race is at 6:00 p.m. and the party goes until midnight.
Just as the night winds down, students from Xavier’s Alternative Break program arrive to help pack up. Olberding pays them for their efforts, and the group uses the event as a fundraiser. “We’re exhausted, we’re ready to drop dead,” he says. “And they come in like the cavalry reinforcements.”
Aside from the Reggae Run, Olberding also offers his students the chance to work on an even bigger sporting event—Cincinnati’s annual Flying Pig Marathon. Student interns start in January and work the entire semester until the Marathon itself, in early May. Olberding is chairman of the Flying Pig board, and every year he’s at the finish line, dressed in running shoes and a blazer with a pig logo. The scene is not always pretty, especially when the runners start collapsing. “At some point in the race, it’s literally like Gettysburg,” he says. “I’m shaking hands with sweating, puking runners as they cross the finish line. They look like hell.”
A runner himself, Olberding struggles to find time to jog these days. He has yet to run the Flying Pig, but he always makes a point to hoof the Reggae Run. Just before the race he takes off his utility belt, pins a number to his shirt and waits for the gun. When he’s finished, he grabs a beer and spends half an hour watching the park fill with runners and revelers. The reggae band is setting up, and the sun is going down. And for 30 short minutes, he sits by himself in peace, remembering his sister—and his students.