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Thousands of spectators filled the stands and dotted the grassy hillsides in Burke Stadium. As the competitors walked up to the white starting line on the red track, a hush fell over the crowd. When the starter pistol blasted Saturday morning, the fans jolted to attention and loudly cheered on the runners as they took off.
A burst of adrenaline coursed through him as he felt the buzz of excitement and heard the roar of the crowd. Cole Belitz was running on the state’s biggest stage for track and field—the NSAA State Track and Field Championships.
After running near the back of the pack for the first lap of the 800, Belitz moved into the second lane and started passing his competitors, one by one. The loud speaker boomed, “Cole Belitz of Neligh-Oakdale is moving into second.”
“I was like, ‘Yeah, they better take note of this—I’m moving up,” he said with a grin.
Before hitting the last straightaway, Belitz heard the announcer one more time, “It’s the final turn. Let’s bring them in.” The crowd went into a frenzy as they screamed for the runners darting toward the finish line.
“And a sprint to the finish line…” the announcer boomed. “Cole Belitz of Neligh-Oakdale to the line!”
He had won his heat in 2:04.28, the fastest time in his career. It was good enough to beat out seven runners in the fast heat for sixth place overall.
“I didn’t hear them say anything at the end,” Belitz said. “I was just really excited with my time and being able to kind of pull that one out of nowhere.”
The senior runner was seeded 17th heading into the race after running his previous PR of 2:07.7 at districts.
“I was like, How am I going to crack the top eight?’ I was in the slow heat too,” Belitz said. “I knew I had to win my heat to have a chance.”
Winning his heat had another reward—he would hear his name on the loudspeaker at Burke.
“I knew I wasn’t going to be coming around first in any of my other events, so this was the only chance I had to hear my name,” Belitz said.
The interesting part was, the 800 wasn’t even a race he wanted to run at districts.
“I was more worried about the mile. I thought that was going to be one of my better chances to place at state,” he said. “Coach Eickholt told me, ‘You’re going to thank me next week when you’re getting four medals.’ I was like, ‘Dude, I don’t know about that, but okay, I’ll run it.’”
As it turned out, his coach was right.
Belitz, who had never even qualified for state track, punched his ticket in all four of his district events. He was the district champion in pole vault, runner up in the 1600 and 3200, and he earned an additional qualifying spot in the 800 after finishing with a fast third place time.
Belitz started his state events with the pole vault on Friday afternoon. He cleared 13-0 on his third and final attempt to tie his career PR.
“After 13 feet, there were still 10 of us left and I was like, ‘Oh my goodness.’ With my misses, I thought, ‘I’m literally going to have to clear 13-6,’” Belitz said.
His third attempt at 13-6 was close, but the bar fell at the last second.
“I didn’t even think I medaled in that, I was pretty disappointed,” he said. “I mean, I was happy that was only the second time I had ever gotten 13-0, but the fact that I was so close. I actually didn’t know that I had tied for 8th until I heard I heard it on the loudspeaker.”
Later that day, Belitz lined up for the 3200 meter run.
“It was a good thing there was a delay that first day, or I probably would’ve had to go right from pole vault to the two mile,” he said.
Belitz paced himself and didn’t get himself into the top 12 until about the sixth lap. Eickholt texted distance coach Kali Bohling during the race, “On pace?”
“He and Coach Bohling talked out a plan and he stuck to it to the T,” Eickholt said. “He made me nervous as all heck, I can’t deny that. Running in next to the last place for two laps.”
Bohling said she laughed when she saw the text after the race.
“Cole was in 18th, 19th, 20th, but split-wise, he was running an even pace,” she said. “He was where he needed to be. He had a kick, but he was really running even splits. It just caught up to everybody else when they ran a sub-five first mile.”
Belitz was able to catch a lot of runners during that second mile.
“That race was a really fun race because of the atmosphere,” he said. “It’s really fun to do that for eight laps and you get to soak it all up. That was really fun. It goes by a lot faster than you think.”
Belitz eventually crossed the finish line in 10:35.38 for a sixth place medal while cutting five seconds off his fastest time.
“I told him after the 3200 that he couldn’t keep doing that to me, that I had left all of my medication at home,” Eickholt said with a chuckle. “But he is maybe one of the most intelligent runners that I have ever seen.”
Belitz continued using his race strategy during the 800 and the 1600 on Championship Saturday.
After his come-from-behind heat win in the 800 for his third medal, he had a bit of a break before the 1600.
“I was worried I was going to be pretty sore,” Belitz said.
His calves were burning after the 800, so he spent some time massaging his legs.
“Then I stretched out and got warmed up, and was feeling pretty good,” he said.
However, Belitz said he was probably the most nervous for the mile, his last race. He was seeded 20th based on his district time, but he had run faster.
“I was pretty nervous for that one because I knew I probably could place,” Belitz said. “I was 3 for 3 and this was the event that I had kind of been focusing on this year.”
Caught in the back for the first two laps, he started to make his move in the third.
“I went into ninth or something,” Belitz said. “The last lap I was able to catch a few more. It was fast enough for seventh place and a four second PR.”
He ran a 4:44.67 in his final race. Belitz had medaled in every event. Not bad for his first trip to the state track meet as a competitor.
“I thought Eickholt was blowing smoke, but he had the confidence that I could bring home four medals the whole time,” Belitz said. “He was like, ‘Okay, there’s one. Just three left.’ Then, ‘There’s two. Two left.’ I said, ‘I don’t know about the 800.’ Then he was like, ‘Three for three, and you have the one you want later.’ So he had confidence the entire time and that helped my confidence.”
Belitz had been to the state track meet twice before, as a fan—once in 2017 to watch his brother Tyson in the high jump, and last year, just to take it all in.
“It just feels awesome, actually being down there competing, instead of just watching and wishing that you were,” he said.
Belitz ended his career with the third highest vault in school history and the third fastest 800, 1600 and 3200 times. All PRs from the state meet.
His coaches said that it has been a pleasure to coach Belitz and watch him grow as an athlete.
“I can’t say enough about his work ethic and what kind of a great person he is,” Eickholt said. “He has a drive to be the best that he can be. He spent hours alone in the weightroom. He spent hours alone running above and beyond what we would do in practice. He was just very dedicated to the sport.”
Bohling agreed that his hard work and inner drive are what made him so successful.
“Coaching Cole Belitz is a special way to start my coaching career,” she said. “You give him a workout and he goes and puts some extra time in. It’s been great to watch him grow. It’s something I hope the underclassmen have taken notice of—all the miles he’s put in and all the time. He’s just a fierce competitor.”
The son of Matt and Angie Belitz, he plans to attend Wayne State College and major in nursing. Belitz has been recruited to run collegiately, but he plans to hang up his spikes.
“It didn’t really set in that these were going to be my last races until the mile,” Belitz said. “It feels good, but I’m definitely going to miss track a lot. I’m going to miss the camaraderie of being part of a team. And I’m going to miss that feeling of competing and catching people and running your best race.”