A true believer — how Mark Hostetler has inspired runners for 35 years

Nick Moffitt, Sports Editor
Posted 11/2/19

Everything in Mark Hostetler’s life starts with belief. A belief in working hard, a belief in God, and a belief in the kids he has influenced for 35 years as a running coach. 

Those beliefs …

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A true believer — how Mark Hostetler has inspired runners for 35 years

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Everything in Mark Hostetler’s life starts with belief. A belief in working hard, a belief in God, and a belief in the kids he has influenced for 35 years as a running coach. 

Those beliefs have allowed him to build state-championship winning programs, first at Iowa Mennonite School and now at Mid-Prairie. Hostetler’s story of growing into a coaching great starts with the love he has for his athletes. 

“I don’t think that you can tell Mark’s story without talking about his Christian faith, and things like loving people that are basic to the message of Jesus. He really believes that stuff, and when you’re around him you feel that love,” said Aaron Fleming, who first was coached by Hostetler at Iowa Mennonite and now has been an assistant alongside him for 15 years.

The message from athletes in his early years at Iowa Mennonite School to now as the wily veteran at Mid-Prairie all are the same. They believed in themselves because Hostetler believed they could do it first. 

“It is fun to see kids the same way I was, insecure and didn’t think they could do much, blossom and make friendships. I still love coaching because of that,” Hostetler said. 

The Mid-Prairie team culture Hostetler has built will be on display in Fort Dodge at the state cross country meet again this Saturday, with the girls team seeking a third-straight title in Class 2A and the boys team sending a pair of individual qualifiers. 

Growing up, not many expected Hostetler to become the confident leader of the Golden Hawks. Hostetler’s story starts with a childhood bouncing around before eventually settling in rural Illinois. 

Finding himself

As a freshman at Low Point-Washburn High School, located around 30 minutes from Peoria, Ill., Hostetler was the new kid in school and different from those around him. Growing up in Florida gave him a heavy southern accent. He unwillingly took on the nickname “y’all.”

The poking and prodding from other kids for his accent led to some self-doubt. He was already a quiet, shy kid, but this put it over the top. 

He spent some formative years outside of the United States doing mission work with his family. From age 8 to 13, he spent five years in Haiti, with time between in Puerto Rico, Trinidad and spots in the Bahamas. 

He said growing up alongside poverty in Haiti changed his view of friendship. Something that has stuck with him throughout his life. He learned to treasure friendship. 

“They really value friendship a lot in Haiti, more so than here,” Hostetler said. “They just know how to laugh.”

It was there, though informally, that his training began lugging water back to their house and running miles between places to get anywhere.

After some coaxing from running coach John Goddard, Hostetler joined the high school track team. From there he opened up, finding a new group of friends in running and starting to come out of his shell. He said he was hooked on running from that first season.

“So he wasn’t an instant success story, but his coach was the same kind of coach (as Hostetler). Find kids who want to work hard and help them believe in themselves,” Fleming said. 

His coach’s belief in Hostetler helped him grow into a strong runner. 

“Every year got more serious, I probably ran about 500 miles in the summer, and that’s where my times dropped a lot,” Hostetler said.

His senior season he finished 25th at the state cross country meet, but took away a lifelong lesson from his race. 

“I ran a 4:48 first mile, just way too fast. That’s why I really coach my kids to not do the same stupid mistake that I made,” Hostetler said.

In spring, he placed second in the two-mile race at the state track meet, running a 9:28. That time would have won a state title in two classes in Iowa this past season. 

After graduating, Hostetler went to school and ran at Danville Community College in Illinois. The junior college had a two-year agriculture program he was interested in and it gave him the opportunity to keep running competitively. After two years there he went to Illinois State University, joining the cross country team. 

“The coach there recruited me, and I didn’t realize they ran three times a day, seven days a week,” Hostetler said. “They were running 140-160 miles per week.”

That set in conflict two things he loved, God and running. 

“I wanted to go home to my parents’ church, and I missed practice. My coach called me into the office and said, ‘I see you have your priorities screwed up.’”

It set Hostetler off. He wasn’t going to let one of 21 practices in a week come between him and going to church. 

“It bothered me, but I wasn’t going to miss church to run. I had to choose and that was hard, so I was out of running for a couple of years.”

After two years at Illinois State and a semester student teaching, Hostetler was ready to enter the working world in 1984. He had done his student teaching in Henry, Ill., and had a job offer there, but there was also an offer at Iowa Mennonite School for the agriculture teaching position. This one had an added bonus – he could be the cross country and track coach. 

In the fall of 1984, Hostetler moved to Kalona, a place he had only briefly visited before to take on a new adventure in teaching and coaching.  

Building a culture

Coming from a place where the coach had a reputation for working athletes hard and the kids understood that, it was a bit of a culture shock when he went to work at Iowa Mennonite School. 

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It is fun to see kids the same way I was, insecure and didn’t think they could do much, blossom and make friendships. I still love coaching because of that. - Mark Hostetler

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“With what my coach did for me, I wanted other kids to experience that.  That was my main motivation,” Hostetler said. 

