Zach Miller, 2013 JFK 50-Mile Champion, Interview

Zach Miller, a 25-year-old hailing originally from Columbia, Pennsylvania, full-on exploded onto the ultrarunning scene last weekend with his surprise win at the 2013 JFK 50 Mile. He didn’t just win, either, he ran the third-fastest time in the now 50-year history of the race. We called up Zach this week to find out who he is and what led to his breakout run. In the following interview, learn about his collegiate running history, his unusual cruise-ship job, his recent forays into trail running with a trip to the Alps and a road trip to Arizona, how he gained entry to the JFK 50 the Monday before the race, and much more. Eight thousand, five hundred words on Zach Miller, coming right up!

Zach enjoying a run in Cape Town, South Africa. Photo courtesy of Zach Miller

Zach enjoying a run in Cape Town, South Africa. Photo courtesy of Zach Miller

iRunFar: Is this a good time to chat?

Zach Miller: Yes, it’s fine. I’m just out running.

iRunFar: Okay. So obviously you’re recovering well from JFK?

Miller: Yeah, I guess. It’s going pretty well. I haven’t recovered from a 50 before, so it’s all new. The legs are doing pretty good. I’ve been kind of surprised.

iRunFar: How far are you running today?

Miller: Right now, about 10 to 12 miles. If my body feels good, I’ll probably go out tonight for six to eight miles.

iRunFar: So you are taking no time off after your race.

Miller: Well, the first two days after were pretty rough. We did about seven miles the day after and about eight miles the next day.

iRunFar: Yeah? Because today’s just Wednesday. This is the fourth day after the race.

Miller: Well, I’ll see what my body will do, and I’m trying to listen to it. But it’s doing pretty well, so I guess I figured I’d get some miles in.

iRunFar: Do you have a GPS on? What pace are you running right now?

Miller: I don’t know. I haven’t really been looking at my watch today—probably 7:00 to 7:30 pace. Some of it was really slow because I went out and ran some trails and they’re pretty rough trails, so I was just kind of enjoying it and taking it easy. Now I’m back on the roads so I’m making this a little more steady.

iRunFar: Congratulations on your win on Saturday.

Miller: Thank you.

iRunFar: I want to get this straight from the get-go. What’s the story with the cruise ship? You work on one?

Miller: Yeah, I do. I went to RIT [Rochester Institute of Technology]. I have a mechanical-engineering degree, but in college I did an internship with a printing company and I designed printers on an engineering team. When I got out of college, I got an offer from this British printing company to run their print operations on cruise ships. So I’m the Digital Print Shop Manager (my title), but on the cruise ship they just call me the Chief Printer. I’m in charge of pretty much all the printing that goes on on board the cruise ship. So I deal with all the customers and do all the paperwork and everything, but I also maintain all the equipment. If we’re in the middle of the ocean and something breaks down, we have to fix it as fast as possible or we start losing money. So I’m the guy that’s lying underneath the printer with a flashlight and a screwdriver. I fix everything. That’s a big part of my job.

Zach Miller - Akaroa New Zealand

Grateful to be off the ship for a few hours, Zach runs through the hills of Akaroa, New Zealand. Photo courtesy of Zach Miller

iRunFar: What are the types of things that get printed these days on cruise ships?

Miller: A lot of stuff. I don’t know if you’ve ever been on a cruise, but all the guests get what we call a galley program. It tells them all of the things that are going on—what time we’re getting into port, what time all the shows and events are. I print thousands of those every day. I print thousands of menus for lunch and dinner. I print newspapers from all different parts of the world—thousands of those. Then whatever else they need—invitations to cocktail parties, notices about what paperwork they need to get off in certain countries, fliers for sales in shops, all sorts of different stuff.

iRunFar: Cool. Tell me about your work schedule. You must go on the ship for awhile and then have some time back home and then go back on the ship?

Miller: Yeah. I’m usually at sea for five months at a time and then on land, on a vacation for about two months. It’s not strict. The first time I did it, I was at sea for seven months and then I was on vacation for six weeks. Then I was somewhere on the ship for three and a half months, now I’m off for two and a half months. I go back in December and I’ll be there for the winter for about four months. I’ll get off in April.

iRunFar: During JFK, we started calling you “the other Zach Miller” because of there being a Zach Miller on the ultra scene for a few years now who has had a couple pretty fast runs at JFK. But you’re the “new” or the “other” Zach Miller—Zach Miller II or Zach Miller B. [laughing] Give us a little background on yourself.

Miller: I wasn’t born in the U.S. My parents were missionaries, and we were living in Kenya when I was born. Me and my sister were born in Kenya, but we only lived there until I was four years old. Then we moved back to our home in Columbia, Pennsylvania, which is in Lancaster County. I’ve lived there the rest of my life.

I grew up playing soccer. I love soccer. It was my dream to go to college and play soccer. I wasn’t the most skilled in soccer. I was really fit. I could run around the field all day. In ninth or 10th grade, I played for my high school’s J.V. team. They gave me an award called the “Mr. Hustle Award.” I guess that’s kind of what I did. It probably made up for my lack of skill.

