This Cross Country Season Will Be Zack Munson's Boldest Yet

"I like to make all my races pretty honest. I don't love the sit and kick. I think a real kick is when everyone is tired. I like an honest race and definitely like to be bold.

By Cory Mull - MileSplit

Zack Munson has never been one to shy away from a big decision. 

In September, in the first race of his junior season, the unattached runner from Bellingham Sehome (WA) High School made a bold move in the boys championship race at the Ash Creek Festival, gapping the field by five seconds in the first mile with a blistering split of 4:45. 

It didn't exactly work out.

"They swooped me up in the last mile," Munson said. "They negative split hard. I definitely learned a good lesson." 

Munson came back to earth and then tried to hold on late as he crossed the line with a time of 15:17.50. Fourth-place. While to some that would have been a great result -- he earned a career best 5K time with the performance -- Munson felt otherwise. 

His goal was to win, and to do it commandingly. 

"That's one of the main things I like to go by in racing. Just be bold," Munson told MileSplit recently. "If things go right, great. If they don't, you learn."

But to go out and risk failure is sometimes what makes you as a runner. Without that singular belief, you might not be willing to make the requisite moves to win. 

And it's that mentality which has led Munson to make another huge decision this year, opting away from his high school season with Sehome -- a perennial Class 2A power in Washington which hasn't lost a state championship since 2011 -- in favor of running unattached. 

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"I'm a big believer in putting all my eggs in one basket," he said. "The state meet is great and it's competitive, but in the end I want to be a top guy at a national meet. If I need to sacrifice the high school schedule to be better, I have to make that decision."

In December, Munson will get his opportunity to claim national significance. 

The Washington runner will travel to Huntsville, Alabama to compete at the RunningLane Cross Country Championships on Dec. 4. 

The meet has become one of two de facto national championships to end the high school cross country season in 2021. 

"It wasn't easy (giving up the high school season)," Munson said. "But I have to see it through. In the end, nationals is what's important to me." 

No doubt, his decision is a bold one, especially considering Munson would have been a contender for a WIAA Class 2A title for Sehome. This past week, he ran a 2.6 mile time trial around a local trail in 12:29.

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This past outdoor season, he also secured one of the best sophomore seasons in the entire country, claiming the class's No. 11 performance in the 1,600m (4:13.25), the No. 5 effort in the 3,200m (8:57.14) and the No. 2 race in the 5K (14:42.02). 

Wherever he went this past spring, Munson challenge himself to the fullest. 

"It was a breakthrough season for me," he said of races at the Outdoor Nationals, the Texas Distance Festival and the Stumptown Twilight. "But I think I had a lot of good momentum that season, too."

As a freshman, he finished 21st at the WIAA Class 2A meet in 16:17.80. 

This fall marked his first time back to big-time competition after nearly two years away from invitationals and championships. His 2020 season was full of small meets in the nearby Washington region around Bellingham. 

"With COVID, I've learned a lot about navigating different challenges," he said. 

But one of the biggest game-changers for Munson, he said, was a week-long retreat in July of 2020 at the White Pass Camp. There, he was introduced to some of the state's top athletes.

Held among a throng of cabins and a ski lodge at Mt. Rainer, with a vibrant network of trails and hills within an earshot, he formed confidence that embedded in his DNA once returning home. 

"It wasn't easy (giving up the high school season)," Munson said. "But I have to see it through. In the end, nationals is what's important to me." 

Munson built connections and friendships with some of the state's best runners, too, athletes such as Riverside's Jamar Distel and Selah's Cooper Quigley 

Those connections eventually led to a big group chat and the genesis of the Olympia 3,200m, an outdoor race in April that saw three Washington runners break 9 minutes and a total of 11 athletes go under 9:10, including Munson's then-personal best 9:00.06. 

It forged relationships for him that ultimately drove him to tougher decisions down the road. He also began working with a local coach, John Collins, that same season.

"We're a perfect match," Munson said. "He's responsible for my sophomore year track season." 

A year later, Munson is in a different place. He's also got thick skin. Even after a loss, even after that tough move that saw him come back to the field, he still remains palpably confident. 

He's excited for the chance to race the nation's top runners, including the likes Newbury Park's top four -- Colin Sahlman, Leo Young, Lex Young and Aaron Sahlman -- to go along with Gary Martin, Sam Rich, Riley Hough and many others. 

"I'm beyond excited," Munson said. "The anticipation is building. I've been watching all these guys for years now. I've told my parents, 'I'm tired of watching, I'm tired of watching. Now that I get this chance, I'm beyond excited, to finally have that competition."

Munson knows that in order to keep progressing, he will need to see where he stacks up, to see if all that training has led to the kind of performance he's been craving. 

But there's one thing that's not going to happen. 

He won't let anyone dictate his own race plan. 

    "I love to get after it," Munson said. "I like to make all my races pretty honest. I don't love the sit and kick. I think a real kick is when everyone is tired. I like an honest race and definitely like to be bold.

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