Thursday, December 16, 2010

A conversation with Christian Belz--"I'd rather retire from track than have track retire me."

Former University of Washington runner Christian Belz (left/photo courtesy www.silvesterlauf.ch) posted that quote on his Twitter page a few days after he announced his retirement from the sport after a seventh place finish in the elite men's race of the Silvesterlauf Zürich on Sunday.

To mark his final race, Belz wore a retro ST Bern (his track club in Bern) jersey, commemorating the fact that he began his running career with that club.

The 36-year old Belz, who graduated from the UW in 1998, was a part of the international running scene for more than a decade, having competed in four IAAF world track & field championships, two Olympic Games, and two IAAF world cross country championships, not to mention four appearances representing Switzerland at the European Athletics Championships.

To give folks here in the United States some perspective of how big a story Christian's decision to retire from international competition is in Switzerland, it's almost similar to say, Nate McMillan's retirement from the Seattle Sonics, or Edgar Martinez from the Seattle Mariners.

Here is some video of Belz (it's in Swiss German) on his decision to retire:



Here's a link to a rough translation of this video:

Belz, who retires as the Swiss national record holder in the steeplechase (8:22.24 in 2001 in Hengelo), and the 10000 (27:53.16 in 2005 at the IAAF World Championships in Helsinki), talked to me Tuesday through the magic of Skype, near midnight, local time at his home in Bern.

When asked about his decision to retire from international competition, he said, "It basically came down to three factors: I wanted to spend more time with my family; I wanted put more time into my work as a sport economist at the Federal Institute of Sport here in Switzerland; and, being realistic about my chances for a high placing and/or a medal at the 2012 Olympics, where I would be 38 years old."

"I'm not afraid of the work necessary to compete at that level; it's that I would need to be away from my family for an extended period of time (he has two girls, age 4 and 2, and is married to Anita Braegger, a 1:59.66 800 meter runner who ran in the 2004 Athens Olympics) to continue training."

"As there is no true training group here in Bern, I pretty much have to train by myself, and go overseas to get the work done. It's pretty hard on the kids, not being able to see daddy."

"When you're 36-year old, the probability of staying healthy for another two years goes down the older you get. The body just doesn't respond as quickly to the stress as it would when I was younger."

In terms of his professional career at the Federal Institute of Sport, he's worked there on a part-time basis for almost 2 1/2 years, while trying to compete at the world-class level. Belz, who earned his master's degree (MBA) in Financial Management & Marketing from the University of Bern, expressed some concerns that continuing to compete might hinder any possible professional opportunities, noting that "I have very high expectations from myself".

After the 2006 season, where he finished a disappointing fourth in the European Championships in the 10000, Belz took the next logical progression, and moved up to the marathon.

In his debut at the marathon, Belz ran 2:15:08 on October 7, 2007, in Cologne, Germany. Unfortunately, he missed the Olympic standard and was not selected by the Swiss federation to go to Beijing.

From 2007 to 2009, he suffered a variety of injury problems, and underwent knee surgery.

He had considered retiring after 2008 before the series of injuries, but he felt like he wanted to be the one calling the shots, thus inspiring the tweet he posted a few days ago of "I'd rather retire from track than have track retire me."

After some thought, he decided to compete this past season, with the goal of running the 10000 in the European Championships in Barcelona.

The 2010 season did not start off well for Belz, who traveled to Kenya in January for a training camp. Shortly after arriving in Kenya, he was injured in what can be best described as a freak accident, and couldn't run for almost two months.

"I was injured by a physio while getting a massage. All I wanted was a simple massage, and instead, I got injured."

Belz went back home to Bern from Kenya to contemplate his next move. His next move took him first to Portland, where he stayed and tried to train for about 10 days with several members of the Nike Oregon Project, before heading out to Boulder, Colorado, where he trained with former University of Oregon standout Jason Hartmann, and 2008 US Olympian Jorge Torres.