In elementary school, we’d run the mile. I couldn’t run 100 meters to save my life, but I could beat most of the kids in the mile. Not all of them—I’d get beat by one or two kids, but I could tell I was pretty good. In eighth grade I started running track, and I kept playing soccer. Around 10th grade, the coaches started bugging me about running cross country. They’d be like, “Zach, what are you doing this fall?” I’d be like, “I don’t know,” because I’d want to play soccer. So in 10th grade–it was really hard–but I decided to stop playing soccer seriously and to run cross country. I told my high-school coach and he said that he’d pretty much expected it. He wasn’t fazed by it.

I started running cross country and I just fell in love. I just loved it. From then on, it was just running year-round—cross country, indoor track, outdoor track. In high school, I was good, but I wasn’t an absolute star. I only ran probably 16:55 or something in cross country for 5k. I ran the two mile in 10:05. My 1600 time was 4:47. I didn’t have much speed. But by my senior year our team did go to state, and we were really excited about that. I never medaled or anything. We were just happy to go.

Then I went to college. I wanted to run in college, so I kept looking at schools. I decided to go to RIT. The coach there is great, but he doesn’t do a lot of recruiting with his cross-country team. He met with me and I guess he was interested, but it was still like, “Well, you’ll have to come and try out for the team.” I was a bit nervous because I never really had to try out for cross country. In high school, if you showed up, you were on the team. All you had to fight for was a varsity spot. I showed up, and I guess I impressed him the first week because he never made me run the freshman time trial. He just put me in the first meet with all the guys. I ran alright. That’s where I did my collegiate running and training specializing in the 10k because I really didn’t have much speed. I never broke 9:00 in the 3k. I was a 10k specialist. I would have been a half-marathon specialist if they had that race, but 10k was the longest we could go.

I ran for him, and then I graduated and I just started running on my own. I do technically run for a little club team in the Philadelphia area called Rosemont Running Club. A guy there, Steve Clarke, found me at a race—he actually found me when I was in college, but I didn’t join the team until about a year ago. I guess he was persistent. Technically, that’s who I run for. They’re into doing trail races, so I like that.

I just started experimenting after college. I was doing some triathlon training because I was working a little bit with Barbara Lindquist who heads up the collegiate-recruitment program for USA Triathlon. I thought maybe that would be my thing because I’d had some success in a few triathlons–nothing too big–in college and high school. I kind of messed around with that for a year after college.

iRunFar: Your ultra history, to my understanding, is really brief—JFK 50 mile and Bootlegger 50k. Is that it?

Miller: And Music City Trail Ultra just outside of Nashville, Tennessee. That was my first. I ran the 50k there.

iRunFar: When did you do that?

Miller: That was last May. I was home for vacation and my buddy, Mike Kurvach—we ran together in college, he was my roommate, and he was my handler at JFK—he ran steeplechase and just missed nationals. He wanted to go to a track carnival in Nashville. He asked me to go be his coach which basically meant I just showed up and cheered for him. I said, “Sure,” but I wanted to do something. So I looked on the internet. I wasn’t very fast at the time because I’d just got off the ship, but I was strong. I found a 50k and I said, “I can do this.” Actually, it was more like, “I think I can do this.” We showed up and it was great. A lot of people had a hard time following the course, but I found my way through it. I won that, but the next guy was 20 minutes back. I really didn’t run that fast. I guess it was a slow course, but I ran 4:26. I won, so it was like, “Okay, maybe there’s something here.”

I got back on the ship and I disappeared again. I did run a half marathon in Iceland when we were on the ship. I did win that, but the next guy back was nine minutes behind me. I almost got my PR, actually, but it was a solo effort. I was happy with that. Then I didn’t race again until I got off [the ship] this time. I started doing some local races and then threw in these two ultras—the Bootlegger 50k and the JFK 50 Mile.

Zach Miller - Isafjorder Iceland

Zach Miller runs atop a mountain high above the tiny town of Isafjorder, Iceland. Photo courtesy of Zach Miller

iRunFar: When did you get off the ship last and start this bout of vacation?

Miller: I got off September 30, in England. I bought a plane ticket and flew to Switzerland. Then I took a bus to France up in the Alps, in Chamonix. I spent two weeks up in the Alps on vacation, basically just eating and running. I actually intended to do a big run. I intended to run the Haute Route from the base of Mont Blanc to the base of the Matterhorn. I intended to do that and then turn around and run back during the two weeks, but over several days with stops in towns. I ran from France to Switzerland the first day and that night I got sick. I must have had food poisoning. There were these two French guys there running the TMB [Tour du Mont Blanc] route and they were finishing, going back to Chamonix. I decided to run back with them because that way I wasn’t alone while I was sick. We hiked and ran that day about 25 miles back to Chamonix, but I was pretty much on empty the whole time. My body wouldn’t keep anything in it. It was really painful. It was harder than any race. If you ever talk to the French guys, they’ll tell you. They have a picture of me sitting on a bench in Chamonix at the end of the day with a puddle of puke between my legs because I couldn’t keep anything in my stomach. I was just so sick. I barely made it back that day. They were with me. They were great. They stayed with me and made sure I made it into town. They took me to a hostel and this Russian guy gave me some medicine. We looked it up on Wikipedia first because I was like, “You’re talking in Russian and I don’t know what I’m taking.” So we looked it up on Wikipedia and it was Imodium AD. That saved me.

