Zach Perrin assumed he wouldn’t race a lot this fall.
As a freshman on one of the nation’s premier cross country teams, the former all-state runner from the Flathead Valley was surrounded by All-American talent at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
For the first time in his life the Flathead High School graduate wasn’t the fastest on his team.
But like he did all throughout high school, Perrin caught up pretty fast and in only a matter of four months was running with the best.
In late November, Perrin joined the Buffaloes at the NCAA national championship event at Terra Haute, Ind. The No. 3 ranked University of Colorado men’s cross country team claimed the title by 20 points over No. 1 ranked Northern Arizona. It marked the fourth team title for the Buffs since 2001 and the first since 2006. Through cold, windy and muddy conditions, Perrin finished sixth on his team and 107th overall, clocking 31 minutes, 23 seconds in the 10-kilometer race. Although he didn’t score points, Perrin was only five seconds behind Colorado’s fifth runner, and only 30 seconds shy of All-American status.
“I didn’t really picture myself running this year,” Perrin said recently in a sit-down interview with the Beacon in Boulder. “But still, my goal going into summer was I really wanted to make the team and make an impact. I knew this was a really good team and I didn’t know if I could do that, but in the back of my mind, I wanted to run this year and put myself in a position so I could get the opportunity to do that.”
Perrin graduated last spring with one of the best long-distance pedigrees in state history. In four years of racing at Flathead, he won four individual state titles in track and cross country and ran the fastest 1,600 and 3,200 times on record.
But at Colorado, none of his high school accolades mattered anymore. Perrin had to earn his place among the best. In the early fall, roughly 15 runners were vying for the top seven spots in Boulder, and as the season progressed, the number dropped. Not Perrin. The experience pushed him harder than ever before.
“It’s weird being in an environment where you’re getting your butt kicked a lot,” he said. “It’s definitely humbling, but I progressed a ton this year. I can just tell I’m definitely a lot better than I ever have been. So I’m just hoping to keep progressing.”
Assistant coach Billy Nelson, a former Colorado All-American and Olympian runner, was heavily involved in recruiting Perrin and was impressed right away by the Lakeside runner on and off the racecourse.
“He really knew what he wanted out of a program and how he wanted to be challenged,” Nelson said. “He wanted to go to a place where he would learn and grow. That really sticks out as far as runners are concerned. He’s really goal driven.”
In the final weeks of the season, Colorado’s legendary distance coach Mark Wetmore approached Perrin. Wetmore is known for building one of the nation’s best long-distance programs over his 22-year career and is the only NCAA Division I coach to win four national titles at the same school. He has tutored 53 individual conference champions and 11 individuals who have combined for 18 NCAA titles. Overall he has coached 78 individuals to 228 All-American selections.
When he approached Perrin, the bright-eyed freshman from Montana didn’t know what to expect.
“I hadn’t been here that long and it was kind of nerve-wracking knowing you’re racing against some of the older guys,” Perrin said. “Coach (Wetmore) came up to me and told me to put on the jersey this year. I was super excited. It was definitely shocking.”
Perrin is now a veteran member of an elite team of runners who are all returning next year and the presumptive favorites to battle for another championship.
“I ran for Colorado from 2002 to 2008. I was on a national championship team,” Nelson said. “I can safely say this team is probably better than any team I’ve ever seen. That tells you a lot. Even back to the late ‘90s. This team is probably more talented and definitely more deep and it could be the best team that (Colorado) has ever had.”
Not surprisingly, the first months of college have been a whirlwind for Perrin, who is still getting used to living in a dorm and being an out-of-town kid in a massive college town. He’s certainly had a unique college experience compared to most 18-year-olds. For instance, Perrin and his championship teammates were honored at halftime of the Colorado basketball game against Kansas. In the spring, the boys are also slated for a possible trip to Washington D.C. to be recognized at the White House.
“It’s funny how fast time goes by. Four months ago I was in the Flathead Valley hanging out and getting ready for college. And now, well, it’s weird. A lot has happened since then,” he said, smiling. “It makes you grow up fast.”
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