Mellon quietly becoming one of the nation's best
Some of Zach Mellon's best races are up on YouTube, available for all to see as people start learning about one of the nation's best up-and-coming middle-distance runners.
Mellon, however, is incapable of watching them himself.
Every time he tries, he starts sweating. His heart pounds. After a while, he can't take it. It feels like he's racing all over again. Even though he knows the result, he gets too nervous to watch. He has to turn it off.
"It's weird," says Mellon, a senior at Buffalo (Minn.) High School. "When I watch those videos, it's an out-of-body experience. There's so much adrenaline. It's like I'm doing it again."
Perhaps it's because the videos are just as unbelievable as they seem. In last year's 4x400 relay final at the Class AA outdoor state meet, Mellon's Buffalo team starts strong, then fades in the middle laps. By the time Mellon grips the baton, he is 75 meters behind and the race is seemingly over. Only it's not over at all.
Mellon charges hard in the backstretch and slowly starts closing the gap. By the final turn, he's found top gear. In the span of 400 meters, Mellon has led his team from fifth to second.
"And with just a few extra meters," Buffalo coach Scott Palmer says, "he would have won."
It's an astounding feat in what isn't even his best distance. Mellon's specialty is the 800, an event in which he has won back-to-back state titles. He set a state record in the 800 last spring (1:49.69), an accomplishment that helped him net Gatorade State Boys' Track & Field Athlete of the Year honors.
Zach Mellon Favorites
TV Show: "How It's Made"
Movie: "Forrest Gump"
Actor: Jim Carrey
Musical Artist: Pink Floyd
Long one of the state's best middle-distance runners, Mellon arrived on the national scene last year when he finished as the runner-up in the 800 at the USATF Junior National meet, less than a second behind then-junior Elijah Greer of Oregon.
But his ascension onto the national stage wasn't without a slight delay. While he was warming up for his big moment last June at Junior Nationals in Columbus, Ohio, an intense storm appeared overhead without much warning. Mellon and his competitors were forced to take shelter in a baseball dugout until officials finally opened a locker room nearby.
"All the 800 [competitors] were standing next to each other in the locker room," he says. "It was this tense silence for two hours. I was just trying to keep my body warmed up and loose."
Once the meet finally resumed, it was clear the delay had no effect on Mellon. He ran the best race of his life, and it translated into a second-place finish in 1:48.64. Not only was that the nation's second-fastest time of 2008, it was one of the fastest times in years. And it was still only second best.
In the past four outdoor track seasons, only two prep racers in the nation have run a faster 800 than Mellon's effort at Junior Nationals. Which is why it's so astonishing that Mellon knows he could have run the race even faster.
"I made the mistake of not going out fast enough," he says. "I didn't put myself in a position to win."
There seemingly are no barriers for Mellon. Time is rarely an obstacle, and he's always willing to do what it takes to run just a little faster than before.
"He's got the natural ability, but he also has the work ethic to go with it," Palmer says. "Zach is the hardest worker we've got, and he's the most gifted. He understands his gift."
The 800 may be his strongest event, but his effort last year in that epic 4x400 relay was no fluke. In fact, Palmer believes Mellon can run any event he wants.
"He could probably be the best 200 runner on our team," Palmer says. "And he'd probably be the best 100 runner, too. He's obviously the best athlete we've ever had. And we've had some pretty good Division I athletes."
Mellon has also been a strong cross country runner, although he says it was a sport he didn't take seriously until this past fall, when he finished 19th at the Class AA state meet. In the past for Mellon, cross country had been little more than a well-structured gear-up for the track season.
"It was my final year, so I decided to give it my best shot and just put track out of my mind for a while," says Mellon, who was considering numerous Division I track scholarship offers as of press time. "It was a blast."
Once cross country season was over, Mellon took a complete physical break for about two weeks -- one of the longest he's taken since he started running in eighth grade.
Now he's ready to take aim at every record he can. He wants to improve his own state record in the 800. He's hoping to lead the 4x400 team to a state title and maybe the 4x800 team as well. He's also taking aim at Oregon's Greer in hopes of earning a national championship, and he says the U.S. high school record of 1:46.45 might be in reach.
But there's more to Mellon than endless workouts and elusive records. He's very active in his community, but he's not one to boast about his efforts. Not until Mellon told the Gatorade Player of the Year selection committee last spring that he volunteered at a local nursing home did his coach even know about it.
For nearly two years, Mellon has met with some of his favorite ladies, who look forward to his weekly visits. He shuffles a deck of cards and asks what game they'd like to play. Their response is always the same. "King's Corner," he says with a chuckle. "It's always King's Corner."
It's just one of many things the nation is slowly learning about Zach Mellon.
Christopher Parish covers high school sports for ESPN RISE.
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