Belz ducked under the 29:00 time barrier required by the Swiss federation to go to Barcelona in the B section of the 10000 at the Payton Jordan Invitational in Palo Alto on May 1st, running 28:56.05 to finish eleventh.

Before heading to Barcelona, Belz won the Swiss national title over 5000 meters on July 17th, running a modest 14:01.85.

The former Husky went into Barcelona as one of the lowest seeded runners in the field, but took advantage of the moderate pace, closing the gaps on the field and picking off runners to earn a sixth place finish in 28:54.01.

Though he was behind in his training this season, Belz felt that he was close to the level that he was at before the nearly three years of fighting injuries, and that it was time to bow out of competitive racing, after achieving a personal goal of not letting injuries dictate the end of his international career.

As he reinforced to me, he is leaving the sport in good health, and most importantly, he's leaving on his own terms.

In our one-hour conversation, we talked about his three years at the University of Washington between 1996 and 1998, where he earned his undergraduate degree in business, and ran three seasons of cross country, along with two seasons of track.

Not knowing much about the American collegiate system, Belz wrote to about 20 schools in the US. Only five answered seriously, with the UW, under coach Mike Johnson, convincing Christian to travel across the Atlantic Ocean to study and run in Seattle.

Johnson, who only coached Belz for one season, before taking the coaching position at Boise State, said, "Christian was always so much a part of the sport and the sport a part of him. Elite Europeans have such an appreciation for  the greatness of human potential and a commitment to extract the best from themselves. Christian gave no indication that anything other than his best was acceptable.  He was focused on great mechanics, a good diet, and running fast. From the moment he arrived I knew he wanted to run very well."

Johnson, who is now the head track and cross country coach at Western Oregon University, fondly recalled a visit by Belz' family to Seattle.

He said, "They came with a graciousness and intelligence that was a pleasure to be around. And despite the fact that they were visitors, it was they who came bearing gifts. Christian reflects those values, and I believe it was that well grounded rearing, and a very good Swiss education, that gave him the confidence to become the truly great athlete he has been over the last several years."

In his three years as a Husky, he competed in the Pac 10 against the likes of Olympic medalists Meb Keflezighi and Bernard Lagat on a regular basis while they were at UCLA and Washington State, respectively. Belz finished second in the Pac-10 in the steeplechase twice at the UW.

In his final season as a Husky, Belz earned an All-American certificate, as he finished 17th in the 1998 NCAA Championships in Lawrence, Kansas, running 30:49.

Looking back at that race, he recalled that second-year UW cross country coach Greg Metcalf "must have run nearly the whole last lap of that course alongside me--that's how excited he was that I was up there!"

While Belz may be stepping away from the international running scene, he will continue to remain active in the sport.

Along with current national marathon record holder Viktor Röthlin, and 1984 Olympic 5000m silver medalist Markus Ryffel, the trio have started an interactive running web site, www.runningcoach.ch.

Runners of all abilities will be able to get individualized training programs from the trio, and will have access to videos on core work, strength training, nutrition, stretching, along with analysis of their workouts.

I've been privileged to have followed Christian's running feats from his days at the University of Washington, and honored to witness in person his four world championships appearances, including his Swiss national record in the 10000 in the rain at Olympic Stadium in Helsinki in 2005, and his 18th place finish in the 4k race at the 2003 world cross country championships in his home country.

I echo his sentiments, and applaud the fact that he gets to leave the sport on his terms, a reality that  few elite athletes in any sport get to decide, as more often than not, the decision is made for them.

Chrigu, I'm glad that you're at peace with your decision. Danke!

1 comment:

Paul Harkins said...

Paul: great article! I think I can speak for those of us who ran with Christian and say that we are all very proud of what he accomplished as a pro! He's a great guy and I for one, really appreciate your recognition for what he did during his career.
Thanks, Paul

Paul Harkins

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