I spent a couple days recovering at the hostel and I still had a week and a half. The French guys were telling me to do the TMB trail. Well, I’ll see how my body does and if I think I can do it, I’ll go out and do the TMB. It’s about 105 miles. The French guys kind of showed me how to break it up from town to town. I broke it up into four days. The first day I went from Chamonix to Les Contamines, but when I got to Les Contamines, all the hotels were closed. So I hitchhiked with a guy. I tried to take the bus, but it left without me. This guy saw me chasing the bus down the street, so he offered me a ride to a hotel and I stayed there. The next day, I ran to Courmayeur in Italy. And the next day I ran to Champex[-Lac]. Then I stayed at the same place where I’d gotten sick, but I didn’t eat the food. Then I ran from there to Chamonix. Going over the pass between France and Switzerland, all the rain I was running in turned into snow. It was a whiteout snowstorm at the top. I figured it wasn’t safe to stay up there, so I descended really fast into the next town, and ran back to Chamonix in the valley. It was a slight deviation from the regular TMB route, but I didn’t figure it was safe to stay up high. Then I went home and trained in Pennsylvania.

Zach Miller -  TMB Italy Switzerland

Zach Miller pushes through the final climb of the TMB between Italy and Switzerland. Photo courtesy of Zach Miller

iRunFar: The people who will read this interview, many of them are pretty familiar with the TMB because of the 100-mile race there every year[, the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc].

Miller: That race still kind of blows my mind because I’ve been on much of the route and the elevation changes are ridiculous. The thought of guys doing that in one shot is incredible. Who knows, maybe I’ll do it someday, but it’s just kind of hard to fathom. I was in shape and it’s no joke. The UTMB route which they use for the race is a little different than the TMB, but for the most part I think they’re the same.

iRunFar: Pretty  much the same with little deviations. You get off a cruise ship in September; you go to the Alps and do a bunch of running; then you come home and start training. How did you get it in your head that you wanted to do Bootlegger?

Miller: My high school track coach. I came home and I saw him and he pulls out his phone and he goes, “I have a race for you. You’re going to run the JFK 50 Mile.” I look at it and I’m like, “Fifty miles? That’s a long race. I can do 31, but 50?” I really wasn’t sure. I was talking to him and a local pro triathlete from my area who I went to high school with, Andrew Yoder, and we all agreed, at least those two agreed–no, I agreed too–that I needed to get in some sort of high-profile race. I wasn’t so sure about JFK. So I started looking around and I found Bootlegger. I went to my coach and I said, “Coach, I found a race. It’s in Nevada. It’s the USATF Trail 50k Championships. This I can do.” He says, “Yeah, that’s the race. That would be great.” He’s like, “I’d even take you to it except I’m on vacation in Florida.” So he couldn’t go with me. I tried to rope my buddy who went to JFK with me, Mike Kurvach, but that didn’t work. I was sitting in my house like, If I go, I’m going alone. I might be able to find a cheap plane ticket, or I could drive my car, make a road trip out of it, and see some friends along the way. I did live in Boulder when I did an internship in college, so I have friends out there, and some other places as well. If I just fly, race awful, and fly back, I spent a lot of money for a crummy race—not a bad race, but a bad performance. I figured I’d drive and at least get a good road trip in out West.

Zach Miller - 2013 Bootlegger 50k - start

Zach at the start of the Bootlegger 50k. Photo: Kristin Wilson Photography

I got in my car and I just drove and visited people along the way. I stopped in Ohio; I stopped in Boulder. Where I had friends, I stayed with friends. Where I didn’t have friends, I just pulled into a rest stop and slept in my car. I guess that’s actually what I did two nights before the race. I slept in my car in Utah somewhere. Then I drove to Nevada the next day and I met up with some people and had some dinner with them and ran the race the next day. I took sixth. I was pretty pleased. I didn’t knock it out of the park. It wasn’t out of this world. It was good, it wasn’t great. I thought, well, maybe it will get me into JFK because I was still toying with the idea. There was a guy, John Yatsko, he took fourth in the race and he needed a ride back to Flagstaff. I was thinking about going to run in the Grand Canyon. Flagstaff is just south of there. I was actually thinking about going to the canyon with Brian Tinder who I met at the race and is running TNF race soon in California, [The North Face Endurance Challenge 50-Mile Championship], but he was staying in Vegas for the night and Yatsko needed to go back. So I gave Yatsko a ride. Then he let me crash at his place for two nights and he told me, “Rob Krar lives across the street from me, but I never see him, but he lives there.” We spent the next couple days joking about how Rob Krar lives across the street but we never see him. You know, because for us, Rob Krar is on a totally different level. He’s like the guy you hang the poster of on your bedroom wall. So we never saw Rob Krar. [laughing]

I did some running there. Then Brian Tinder, who runs for Adidas, he has a wife and he ended up not being able to go to the Grand Canyon, so I went alone. There were plenty of people out hiking that day, so I felt safe. I did the Bright Angel Trail down to Phantom Ranch, to the canteen and back. I want to go back and run Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim and possibly Rim-to-Rim, but it wasn’t the day for that. I was alone and I had to go meet a buddy in Colorado, so I just did down and out and drove to Colorado afterward.

