BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – He’s not your prototypical cross-country runner. At least not someone his size.
HTC junior Matt Hellige will be running Saturday in the Class 1A state cross-country meet on Lakeside Municipal Golf Course at Kennedy Park in Fort Dodge. It’s Hellige’s second straight year at the meet after missing by two places and less than 10 seconds in his freshman year.
Hellige, who stands at 6’2″ and weighs right around 185 lbs., looks like a heavy runner, but is fleet of foot as he’s won several events this year and typically finished in the top 5 in most district events this year. Hellige took 11th at the district qualifier at Iowa City Regina on Thursday.
Runners who have had Hellige’s kind of success are typically smaller and thinner and run with quicker steps. Hellige says his height lets him extend his stride without having to take as many steps, but carries extra muscle mass for the bigger frame.
“Well, like how a bigger body would help you is if you’re taller you can stride out farther and if you’re shorter it’s faster steps. Being taller means longer strides,” he said Wednesday afternoon before a 1-mile warmup. After the warm-up, Hellige did stretch drills and then ran an alternating quick mile, slow mile 4-mile run from HTC to 48th Avenue along the Bluff and back.
He said he’s looking to build on last year’s 90th place finish. He ran the course, which is mapped out to be the same course as 2017, in 18:04.4.
“I just wanna improve on my time and improve where I placed from last year. I’ve definitely tried to eat healthier and ran a couple more miles each week compared to last year in hopes of doing better this year,” Hellige sad.
“We did a little more weight lifting, especially in the summer. Every other day I would go work out in a gym in Nauvoo. I wanted to develop the legs a little more. I didn’t want to necessarily get bigger, but become a stronger runner.”
Head Coach Matt Mohrfeld said Hellige has been dedicated in the off-season to getting better. He said Hellige’s kick in the last quarter mile this year has improved.
“He’ll drop under 4:45 in the last quarter mile this year, which is just savage and about a minute faster than the rest of our team’s times,” Mohrfield said.
“When you ask about Matt’s training, he’s a little humble when it comes to that. What he’s done different is he’s been a machine. Running training is about a plan and he’s stuck to his plan and executed it. He’s trained smarter and more mature. If it’s a five-mile easy, it’s a five-mile easy. If it’s one mile repeats at 6:55, he hits his numbers and sticks to the plan.”
Mohrfeld said Hellige’s execution during races has been better than previous years.
“His strategic execution in the races has been better than before. He knows what his capacity is and sticks to that. He isn’t sucked into the kid who goes out quick, and not sucked in by the group that lags back. So maturity has helped him.”
Hellige benefited from seeing some of the fastest kids in the state at the Iowa City districts. His time at districts was a half second faster than his 2017 state time, but like any outdoor sporting event, there are variables such as surface and weather conditions that can impact times.
Strictly looking at times and not course set up, condition, exact length and other variables, Hellige’s qualifying time would have been good enough for a top five finish at the qualifiers in Guthrie Center and Cedar Rapids Kennedy. Marshalltown’s 1A qualifier had 24 runners in under 18 minutes with Madrid’s Sean McDermott, pulling the best time in the state at 16:32.8 a full 10 seconds in front of the second place runner. Regina had the second toughest district with 10 qualifiers running in under 18 minutes with the top runner, Hunter Rickels of Calamus-Wheatland, running a 17:10.9. The final West Sioux qualifier had nine runners in under 18 minutes. Gehlen Catholic’s Will Roder had the best time there at 17:04.45.
Looking just at times, Hellige had the 54th best time in the state on Thursday, but Mohrfeld said track-to-track numbers are inherently skewed.
“As I say, as long as they run up to their ability and give it their best, that will be their best race. And no matter what, I’m always proud of them,” he said.
“Our district is as tough as I remember it being. Pekin kids are fast and they were third and fourth to the Cal-Wheatland kids. You got a look there at some kids who are going to take some positions at state. Even though there will be more people running, the competition will not be any greater. If you look at our district qualifier, that pack didn’t break until late and he was right there battling in that pack.”
Each district takes the top 15 runners, plus all the runners from the schools that qualify as a team that didn’t qualify individually, are invited to run at the state meet. Last year there were 149 runners in Class 1A.
Hellige said he’s done a few things with nutrition and ran some different training routes, but for the most part he’s just focusing on his stride. Mohrfeld said he’s become more fluid in his pace and mechanics are more in line.
“His style has gotten more fluid. His body isn’t as rigid and he’s firing the knee nice which drops the foot under him instead of reaching out forward. When I watch him go around the track and look at the forms, man, his form is consistent and his endurance backs his form, if that makes sense.”
Hellige said he runs to exhaustion at each race, but runs through the shoot and then recovers.
“Every race is so exhausting. Obviously I try as hard as I can and definitely get exhausted, but I think I recover very quickly,” he said.
This is also the first year the runners are allowed to wear GPS training watches on the course. Hellige said he won’t be looking at the watch very much and it shouldn’t be a distraction.
“Well, I may glance down every now and then,” he said with a smile.
The Class 1A boys run begins at 2:30 p.m. and is the last race of the day on Saturday.