Out on the wet track inside an empty Legends Stadium last week, under gray rainclouds, one of the best teenage runners in America hit stride one final time.
His long, bleach-blond hair hid beneath a knitted winter hat, but there was no mistaking Zach Perrin.
Two coaching legends, Paul Jorgensen and Dan Hodge, looked on as the slender 6-foot-1 18-year-old propelled around the track — a common sight the last four years — running his last laps as a Flathead Brave.
“This track is going to be a different place without him. He’s done so much here. He’s inspired a lot of people,” Hodge said.
“He’s definitely going to be missed,” Jorgensen said.
One of the all-time great runners in Montana history crossed the finish line of a prestigious career last weekend.
At the state track meet in Bozeman on May 24, Perrin won the high school mile in 4:14.99, a blink of an eye behind the all-class state record set in 2001. It earned him his fourth overall state championship in four years on the track.
Record or not, Perrin’s legacy is firmly intact. The University of Colorado recruit is graduating high school with some of the top marks and greatest achievements in state history. And in Montana, judging a runner’s legacy means sizing it up against athletes from one school in particular — Flathead — and even then, Perrin’s resume holds up among the distinguished fraternity of great Brave runners, including David Vidal, Seth Watkins and Kevin Clary.
Perrin graduates with the fastest 1,600 and 3,200 times ever for a Montana runner, but because they did not occur at the state championship meet, they don’t officially count as “state records.”
Yet his own track record speaks for itself, and now that it’s complete, the question lingers: is Perrin the greatest runner in state history?
“I would say he’s right up there at the top with the all-time greats,” Vidal said.
“He’s certainly proven himself in every aspect. When it comes to the checklist of accomplishments as a high school runner, he’s checked off just about all of them.”
Hodge, the Hall of Fame boys head coach since 1976, echoed his former athlete.
“He’s amongst the greats,” Hodge said. “Right now he’s keeping up the tradition.”
Jorgensen, a Hall of Fame track and cross country coach at Flathead for over 40 years, also agreed, “He’s one of the better runners in the state. He’ll rank up there with the best.”
Perrin has come a long way in four years. He’s kept the proud Flathead tradition alive, chasing those before him whom he looked up to as a young runner, and giving the future generation of runners another shining role model.
“I just feel blessed to be in this position,” he said last week before state. “This was my way to try and give back to the Flathead tradition and keep that going, try to get those records and try to make a name for Flathead and keep us known for being one of the better running schools.”
He’s had friendly competition to push him along the way, too. While Vidal had Watkins as a teammate a decade ago, Perrin has had cross-town colleague Troy Fraley, a talented senior at Glacier who will run at Gonzaga University next fall.
The two friends have not been separated by much these past few years. Fraley capped his own impressive career in Bozeman with runner-up finishes in both the 1,600 and 3,200. Along with winning the 1,600, Perrin placed third in both the 800 and 3,200. Missoula Hellgate’s Adam Peterman, who will be Perrin’s roommate at Colorado next year, won the 3,200 state title in Bozeman in 9:12.38, breaking the 1982 all-class state record held by Deer Lodge’s Gordon Ruttenbur and Watkins’ AA record.
But of the three runners, Perrin was the first to break through. Four years ago he became the first Flathead freshman to win a track state championship in at least 38 years.
“I remember him winning that 3,200 at state as a freshman in Great Falls, and it really surprised us,” Hodge said.
His sophomore season saw less success, but it proved motivational.
“I think because he did not place so high his sophomore year, it bothered him a little bit and he got into this year-round athletic training,” Hodge said. “He’s done everything possible to make himself a better runner and a better athlete. That’s the big thing that I admire about him. He wants to do better.”
He began training nonstop, running more than 50 miles a week and peaking this year at almost 70.
“I always tried to progress every season, as far as volume in the offseason, weight training, nutrition and stretching,” he said. “Every year I tried to build on the other one. I analyzed what I did, why it worked, if it helped, and tried to brainstorm new ideas.”
Running also became more than an individual pursuit. In the winter of his junior year, he raised money for a local 12-year-old girl with leukemia. He pledged to run 50 miles in one day, from his home in Lakeside to West Glacier. He raised almost $9,000 on his own, and ran all 50 miles in almost 10 hours on Dec. 17, through snow and cold weather.
“People have already forgotten about that, but that was massive. He did that on his own,” Hodge said.
“I would’ve liked to raise even more for their family,” Perrin said. “But for it to be as successful as it was, that was pretty amazing.”
That’s around the same time that Jorgensen noticed a difference in Perrin. His work ethic improved, so did his motivation and focus. A few months after running 50 miles, he posted 8:55.24 in the 3,200 at the Arcadia Invitational in California, placing eighth among the best runners in America. It stands as the fastest time ever by a Montana runner.
“That was where I took a step back and said, ‘Wow.’ Nobody in Montana has ever done anything like that, and as a junior, too,” Vidal said. “As soon as he did that, I think all of us were thinking, ‘This guy is a big name. He will walk away with a lot of accomplishments.’”
Perrin went on to win state titles in both the 3,200 and 1,600 his junior year. Then in cross country in the fall of his senior year, he won the state title.
This spring, his historic stride continued. He ran 8:57 at Arcadia. In a race at Glacier High on April 23, he clocked 9:06, the fastest in-state time ever, surpassing Vidal’s previous best of 9:12, set in Libby in 2001. In the mile, he ran 4:09 in Libby on May 10, the fastest prep 1,600 in state history, breaking another of Vidal’s all-time marks, 4:10. His mile time also ranked as the seventh best in the nation.
“A lot of people might wonder how hard he works: he works very hard,” Jorgensen said. “He’s very coachable and goal oriented. He looks at our past history and wants to break some of those records those guys have set. There hasn’t been a time this season when he’s not fired up. I think he thinks it’s his last hurrah.”
Vidal and others have also watched Perrin’s run through history from across the country and marveled at the latest great Brave.
“We have definitely been following him and are proud of him,” Vidal said. “He’s run some pretty awesome times at altitude and that’s a testament to his mental and physical abilities.”
Vidal added, on the eve of state track, “I’m definitely wishing him the best of luck. I wish I could be there to watch it. I’m really excited for him. I’ll be cheering from afar.”
In the days leading up to his final laps, Perrin expressed excitement for making the next step and running at the college level. He also reflected on his time at Flathead, which he described as unforgettable.
“It hasn’t really sunk in yet that this is the end. I’ve spent a lot of time the last four years down at that track,” Perrin said.
“I’ve had a lot of good memories there and put in a lot of time and effort that have made my track and cross country seasons a lot of fun. I hope I’m remembered as a good person and somebody who enjoyed the sport of running and pushed himself as far as he could and took the talents he was given to the next level.”