Away From It All: An Interview With Zach Miller

Even before he became a caretaker at Barr Camp and retreated to 10,200 feet above sea level a year ago, world-class ultrarunner Zach Miller stayed out of the spotlight. Heck, it even took Nike several weeks to track him down after his standout performance at the 2013 JFK 50 Mile. Now, perched nearly 4,000 feet above, and 10 kilometers from, Manitou Springs along the Barr Trail, in the shadow of Pikes Peak, Miller is really away from it all. Or, to use the title of David Foster Wallace’s renowned essay, Miller is “getting away from already pretty much being away from it all.” But despite his remote location, he wants to open up and tell his story. Here’s some of it.

Zach Miller: So what’s this interview going to be about?

iRunFar: You’re a good runner. People like to know about people that are good at stuff.

Miller: [laughs] That works.

iRunFar: First thing, Barr Camp. What got you interested? You’re up there with your sister. Is that your only sibling?

Miller: No, I have three. One who’s two years older than me, the one at Barr Camp is two years younger than me, then the other sister is six years younger than me.

iRunFar: So how did that come to be? 

Miller: My sisters? [laughs]

iRunFar: [laughs] That was good. No, you and your sister living at Barr Camp. How did you end up there?

Barr Camp

Barr Camp.

Miller: I just lived in Manitou [Springs, Colorado]. I would train on the Barr Trail and volunteer with the Barr Trail Mountain Race. I got to know the previous caretakers. Then, I saw rumblings on Facebook or something that they were leaving and that the position was open. So I wrote to the caretakers, Renee and Anthony, and they sent me the information. I had the job description and I thought, This would be perfect, if I had someone to do it with. The trick is finding someone because they usually hire a couple. Then, I realized that my sister would probably be really good at it.

iRunFar: Where was she living at the time?

Miller: She was living in Massachusetts. She was looking at graduate school at [Denver University], so she was looking to move to Colorado anyway. I jokingly sent her an email about it and she was like, “Yeah, if you’re serious, I’m serious. Let’s apply.” We applied, resume, cover letter, all that, then a day where you hike up there and interview. It’s all pretty standard, except for the hike up there. We got the offer and we said yes.

It’s me and her and then her boyfriend who is now her fiancé. He lives up there and works with us too because they ended up hiring four people total. It’s my sister, her fiancé, a girl, Maria, who lives in the Springs in town, and me. Maria helps in busy times or subs for us if we need to go away.

iRunFar: What are the conditions like? Do you have electricity, running water?

Miller: We’re off the grid. We have solar panels for a limited amount of electricity to run a refrigerator. We have a few electric lights. We have a computer to do business-related stuff to run the camp. We have some gas lights. We have a gas stove. Our toilets are outside, composted toilets. All winter you go out in the cold to use them, which is fine. The little cabin has lofts, where we sleep, and the guest accommodations are in the bunkhouse and elsewhere. We also do have a really nice yurt tucked in the back; it’s for the caretakers to use. If we want something more private to stay in, or have friends or family up to stay with us, that’s ours to use as we want.

Water is from the creek, which comes right by the cabin. In the summer it’s tapped in via a pipeline and holding tank. In the winter those lines will freeze so we bucket it in five-gallon buckets into a holding tank. So we have to chop the ice to make a hole so it doesn’t freeze over. Our heat is wood, so we spend the fall chopping, cutting, splitting wood. We heat the cabin with wood all winter.

iRunFar: And if you wanted to shower or bath in some way… what’s the story there? Jump in the creek?

Miller: No, we do have a shower that runs off of a flash water heater, which is like a propane water heater that’s on demand. To be honest, we don’t shower every day typically [laughs], it would use a lot of propane and water. So we spread it out a bit more. But yeah, we can shower [laughs].

iRunFar: Do you think living there is significantly beneficial to your running career? Obviously it’s better than living on the beach in Florida. But is it better than living in, for example, Manitou Springs?

Miller: I think for the type of races that I do, it is.

iRunFar: Despite the snow all winter?

Miller: Yeah, because it’s really tough in the winter. You can still train and get time on your feet. You can still get cardio and leg strength. You might not be running five-minute miles, but for the types of races I’m running, I think it’s beneficial. I don’t geek out about the science of everything, I don’t read that much, but I’ve been told that they’ve done studies and they say that the real benefit of altitude training is once you get about 8,000 feet. Some of the population will benefit from an elevation like 6,000 feet, but the likelihood that you’ll benefit is much higher above 8,000 feet and I’m living at 10,200 feet. I think that does the trick. It helps make me really strong.

