Pulling Away From the Field

By Beacon Staff

Paul Jorgensen has been coaching long distance since 1973 and has guided many of the greatest runners in Montana history. He’s seen a lot in his career, but one thing he has never seen is a freshman win a Class AA track distance state title.

That is, until last year, when Flathead High School freshman Zach Perrin claimed the 3,200-meter championship.

Former Flathead great David Vidal, a three-time champion in the 1,600 meters and one of the most esteemed runners Montana has ever seen, didn’t win as a freshman. Nor did any other AA champion that Jorgensen can think of, which means Perrin is literally in a class of his own in the annals of Montana high school long distance running.

And he’s better this year.

“He put in some work in the winter,” Jorgensen, Flathead’s cross country and track long distance coach, said. “He’s figured out his nutrition, he put on a few pounds and he’s stronger.”

A few pounds go a long way on Perrin’s thin frame. The lanky sophomore is nearly 6 feet tall, but up until recently he weighed about 120 pounds. Over the winter, he added 15 pounds to get up to around 135.

The weight gain resulted from a heightened workout routine over the winter, which included 55 miles of running per week, more calories in his diet, weight training and plyometrics. Perrin was driven, in part, by the lingering taste of defeat from cross country.

During the fall cross country season, Perrin appeared to be the frontrunner for the state title, or at least one of a small handful of championship hopefuls. But when it came to the Class AA meet, he finished seventh, surprising a few people, including himself. He vowed to script a different ending to his track season this spring.

“It was a bummer losing in cross country, but I think it helped motivate me,” Perrin said.

Perrin’s intense work ethic belies his laid-back demeanor. With blond hair and speech mannerisms that remind you of a surfer, Perrin has a way of passing off “55 miles a week in the winter” as if running that far is just a casual cold-weather hobby. But running is obviously much more than a hobby, and it has been for quite some time.

When he was in fourth grade, Perrin recalls his mother waking him and telling him: “We’re going over to Polson to do a 5K.” Perrin’s little legs only allowed for running a smaller mile-long race, while his mother took on the main 5-kilometer event. That launched Perrin’s running career.

Today, both of Perrin’s parents run long distance competitively. His two younger brothers and younger sister run as well, but it’s a little early to tell whether they truly have the running bug, Perrin said. The Perrins enjoy going on long runs together as a family.

“After my dad started, it became a family thing,” Perrin said.

Perrin hasn’t lost this spring in the 3,200, including a victory at the Missoula Invitational on April 16 over Jake Turner of Missoula Sentinel. Turner, the Class AA cross country champion, is considered Perrin’s biggest threat to the 3,200 crown.

Zach Perrin, a sophomore runner for Flathead High School, is defending his Class AA crown in the 3200 meters.

In Missoula, Perrin won in 9:30.89, the best time recorded in Montana this year. Turner finished in 9:32.87. Turner beat Perrin in the 1,600, clocking in at 4:26.51 compared to Perrin’s 4:39.33. Perrin’s top time in the 1,600 is 4:32.11, the third-best time in the state this year.

Unlike girls, whose bodies mature faster, boys rarely claim the top spots in distance running events as freshmen or sophomores. But Jorgensen points out that, while Perrin is only a 16-year-old sophomore, he has been training for nearly half of his life.

“If you consider someone’s running age, he’s quite old,” Jorgensen said.

He added: “He’s kind of the leader out there, as a sophomore.”

If Perrin were to win four state titles in the 3,200 meters, he would become the fifth boy in Montana’s track history to pull off the feat and the second to do it in distance events, according to the Montana High School Association.

Bob Hawke of Butte won discus titles in 1962-1965. Roy Robinson of Glasgow won the 100-yard dash four straight years in 1963-1966. Craig Stiles of Malta won the javelin in 1968-1971. And Gordon Ruttenbur of Deer Lodge won both the 1,600 and 3,200 from 1979-1982.

Jorgensen said Perrin has arrived at the upper echelon of Montana’s distance runners through a formula that’s equal parts hard work and natural talent. Perrin would agree with that assessment, acknowledging that something seems to put him ahead of other runners who might train as hard as he does.

“I definitely feel like I’m blessed,” Perrin said. “God’s given me talent.”