In first grade, Zac Bright formed a friendship that helped set the course for the next decade of his life.
Bright had recently moved to Idaho from Oklahoma. The boy he befriended had also moved in from out of state. While their personalities were different, they hit it off. They continued to share in many experiences as they grew older, including competing in middle school track.
The boy Bright befriended was Mitchell Athay. Currently juniors at Idaho Falls High School, Athay and Bright have been part of three consecutive 4A boys cross-country state titles and have won a combined nine state track and cross-country medals.
The two juniors traded off as Idaho Falls' No. 1 boy this season, with Athay beating Bright four times out of seven head-to-head meetings. They finished the season with the top two fastest boys times in District 6 (Bright first with 15:23.3, Athay second with 15:30.5) and among the top five fastest boys times for any classification in Idaho (Bright third, Athay fifth). Furthermore, they combined to run sub-16 seven times and win five races.
"He’s a great guy and a great teammate," Bright said. "I think this year the two of us with the dynamic we had…it didn't matter if he beat me. It’s just gonna help the team. I’ll always be proud of him if he beats me and I think he’d feel the same way if it was the other way around."
After trading off with Athay the first six weeks of the season, Bright had an impressive final three weeks. Each week brought him a win: the city meet in 16:23.9 (Athay did not race), the 4A District 6 championships in 16:37.3 to lead the Tigers to a 1-2-3-4-5 finish for a perfect score of 15 and the 4A state championships in a personal best 15:23.3 as one of four medalists for three-peat team state champion Idaho Falls.
Bright's state win gave him his first state cross-country medal, made him the first District 6 boy on record to win an individual 4A cross-country state title and gave him four wins and District 6's fastest boys time this fall. For his historic breakthrough junior season, Bright is the Post Register's 2019 All-Area Boys Cross-country Runner of the Year.
"He finished very strong," Skyline coach Sean Schmidt said. "I think he has some ability he hasn't tapped into. He looked strong in all those races. He was definitely exceptional near the end."
Idaho Falls head cross-country coach Alan McMurtrey said Bright has always had a great personality and has put his team first. Two years ago, Bright was one of multiple freshmen on an Idaho Falls boys team that went on to win its first state championship since 2002. It was his introduction to the sport, as he did not run middle school cross-country. After districts, a teammate was chosen ahead of Bright to be Idaho Falls' seventh boy runner for the state meet, and Bright's response personified the team-first mentality he still possesses to this day.
"As coaches, it isn't a decision we take lightly," McMurtrey said. "He totally accepted that. To Zac's credit, he felt good about it."
Bright said in the past, he did not really consider himself a runner. He credited his parents for getting him into competitive running, mostly so he would choose an activity and stick with it. He chose track in eighth grade.
"I’d do a lot of sports for a season and then stop," Bright said. "They told me I had to do something."
He initially gravitated to jumps, which Bright said 'lasted about a week' before he turned to other events. He found his niche in the 400 and 800 meters, discovering that he had natural stride and foot speed.
"I take a lot fewer strides per minute," Bright said. "Most of my teammates run 180. Most of mine are 160."
Upon joining cross-country as a freshman, he learned that he enjoyed running longer distances. This gave him more confidence in the 800, willingness to occasionally run the 1,600 and deeper friendships with older teammates like 2018 graduate Matthew Gyles and 2019 graduate Zach Erikson.
Bright said being teammates with Erikson, a 2018 Foot Locker Nationals qualifier who will compete for BYU upon completion of his Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints mission, shaped his passion for running and showed him what hard work can produce.
"Especially Zach (Erikson), I’ve never seen someone work so hard for something," Bright said. "Seeing that level of dedication and love for the sport…it inspired me more to have dedication like that and work harder for everything."
McMurtrey said Gyles and Erikson brought 'invaluable' leadership to the Tigers and took Bright under their wing when he was a new varsity runner. He added that it has been fascinating to watch Athay and Bright, who have different personalities, set and pursue goals with different approaches but with the same drive.
Three years into high school cross-country, McMurtrey has seen Bright grow to love every aspect of the sport, which he said is not always true of 800 runners.
"I learned a long time ago you can't want it more than the kids," McMurtrey said. "He's always been a fun loving kid. The momentum building with each success and with each experience and lesson learned, to take that and use it, a lot of it does seem to come natural for him because of his personality. I think the passion has always been there, but the fire just keeps getting stoked with every log you put on, every medal and every win."
Bright's personality has carried over into his race day routine, which has changed over time. He said he used to be serious, perhaps overly so, about racing in middle school. That all changed his freshman year upon observing his older teammates.
"When I was in eighth grade, I used to listen to music and get mad almost before I raced," Bright said. "I thought it would help me but then I got to cross-country in ninth grade and saw the energy everyone brought on the bus rides. Nobody got super serious until they were on the line. I’ve realized I can relax and have fun. I try not to think about race until the gun goes off. I try not to think about pressure or tension."
That more relaxed approach, paired with careful planning for the last three weeks of the season, paid off in a big way Nov. 2 at the state championships at Pocatello's Portneuf Wellness Complex. Bright's win was not only historic for District 6, but it gave him his second individual state gold medal of 2019. He won the 4A boys 800-meter state title in May in a personal best 1:55.46, a goal he had set at the beginning of track season. He had a different goal for state for his junior cross-country season, however.
"My goal for race day was top three," Bright said. "As the race went on, I thought I could be better than top three. It definitely wasn't expected. I don’t know how to describe it. It was more of a surprise."
Bright said he plans to create his own indoor track season schedule this winter as other area runners have done due to indoor track not being a sanctioned high school sport in Idaho. One of those meets he said will for sure be Nike Boise Indoor in February. Looking further ahead to Idaho Falls joining 5A next school year, Bright said he and the Tigers' returning boys are not intimidated by the move.
"We’re ready for the challenge of going up to a bigger class," Bright said. "We’re hoping we can get our fourth (title) so it will make it four in four years."
Beyond that, Bright said he aspires to compete for a Division I school and keep running for as long as he is able. Three years after first giving running a try, he has found an activity that provides an escape and allows him to set goals. Running is 'always there' when he needs it, Bright said, and it has also given him deep friendships.
"In sports like basketball or football, the practices are a lot of listening to what the coach tells you," Bright said. "In running, you can go out for an hour and a half run and it’s just you and your teammates. There is no coach there. You spend your time with the same people for so long, you become such good friends."