We could very well see Zach Miller tear up the 2015 Transvulcania Ultramarathon, or destroy himself trying. In the following interview, Zach talks about what he learned during his first year of racing ultras in 2014, what’s appealing about always pushing the edge with his racing, and where this course will challenge him the most. Please, also, don’t miss his LEGO bow tie and mini mullet.
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Zach Miller Pre-2015 Transvulcania Ultramarathon Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Meghan Hicks of iRunFar, and I’m here on the Atlantic Ocean on the edge of the island of La Palma on Spain’s Canary Islands just before the 2015 Transvulcania Ultramarathon. We’re with American Zach Miller. Good morning, Zach.
Zach Miller: Good morning, Meghan. It’s good to be here.
iRunFar: I feel like I’m in the presence of… I don’t know if I should say the word, “greatness,” or what. That’s quite a get-up you have right now. Can you tell me about your outfit?
Miller: Oh, yeah. This is my “ultra-casual uniform” brought to you by Nike. Bryon wore his button-down Patagonia shirt and his hat and everything.
iRunFar: His safari hat?
Miller: Yes, at that race in Hong Kong, I think. I was cracking up at home. Bryon, I hope my Nike kit’s as cool as yours this year. This isn’t the Nike official team kit, but Bryon said he wanted to see “ultra casual.” Since I can’t bring it Saturday, I figured I’d break it out today.
iRunFar: So you have your Nike golf shirt, and then you have this accessory.
Miller: This is my LEGO bow tie.
iRunFar: Did you build that yourself?
Miller: It fell apart a couple times on the trip, so yeah, I put it back together. They gave it to me at work the other day. I was at a big training day for work, and they gave us all bow ties. I was like, I’ll wear this for my interview.
iRunFar: There’s even more. Viewers may not be able to see it, but Zach is indeed also sporting the ultra mini-mullet. It’s business in the front—all racing business, and then the party in the back.
Miller: It was a full-on mullet when we were doing it. The plan was… I saw that the day after the race is Mother’s Day, and my hair was really long. Well, it was this long, as long as this rat tail is. I was like, My mom’s favorite haircut on me is a buzz cut, so I’ll buzz it. That turned into me Neil and Amy McDonough’s kitchen with all my friends. That turned into a session of a mullet and maybe an Amish bowl cut, and Friar cut, and taking pictures. They managed to leave me with this rat tail. I was like, Guys, I can’t do it. It’s hideous. Neil said he lives vicariously through me now, so he said I had to keep it. So somehow it made it all the way to Transvulcania, and it will stay for the race.
iRunFar: And, you know, if you have a really great race this weekend, you’ll become powerful and famous on the island of La Palma and you’ll become known for your mini-mullet. So you might have to keep it if you have a good race.
Miller: Yeah, I’m not sure. Yeah, I don’t know how that will pan out. I’m more comfortable with it here than in the States, but… yeah, I don’t know if it goes.
iRunFar: Stylistically similar to Spain, or because you’re an anonymous person?
Miller: I think just because I’m an anonymous person over here. They’re just like, “Oh, there’s this crazy American.” Yeah, I’m just more comfortable here. In the States, I know what the social norms are, and this isn’t it. So I feel very self-conscious.
iRunFar: You’ve put together a whole package that really deviates from social norms, but it could be on the very edge of ultra-hipster.
Miller: Yeah, maybe ultra-hipster. Maybe we could start something new.
iRunFar: I guess we should probably talk about a race. We’re here for a race.
Miller: Yeah, that sounds good.
iRunFar: It is a couple days before the Transvulcania Ultramarathon. This is your first ultra of 2015. The last time we saw you race an ultra was at the beginning of December at The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile. What have you been doing since then?
Miller: Hiding. No, I enjoy the training blocks. I enjoy disappearing for awhile and just kind of doing my thing and focusing. That’s what I used to do when I worked on the cruise ship because I really didn’t have a choice. I would run a race and then I would disappear for three months and I would just train. So I kind of decided to go back to that method. At the end of last year I made some choices, and every choice is valuable because you learn something from it. Whether it turns out well or not you still learn. But last year got a little more cramped than I wanted to. I raced a little more in the ultras than I would have preferred. I learned something in that, but this year I tried to set up a pretty smart schedule. I took some time off after The North Face to recover mentally and physically and eased back into the training. Yeah, I just kind of hit it hard for the last couple months. I’m looking forward to kicking things off on Saturday. First race—haven’t done anything since The North Face, not even a 5k.
iRunFar: Awesome. Super fresh.
