Tristian Merchant’s fake track season is over, but what he managed to accomplish in it is the real deal.
Merchant, a junior at Anchorage Christian School, broke the nine-minute barrier in the 3,200 meters in a time trial Saturday at Bartlett High, becoming what is believed to be the fourth high school runner from Alaska to hit that milestone.
Four days after clocking a time of 8 minutes, 59.07, Merchant returned to the Bartlett track — not in search of another personal-best, but to help a teammate reach one.
He paced ACS senior Kaleb Smith to a PR in a 1,600-meter time trial, looking relaxed while occasionally glancing at his watch or looking over his shoulder to see how far back Smith was. He finished a few meters ahead of Smith, who finished in 4:40.14.
“Our fake track season is over,” Merchant said.
Both time trials had the trappings of a real race. A starter’s pistol sent runners on their way and an automated timing system recorded the results.
Though unofficial because it didn’t happen at a real meet, Merchant’s 8:59.07 puts him in fast company. Only three other Alaskans — Levi Thomet, Trevor Dunbar and Don Clary — are known to have run sub-9:00 times while in high school, according to Marcus Dunbar, the retired Kodiak High School coach and unofficial historian of Alaska high school track.
“It’s definitely something to be proud of,” Merchant said.
Merchant did his Saturday time trial with Chugiak High runner Hyrum Nelson, who was coming off an injury, Merchant said, and clocked 9:30.44.
Also sharing the track with Merchant were pacesetters Smith and Grace Christian runner Preston Wethington, who ran odd-numbered laps, and ACS assistant coach Jake Moe, who ran even-numbered laps.
In his first seven laps, Merchant recorded splits ranging from 69.95 seconds on the first lap and 66.71 seconds on the second lap. His time after seven laps was 7:56.98, meaning he needed to run the final lap in 63.01 seconds to break nine minutes.
He did it in 62.09 seconds.
Merchant ran the speedy final lap under false pretenses. When Moe starting running the final lap with him, he told Merchant they needed to run a 64-second lap to hit the goal.
“I thought, ‘Oh, we can’t do that.’ I actually needed 62 and I’m just glad I didn’t know that. … I felt a lot of pain.”
Moe said the final 200 meters made the difference. “I yelled at him, ‘You better not let an old man beat you,’ ’’ he said. “I was trying to make it a race atmosphere. That last 200 was the fastest 200 of his whole race.”
While head-turning in any circumstance, Merchant’s time is especially impressive given it came without the benefit of a track season.
“He hasn’t had any buildup races, and races are generally where you tune up for an amazing performance,” said Jerry Ross, a club coach and top Anchorage runner.
Merchant said he has been doing workouts with Dimond High runner Santiago Prosser since schools shut down and spring sports were canceled in late March.
“We did tempo (runs) on bike paths, and we did one workout on the little road behind the Walmart (in northeast Anchorage),” he said. When tracks cleared of ice, he took his workouts there.
Because high school coaches weren’t allowed to work with athletes while schools were closed, Moe provided Merchant with some written workout plans. Based on what he was hearing back, Moe thought Merchant was poised for a breakthrough.
“They were college-level workouts rather than high school workouts, and it was really impressive to get that feedback from him,” Moe said.
With his 8:59.07, Merchant joins Alaska’s short list of long-distance greats who have broken 9:00.
Two are Kodiak runners, and both did it twice. In 2015, Levi Thomet ran 8:45.28 at the New Balance indoor national meet (a time converted from a 2-mile time of 8:48:32) and 8:54.25 at an indoor meet at The Dome in Anchorage. In 2009, Trevor Dunbar ran 8:46:72 at the 2009 Nike outdoor national meet (also a converted 2-mile time) and 8:51.5 at a meet meet in Kodiak.
The other is Don Clary, a 1984 Olympian who ran a 2-mile time trial at Wendler Middle School in 1974 that converts to a 3,200-meter time of 8:51.8.
That time, like Merchant’s, is unofficial because it didn’t happen at a real meet. At the 1975 state high school championships, Clary had a 2-mile time of 9:04.4 that converts to a 3,200-meter time of 9:01.54. Two miles is 3,219 meters.
At last year’s Bryan Young Invitational in Kodiak, Merchant ran a personal-best time of 9:21.69. In February, he ran a personal-best time of 8:46.72 in a 3,000-meter indoor race at the University of Washington.
Merchant, who intends to run track and cross country in college, said he is hearing from coaches. Though it’s nice to have a sub-9:00 on his resume, he said there are other high school runners clocking times in the 8:40s.
For now, he’s looking forward to his senior year, which he hopes begins with fall sports in place so he can chase a third straight state championship.
The story has been corrected to reflect Don Clary’s converted time from a 1975 time trial.
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