I went to Colorado and stayed with a buddy and the next day I went to Colorado Springs and met a friend of mine, Allie McLoughlin, who ran for Colorado under Coach Wetmore. She’s an absolute animal on the Manitou Incline. We went and did the Incline for fun. I ran it and she did it with 15 pounds in her backpack which was incredible considering that’s probably 20% of her body weight. We did the Incline, and Pikes Peak was sitting right there. I was really tempted to stay another day and run it. I wasn’t sure. It was late fall and I wasn’t sure about the weather up there. I was still thinking about doing JFK, so I wasn’t sure it would be wise to run up and down that that close to JFK, so I decided not to. I figured I’ve got to save some runs for later in life. [laughing]

So I went east and visited a buddy in Ohio, Chris Hong, who was a pro cyclist for Team Exergy a couple years ago. We lived together in Boulder and are still good buddies. I met him and then I trucked it up to RIT to watch the regional championships and stayed with my buddy, Mike Kurvach, for about a week. I spent about a week up there just staying with Mike’s family. It’s kind of like a second home for me. He had said he was interested in going to JFK with me if I decided to do the race.

I had emailed the race director when I was in Ohio about a week before the race. I said, “Hey, I got sixth at the national championships in 3:58. Can I get into JFK?” That was all I could do. I just sent it. I didn’t even know his email address. I just used the random-message generator on the website. I didn’t really know who it’s going to. When I told him that, he cracked up. He thought that was hilarious. He almost didn’t let me in the race. Bootlegger really wasn’t that impressive. He wasn’t that impressed, but he did have some spots left for elite runners and I guess he didn’t mind the extra money. So he let me in. He emails me Monday and says, “I can let you in. Come the day before and write your check.” I tell my buddy, Mike, I’m like, “Okay, I’m going to have to think about this.” I took about a day or two to decide. I emailed some high-school coaches for their opinion, and I decided I was going to go for it. I figured I didn’t have anything to lose. If it worked out, great. If I blew up and died, I’d have four months on a ship to recover. I just went for it.

We drove from New York to Pennsylvania on Thursday. I went out for a run that night. I woke up on Friday and went for a run in the morning, went out to breakfast, then went out to my local running store and bought hand bottles because I didn’t own any. So we bought two hand bottles and ran into Mark Amway who is kind of a local running hero who owns the store. I think he was first American in the Boston Marathon years ago. I chatted with him and told him I was running JFK. He didn’t say a whole lot. I left and went to the race. I got a room at the Red Roof Inn because it was cheap. We got ready for the race and went to bed and I guess the rest is history.

iRunFar: Let me ask you about your race. You said in an interview with the local newspaper, The Herald-Mail, that you thought that maybe you could get under six hours. Not many guys can run six hours at JFK. How did you get it in your head that, “I can do something that maybe only one or two or three guys can do in any given year at this race?”

Miller: I knew I was strong. I was training well. I had accidentally run 35 miles with my track coach one day at 7:40 pace with a bunch of wrong turns. I was running; my track coach was biking. When I say “accidentally” it just sounds funny that way. It was supposed to be a 30-mile loop around a lake near Reading, Pennsylvania. I made some wrong turns and was determined to get the right route, so I kept backtracking. By the time I figured it all out, it was about 35 miles. I wasn’t tanked when I finished. I was talking; I was fine. I hadn’t taken any water during the run, just some homemade gels that I make. My coach had water for me, but when we got to the hills, it’s a lot of singletrack trail. When we got to the hills—he was on his mountain bike and I was running—and he said, “See you at the top,” and I never really saw him again. So I didn’t get my water, which was okay. That gave me some confidence for JFK. It suggested maybe I could run around six hours for JFK because I know that JFK’s middle section is all flat. That middle section is real flat and the trail I was running had some good hills in it. That was a good indicator.

iRunFar: When the gun went off, basically you put yourself in the competitive mix straightaway. Was that intentional or was it instinct that kicked in, “Well, whatever they do I’m going to do, too?”

Miller: Well, I am a competitive person, and I wanted to be in the race. I wanted to be in the mix. Even though I didn’t really know what I could do in the race, that isn’t to say the thought of winning didn’t cross my mind because my high-school coach was like, “You can win. You can win.” I wasn’t so sure he knew a whole lot about ultrarunning. Granted, he knows a lot about running, but he was just like, “You could win it.” So it’s not to say the thought of winning didn’t cross my mind, I just didn’t really know what I was capable of.

I thought, if Max King ran 5:35, I didn’t see myself on the same level as Max King. I knew that he was amazing. But I did want to be in the race. I think I wanted to be up around the top six or top 10 from the get-go and be within striking distance and then… but I had no real strict plan. The day before I was kind of thinking, I’m just going to show up like I’m going to run a 50 miler with a bunch of buddies because it’s kind of hard to find a bunch of guys who want to go run 50 miles. I’m just going to not be nervous. I’m just going to go out there and go for a 50-mile run and see what happens. I’ll let that relaxed attitude be to my advantage. I guess that’s kind of what I did.

Jason Wolfe was first and I was second to the top of the first road hill. To the top of the mountain where you get on the AT [Appalachian Trail], Jason Wolfe was first and I was second. Then I took the AT kind of easy and let everybody get… I got passed by four or five guys right at the beginning of that although I reeled several of them in by the time we got off it. I guess that was good.

