Finding the right gig: Mark Wieczorek and the Gig Harbor boys chase dreams together

The Gig Harbor WA boys pose with coach Mark Wieczorek, right, after placing second at NXN Northwest. Gary Paulson/ESPNHS

The race hadn’t even started when Will Drinkwater made his move.

This was at last June’s Portland Track Festival. A delay at the starting line for the 800 meters gave the high school junior the opening he’d been looking for.

He walked up to nationally-ranked post-collegian Mark Wieczorek and stuck out his hand: “I’m Will Drinkwater and I go to Gig Harbor. You should come be our coach.”

Five months later it seems that everything lined up perfectly to create this improbable scenario. The Gig Harbor boys cross country team is coached by the 26-year-old Olympic hopeful. The Tides win Washington’s Class 4A championship and become the first team from west of the Cascades Mountains to win the state’s large-school classification in 25 years.

And US#10 Gig Harbor will compete at Nike Cross Nationals for the first time on Dec. 3 in Portland.

And Wieczorek, who missed the team’s district championships because he was making his first Team USA appearance at the Pan Am Games last month in Mexico, is out to prove that it’s possible to train at an elite level, and coach, at the same time.

“It didn’t take long at all to get on the same page with these kids,” Wieczorek said. “Right now, I’m having a blast with it. It’s so much fun.”

Keep in mind, Wieczorek had never been engaged in a high school cross country season before. He’d never coached it. He never even participated in it.

Wieczorek played basketball, baseball and golf at his high school in Oklahoma.

Then he went to MidAmerica Nazarene University, an NAIA school in Kansas. His mother and father had both gone there. He played basketball his freshman year, but he was not very tall and rail thin. The track coach convinced him to try a couple of indoor meets, so he did.

“The roommate I got paired with was a runner and I just started enjoying (the track team),” Wieczorek said.

And the kid with a high school best of 2:14 in the 800, got better in a hurry. He ran 1:59 as a freshman, 1:53 as a sophomore and 1:50 as a junior. Then he fractured his clavicle while skiing as a senior. But he came back from the injury in time to run 1:49 indoors. He ran only 20 miles a week in college, and most of that was indoors on treadmills.

The 1:49 showed enough promise that he was soon connected with Oregon Track Club Elite coach Frank Gagliano. Wieczorek went to the 2007 U.S. Outdoor Championships and ran a PR of 1:48.10 and qualified for the semifinals.

“I had no understanding of the sport,” Wieczorek said. “I ran, and ran hard, but I was making up my own workouts.”

Wieczorek moved to Eugene, Ore. and joined Team XO, sort of an OTC ‘B’ team made up of post-collegians holding on to the dream of making it as pro track athletes. He got his first serious coaching, from Gagliano, and his weekly mileage sprouted from 20 to 55-60 miles per week.

“I kept getting sick and had trouble handling the workload,” Wieczorek said. “That year, and the next (2008 and 2009), I was making up for what most (top) guys got in high school.”

By early 2009, Wieczorek was a member of OTC Elite and working with new coach Mark Rowland. He placed second to Khadevis Robinson at the U.S. Indoor Championships. It was a highlight, but the overall process of making a name for himself, and earn a living, was much more challenging.

“I had a tendency to overtrain,” he said. “I was broken down a lot for races (in 2009). The year after that I broke my foot playing basketball.”

That injury – perhaps yet another sign of immaturity – put him in a boot for eight weeks and ended his stay with OTC Elite. He missed making the finals of the 2010 U.S. Championships and walked away thinking his running career was probably over.

He moved to sunny Southern California (Canoga Park) with a couple of friends – athletes Matt Scherer and Tim Ramirez – and began to weigh his options. Maybe he’d go back to school. In the meantime he got a job at a running shoe store and made a few extra dollars posting road racing results for Eugene-based web site RunnerSpace.com.

That’s where Wieczorek was last January. He’d been doing a lot of thinking about running but had nowhere to do it. He couldn’t find a track to run on. The high school tracks were gated shut. He didn't have access to the nearby colleges. So he went to Craiglist on the off chance that he could find a job that would give him access to a track. He discovered a job opening for an assistant track coach at Newbury Park High School.

“It was a 25-minute drive from where I lived,” Wieczorek said. “I never really thought I would like (coaching) but it didn’t take very long before I did. I’d be disappointed when I had to go to a meet and was missing (the kids’). It brought me an extra excitement for running in general.”

In May, without a coach or a sponsor, he managed to get into the Ponce Grand Prix in Puerto Rico and won it in a meet record and personal best 1:46.46. A week or so later, Wieczorek met Drinkwater in Portland. And after that he was back in Eugene for the U.S. Outdoor Championships, hoping to run well enough to land a shoe deal.

“In the prelims I ran 1:46 and felt like I was jogging,” he said. “Then the semis went out real slow and I closed the last 200 faster than I ever had. My confidence was as high as it had ever been.”

Then in the finals, with three berths to the World Championships on the line, Wieczorek ran 1:46.00 – for fifth. That result earned him a trip to Europe where he raced throughout the rest of the summer.

Meanwhile, a group of high school kids northwest of Tacoma, Wash. spent the summer months training on their own, without a coach.

The Gig Harbor boys knew they could do something special. Six of seven were back from a fifth-place team at the state cross country meet. The only drawback was a coaching situation that was in flux. Longtime coach Patty Ley took a college coaching position in 2010 (she’s at Gonzaga now) and the next coach lasted only a year.

