As an eighth-grader in Milwaukee, Mike Perrin lined up for the first 400-meter race of his young life. Years later, he would become the patriarch of one of the most successful families in Montana running history, raising state champions and NCAA Division I scholarship athletes who were blessed, ostensibly, with the golden genetics of their speedy parents.
Mike and Lisa Perrin’s oldest son, Zach, is a recent graduate of the University of Colorado where he was an All-American runner. Their second son, Jake, won a state cross country championship in just his second year as a full-time competitor and now races for blooming powerhouse Gonzaga University. Son number three, Ben, is a senior at Flathead High School and has won every race he’s entered this cross-country season, with just one more — the state championship meet — remaining. And their daughter, Hannah, is next, a promising sophomore distance runner for the Bravettes.
Back in Milwaukee, 100 meters into his first-ever race, Mike Perrin was out like a bolt of lightning, leading the field despite his utter lack of experience. This is how the origin story of the Perrin family starts — with dad stepping onto the track for the first time and leaving the competition in his dust.
Three hundred meters later, he reached the finish line.
“I ended up coming in dead last by what seemed like 100 meters,” Perrin recalled with a laugh.
“They get a little worked up when someone says the word ‘genetics’ or ‘genes’ to them, and I don’t like it either,” he added later, commenting on his children’s rigorous training schedule. “They’re just super-dedicated.”
Countless words have been dedicated to the inimitable Perrin boys, all tall and lean with distinctive light blond hair bobbing to-and-fro, who can most likely be found near the front of any distance race in western Montana.
But running was not preordained for any of them. Zach, the oldest, was the most passionate of the bunch, first joining his mom for a 1-mile race in Polson as a fourth-grader and soon establishing himself as one of the most closely watched youngsters in the runner-happy Flathead Valley. Mike remembers Zach getting recognized in places as benign as Costco from a young age, and as he gained more and more attention, Zach also added more and more speed. He won four state track and field championships and the 2012 Class AA cross country title, and was a two-time Gatorade Montana Athlete of the Year.
When Zach’s high school career ended, however, it looked like he would be the one and only Perrin to dominate races. Jake, three years younger than Zach, played football as a freshman and sophomore at Flathead and Ben, another three years behind Jake, was a standout basketball player whose closest encounters with running came watching his brothers.
“We were pretty sure that Zach was going to be the only runner in the family,” Mike said. “And then all of sudden Jake quit playing football and dedicated himself to running.”
Whereas Zach is a passionate runner, obsessed with his craft and a dedicated to studying the sport, Jake, perhaps in part due to his football background, brought raw grit and toughness to distance running, willing himself to improve and win races. He, too, would be the Gatorade Montana Athlete of the Year before his Flathead career was over and win the 2015 Class AA cross-country title.
And then there is Ben. If Zach is the confident, ultra-talented oldest child and Jake the blue-collar, gutty middle boy, Ben is the quiet, unflappable killer. All three boys did inherit a competitive streak from their parents — Mike still plays basketball and flag football in local rec leagues, and all four kids played just about every sport imaginable growing up — but Ben seems to have acquired preternatural calmness as a distance runner through something like osmosis. Flathead cross country coach Jesse Rumsey has known the Perrins for nearly a decade, and she remembers Ben and Hannah hanging out along the course from a young age, diligently taking in their older brothers’ performances.
“He just has some natural understanding of distance running,” Rumsey said of Ben. “He can find the distance-running zone and just dial it. And I also think Ben just runs. He doesn’t overthink things which has really turned out in his favor.”
Ben played football and basketball at Somers Middle School, only taking up running competitively in eighth grade. But by the time he arrived for his freshman year at Flathead, joining then-senior Jake, it was clear there was a chance for another Perrin to star in a Braves uniform for former head boys coach Paul Jorgenson.
“I wouldn’t say (he was) totally green as a freshman but he came in with a huge opportunity for growth,” Rumsey said. “Paul and I have the same philosophy … we just kind of let freshmen do their own thing and not put a damper on their style. And it was great because that first year (Ben) was just kind of watching what Jake was doing.”
The years since have seen Ben improve steadily, finishing 17th at the state meet as a freshman, 12th as a sophomore and sixth as a junior. Last season, he was the top-finishing non-senior in the state, so coming into this season the expectation was that Ben would compete for, if not win, a state title. Those expectations have not fazed the stoic senior one bit. Ben has won all seven of the races he’s entered in 2018, including the prestigious Mountain West Classic in Missoula in late September.
Perrin and his teammates will return to the University of Montana Golf Course — the same track where the Mountain West was held — on Oct. 20. The 5K boys race is scheduled to begin at 12:40 p.m. and Perrin’s stated goal is to run the fastest 5K ever at the state meet (the state race distance was three miles before last season) and he has already run quicker this year (15:25.2 at the Butte Invitational) than last year’s winning time (15:31.85). But although Perrin has clearly been the fastest boy in Class AA so far this cross-country season, even he understands nothing is guaranteed this weekend.
“It’s interesting because at state somebody else always comes out of nowhere,” he said. “State’s pretty fun because anything can happen.”
All that said, Ben has still allowed his mind to drift to dreams of crossing the line first in Missoula.
“I think it would be cool to have all three of us (brothers) win state championships,” he said. “But just winning a state championship in itself is really cool; getting to put your name up there and say that you did that.”
Whether or not Ben wins in Missoula, it almost certainly won’t be his final cross-country race. Like his brothers, Ben is a highly sought-after recruit and should have no shortage of options to join his brothers as Division I runners.
And lest you think it’s just because of some freak stroke of genetic luck, Ben’s coach believes he still has plenty of room to improve, something that has a lot more to do with the 50 to 70 miles Ben runs weekly, and the year-round training regimen he follows, than the last name he carries.
“What most collegiate coaches are looking for is an athlete that can be developed and that’s coachable,” Rumsey said. “And Ben is very coachable, Ben logs a ton of miles in the offseason and he has really stepped up to the speed work that we’ve given him this year, and there’s even more room for the speed work.”
For the Perrins and, as Mike called it, “this running thing we just kind of stumbled upon,” the talk ahead of the state meet won’t be about winning, at least not with dad. The three boys talk regularly before and after races, and Ben and his younger sister are closely knit teammates, but Mike’s contribution to their success can be found somewhere outside of the gene pool.
“We don’t really talk much about winning,” Mike said. “These guys, now, they don’t ask me ‘How’s my form?’ I honestly just go (to meets) to take pictures and videos; that’s about it.”