I wanted to be in the race, but I had no clue I’d win it. In terms of expectation or plan, I didn’t know who was in the race. I didn’t know basically a single person in the race except I thought I saw it on Ian Torrence’s race schedule, but I don’t think he ran.

iRunFar: He did. He ran 6:45 or something.

Miller: Oh, he did? Good for him! I didn’t see him at the race. I saw that and then I knew the women’s winner, [Emily Harrison,] was supposed to race it and she was at Bootlegger. Then on the start line just after the gun went off I saw two guys from Bootlegger and they started talking to me—Jason Wolfe and another guy. I knew Jason was good, but I didn’t know Matt Flaherty was in it. I didn’t know who Flaherty was. He won the 50-mile championships this year, but I didn’t know that. I didn’t know Rob Krar was in it. I didn’t even know what Rob Krar looked like because I’m too new and I don’t pay attention enough to all that stuff.

iRunFar: And you never saw him at his house when you were in Flagstaff. [laughing]

Miller: [laughing] Yeah, I kind of wanted to text Brian and say, “Hey, man, I saw Rob Krar.” So that was actually really funny because we were in the race and Rob Krar was running… well, first I was catching Rob Krar on the AT toward the end and I didn’t know it was him. When we were running together on the towpath, I had no clue who he was. It was me, him, and Josh Arthur from Colorado.

iRunFar: Did you know Josh, too?

Miller: I didn’t know Josh, but Josh had introduced himself. At least Josh had done an introduction even though it didn’t mean anything to me in terms of his reputability. No offense to him, I just didn’t know. So me, Josh, and Rob were running and Rob really threw down the hammer and we started flying. I was afraid it was too fast. I thought if we kept it up I might blow up at mile 25.

iRunFar: This is on the towpath now?

Miller: Yeah, this is on the towpath probably about 17, 18 miles into the race. Rob was really starting to hammer, and I was really concerned, but for whatever reason I just stayed with it. It was kind of like in college when Coach would yell about not letting the gaps develop. I just closed the gaps and stayed with him. So Josh eventually dropped off and it was just left to me and Rob, but we hadn’t introduced ourselves. So for some reason it was kind of bugging me, I guess, at some point during the race.

Zach Miller - 2013 JFK 50 mile - tow path

Zach cruising the tow path. Photo: Eric Senseman

iRunFar: Like, who this guy was?

Miller: Yeah, I just kept thinking about saying something to him. Finally, I was just like, I’m just going to. I just said, “Hey, man, my name is Zach. What’s yours?” He goes, “Rob.” I’m not thinking Rob Krar is here, so it didn’t really mean anything to me. I said, “What’s your last name?” He said, “Krar.” I was floored because I knew the name. I’d just spent a couple days talking about him with Brian in Flagstaff.

iRunFar: You just spent a couple days in Flagstaff stalking him. [laughing]

Miller: [laughing] Yeah, so I knew the name, and I knew he was really good. So I apologized to him for not realizing, but he was really cool about it. Then I was just really excited because I was 20 miles into the JFK 50 Mile and I’m running with Rob Krar. Then I’m thinking that if I get second to him, I’ll be ecstatic. I was thinking then, if I beat him, I might cry. [laughing] So that was really cool. Then I was just pumped, but I felt like he was stronger than I was based on how we were running. But I guess eventually I just got the feeling that maybe he was a bit vulnerable. I guess I started feeling… he had been doing his fair share of leading but eventually he started laying behind me. Now maybe he was just trying to run smart and let me waste energy and come after me later. Eventually I started leading him quite a bit, at least some. So I was thinking, Maybe this could actually happen. But it was all still so strange and out there. I don’t know. Eventually, it just went my way.

iRunFar: When did Rob lose touch with you?

Miller: Well, he dropped out at 41. He was right on my tail at 38. Somewhere between mile 38 and 41 he started walking and then dropped. I wasn’t looking back, so I can’t tell you exactly where. Somewhere between mile 38 to 41 is where something went wrong and he decided.

iRunFar: Was it when you went through the mile-41 aid station that you realized you were all alone?

Miller: Not until mile 42 when we make a hairpin turn to get on the road. We went through that aid station and the guys were talking to me and nobody was talking to anyone behind me. So when I did the hairpin turn–because I hate looking back–I decided to look and I couldn’t see anybody. But I didn’t know Rob dropped out; nobody told me he dropped. For all I knew he was just out of sight and still chasing. I could only see so far.

I think before that there was some confusion with Twitter, because just a little before mile 38, probably around mile 32 or 35 or 36, Rob was leading me by 45 seconds. They were waiting to see if I’d hang on and thought I had cracked because all of a sudden I was 45 seconds back. But what happened was I had to go to the bathroom, so I stopped. Rob had been stopping throughout the day so it wasn’t that big of a deal. That was actually kind of impressive. Rob kept stopping throughout the day and then catching me again. I finally had to stop, so I did, and Rob got 45 seconds on me. But right after that we went through an aid station; they saw me behind; they thought I had cracked; but I was actually feeling pretty good. So I tore off after Rob. I was reeling him in and I got about 25 to 50 meters from him and then he stopped and pulled off to go to the bathroom. So then I ran on by and all of a sudden I was leading again. By the time we got to mile 38, I was leading and he was right behind me. I went through the aid station, and I just didn’t look back until 42.