He said that first fall cross country season, kids were apprehensive of his workouts. 

“There wasn’t a culture built up at this school of doing a lot of training and working hard ... they didn’t do very well and didn’t think they could,” Hostetler said. 

When he asked them to increase the miles at practice, there was some pushback. 

The thought of not comprehending they could succeed is what he set out to change. In 1988, the boys team qualified for state for the first time under Hostetler, they did so again in 1990. 

By the time Aaron Fleming enrolled in Iowa Mennonite School in 1991, everyone knew of the culture and expectations around Hostetler’s teams. 

“Even with those of us that had two left feet, couldn’t dribble a ball or throw a ball. He saw something in us and believed that we could be better than what we thought,” Fleming said. 

A big part of daily practice was their pre-run meeting, the team sat down together and talked. Often the meetings had nothing to do with the run they were about to go on, it was about life lessons.

“The pre-practice meetings were equal parts logistics and pep talk, but more often than not took on a mini devotional feel,” said Jason Potsander, a runner at Iowa Mennonite from 1991 to 1995. 

Potsander said Hostetler had a way of making kids believe in themselves. Whether that meant telling them the exact times he thought they were capable of or pushing them in the direction to find that out through self-reflection. 

“My parents were recently divorced in my high school years, and I needed someone to give me affirmation and guidance,” Potsander said. “When you have an intense guy like Mark telling you that you can do all these hard things and guiding you every step of the way, you can’t help but believe it, because he has the credibility to back it up.”

His ability to improve kids through running gave him the credibility to be a mentor. 

“If they have questions, or they’re having trouble in their life, he can be a mentor because he has earned their respect,” Gwen Hostetler, Mark’s wife, said. 

Hostetler had a knack for taking kids who weren’t particularly interested in running as a sport and turning them into strong runners. Part of that was creating an atmosphere where the team feels like a second family. 

“Mark helps young people test new interests, gifts and challenges in search of confidence,” Potsander said. “With Mark you learn the joy of pursuing excellence in not just running, but in life.”

His first individual state champion came in 1989 with Troy Miller winning the 400-meter hurdles. Team success came in the next few years. 

Eventually a combination of that culture and a talented group of runners culminated in his first state championship at the 1995 boys state cross country meet. The group of runners entered the season unranked but came out with a state championship trophy despite facing adversity. 

Galen Bontrager’s grandfather had died a week before the state meet, and Joel Beachy’s grandfather was nearing the end of his life due to cancer and was too ill to attend the state meet. Those two along with the other members of the team: J.J. Roetlin, Randy Ho, David Huerta, Michael Stutzman, Brian Miller and Joe Hostetler rallied around the struggles to win the Class 1A title. 

A November 1995 story in The Kalona News illustrates how a strong team culture caused those struggles to create a closer team, instead of breaking them apart. 

“The feeling was ‘let’s do it for something higher than ourselves,’” Hostetler said in 1995, “I think they do better when they realize what adults realize that life doesn’t go on forever and there are times that are special.”

The Iowa Mennonite girls team also found success, qualifying for the state meet multiple times in the late 1980s and early 1990s. 

The second team title Mark Hostetler won at Iowa Mennonite came near the end of his time there, winning the boys state track team title in 1999. Just four Iowa Mennonite athletes provided all the points needed to win the Class 1A race, but the story behind it was one of determination. 

After qualifying eight events to the 1998 state meet and placing fourth in the team race, the group was disappointed. They went back to the drawing board and committed themselves to their training. Despite qualifying in fewer events the next season, the team came up in the clutch when it mattered and scored 38 points in five events to win. 

Hostetler coached at Iowa Mennonite until 2002, when he and the school soured on perceived theological differences. In a full-page letter to the community published in July 2002 in The Kalona News, Hostetler spelled out those differences.

After leaving Iowa Mennonite School, he went into dairy goat farming full time and moved to coaching at Mid-Prairie that fall. 

 

A new challenge

In 1997, an opportunity came up for Hostetler and Gwen, to purchase a farm. 

“My sister and I were allergic to cow’s milk, so we had a couple goats growing up,” Hostetler said. “So I had this dream that I wanted to milk goats, and I still like them.”

He said the public’s view of goat farming often isn’t glamorous. 

“I see in media that about the lowest thing you can be is a goat farmer. Like being a goat herder or sheep herder is the biggest put down you can have,” Hostetler said. 

That doesn’t matter to him because of something he said was passed down from his dad.

“I think everyone should want to be the best at what they do, because it’s a challenge. You can either do that or be mediocre, and it isn’t fun trying to be mediocre,” Hostetler said. 

The farm gave him an opportunity to spend more time with his wife and their five children: Anna, Marie, Micah, Danielle and Rachel. Gwen home-schools their children, and they also help with hours of chores around the farm.

Turning to farming after teaching, Mark still couldn’t give up coaching.

In 2002 he joined Gary Curtis at Mid-Prairie as an assistant coach for the cross country teams and the girls track team. 

