Feet to the Fire

Three of the Flathead Valley’s all-time best distance runners have eschewed individual glory to test themselves against the nation’s elite at the University of Colorado

By Andy Viano
Lakeside native Zach Perrin spent five years as a distance runner at the University of Colorado. Gary Breedlove | University of Colorado

Zach Perrin, one of the fastest and most successful high school distance runners in Montana history, reached a crossroads three years into his college career.

“After my junior year, I was pretty depressed and done with it,” Perrin, a Lakeside native, said last week from the Flathead Valley, where he’s returned after five years as a member of the University of Colorado’s renowned cross country and track and field programs.

“In college, it’s a whole different stage, it’s so competitive,” he added. “It’s super frustrating training what I thought was super hard and I thought I was getting better, and just going to races and getting my butt kicked by everybody.”

Perrin, a confident, ultra-competitive athlete born into a family full of tall, slender, bleach-blond speedsters, had been more comfortable — and much more accustomed — to being the one doing the butt kicking than the other way around. But with the chance to build on a career at Flathead High School that saw him win four individual state titles and clock the fastest times in the history of Montana in the 1,600- and 3,200-meters, Perrin chose not to dominate at a smaller college program but to train under a legendary coach and with a team that routinely competes for national championships, having won five NCAA Division I cross country titles since the turn of the century.

After three years on the Boulder campus, however, Perrin was far from competing for national titles himself. What’s more, he was facing a completely foreign internal crisis as he lagged well back of the leaders in the country’s most competitive races.

“It was a serious conversation I was having, especially with myself,” Perrin said. “I was just trying to make sure if I was in it or if I was ready to give it up for a little bit. You have to be in the right mindset to really compete at that level.”

The decision he encountered after his first three campaigns — one of which was a redshirt year — may have thrown Perrin at first, but after a bit of soul-searching he returned to Colorado for two final years with a new, more easygoing perspective.

“I just decided I was going to give it one last go and run from a holistic point of view; being healthy and happy and enjoying life outside of running,” Perrin said. “Taking running and just looking at it from a more relaxed point of view helped a lot.”

His epiphany would pay off on the track in his two final seasons, and when Perrin reflects today he’s appreciative and content with both his decision to attend Colorado and his career there. While Perrin’s college days ended without reaching the absolute pinnacle of his sport, his larger experience can still be taken as a lesson for those who follow in his footsteps — including the two other Flathead Valley natives who will lace up their shoes for the Buffaloes next season.

Bigfork grad Makena Morley is a two-time All American in the 10,000-meters. Photo courtesy of Pro-Motion Photography

Makena Morley went the opposite route after her own stupendous high school career. Fresh off four straight state cross country championships in Class B at Bigfork High School, Morley chose to stay home and compete for the University of Montana. At the time, Morley told the Beacon she rejected overtures from more established, successful programs to “run for the state that has supported me so much during my high school career.”

Very quickly, Morley delivered on her promise and potential for the Griz. She won the Big Sky Conference cross country championship as a freshman, the first Montana runner to do so since 2000, and even qualified for the NCAA Division I national championships, finishing 97th. But after the season, citing in part a damaged relationship between she and her coach, Collin Fehr, Morley reopened her recruitment and settled on the Buffaloes, joining Perrin and a pair of former Missoula Hellgate runners, Adam Peterman and Chris Herrick.

“Before my visit, I chatted with them and asked them what they think of the program and coaches, and they said they just love it and really respect the coaches,” Morley told the Beacon in late 2016.

Unlike Perrin, however, Morley has quickly made a name for herself since arriving at Colorado, running well enough to earn Second Team All-America honors in the 10,000-meters in each of her first two seasons. (The 2018-19 season will be Morley’s redshirt junior year). That could be due in part because, according to Mark Wetmore, Colorado’s head track and cross country coach, Morley easily found a level of comfort with her new teammates.

“All four are buddies,” Wetmore wrote in an email. “They are always running off someplace to torture fish or sleep on rocks … Nevertheless they have been/are integral to the team culture. The three guys are gone now, but Makena will be very important to our team culture, a catalyst. Maybe she can help raise Annie up in that way as well.”

Annie is, of course, Annie Hill, the most decorated distance runner to come out of the Flathead Valley since Morley. A former Gatorade Montana Girls Cross Country and Girls Track and Field Athlete of the Year for Glacier High School, Hill too was heavily recruited and had to weigh the choice of whether to be a big or small fish in a small or large pond.

“I decided that I really wanted to be on a team where I wasn’t the shining star,” Hill said. “(A team) where I had girls to look up to and wouldn’t have a lot of pressure from the top spot. Colorado has an amazing team and I want to be able to contribute.”

Hill also added that being recruited by Colorado, because of the program’s strong tradition, is an experience unlike any other school.

“They don’t super actively recruit athletes,” Hill said. “It’s more like, if you’re interested you come to us first, which kind of makes them more desirable.”

Hill and Morley first became acquainted with each other when they were in high school — Morley was a senior when Hill was a freshman — and have occasionally competed against one another in national events. While the two aren’t particularly close, watching someone she knows have success at such an elite program has helped give Hill confidence she too could thrive with the Buffaloes.

“I’ve always looked up to (Morley) and her hard work,” Hill said. “It definitely makes me feel good that somebody that I’ve competed against found success there.”

Glacier High School grad Annie Hill will run for the University of Colorado beginning in 2018. Beacon file photo

Plenty of athletes would call Perrin’s first three years at Colorado a success. He won the Colorado State Invitational during his sophomore cross country season, broke the four-minute barrier in the mile in his sophomore track season — becoming just the third Montanan to ever do so — and lodged a pair of top-10 finishes in the 1,500-meters at the Pac-12 Conference championships.

But it wasn’t good enough for the one person who mattered most.

“It’s a total mind game,” Perrin said of his chosen sport. “For the first three years, I was having all right success but I really wasn’t doing what I wanted to and I wasn’t enjoying it that much … It’s one of those sports where it’s so up and down and you have to put so much into it. It’s exhausting.”

To help make the choice at his personal crossroads, Perrin asked himself a question he suggested other athletes consider as they go through the recruitment process.

“My biggest question was: If I was to have a career-ending injury would I still enjoy going to school there? And with Boulder, yeah, that was definitely a big factor.”

Curiously enough, Perrin said it actually was an injury during the indoor track season in 2017 that turned his career around when, at the Husky Classic in Seattle, he fell at the start of the 3,000-meter race and broke his wrist.

“They called it back and I was still able to get in and run and I had a huge PR (personal record) in the event,” Perrin said. “That was a super pivotal point.”

Perrin wore a splint the remainder of his junior season and earned All-America honors in the indoor mile at NCAA Championships, finishing 15th in 4:03.48. He followed that up with arguably the single biggest achievement of his career in the 2017 outdoor season, winning the Pac-12 Conference championship in the 5,000-meters and later becoming an All-American in that event, too.

“Running is so much more enjoyable when you can see improvements,” he said. “There’s really nothing fun about running cross country and track, at least in my perspective, I don’t have a lot of fun with it if I’m not competing. It was a lot more fun being able to compete with those guys up front.”

While he would miss out on All-America finishes in the indoor and outdoor seasons in 2018, Perrin was a point scorer in multiple events for the Buffaloes at the Pac-12 championships in the spring (2nd in the 5K, 5th in the 10K) and left a mark on the Colorado program and its venerable leader.

“He was a very useful runner for us over multiple events and a great guy, well-liked and respected,” Wetmore said. “We already miss him.”

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