Then the last eight miles was just me trying to go for the win, I suppose. I didn’t know where the next guy was. The pace vehicles were around me, but I couldn’t see anyone else. At one point I was afraid there was somebody close so I started looking, but I couldn’t see anyone. Then [Mike] Spinnler, the race director, started reading me mile splits and I was in shock because I couldn’t believe how quickly I was still running.

iRunFar: What were some of the splits?

Miller: He showed me the last seven mile splits after the race but I didn’t write them down. The first one he read me on the road somewhere was 6:15. He said it was actually 6:14.9. When he said it I was like, “What? That can’t be!” I felt like I was running 7:30 pace and I also didn’t expect to be running 6:15’s after 42 miles of running because I’d never run more than 35 miles before. I was in the great unknown at that point. But it was 6:15 and he told me after the race that it was a wheeled-out, certified mile or something like that.

Then after that, I was clicking off 6:30’s, around 6:30 to 6:40. I guess there was one mile into the wind that was a 6:59. But then, I had no clue as to how fast I was actually running for total time because, when the gun went off in Boonsboro, I clicked my watch, but I never looked at it after that because I was just racing and running on feel. So I had no clue that I was pretty close to Max King’s record, relatively speaking. When we got to seven to go, he read me a total time and I started doing the math for if I would run seven-minute pace for the next seven miles, Wow, that would be a pretty good time.

iRunFar: You were able to still do math at that point?

Miller: Let’s say I roughly calculated it. The thing was, I wasn’t running sevens, I was running 6:30’s. I was going to finish faster. So with a mile to go, he told me I was at 5:32 and yelled that I could break 5:40. I was like, Wait a second, only two guys have ever broken 5:40 and one of them was Max King. So I knew I only needed a seven-minute mile, and I figured I could do that because I’d been running 6:30’s. I took off and I ran the last mile, he said, in 6:10 which shocks me. I ran the last mile in 6:10. I kind of feel like if we’d do it over and my college coach was there, he’d probably be yelling at me to break six minutes. When I came in, they announced that it was going to be the third-fastest time in history. I was in total shock after the race. Even my handler, Mike, he wasn’t even paying much attention to the time, so he didn’t know I was going to run so fast until just before I came into view and they announced it was going to be third fastest. That’s the first time he knew how fast it was, or that it was so fast.

Actually, Mike was more clueless about ultrarunning than I am. I do pay attention some. I know some names and some results and stuff, but I don’t know as much as a lot of guys. But Mike is even more clueless; he probably doesn’t pay attention at all. Maybe he does now. He didn’t even know who Rob Krar was. He didn’t know the name or the face. So during the race, it meant nothing to him if people said… like if someone would have told him it was Rob Krar, it didn’t mean a thing to him. He didn’t know. He said at one point in the race, some lady commented around mile 38, “Man, that guy (me) is running pretty hard. That guy (Rob) he’s racing is pretty good.” I think Mike might have responded, “Yeah, but my guy is pretty tough.” He didn’t know she was talking about Rob Krar. It was just really funny. [laughing]

It was hilarious because nobody at the race could figure out who I was. The elites had low bib numbers. Rob was 2. I was bib number 1019. There’s a picture of me and Rob running on the towpath and there I am number 1019 and Rob is number 2. Mike said that during the race someone said, “How did he get that number?” “Well, he registered the day before.”

Well, the only people that knew were Mike Kurvach and then there were two alumni from my high school, Greg Cauller and Tim Schuler. They were there and they knew who I was. Although, I don’t know that they knew I was in the race. I actually saw Greg Cauller at mile 38 and I yelled at him. I yelled, “Hempfield,” because that was the school we ran for; then he kind of cheered back. I think that might have been the first time he realized it was me. Then they were cheering for me the rest of the race, and I really appreciated that. No one else knew.

I forget where it was that Spinnler told me, but I think it was at mile 32 or 38 or something when I hadn’t dropped off, when I was still in the race with Rob, that was where everybody went nuts. That was the moment when they said, “This kid’s for real.” Everyone started pulling out their phones and everyone started going to Google and trying to figure out who the heck 1019 was. There was nothing really to find because Bootlegger was about the biggest race I’d done and I didn’t really run that phenomenal there. Then my stats in college and stuff were okay, but they weren’t out of this world. They started asking Mike stuff, but he didn’t really have that much to tell them. They were like, “What’s his marathon PR?” “Well, he hasn’t run a marathon.” [laughing]

Zach Miller - 2013 JFK 50 mile - finish

Zach winning JFK. Photo: Eric Senseman

iRunFar: [laughing] Let me ask you–honestly, you don’t really need an interviewer, you can interview yourself perfectly—but the finishing photo of you has pretty much the biggest grin ever. What was going through your head at that moment?

Miller: [laughing] I was just shocked. I was just on cloud nine. Even the days after the race, I’m still floating. I have trouble going to bed at night because I just sit in front of the computer. I look at all this stuff that people are saying and these articles. It’s just unreal to me. I’m very grateful for all the congratulations I’ve gotten and all the nice articles I’ve read and everything. But it’s just really distracting me. I’m getting my runs in, but when I’m at home, I’m just always looking because I’m not used to this…

iRunFar: Another congratulations to you, because you probably made your first appearance on LetsRun.