The Mid-Prairie cross country program was relatively new, started in the late 1990s by Curtis, a longtime counselor at Mid-Prairie Middle School. The girls track program had never had a state champion, and the cross country teams had never qualified a member for the state meet. 

So he went back to work. He spent four years as an assistant cross country coach before taking over as head coach in 2006. The first girls state qualifier in Mid-Prairie history was one who took a chance on the sport. 

Chelsea Anderson, now Chelsea Parrott, promised Hostetler that the week before her preferred sport of volleyball started that she would go out for cross country. 

“Mark asked if I would try cross country practice for one week before volleyball started, and if I didn’t like it, he wouldn’t bother me again. Of course I went to practice out of respect for Mark but had no intention of running cross country that fall,” Parrott said.

She never played volleyball again as the allure of Hostetler’s team drew her in. 

“He is quirky yet so thoughtful as you get to know him, he is one of a kind.  He is loyal wherever he is planted,” Parrott said. 

She said the team consisted of kids from many different social groups, but those boundaries faded away.  

“To be able to have a strong camaraderie with teammates that are from different social groups, interests and abilities was pretty powerful to me. Mark made it known we lean on one another and have to be one another’s cheerleaders to be successful,” Parrott said. 

In 2006, her junior season at Mid-Prairie. She became the first state qualifier in school history. She won four state track medals over two years in her career at Mid-Prairie but says more than the wins she remembers the team atmosphere. 

“When you are 15 or 16, it’s not always easy to listen for the whole picture versus what you want to hear, and Mark taught me how to listen closely to people,” she said. 

Those teams of the mid-2000s were the foundation of a cross country program that has won back-to-back girls state cross country titles and the first team state title, the 2016 Class 2A boys cross country title. 

When looking back at the 2016 team title, it was born from determination after a low point. The 2014 boys season ended in heartbreak. 

“Our boys had a disaster at state qualifying in 2014,” Fleming said. “Everything that could have gone wrong went wrong, so we’ve been through some of those heartbreaks.”

One of their top runners dropped out due to an injury, another was disqualified after missing course markings and taking a wrong turn. A team that had their sights on a strong finish at the state meet didn’t even qualify as a team. 

This is where Mark’s belief comes in. Fleming said he doesn’t do the explosive, angry bit when things like this happen. 

“It’s just keeping hope in front of your athletes when things go wrong. There are times when there is nothing to be done and you feel sad together,” Fleming said. 

The next two seasons were born of that disappointment. In 2015, they qualified for the state meet and finished in fourth place. In 2016 though, Mid-Prairie won their first team championship despite not having an individual medalist. At the time, Hostetler expressed joy at how hard the team worked.  

“That was really gratifying, because no matter how hard you run or hard you work in life, there might be somebody better than you. But as long as you’re giving it everything you have, what else can you ask for? As a coach that makes me really happy,” Hostetler said. 

The year 2016 also marked the year Hostetler’s children started their domination, with his eldest daughter Anna’s first state individual championship and a third-place finish in the team race. 

The Hostetler family

Following in the footsteps of their dad, the Hostetler kids have taken up running. Anna is currently on scholarship at the University of Iowa, and recently Marie committed to run cross country and track at Liberty University. After Marie is Micah, currently a sophomore. Next up are Danielle, an eighth-grader and Rachel, in fifth-grade. 

The journey of his kids has added another tool to the arsenal of Mark, being patient in letting kids make the decision themselves. 

“A lot of people only know Anna as the great state champion, the Drake Relays champion. Most don’t remember that she was 14th at state as a sophomore,” Fleming said. 

After that she came to her dad with a new commitment to reaching a new level. 

“As a coach to be able to sit back and let the kid make the choice is an even more powerful thing to do,” Fleming said. “That’s tricky, but I think it is the next level (for Hostetler).”

During the 2017 season, Anna was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, which affected her energy levels and caused struggles for her. Gwen Hostetler said it gave Mark a new appreciation for what other parents of children with injuries go through. 

“He gained a lot of appreciation when it is your child that is injured,” she said. “He got to feel it himself, and he got a new appreciation and all those emotions with those difficulties.

Between Anna and Marie, the two have won three straight Class 2A individual cross country titles and have almost too many state track medals to count. Marie is 12-for-12 on state track meet medals and won a Drake Relays title in 2019. Marie holds the fastest 5K time in state meet history. 

“Now that I’ve coached Anna, Marie and Micah it has helped because in the offseason I was with them to motivate them but most of it they did on their own,” Hostetler said. 

For 35 years, Hostetler has worked to transfer the important beliefs he learned through running and give that to the next generation. 

“He coaches because it’s like a ministry and his way of reaching out to people and trying to help them,” Gwen Hostetler said. “That’s something that is important to him and ultimately he wants to serve God by helping people that need it.”

Editors note: Chelsea Anderson was the first girls Mid-Prairie cross country qualifier in 2006. The first overall qualifier was Drew Frees in 2005. The story has been updated to reflect that. 

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