Miller: Yeah, we’ll see how it goes.
iRunFar: When I look back at your 2014 from an outside perspective looking in, it looked like you started the year off with a bang ultra-wise, and then it was a long taper out towards the end of the year. You did great stuff in shorter distances, but your ultra performances, they were always strong, but they weren’t on par with your first ultras. Is that kind of how it felt to you, too?
Miller: Yeah, I was reading your preview for the race and I was like, Yeah, I pretty much agree with that. That pretty much describes it.
iRunFar: So you don’t hate me too much?
Miller: Oh, no, no, no, not at all. You can say whatever you want. I’ll take the punches and just roll on. Yeah, Sonoma started with a bang. I wasn’t even going to run Sonoma and then our Nike manager, Pat, said, “Well, what about Sonoma?” So I jumped in. You kind of have the, Oh, am I trained enough? They always say it’s better to be undertrained than overtrained. Sonoma went great. Then I trained really hard. I started running well at shorter mountain stuff like you said. I had some really good races actually. Then I went out to Templiers, and I was actually very proud of Templiers. I finished that race and I was pretty proud. I was leading until about 5k to go. I was off the front pretty much all day. I was having a blast. I bonked unbelievably hard with 5k left.
iRunFar: It was a beautiful bonk. Epic. It was the stuff of bonking textbooks.
Miller: Yeah, it was an awesome experience. It was miserable. The people in France were great. They loved it. They supported me all the way in. I thought I ran the finish, and I watched the video at the end, and I was not running. In my mind I was running, but I was walking. I was actually really proud of that though. I got out there. I went for it. I laid it out there. I learned an important lesson in nutrition and hydration that I can apply in the future. That was actually, I thought, a good day. I just faded from first to fifth in the last three miles. Then I had a pretty quick turnaround to World 100k Road Championships. I felt pretty good there, but I didn’t necessarily feel on-on. I had some stomach issues which are all part of the game. That’s part of the game as much as doing the running is. If you can’t get that right, that’s on you. I probably learned some lessons there with international travel and pre-race fueling and mid-race fueling and fueling for races where you’re running 6:30’s the whole time.
iRunFar: Really fast.
Miller: Yeah, that’s all different, too. That was a solid performance, but I didn’t knock that out of the park. Then The North Face—I, for whatever reason, decided I wanted to gamble and run two weeks after a road 100k. I went and gave it my all. I was going to go hard and try and run with the leaders and everything, but my body was tired. My mind was probably tired. I had a fun time, but the legs weren’t there that day at all.
iRunFar: Let me ask you for a little bit of perspective especially reflecting back on your Templiers run. Some of the conditions that you found there you’re going to find here. This course is really, really difficult and it gets really hard at the end. So, given what you learned at Les Templiers, how are you doing to do things different so if you’re there in the end, you stay there?
Miller: Well, for one, I have an emergency stash of caffeine for this race. Actually, I’m not a big caffeine person. I actually have this goal of one day completing an entire ultra with no caffeine. I want to get through a race without caffeine, but I don’t know when my body is going to be able to do that. So for this race, caffeine isn’t really in the nutrition plan except as an emergency. So I will keep… I went to CRC the other day and bought a whole bunch of highly caffeinated gels and I’ll stuff those in my pack for emergencies. So that’s one way that I’m tackling it. Two, is just making it a point throughout the day to really keep eating and drinking. I think at Templiers, I was really in the moment and I was feeling good and I was really trying to hammer. I think I just didn’t or I just kind of quite eating and drinking especially towards the end. Knowing how much energy you burn through with steep climbs at the end, which we’re going to have some climbing at the end here, and we’re going to have some technical descending. So I’ll just be trying to keep those calories pumping. Yeah, will it change in terms of pacing and things? Will it change my strategy? I don’t know. I’m going to find out when the gun goes off I guess. I think trying to listen to my body to figure out what I can push it to and what’s sustainable. Sometimes I don’t know what’s sustainable.
iRunFar: You have to try it to see if it is?
Miller: Yeah, I just try it and then find out.
iRunFar: Be honest with me for a second because you just said, “How it will play out strategy-wise, I don’t know.” It seems like, from what we’ve seen from you in your racing so far, you like to be the rabbit. You like to be the pacesetter. Can you really resist that temptation? Can you really do anything different?
