FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – Andrew Belus will compete in his third NCAA National Cross Country Championship as a senior member of Northern Arizona University's perennial Top-10 men's team on Monday. The beginning of the NAU No. 5's running career, however, was surprisingly less glamorous.
Turn back the clock nine years, and we find Belus facing a dilemma about choosing a fall high school sport during the summer before his freshman year at Seton Catholic Prep in Chandler, Ariz. ultimately ended in him choosing the cross country course over football and swimming.
"I was a little too small to play football, and swimming sounded fun, but their practices started at 4 a.m., so I picked cross country," said Belus.
One may naturally think that a top-five runner on a nationally-ranked Division I cross country team would have been a competitor from the start in high school, but Belus' story is a little different.
"I was really bad at it," he said with a smirk. "I was the last person to finish every run we did, girls or guys, but I still enjoyed it somehow. I would go still go home every day feeling accomplished, and that I got something done every morning."
The humble beginnings to Belus' racing career were fairly short lived. By the end of his freshman year, he had successfully beaten one of the girls on the team, and after his sophomore track campaign, he attended a running camp that got him even more excited about racing.
"The camp made me realize how much more you can do for training, and I found a lot of people who were doing different things than I was," he said. "I didn't come from a huge cross country program, so it was good to get experience with some other kids."
Even though the camp experience just two years after taking up running was beneficial to Belus, he still credits his biggest boost in confidence and enthusiasm for the sport to two future teammates: John Yatsko and Cameron Liston.
"We started training together during our senior year," recalls Belus. "It was nice because no one on my team was really psyched about training, and those guys were definitely motivated to get the miles in."
The training paid off, because by the time Belus graduated, he had set two Seton Catholic records: one in the 5K and one in the two-mile.
The success he had achieved in four short years unfortunately did not translate into a cross country scholarship, but Belus wasn't about to stop competing as long as he was able. He opted to walk on with the Lumberjacks, since he had planned to attend NAU anyway, but he was about to experience a bit of déjà vu in his training with Flagstaff's cross country elite.
His whole freshman year, Belus was once again finishing towards the back of the pack, but his redshirt year allowed him to grow as a collegiate runner. It wasn't until his second year with the Lumberjacks that he saw race action, and he admits he hardly earned it on talent alone.
"The stars kind of aligned during [the 2008] cross country season, and because of some untimely things—sickness or ineligibility—that happened with some of our guys, I got to travel with the team to a race," said Belus. "I was running well for me, but I wasn't even close to running well enough to compete on NAU's consistently Top-10 team. Still, after going to that race I told myself that working hard will allow me to keep doing this."
Belus traveled to only one other race that season, but his experiences in that cross country campaign, as well as an interesting observation from Coach Eric Heins before summer, motivated him to put more effort into running than he ever had before.
"That summer I really took to heart what Coach and a lot of other people had been telling me about how even though I trained hard and I trained a lot, I never seemed to get hurt," said Belus. "That summer I pretty much acted like I couldn't get hurt. Any time I was motivated to run or try a workout I just did it, whether it was working on strides or putting in more miles than I was used to."
The summer after his second year with the Lumberjacks proved to be his ticket to the top seven. As just a redshirt sophomore, Belus not only recorded a second-place finish at NAU's home meet, he earned all-conference honors at the Big Sky Championships, placed sixth on the team at the Mountain Region Championships, and punched his ticket to the national meet for the first time.
Belus' rise from being a lowly freshman at Seton Catholic High School was a long, arduous road. He has put himself through a lot of hard work, and has persevered when the odds were against him, but he credits a lot of his success and motivation to the support he gets from his family.
Belus' father, Michael, has attended most all of his son's races while at NAU, and Belus smiles when talking about his dad's presence during competition.
"He really enjoys coming and watching the competitions in general, and sometimes he'll get so into the race that the excitement he generates is almost too much," Belus said with a laugh. "Still, competing in a race and hearing him cheering and yelling from the sidelines is a pretty great motivator."
Michael speaks like a proud father when asked to talk about his son's growth as a runner.
"My wife, Gail, and I have always taught Andrew and his brother to use their God given gifts as best as they could," says the elder Belus. "We have talked a lot about the value of hard work and perseverance, and I think Andrew has taken that, along with his tenacity, patient disposition, and humble attitude, and become the personification of it."
Belus has battled back from unlikely injury this season to once again be a competitor on the NAU squad, having only competed in one event prior to this year's Big Sky Championships, but his perseverance will serve the Lumberjack men well come race time at the national meet.
"We have to be willing to face anything in that race, and when unexpected things happen you have to be ready to step up," said Belus.
Throughout his career, Belus has known nothing other than stepping up to challenges that face him, and Monday's NCAA National Championships will be no different.