Monday, September 6, 2010

Happy Birthday, Mark Belger

Mark Belger, former NCAA champion, US Olympian, and winner of 10 Penn Relays Championship of America gold watches for Villanova, is 56 years old today. Belger set the national prep record over 880 yards, won the NCAA title at 800 meters in 1978, and -- like Don Paige and Dick Buerkle -- had his 1980 Olympic opportunity cut short by the US boycott. Paige married another 800 meter NCAA champion and both of their daughters ran competitively in college. Below is a lengthy profile of Belger from 2009.

Reflections with middle distance great Mark Belger

From Mark Belger’s newly remodeled house in Pacific Beach, it is only a short walk to Mika Sushi, where he walks in the door, waves to the chef, and shows me a picture of him and his daughter on the wall. In the space of a few blocks, I had already learned that Belger tried running because he got “kicked out” of other sports, that he set age-group world records when he was 15, 16 and 17, and that both his daughters received college scholarships for following in their father’s footsteps.

Over an off-menu sushi roll and Sapporo beers, Belger tells me stories of the races that he ran (Penn Relays, 800 meters) and the ones that he didn’t (most notably, the 1980 Olympics, due to a U.S. boycott of the games). One thing I notice, over and over again, is Belger’s use of the word “fun”. He uses it in every story of every race.

“Racing was the part I liked,” Belger said. “Training was the hard part…I trained less than most.”

Belger grew up on Long Island in what he calls a “strict, middle-income” family. He stopped playing football when he hurt his jaw, stopped wrestling when he dislocated his fingers, and stopped playing soccer when he broke his toes. His dad told him, “you have to do some after-school activity,” so Belger began running in junior high. He received his first trophy running 600 meters during a President Kennedy Fitness test.

Belger enjoyed middle distances, setting three age group records in what was then the 880-meter at his high school, W.C. Mepham. He was persuaded to go out for cross-country, which he admits he approached with the same philosophy as middle-distance running.

“The first time I had to run two miles, I quit,” Belger laughed. “I was running as hard as I could as long as I could.” Innately, he said, he worked hard and had a hard time pacing himself. However, he managed to return to cross-country at the prodding of his coach. In his first junior varsity race, which was in the shape of a figure-8, Belger remembers staying right behind the front of the pack until he took a wrong turn. When he realized his mistake, Belger turned around and ran as fast as he could to win first place.

That tenacity and persistence paid off on college, which Belger attended at Villanova under famed coach James (Jumbo) Elliott.

“All coaches give you a rope,” Belger said. “It’s up to you if you want to hang yourself or swing with it.”

At Villanova, Belger ran the 800 meter and “lots of relays”.

“When weekends came around, I ran four to five races,” he remembers. “The ability to run that many races was my treasure. I loved relays, it’s like tag. You can tell when you’re going to beat somebody… from the warm-up, I’d put my eye on somebody and think, ‘I got him.’”

Belger set a record for the most Penn Relay titles, earning 10 coveted gold watches. “You don’t lose the Penns,” he jokes, but I can tell he’s completely serious. He never lost a race in the four years he participated. Belger made Sports Illustrated when he set the record in 1978, leading Villanova to five victories out of five races. He was inducted into the Penn Relays Wall of Fame in 1994.

“In college, our team had a lot of depth,” Belger said. “We trained together really well… Because we trained fast, we were well-honed.” At the ICA4 Championships, he ran five back-to-back races. Going into the 800-meter finals, the last race, Belger felt a little queasy at the beginning of the stagger lanes. He raised his hand, asking for a delay of the start, went and barfed, and returned to the starting line-up.

“I remember turning around in the stagger lanes, looking at the other guys, and they were slack-jawed,” Belger said, laughing. “They couldn’t believe it.”

Although he was less infatuated with training than he was with racing, Belger learned to train smart. He’s surprised by how many runners would hit the course without knowing the race.

“Going to bed at night, I visualized any and every possibility,” he said. “Then, when you get to the race, nothing’s new. You’ve already run it.”

At the Olympic Trials in 1976, Belger used that strategy---and his knowledge of opponent Keith Francis---to place fourth.

“I knew exactly how it was going to go,” Belger said. “I waited until the back straightaway, because Keith Francis always ran wide on the back straightaway. I came out of the turn in front, and then I hit a wall---I was just telling myself, ‘left, right, left, right.’”

Belger went on to become the NCAA 800-meter champion in 1978.

After college, Belger moved to Boston, where he worked in “econometrics”--- he helped to forecast the price of raw materials for the auto industry and developers. He remembers showing up at a Boston Athletics Association workout, where the coach told him his proposed quarter-mile workouts were a bad idea. Belger proceeded to run both of the BAA workouts and then run his quarters.

Just after completing college in 1979, he also had the opportunity to run against Villanova’s other star---Don Paige, whom Elliott had never allowed Belger to compete against. Belger could ask meet directors for an appearance list. He specifically asked the director of a meet at Madison Square Garden to set up a matchup with Paige. Although Belger tried to contain his energy, he said before the 1000-yard race, “I don’t think it’s gonna take a world record to beat Paige, but it’ll take a world record to beat me.”

The race was widely publicized, and Belger and Paige made the centerfold of Sports Illustrated. Belger held the lead for much of the race, only to be passed by Paige in the last three laps. Paige set a World Indoor Record.

Belger hit the travel circuit of post-collegiate racing, becoming familiar with running races with jet lag. He’d run a Friday night race in New York, pass through Chicago to run one on Saturday, and hit a Sunday race in Los Angeles. He enjoyed running in New York, which he said was a different experience altogether.

“One of my first races in Europe, I ran flat-out and set a personal record,” he said. “I still came in dead last! I saw people run faster than our pros, and I’d never heard of them.”

Belger enjoyed the international feel of running in Europe, compared to the spread-out invitationals in the U.S. He visited more zoos than perhaps any other American runner.

“What? I liked zoos!” He said. “People want to do what reminds them of home.”

Nowadays, Belger doesn’t do much running. He leaves that to his daughters and his wife Mimi, who join him for hill runs and strides at Kate Sessions Park on Saturdays. Any runner who wants to improve their running mechanics can learn from Belger at “the hill”. Even though the workouts are held on Saturdays, they often include a sermon from the Godfather of San Diego Running, Mr. Steve Holl.

Belger explains that strides are the key to improving running form and speed. The uphill running portion of the workout is necessary to isolate and blast one small muscle—the heart.

His eldest daughter, Erin, received a scholarship to UC Berkeley and competed in the Pac-10s and the NCAAs. Sarah, his next youngest, came back from a horrible knee-injury post high school to receive a cross-country/track scholarship at San Diego State her senior year.

“The fruit didn't fall far from the tree as far as their ability and commitment went... and in the end it paid off by providing structure, travel, a college education and other rewards,” Belger said. “Any passion suited to an individual's talents is a good thing… I'm just glad my daughters grew up with the experience that hard work and dedication has a positive effect.”

Belger is optimistic about track and field in the U.S. today, and he hopes some things never change.

“I’m old school,” he said. “You draw a starting line in the dirt, hoist a flag on the other side of the field, throw in a few obstacles, maybe even a good rain shower, drop the temperature to 40 degrees and pull the trigger. I'd say you have a race... Throw on a jersey with the name of your school across your chest and tie on a borrowed pair of spikes to your feet and I'm in heaven.”

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