Miller: That’s hard for me to resist. I’ll be honest. In college and high school, I wasn’t the fastest guy. So it was like, you’re not the fastest guy and there were people around me to pace off of. With ultras, it’s like this whole new world. One thing I love about the sport is we don’t really know how fast it could be. This race is, what, like the sixth year of it? Nobody knows how fast this course could go. We know what Kilian [Jornet] did a couple years ago, but nobody knows how fast this could actually go. I love the fact that somebody could just go for it and maybe they’ll get it. Maybe they won’t. It’s hard for me to resist. Basically my approach to ultras is to give my absolute best. Just to test my… I think a lot of ultra athletes will say we run ultras to test our limits and to test our mental capacity and everything. I think that should hold true for the guys at front as well. You could sit back and run conservative, but I just love the mentality of “as hard as I can go, as long as I can go.” So it’s hard for me to resist that.
iRunFar: So chances are if you’re feeling decent off the start line, we can see you pushing it pretty straight away?
Miller: I mean, that’s also something I play with in my mind. People look at my Lake Sonoma race and say, “Oh, he just went for it. He was so gutsy.” Yes, in a sense, but in a sense, I look back at Lake Sonoma and, “I don’t think I ran as crazy as people thought.” I paid attention to my body that day. Did I run aggressive? Maybe, but I just kind of ended up in the lead and listened to my body and, Well, this is what feels right, and I just went with it. That’s what worked. Maybe a similar approach for Saturday. My goal in training is to get yourself so fit and so strong that you go out there and you’re prepped for that type of performance. So maybe you’re not running out of your mind. You may be running out of someone else’s mind, but for you, you’re actually… there is some sense of control. But maybe some flirting with not in control.
iRunFar: Maybe flirt with the edge to see what’s out there?
Miller: It’s fun to flirt with that line.
iRunFar: Last question for you. Rumors are coming off the Front Range (Colorado) and in your running community that you’re pretty sharp right now. So taking into account what you’ve done with your training so far this year, how you’re feeling fitness-wise, and what you know about this course—it’s a pretty unique course. It’s a couple dozen kilometers of climbing and then you stay high. There’s some runnable stuff. There’s some super technical stuff up high. Then there’s this massive descent—k’s and k’s and k’s of descent plus a really difficult uphill grind to the finish. Where is this course going to play into your strengths with where your fitness is right now, and where’s it going to play into your weaknesses?
Miller: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think in terms of weaknesses, the technical nature. I’m still getting better with time on the technical terrain. I admit I get nervous on loose rock and things just with ankles turning and whatnot. I think I’ve been improving on technical terrain. I think I’ve been getting better. I’ve worked this training block on steep descending and steep climbing. I think climbing has generally been a fairly good strength. I ran at World Mountain Running Championships last year, and there are definitely guys who climb faster than I do. But I think generally in the ultra distance, I’m a decent climber. So I think the climb should be pretty good for me. The altitude—we go up to 8,000 feet. That’s pretty every day for me.
iRunFar: Normal for you?
Miller: Yeah, so I think that should be good or another strength. The descending I think I’ve been getting better at, but I think the technical factor is going to come big in there. I’ve spent a lot of time on the Manitou Incline this training block and a lot of time or a decent amount of time down Rampart Range Road and Longs Ranch Road and down the Barr Trail and running downhill and even some downhill on the Incline a little bit. Yeah, I feel good going in. I don’t know. I feel like I have a little extra motivation, too, this time around. My dad had some health issues this winter. He had an aortic dissection with his heart. So that’s in the back of my mind. He’s due for surgery on Thursday to get a stent to help improve things. He’s doing alright, but I think that’s been really hard for my dad. So I think the goal Saturday is this race is for my dad and just to run with my whole heart. I mean, he told me to get on the podium for him, but he also said just to do my best and he knew I’d do that. Doing your best is kind of a scary thing because for me that means it’s going to hurt.
iRunFar: It’s going to really hurt.
Miller: But I think I’m up for it. I’ll give it my level best and run with all my heart for my dad since he can’t really be out here running.
iRunFar: That’s awesome. We’re thinking of you Mr. Miller.
Miller: Thank you. I appreciate it.
iRunFar: Best of luck to you out there on Saturday. We look forward to seeing you tearing up the uphills and hopefully the downhills, too.
Miller: Yeah, hopefully the whole thing.
iRunFar: Good luck, Zach.
Miller: Alright. Thank you.