Idaho Falls High School senior Zach Erikson laughs a little when recalling that his distance running career began with sprint events in middle school track.
Erikson said his parents encouraged him to join track as a seventh grader at Taylorview Middle School, and his longest race that season was the 400 meters. It was his mom Kathy who wanted him to try running the 1,600 meters, and he ended up doing so in eighth grade at a meet where he was originally supposed to run the 400. He turned heads with his time, which put him as one of the fastest in Taylorview’s conference.
He was able to further gauge his abilities in a physical education class he attended with Taylorview’s fastest distance runner, Matthew Gyles. Erikson kept up with Gyles, a 2018 Idaho Falls graduate who would later be his high school cross-country and track teammate.
Four years since running his first 1,600 and trading sprints for distance, Erikson said being asked to run the occasional 4x400-meter relay is not daunting.
“It’s so easy now,” Erikson said.
That memorable first 1,600 proved prophetic for Erikson, whose senior season of cross-country stirred up plenty of conversation across Idaho.
His senior season times alone prompt chatter. He began with back-to-back wins at the Cardinal Classic and Tiger-Grizz Invitational, the latter of which is believed to be the first overall individual Tiger-Grizz title for a District 6 boy. Then came his 15:45 to place third at a stacked BYU Autumn Classic on Sept. 15. A week later, Erikson demolished his previous personal record of 15:33.6 by running 15:09.4 to place second in the boys elite race of the Bob Firman Invitational — the highest finish by a District 6 boy in the elite race in recent memory. Erikson outdid himself two weeks after Firman, winning the Inland Empire Challenge in 15:08 on this season’s state cross-country course at Lewiston Orchards. That time is still the fastest this season by an Idaho boy for any classification, per athletic.net.
His finishes were equally impressive. In seven races including the 4A state meet, Erikson placed in the top three every time. Four of those races were wins, including a second consecutive individual district title.
But the numbers that speak the most volume for Erikson? Mileage totals.
As of early August, Erikson’s summer mileage had reached 770 miles. He maintained a structured training schedule once school began, running twice on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays to total 18 miles for each of those days, nine miles on Tuesday and Thursday and 12 to 13 miles on Saturday.
“I had to wake up to run before school to do those two a days,” Erikson said. “I think I took a big step forward.”
That step forward led to a season that put him in DyeStat.com and Milesplit.com national rankings, a repeat 4A state runner-up individual finish as lead boy for the repeat state champion Tigers, an offer from BYU and the honor of Post Register All-Area Boys Cross-Country Runner of the Year.
While Erikson found himself in state, regional and national conversations, plenty of District 6 coaches discussed him, too, and the longtime coaches added further perspective.
“I told him after state I’ve been coaching cross-country for 30 years and that’s one of the best seasons I’ve ever seen,” Thunder Ridge coach Bob Hagert said. “Zach’s season was fantastic.”
Sugar-Salem head coach Brett Hill said Erikson reminded him of what 1999 Bonneville graduate and Idaho 5A 3,200 record-holder Jed Barta did his senior season, adding that Erikson is helping Idaho cross-country reach new heights by being among a strong contingent of national caliber Idaho boys this season.
“He’s at a different level than most kids in Idaho,” Hill said. “He’s putting in a lot of miles and he’s just matured. When you put in that many miles, my hat’s off to him. He’s put in the work to be on the national level.”
For as much as his senior season brought, Erikson said he did not reach all his goals. He had hoped to be 4A individual state champion and qualify for Nike Cross Nationals at Nike Cross Northwest Regionals. Signing with BYU — his dream school — became reality, however, and he will end the year by racing at Foot Locker West Regionals in Walnut, Calif., on Dec. 1.
“I can’t be sad about this season,” Erikson said.
Alan McMurtrey, Idaho Falls’ head coach since 2000, pointed out a goal of historic significance that Erikson achieved this fall. McMurtrey put Erikson in the same sentence as Idaho Falls greats Matt Gunn (Idaho A-1 individual state runner-up in 2000 who went on to run for Arkansas) and Adam Follett (Idaho 5A individual state champion in 2003), but Erikson went a step farther to become I.F.’s ‘greatest of all time.’
“Zach, he just made such big goals and wanted to be the ‘GOAT,’” McMurtrey said. “He’s the best high school runner I’ve ever had. We’ve had some good ones, but I didn’t think I’d ever have one that good again.”
Erikson also made history by being part of I.F.’s first back-to-back state champion boys cross-country team since the Tigers did so in 1995 and 1996. Among I.F.’s other accomplishments this year was a repeat district championship, winning the Tiger Grizz Varsity A division and leading Idaho teams by placing fourth in the Bob Firman boys elite race.
“It’s been really cool to be a part of,” Erikson said. “I know they’ll work hard this summer and keep it going.”
McMurtrey said Erikson was an ‘inspiring’ team captain who embodied the meaning of ‘if you want to have a good teammate, be a good teammate.’
“He took our whole team, our whole school on quite a ride,” McMurtrey said. “You always kinda have to balance your individual goals and team goals. He was great to embrace that with having such high individual goals. It’s a privilege to be around him. He’s been consistent, diligent, intelligent with it all.”
Erikson will join a BYU men’s team which placed third at the NCAA Division I Cross-Country Championships in 2017 and second this year. He said he looks forward to joining a group of fun, fast runners and expects to keep running into adulthood.
“After college, I’d like to get into marathons. Maybe try some ultramarathons,” Erikson said. “Running will always be there.”