Miller: For the most part, my first appearance on LetsRun. In college all the guys always go on there and say all sorts of stuff. I think I did get mentioned once or twice in college, but just for something weird I did in a race or something, not because of something like this.

iRunFar: When I think of “newbie” ultrarunners or people crossing over from the road scene or just brand-new, post-collegiate folks, there are usually a couple issues that come up. 1. Endurance–someone doesn’t have the endurance platform to sustain the distance. 2. Nutrition—the woman who won this year, Emily Harrison, and who was second last year—last year, when I interviewed her after the race, she said she struggled with nutrition and getting her calories down. Obviously endurance wasn’t your issue. It sounds like you’ve been doing plenty of volume since you graduated from college. Did you have any trouble with nutrition? Did you use your homemade gels?

Miller: That was one of the reasons for the success. I felt like I really nailed the nutrition on Saturday. Looking back, I think I could have done a little better. I think I could have drank more on the AT section and maybe even eaten a little more on the AT section. For the most part, I think I really nailed the nutrition. I think the nutrition was lacking in Bootlegger, but that’s a whole different thing. Bootlegger was so good and I gave it a very hard effort out there. Anyway, I thought at JFK we nailed the nutrition. Having the hand bottle worked great.

In terms of what I ate, I just did Gatorade in my hand bottle all day. Then I did bananas at every aid station (every major aid station where Mike was showing up as my handler), so mile 15.5, 27, 38, and 46. At each of those except the last one, I had a banana and got a new hand bottle with Gatorade. Then I think at about three aid stations, they handed me store-bought gu that I was eating. I always had in the pocket of my hand bottle a homemade gu that I make—just something I came up with. I always had that and I was eating that.

iRunFar: Do you have a feel for how many calories you were able to get in per hour?

Miller: I don’t really know exactly. I do know that in the morning I probably put down 1,000 calories before the gun went off.

iRunFar: That’s a ton!

Miller: I think that was largely to my advantage. I have a very iron stomach. I mean, sometimes I have a little bit of issues, but I was always like that in college. It was funny because my teammates were like, “I can’t even eat a piece of toast 30 minutes before we run because my stomach doesn’t like that.” I’m like, “I can eat a cheeseburger an hour before.” Me and my roommate would kind of joke because I told him one time—this is how you know you’re a desperate college runner—one time up in the engineering building I was hungry and was going to go run, so I ate a cheeseburger out of a vending machine. That was probably about the worst thing ever. It’s the ultimate desperation. I ate the cheeseburger and then went for a run. I had a good run, because sometimes when I eat and go run right away, sometimes they’re good runs.

Up in Rochester, New York, actually, they make this thing called a “Garbage Plate” (you can look it up on the internet). It’s basically cheeseburgers, home fries, macaroni salad, and greasy, fatty food. I was up in Rochester, Mike and I joked that it was my training for my nutrition. We ran about seven miles from the locker room at RIT to this place called Nick Tahou Hots in downtown Rochester, and we met our teammates there. We all ate Garbage Plates, then Mike and I ran back. “If you can do that and not feel too bad, you know you can handle some food during the race.” It was probably about 1,000 calories before the gun went off—five packets of oatmeal, probably two or three bananas, and then a bunch of Gatorade. By the time I got all that down… I think the oatmeal added up to around 150 calories/pack (800 to 900 calories). I figure if you add in the bananas and the Gatorade, it’s probably around 1,000 calories before the gun went off.

iRunFar: It’s funny you mention the garbage plate as training. [laughing]

Miller: I don’t necessarily think of it as training, but in retrospect we were like, “Oh, that was nutrition training.”

iRunFar: When I was in high school, my friend and I would run to Dairy Queen and get a Blizzard and then we’d run home. All of our friends would be like, “How can you do that? How can your stomach handle that?” When I talk about how I can run ultras without stomach issues today, I laugh and mention the Dairy Queen training. [laughing]

Miller: [laughing] Actually, I forgot, when we were running back from eating these crazy Garbage Plates, we stopped at the gas station and got a slushie because that’s kind of something we’d started doing too in college. “This would be a perfect day if we just stopped for a slushie, too.” So we did and drank those as we ran back toward the locker room and finished strong.

iRunFar: You were in good enough physical condition the next day after JFK to put in seven miles? You didn’t take a day off?

Miller: I didn’t look like it when I woke up. My right knee was sore and I think my left foot was a little bruised. I think I might have dinged it on a rock up on the AT. We went to D.C. and went to the Air and Space Museum and I limped around all day. I got some Aleve and that takes the swelling down. It was freezing in D.C. so we actually started running around in our street clothes on the streets because it was just warmer than walking. We called it doing the “Rufio Shuffle” because we ran with this guy, Jared Burdick, in college whose nickname was Rufio. He actually runs for Stotan, an elite team in New York, and is a 2:20 marathoner. He’s very talented, but sometimes he was so lazy he’d go out and run eight or nine minute-mile pace and we called it the Rufio Shuffle. So we did the Rufio Shuffle in D.C. Then when we got home to my house in Pennsylvania, we went out for about six or seven miles, and I actually felt pretty good. I’m pretty sure it was slow, but overall I felt pretty good.

iRunFar: It looked like… were you wearing the Nike Terra Keigers?