Zach Miller and Brandon Stapanowich summit Pikes Peak

Miller and Brandon Stapanowich summit Pikes Peak on a very cold day in 2015.

iRunFar: Much of your work as caretaker sounds like cross training, too. That must be helpful.

Miller: Yeah, that’s the other thing. I do my training—my running—but just about everything I do up there is training. I’m out there shoveling snow for four hours. That’s a heck of a workout. If somebody came from sea level and I asked them to do that, I bet it would be very difficult. I think over time I’ve adapted. I can go out and shovel for a long time. Same with splitting wood, hauling wood. And it’s all at 10,000 feet—it’s all training.

iRunFar: If you’re not working, doing chores, or running, do you have much other free time? What do you do?

Miller: [pause] I’m not a real big napper, but I’ll take a nap. I don’t know. Eat. Make food. I like to cook up there. Maybe take three hours to make a really good dinner. I’ll make dough for pizza or something. Or bake something.

iRunFar: All that food you haul up there?

Miller: That’s where we cheat a little bit. The one luxury we do have—there’s no road to Barr Camp, just the Barr Trail. Basically anyway you cut it, it’s six miles on the trail to get out. The Pikes Peak COG Railway does run up the mountain. It comes within a mile and a half of us. When we do supplies, someone goes to town on foot, does the shopping, then the food gets delivered to the COG train. The train brings the food within a mile and a half of the cabin and drops it off. Then we use a four-wheeler to go back-and-forth to bring it in. But in the winter we can’t always use the four-wheeler because of snow so we stock up and just replenish the perishables like fruits and veggies by hiking it in. To best honest, I’ve brought some stuff in, but it’s mostly been my sister’s fiancé. He goes down to ski a lot and so he would usually be coming up every couple of weeks and could put stuff in a pack. I’m usually running and can’t cram many eggs in the Nike Kiger pack [laughs].

Zach Miller - Boston Bob

Zach and friends celebrating the birthday of Barr Camp frequenter, Boston Bob.

iRunFar: Do you even have street clothes at this point?

Miller: [laughs] I have a few things. In the summer I’m almost in running clothes all the time, or at least shorts and t-shirts. The winter gets cold so I have some fleece-lined pants that are waterproof on the outside. Jeans. I’m a little ragtag though; I’m usually in my running clothes.

iRunFar: I think you’re undefeated at ultra-distance races since moving to Barr Camp.

Miller: [laughs] Since I’ve lived here? Yeah, I think you’re right because I wasn’t living here for Transculcania last year. Since then it’s been CCC, The North Face Endurance Challenge 50-Mile Championships, and Madeira Island Ultra Trail (MIUT). So I guess, yeah [laughs].

Zach Miller - 2016 Madeira Island Ultra Trail

Miller working hard en route to the win at MIUT. Photo: Miro Cerqueira | Prozis Trail Running

iRunFar: Has anything changed dramatically with training since you moved here or is anything different now?

Miller: The lifestyle is far different. Obviously—there’s the obvious: I sleep above 10,000 feet. During the summer I’m on my feet most of the day, I’m up early, I train and come back and doing something on my feet. I think that lifestyle of not sitting at a desk—

iRunFar: You’re engaged.

Miller: Yeah, you’re engaged all the time. And then the schedule—the rhythm of, I’m consistently getting up at 6:15 or 6:30 a.m., maybe a little earlier in the summer, and then in bed by, I don’t know, it varies. In the past where I had jobs that didn’t start early in the morning I might have stayed up. I can be a night owl and might have stayed up until two in the morning and slept until ten in the morning. Now, I don’t really do that. I’m in bed by, say, 10 at night and up by six. I think having that, everyday, having that rhythm is good. So, yeah, I think that’s maybe beneficial in some way.

And, of course, the terrain that I train on: I can get technical terrain, really steep stuff, stuff that’s really high, and yet stuff that’s really runnable. It’s kind of a whole lifestyle and that lifestyle shift has been beneficial.

iRunFar: Let’s take a step back. You were born in Kenya and you were there for four years? 

Miller: Yeah, like three or four.

iRunFar: Your parents were on a missionary trip?

Miller: They were missionaries. They were there—they were in mission work for 10 years total. They did probably five years in Kenya. It was through—it’s called HIM, which is Helps International Missions. But now they’ve changed it. I think it’s called ‘Helps.’ It was through that religious organization.

iRunFar: Were you brought up in any organized religion?

