BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT DODGE – To see him after the race, it was just another one.
But for Holy Trinity Catholic’s Matt Hellige, his 24th place finish at the state cross country meet Saturday afternoon at Kennedy Park in Fort Dodge was a culmination of about six years of training.
Hellige came home from school in seventh grade and told his family he wanted to run cross-country and his dad, John Hellige said his first hope was that his son wouldn’t finish last.
The senior has done anything but finish last. He missed the cut for state as a freshman by two spots, with only the top 15 at each qualifier earning a trip to the state meet.
As a sophomore Hellige made it to the state meet and finished 90th with a time of 18:04. As a junior he jumped 32 spots to 58th in Class 1A with a time of 17:49 and this year, with some cool, blustery conditions on the back of the course, raced to a 17:14 time, cutting 35 seconds off his best course time.
Nodaway Valley’s Josh Baudler won the event with a time of 16:11. Wapello’s Aiden Housman took 12th place overall with a time of 16:44. The fastest time of the day went to Max Murphy of Pleasant Valley in Class 4A with a 15:29.3, just .2 seconds in front of West Des Moines Dowlings’ Sam Hall at 15:29.5.
The start of the race is spread out as runners sprint to a narrowing path about 150 yards into the run. Hellige sprinted out toward the front, but then throttled back and settled into a pace.
Head Coach Matt Mohrfeld said the start was very fast.
“They got out hot today. They really got out hot and at about 3/4 of a mile, I could see his pain,” Mohrfeld said.
“But I’ll give him credit, he locked in to where he needed to be and fought to hang on to that throughout the race.”
At about the mile mark, Hellige said he felt the burn of the quicker start, but then was able to get back into his stride and work on catching other runners.
“I felt pretty good during warmups and was a little worried about the cold coming up here, but it wasn’t too bad,” Hellige said.
“So I felt good. The start was very crowded and boxy this year for the first half mile and it was hard to get positioning, but then after a mile or so it kind of lengthened out a bit and there was more room. Then I just settled in to see how many I could pass. I was happy with where I finished.”
During the spring Hellige runs 1600s and 3200s and anchors some medley relays for the Fort Madison Bloodhound track team. Hellige said you have to have a different mentality running cross country.
“Sometimes during a 5K you gotta realize it’s not a 1600, it’s not a race to the first mile so sometimes you just have to say wait a little bit, get settled in, and get ready for that final push.”
Hellige did just that on Saturday, where he was unofficially in 28th place hitting the final 1/2 mile and then worked his way passed four runners, with the last two coming on the 150 yards downhill into the timing chute.
After dealing with some media interviews, Hellige found his family outside the finish area and exchanged hugs.
“I thought he ran good today, I think he was 17:05 or so he probably dropped 30 to 45 seconds,” John Hellige said. “But there were some kids in that field ahead of him that beat numerous times this year. You always want more, but that’s the nature of running. I’m just super proud of him whether he’s first or last.”
Hellige said he still has to acclimate a little to having a pack of runners in front of him. During the season he rarely finished outside the top 5, unless at larger group runs like the Steve Johnson Invitational that brings in runners from all over the upper Midwest.
“I just try to run my race. I’d say the first year it was a big shock to see all those runners in front of me,” he said.
“But now I just know my race and how I run and so these last two years I didn’t really worry about that.”
Mohrfeld said Hellige’s success has come from a dedication to the craft.
“He looks a lot more like a runner than he did as a freshman. He’s leaner and a lot more fluid,” Mohrfeld said.
“There are runners out here today that are gifted with talent, but Matt’s talent came from hard work. He trains like a machine. If there were seven kids that would train like Matt, we’d have a team here.”
Hellige will run in the Senior All-Star meet in Ankeny next weekend and then will take about a week off before starting training for his final track and boys basketball seasons.