Former St. Paul High School and current Highland High School cross country coach Bob Vance knew he might have something special when a skinny sophomore went out for cross country in 1975.
With a minimal warm-up period, Mark Capelle raced around the HHS track four times in just under five minutes. Over the next three years, Capelle would race in three IHSA state cross country finals and three IHSA state track meets.
In his first year competing, the fall of his sophomore year, Capelle won several local races in cross country. He repeated the feat in the one- and two-mile races in the spring. He would top off his sophomore season with a second-place finish in the one-mile run in the state finals, earning his first of five all-state honors.
His junior season was even better as he began to grab more local attention. He placed fourth in the first Class A cross country state meet and then garnered second-place finishes in both the two-mile run and one-mile run in the spring of 1977. Even more remarkable is that those two events were run within an hour of each other.
By Capelle’s senior season, everyone on the running circuit knew who he was. Area coaches tried all sorts of tactics to slow the fleet-footed Viking down. One coach even instructed his team to try and box him in to allow that squad’s best runner to finally beat Capelle. The strategy worked for a while, but in the end the result was the same, as Capelle finally escaped the pack and ran away with yet another victory.
In 1977, Capelle captured the gold medal in the Illinois cross country finals. He repeated that feat in the state track finals in early 1978, when he won the two-mile run and came in third in the one-mile, missing IHSA’s trifecta by just a matter of seconds.
“I really liked baseball, football and basketball,” admits Capelle. “But, our family had several responsibilities, including our farm and the Community Lumber. We all were expected to help out. So, I had to choose one sport in the fall and one sport in the spring.”
What he did was medal seven times in eight IHSA races. That’s an incredible feat of top-four finishes in seven of the eight races in which he competed.
To put it in better perspective, only one other male runner from either St. Paul High School or Highland High School has ever finished in the top 10 in any class in Illinois. And, only one other runner, male or female has ever finished any higher than sixth place. Not bad for a kid that really didn’t love running.
“I didn’t crave running like some do. But I liked winning and really hated losing,” said Capelle. “For whatever reason, running was easy and it was a way to get into the school I really wanted.”
That school was the University of Illinois, where he graduated with an engineering degree. Capelle competed and lettered for four years in both cross country, indoor and outdoor track. In fact, his 3000 meter steeplechase time of 8:51.3 is still eighth all-time at the University of Illinois.
He was named to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Belleville News-Democrat all-area cross country and track teams for three straight years. He was selected as the Area Scholar Athlete, and he was an Illinois All-State runner five times in the two sports.