High School Sports

Tristian Merchant of ACS turns in a historic performance at Region III cross country meet

With no big national and regional cross country races to aim for during the COVID-19 era, Tristian Merchant of Anchorage Christian School decided to see if he could make Alaska the stage for some great performances this season.

The result Saturday at the Region III championships in Palmer was one for the record books.

Merchant, a senior, ran the fastest 5-kilometer cross-country time by an Alaska high schooler in history, according to a couple of the sport’s experts. The time is also believed to be the second-fastest 5K ever run in Alaska, including road races but excluding ovals.

14:41.32.

The time lowered Merchant’s previous best of 14:45.2, a smoking time posted last month at the ACS Invitational at Cheney Lake. And it shattered the Palmer High course record of 15:04.6, which Merchant set last season.

Merchant is a national talent — his time Saturday ranks third in the nation this season, and last December he placed 13th to earn All-America honors at the Nike national championships in Oregon.

He was planning to race at the national level again this season, but the Nike and Footlocker national championships as well as other premier regional races have been canceled amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Because of that, Merchant said he’s looking for peak performances in October in Alaska instead of in December in the Lower 48.

“Not having those races makes it a lot more focused on October instead of December,” he said. “I’m running less mileage right now, and I took Friday pretty easy and I took Thursday pretty easy.”

His focus Saturday? “Just getting a PR,” Merchant said.

He ran the first mile of Saturday’s Division II race in 4:50, building a 30-second lead in the process. He ran the next two miles of the 3.1-mile race in nearly identical times — 4:33.8 and 4:33.64.

He finished with a huge gap between himself and runner-up David Sliwinski of Grace Christian, who finished in 16:25.17.

[Fake track season produces fast time for ACS runner Tristian Merchant]

Merchant is a two-time Division II state champion in cross country, and ACS coach Jake Moe said his star will go all-out once again at next week’s state championships, which are set to be held at Kincaid Park.

"With all the national races being canceled, we said, ‘Let’s go all out for regions and state,’ so he was going all-out for it today, and it went pretty well,'' Moe said. “We know it’s supposed to be a little slower (course) at Kincaid, but we’ll go all-out for that too.”

Michael Janecek, a longtime Palmer High administrator and Alaska running expert, said Merchant’s 14:41.32 is “by far” the fastest in cross-country history by an Alaska high school runner.

It’s also believed to be the second-fastest 5K time ever run in Alaska, barring any done on a track oval.

Marcus Dunbar, a running historian and the former Kodiak High coach, won the 1995 Alaska Heart Run 5K road race in a still-standing record 14 minutes, 39 seconds at the height of his illustrious running career. That’s the fastest non-oval 5K ever run in Alaska, and Dunbar said Saturday he believes Merchant’s time is the second-best ever.

When he crossed the finish line at Palmer’s Machetanz Field, Merchant raised his hands above his head and looked to the sky.

“That’s simply my way of saying, ‘Thank you, God.’ It’s just something I do,” Merchant said. “When we set goals last year, one of the goals I wanted to keep was just being thankful for every race. Be grateful for every race and every time.”

During a pandemic capable of shutting down sports in an instant, that’s a good way to think.

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