Miller: Yeah, I was wearing the Keigers.

iRunFar: How did those work out?

Miller: They were great. I really liked them. They’re a little softer than what I usually go for, but they were great. They’re light. I like my shoes light. They’re actually a trail shoe, but they go on the road just fine, too. So it was great for JFK because there’s some road, there’s some trail, and then there’s the towpath, so the Keigers were actually great for that type of race.

iRunFar: Have you put any thought into what you’re going to do next? I kind of presume you’re going to stick with trail running given this level of success.

Miller: I think so. I love the trail. I’m not opposed to some road stuff. I don’t want to be one dimensional. I like to mix it up and still jump in some road races. In terms of ultras, I’d probably focus on trail ultras, but if there’s a big opportunity on a road ultra, I wouldn’t necessarily count that out. I think I’ll just kind of keep going with this whole trail racing thing and ultra stuff and see where it takes me. I did get invited to UROC for next year in Colorado. I think I’m going to do that. I haven’t given them an official yes or no yet, but I have some time to decide. I don’t know exactly what I’ll be racing next year but I’m definitely looking at UROC and the Pikes Peak Marathon next year. Nothing is set in stone yet, but those are two big ones I’m looking at. I’ll consider JFK again. I think the US[ATF 50-Mile] Championships are supposed to be out at White River 50 in Washington, so we’ll see. Yeah, I definitely want to continue and see where it takes me.

iRunFar: You’re about to get on a cruise ship again in a couple of weeks?

Miller: Yeah, December 10, I fly to England and get on a ship until April 16, I’ll get off in Florida.

iRunFar: You’ll probably be training on the ship? Limited racing?

Miller: I’ll probably use it as my rest period. A rest period doesn’t mean I don’t do anything, it just means it’s not quite as intense. I’ll be on there running on the treadmill and riding the stationary bike. Then when we are in port, I’ll go out and get in some long runs. I will be going to Brazil and Argentina and Chile, so hopefully I get some good runs down there near Patagonia. I’m really looking forward to that. I’ll go to Hawaii, too, so hopefully I get some good running in Hawaii. Yeah, just doing my ship training, which is a bit different than my land-based training. If I find a race that I can swing while I’m on the ship, I might do it. I’ve only done it that one time in Iceland, but it is fun to do if you can get a race in another country. I might look and see if there’s something, but it will be kind of a low-key four months.

iRunFar: Thanks a lot for taking time to talk with us.

Miller: You’re welcome. I enjoyed it.

Zach Miller - 2013 Bootlegger 50k - 600

Zach during the Bootlegger 50k. Photo: Kristin Wilson Photography

Meghan Hicks

is iRunFar.com’s Senior Editor, the author of ‘Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running,’ and a Contributing Editor at Trail Runner magazine. The converted road runner finished her first ultramarathon in 2006 and loves using running to visit the world’s wildest places. For more information on Meghan and her adventures, please visit her personal website.

There are 9 comments

  1. andy_mason

    I was hanging out with Eric Senseman (who was crewing for Matt Flaherty) at JFK at Mile 15.5, where the AT ends and the towpath begins. Mike Wardian came off the AT in 9th/10th place almost 7 minutes off the lead and almost 6 minutes behind 5th place. And I guaranteed Eric that Wardian would finish top 5, and then added that he'd probably finish top 3.

    Eric basically said no way, because I guess it seemed that Wardian was just too far back. Eric asked me who I thought was going to fade. I said, "Well, for starters, that Zach Miller kid (whose identity we had just learned at the previous aid station)."

    Boy was I wrong, and gladly so — about Zach. (I did win the pitcher-of-beer Wardian bet with Eric.)

    Zach was just something else to watch that day. The passion and fire he exuded reminded me of Ryan Hall at the 2007 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon.

    Great interview!

  2. Jimmy Mac

    Thanks for the great interview! I guess "pleasant surprises" make for really awesome stories, and hearing about Zach's days around both the Bootlegger and JFK are pretty cool. Truly an epic race.

    Not to say he's an underdog (any longer), but do we all love underdogs or what?

  3. andy_mason

    By the way, I also love how Tim Schuler, Greg Cauller and Mark Amway all got mentioned in this interview. Those guys are Pennsylvania legends.

  4. Shelby_

    Nothin' gets me more excited than to see new fast blood in the sport. Thanks Meghan for giving us a intro to the "other" Zach Miller. Congrats on a great run, Zach and I hope we'll see you mixing it up with the rest of the fast dudes next year!

  5. Mike_Hillrunr

    Its "Where's Zach" as Zach-Runs-World! How great it would be to just show up in France and run TMB to/from Chamonix. That makes for some great training. Outstanding story and thrilling to see a new 'Outlier' enter the Ultra Running community. Got a good laugh with "Stalking Rob Krar" story. Guessing Zach will now have lots of online stalkers, checking his stats.

  6. cherylopal

    Congrats to Zachary miller on his win and to irunfar for a great interview. I ran this as my first ultra and cannot conceive how they run let alone race on the AT!

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