Hampton runner sparkles with Firecracker 5K win

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Saturday, July 15, 2023 | 11:01 AM


Hampton’s Chris Belch put on a display on the Fourth of July.

The 17-year-old won the 18th Hampton Rotary Firecracker 5K, holding off his older brother, Michael, in the 3.1-mile, 126-runner race.

“That’s probably the biggest race that I’ve ever won,” the younger Belch said. “I had a lot of fun. It was a great experience and a chance to get better and improve.”

Belch recorded a winning time of 17 minutes, 33 seconds, which was 1:21 faster than his effort in last year’s fourth-place finish and the fastest time in the Firecracker 5K in at least five years.

Michael, 19, a 2022 Hampton graduate, was second in 17:44 and last year’s winner, Aidan Sawyer, 20, a 2021 Hampton graduate, was third in 18:16.

“It was really nice this year to be able to finish it off strong and stay together,” said Michael Belch, a sophomore at Pitt who does club running in the fall and club swimming in the spring. “It is nice to get up and compete against each other and see what we can do.”

Chris Belch, who will be a junior in the fall, is already an accomplished athlete after two years at the high school level. He was a key part of Hampton’s back-to-back WPIAL Class 2A cross country team championships, placing ninth individually as a sophomore.

“I’m looking for him to keep on improving,” Hampton cross country coach Dean Longwell said. “He was solid for us last year. Same thing with all of these guys. They are hungry to keep improving.”

In Belch’s track debut this past spring, he was a member of the Talbots’ 3,200-meter relay team that placed third at the WPIAL Class 3A championships and qualified for states.

Belch is fast, by land and by water. The three-sport athlete was a PIAA qualifier in the 100 backstroke and 100 butterfly as a freshman and sophomore for the Hampton swimming team. Belch started swimming in second grade, yet didn’t start running until seventh grade with the middle school cross country team.

Belch decided earlier this year to devote more time and energy to running. He ran track for the first time in the spring and quit the school band, where he had played trumpet since fourth grade, to focus on training. Offseason swimming also took a back seat to running.

“The training really picked up this summer,” Chris Belch said. “I haven’t really swam since the winter. I’ve almost sacrificed that for training, moving forward into cross country season. I want to be a lot better this season.”

Said Hampton track coach Heather Dietz, “He has really honed in his focus to running, and I think that’s made all the difference. I think he has decided that this is what he really wants to focus on.”

One of Belch’s primary goals is to earn a PIAA cross country medal this fall. Last year, he was a respectable 31st out of 247 runners at the PIAA finals, but he missed winning a medal by six places and roughly 13 seconds.

“That’s a big motivator for him this year,” Longwell said.

The 5-foot-11, 145-pound Belch is running about 40 miles a week to prepare for this fall’s cross country season. The Talbots return their top seven runners in a bid to three-peat as WPIAL Class 2A champion.

Belch already has won one gold medal this year. He has competed in only a handful of road 5Ks, but after running with brother Michael and Sawyer for the first portion of the Firecracker, Belch began to pull away on the steep ascent leading to Hampton Middle School. With no one to urge him on, Belch turned to self-motivation.

“From that point on in the race, I was just running by myself really,” he said, “and it was how much I could push myself.”

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