GARDINER — Just outside of Yellowstone National Park in the city of Gardiner, you can likely find Zander Opperman running around the gorgeous terrain and even among all the wildlife that inhabit the area.
“It really did start off as a way to stay in shape for ski season," Opperman said. "I'm on the ski team here, do a lot of back-country skiing. Then, from there, it's really just turned into an identity for me into a way to relieve stress, get outside, and skiing has become my fitness in the winter so I can run in the summer."
A senior at Gardiner High School, Opperman has been running since the summer heading into his freshman year and over time has built himself up to run long distances, including marathons.
“Freshman year, it was a half marathon. Sophomore and junior years I ran three marathons during them, including the Bozeman Marathon, that was my first marathon," said Opperman. "I run about 1,400 miles a year. In the summer when I hit my peak training, I’m running in between 200 and 250 miles a month.”
With marathons canceled in 2020 due to COVID-19, Opperman decided that he wasn’t going to let that stop him. Last summer, he ran from Livingston to Gardiner raising money for Children International, a poverty-fighting charity organization.
“I ended up raising over $4,000," he said. "The run went off without a hitch. Ran 60 miles and it was just a wonderful, amazing experience to have.”
For his senior year he thought he would change things up a little bit. After enjoying running on his own for so long, he finally joined the track and field team at Gardiner.
“I’m really excited to wear the Gardiner Bruin jersey," said the new Bruins runner. "To be able to train with the team, to have the camaraderie and you finish a lap, you’re breathing hard and having someone there to give you a fist bump, it’s much different than being alone on a mountain and smiling to yourself.”
Seeing Opperman finally don the Bruins uniform was a welcome sight for head coach Wendi Burke
“Every year I would try to get him on the team and, ‘Come on, Zander, you can run,’ and he was very much a purist then," said Burke, the head track and field coach at Gardiner. "He didn’t want to run in a circle he kept saying. No one was more shocked than me when he said he was going to run with us.”
Burke has the tough task of helping the senior trim his run time down significantly as he adjusts from running many miles to one and two for his events.
“You’re trying to coach somebody that's run a crazy amount of miles and you’re trying to train them to run just two miles fast around the track and I was intimidated," said Burke. "I have to brush up on my distance training and trying to get a kid who can put away lots of miles and be able to do it faster.”
It’s been quite the adjustment for Opperman as well.
“It’s a lot faster, it hurts a lot more," the senior said. "There’s definitely a lot of cross application between but it is a different sport. I’m working more on speed now, I’m spending more time in the weight room and just more time going fast rather than really, really slow.”
Right now, the long-distance runner is looking to cut 30 seconds off his run time to get under a five-minute mile, but Burke thinks that once competition starts Opperman can kick it into gear.
“It’ll be fun to see what he does in competition," said the head coach. "I think that when somebody’s running by themselves and they’re kind of self-driven it’ll be interesting to see how he competes, because I think that will really get that adrenaline running and there’s nothing that compares to competition.”
Although he’s a skilled runner, Opperman brings much more to the team.
“He’s great to have on the team," Burke said. "He has, of course, a natural leadership ability and he tends to inspire the kids around him. He’s really good at encouraging the younger kids as well.”
Opperman has many goals that he would like to achieve in life, such as running the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, the Boston Marathon and a few other races, but he wants people who are thinking about picking up running to know that it can be fun.
“Have fun with it," he said. "If I’m not having fun while I’m doing a run, I stop, I get my thoughts together, maybe I’ll take the next few days off. And I always make sure that whatever I’m doing I have a smile on my face, I’m enjoying it, and that’s just really my biggest takeaway from it, is you don’t have to suffer through running, you can enjoy it.”