“These kids saved the program,” said Paul Peloquin, father of three members of the team. (His oldest son, Conner, was a Foot Locker finalist and runs for BYU).

Peloquin, a former conference champion in cross country at the University of Portland, asked his son, Casey, to bring the guys over to the house for a meeting.

“I said ‘If you guys want to accomplish something you’re going to have to do the work.’ And they understood,” Peloquin said.

So Peloquin began writing workouts and Casey would take them to the track at 8:30 each morning. And the group, almost never fewer than 10 boys each day, stuck to the plan. The guys designated one night a week as “Red Meat Night” and ate barbecue together. They golfed. They bowled. They talked about winning state.

“Between my dad and (Peloquin) we got some pushes in the right direction and we were taking the stuff we knew how to do and kept each other accountable,” Drinkwater said. “We were three or four months away and our goal was the state championship and beyond. We all look at the teams in Spokane and Tri-Cities with a little bit of reverence. But towards the end of last year and over the summer we thought we had a chance to make history, and a chance at breaking the (Eastern Washington) streak.”

By the second week in August, word finally came that Wieczorek had agreed to take the job. But he still hadn’t completed his summer tour of Europe and he knew very little what was waiting for him at Gig Harbor.

Without any pre-conceptions about how to organize a high school cross county season, Wieczorek arrived with a template that came from two professional coaches – Gagliano and Rowland – and his own research. Wieczorek studied Pre-med in college and excelled in chemistry and biology. He showed up to practice the first day with a professional training program and backed up with scientific study.

He moved in with a friend to save rent and decided to live off savings and his coaching stipend.

“Most people say you can’t coach while you’re still training,” Wieczorek said. “What I’ve discovered is there is so much emotional stimulation (from coaching). I was surprised by how much I enjoyed being part of (the athletes’) lives.”

The first day he showed up at Gig Harbor, the runners gathered around and could barely believe that the shaggy-haired Wieczorek was their coach. He seemed too young.

“Mark’s kind of got a high school mentality,” Casey Peloquin said. “He has that teenage guy inside of him and there are moments when that comes out.”

But he also was viewed as a sharp guy who clearly knew what he was talking about. And his status as an elite athlete gave him instant credibility.

“Do a 10-minute warm-up and then meet me at the track,” Wieczorek instructed after a brief introduction.

Gig Harbor’s march toward the Class 4A crown picked up 10 minutes later.

“He brought an aspect of professionalism,” said Drinkwater, a self-professed track and field junkie who has rubbed shoulders with pro track athletes. His father, Danny Drinkwater, was a member of Nike’s Backside Track Club in Eugene in the early 1980s and was a training partner of Olympian Mary Slaney. “I enjoyed how he came in and it was business, and you got it done.”

Gig Harbor’s five scorers came back from 2010 – all seniors. But young talented sophomores Wolfgang Beck and Logan Carroll, and freshman Tristan Peloquin, pushed their way up the ladder and into the team’s top three.

At the first race of the year, Wieczorek gathered his seniors together.

“You are the leaders of this team. I’m the new guy,” the coach told them. “Everyone will listen to you.”

The seniors, who shepherded the team all summer, maintained some of the authority. The new coach adopted their goals as his own. And Wieczorek gave each individual his undivided attention through a series of one-on-one meetings.

“He wants each of us to know what we’re doing and why we’re going it,” Casey Peloquin said.

Wieczorek generally comes to the school two and a half hours before the team practice to fit in his own workout (while members of the team are still in school). Then he eats a sandwich and flips the switch from athlete to coach.

From the outset, he planned on making sure his top boys were rested and ready for a postseason run. He fed them a steady diet of threshold, race-pace workouts.

“I didn’t want them over-raced or over-worked,” Wieczorek said. “You can only go to the well so many times. The mentality that I brought from Gags and Rowland is that the emphasis is on the championships season.”

In mid-October, Wieczorek had to leave the team for a few days. He flew to Guadalajara, Mexico and competed in a U.S. uniform for the first time. For the first few days all he could think of was what he was missing – the Narrows League Championships.

It was an emotional day, especially for some of the senior girls who ran their final race. Wieczorek wore sunglasses to hide his emotions, and tears, from other athletes as he spoke on the phone to members of his team.

On the day of the 800-meter final, Tides head track coach Kevin Eager set up a projector and showed the race live in a classroom packed with cross country runners. They cheered as Wieczorek took fifth.

“I think there’s a really cool parallel,” Drinkwater said. “He’s trying to be the best he can be at the highest level, and so are we. We each kind of understand that we’re going after something, and it helps build trust between athlete and coach.”

For Wieczorek, who continues to train without a sponsor, the Tides cross country team fills an emotional void and gives him a deeper connection to the sport. He supports them and they support him.

In the spring, he will attempt to negotiate a more complex schedule – guiding his high school runners while fine-tuning for the Olympic Trials in Eugene.

“London, that’s definitely a goal,” Wieczorek said. “I’m not sure how realistic it is or not. I didn’t go into last year thinking I’d run 1:46. There are so many talented guys in the country, but I have to feel like I have a chance.”

The same can be said of Gig Harbor’s boys, who will make a relatively short drive to Portland Meadows (where they won the Nike Pre-Nationals on Sept. 24) feeling like they’ve got a chance to win Nike Cross Nationals.