After his move from the Midwest to California a little under a year ago, Zach Bitter is going to give racing on some bigger hills a shot this weekend at the Lake Sonoma 50 Mile. In this interview, Zach talks about how his adaptation to life and running in California is going, how he’s gradually integrated hill training into his routine, and how Lake Sonoma is part of his build toward the Comrades Marathon later this spring.
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Zach Bitter Pre-2016 Lake Sonoma 50 Mile Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Meghan Hicks of iRunFar, and I’m here on the day before the 2016 Lake Sonoma 50 Mile. I’m with Zach Bitter who is now a Californian.
Zach Bitter: Yeah, thanks for having me on, Meghan.
iRunFar: How’s it going?
Bitter: It’s going good.
iRunFar: As long as I’ve known you, you’ve been an Upper Midwest runner, but now you’re a California runner. It’s kind of home territory for you.
Bitter: Yeah, it is. It’s getting to be. It’s almost been a year now, so I’m starting to get kind of comfortable and in a routine, and I’m starting to know where everything is. That’s been kind of nice.
iRunFar: In talking to you for the last couple minutes, it’s clear that you didn’t leave behind your Midwest accent.
Bitter: Definitely not. I think I need a few more years of California to start having that fade.
iRunFar: Talk to me about your move to California. What drove it—life, running? What brought you here?
Bitter: I guess a lot of it just had to do with me wanting to do more running in different areas that were other than flat. There’s plenty of flat stuff in Wisconsin. There are good trails and stuff in Wisconsin and the Midwest as well, but the diversity out here is unmatched. I can do flat runs in Davis or I can go up into the Sierras pretty effortlessly. That, as well as some opportunities I had to work with Altra Footwear with their field marketing stuff in Northern California kind of drew me to this area. Being in Wisconsin for almost three decades in my life, I feel like I’ve seen enough harsh winters.
iRunFar: “If I never see -15 Fahrenheit again…”
Bitter: Exactly. That was definitely kind of appealing to me as well. It’s just kind of fun to try out something new. I’ve been in the Midwest my whole life. I like to travel. I like to experience new things. Coming out here and seeing what this is like has been an exciting journey so far.
iRunFar: You picked kind of an interesting place in California to base yourself in Davis—super flat Davis—but access in both directions to all kinds of hills. Obviously, big changes professionally, but the opportunities for changes in your running are just as big.
Bitter: Yeah, for sure. It’s nice, too, because a lot of the accounts I help Altra Footwear are kind of surrounding Davis, so I can get the flat running when I want and when I stay at home, but then when I go and visit the accounts, I can get to the Bay Area or over to Tahoe or Reno and even down towards Fresno and some of the Sequoia areas as well. There’s definitely a little bit of everything.
iRunFar: You have rightfully earned a reputation for yourself as a flat runner and as a runner who is able to maintain a fast pace over a lengthy period of time. Coming to California and facing some of the elevation changes you see on the Sierra or here in Sonoma or in the Headlands of Marin, how has that adjustment been?
Bitter: It’s been really interesting. I would say up until January, I was still focusing a lot on flat races for World 100k’s and the 100 mile I did at Desert Solstice. That was still kind of where my key workouts were lying. But most of February and March now have been really focused on finding a road or a trail that goes uphill for at least a couple miles and then back down, so I can get that good sustained climbing and sustained descending in me. Mainly trying to peak for Comrades has been the driving force behind that, but then with a race like Sonoma being on the schedule as well with 10,500 feet of elevation gain and loss, I’ll need to have some of that in to even have a prayer to be near the top. Kind of just redirecting my focus on that as opposed to tempos on flats or intervals on flats and stuff like that. It was almost like I’d been injured for a month or two and had to relearn to run when I first started doing it. It’s also been really exciting because since I kind of started from a relatively low spot, you see a lot of growth quickly, too. It’s been fun to see that change in my training and just a change in the training stimulus, too, is mentally refreshing, I think.
iRunFar: You put a lot of your training data online, so those of us out there can go and see what you’re doing. I know you’re a pretty analytical guy, so as you have adapted to training on the hills here, how do you see your numbers and your… the groundfeel of those numbers compared to the other guys you’re following on Strava who you’re going to see this weekend and guys who you’re now running and training with a little bit here?
Bitter: For sure. I feel like there’s still plenty of guys who are going to be able to do that stuff a lot better than me. I think I’m probably closing the gap a little bit at least, but I’m coming from a pretty flat background, so that would stand to reason. It will be interesting. Anytime you’re in these longer distance races, there is so much more at play than just the workouts you did. A lot of things can happen that are unexpected between picking the right pace and things like that, nutritional aspects and other stuff. It’s been fun to run with these guys. I’ve definitely gotten taken to school a couple of times.
iRunFar: Did you take them to school then when you got to something flatter?
Bitter: Oh, I don’t know about that. Most of my flat training has been pretty solo efforts. It’s hard to draw people off the trails onto the flats, I guess. Yeah, it’s been a fun journey. Everyone’s been great. The running community out here is phenomenal. You can always find running groups out on the trails and head to different areas and do some hill running with people.
iRunFar: Have you had a chance to preview the Sonoma course?
Bitter: A little bit, but not as much as I would have liked. I was originally planning on coming to the training weekend here and getting the full 25 miles of trail in on that, but I had a dental mishap. I had a root canal that was basically a failed root canal. I ended up having to have the tooth extracted. They had me on antibiotics, and it was kind of a whole mess for seven to ten days. That kind of threw a wrench into things around that time. So that kind of kept me from doing as much on the course as I would have liked, but on the other hand, I don’t think I’d planned on doing a lot on the course since it’s not my “A-race” for the spring and summer. I’ve been focusing a lot more on Comrades, so a lot more road hills or really smooth running hills and descents.
iRunFar: Last question for you—SportsCenter moment. Give me the highlight reel of your race, how it’s going to play out.
Bitter: At Lake Sonoma? Ideally? Ideally, some of these guys who have better hill running then me will start to fade because they went out too fast.
iRunFar: You’ll be playing takeover?
Bitter: I might have to. I’m definitely… I’m not going to go out super gradual. I’m going to run as hard as I can within reason given what I can do on this type of terrain, but I’m not going to go out chasing guys who are going too fast for me either. I guess, if I had a perfect day, it would probably be me catching people at the end.
iRunFar: Okay, there’s going to be a chaser back there. Guys, watch out. Okay, Zach. Best of luck to you.
Bitter: Thank you.
iRunFar: It’s going to be really fun to watch both you and Camille [Herron] play the game of translating road speed to trail speed. Lots of entertainment for us fans this weekend.
Bitter: We’ll see if we can put on a show.
iRunFar: If you’re going to go out, go out with some dazzling fireworks.
Bitter: Crash and burn.
iRunFar: Best of luck, Zach.