Miller: Yeah. I think my parents got a lot of support from—they went, in Pennsylvania, to an EC church, which is Evangelical Congregational. Usually when you say that people get this view of a wild, crazy, charismatic church. It’s not really. It’s actually a lot more conservative. But anyways that’s the church they were associated with. They were just Christian missionaries. They were associated with that church. My family isn’t tied to needing to be a certain denomination. It’s more of a faith-based thing.

iRunFar: Is that true of the community where you grew up? It was a smaller town, right?

Miller: Yeah, it was Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It’s a fairly conservative place. It’s not—Lancaster isn’t the tiniest town. I’d say Manitou is smaller. It’s just like a small city; it’s big enough to be a city. Then there’s the surrounding county, which is what I lived in, not the city. Lancaster County is known for—it has a large population of Amish, so that’s a lot of the influence, and Pennsylvania Dutch and German. 

Zach Miller - breakfast

A “proper breakfast” at a diner in his hometown of Lancaster, PA.

iRunFar: To the extent that those languages are still spoken there?

Miller: Yeah well the Amish do, they speak Pennsylvania Dutch, and that kind of seeps into the rest of the culture of the community. We talk a little funny [laughs]. We have funny phrases and mannerisms.

iRunFar: Do you speak Pennsylvania Dutch?

Miller: Pennsylvania Dutch? No, no. I don’t. It’s kind of hard to understand. I have friends that do because I have a bunch of Amish friends. When I was home for Christmas they actually took me to an Amish youth group with them, they dressed me up all Amish and took me with them. Well, I actually took them because I drove [laughs]. But it was—we sang songs in German or Dutch. I just kind of hummed along, but I tried, I made a good effort.

Zach Miller - friends from home

Friends from home Jonathan Lantz and Elam King pose with Miller for a picture at Barr Camp before a Pikes Peak summit.

iRunFar: Does that mean you grew up—probably not in a neighborhood?

Miller: Yeah, we had land. There are plenty of developments and neighborhoods. It’s a big mix of things in Lancaster County. There are a lot of rural farmland, like big farms and big farm preserves, and then there’s the city and there’s a lot of developments. But I grew up kind of on a little back road and we had an acre and a third, and we boarded the woods, part of our land was in the woods. So I grew up always outside. Running around, playing capture the flag, there was a lake behind our house, we’d go down and fish all the time.

iRunFar: But nothing that structured, like regimented running or anything. 

Miller: Just exploring, just for fun, nothing too structured.

iRunFar: Organized running then. You did it in middle school?

Miller: Well, I grew up always being outside playing. I was good at things that involved running, like capture the flag and that. Then I think around third or fourth grade I started playing soccer. Soccer was my thing. I started in the rec leagues, then was in a travel league and worked up to a premier level, and, then, I started playing for the school. But in eighth grade I started running track. When I was in seventh grade I actually didn’t make the seventh-grade soccer team, I was devastated. I should have started running cross country, but I didn’t. I was on a premier level soccer team so I played on the premier team. Then, [in eighth grade] I made [the school team], so I was playing soccer basically all year and then I would add in track during the spring. Basically, I started figuring out that I was really good at the running part of soccer, but not as good as the ball handling skills. I was really good, because I would work really hard and hustle all over the field, I could run all day. I started to realize my natural talents were more to running. My high school coaches started to notice that, too, so they started bothering me about running.

So in 11th grade I started running cross country. I would run cross country in the fall, track in the spring, and eventually track in the winter, too. In ninth grade I wrestled in the winter. That kind of distracted me from winter track. After that I didn’t wrestle and just did cross country, winter track, spring track. Then, I went to Rochester Institute of Technology and did the same.

iRunFar: When did you first learn about ultrarunning? Did you ever think, Wow, there’s this thing where people run really far, I should do it?

Miller: It was never, I should do it. In some senses I probably thought it was stupid. I think it was in high school, I heard—maybe I had read about it or something. I didn’t really follow it or know much about it. But you would hear of people doing Western States and I remember thinking, I thought it was kind of dumb. I don’t even know if I was that impressed by it. I think I was like, Yeah, these guys run like 10-minute miles—and in high school you don’t have a concept of the terrain—they’re out there just crawling! I could do that, but why would I do that? I don’t want to run 100 miles at 10-minute-mile pace, I’d rather run two miles on the track really fast. So that was in high school, that was my opinion of ultrarunning.

Then, in college I read Dean Karnazes’s book. And I was fascinated. It still didn’t necessarily make me want to be an ultrarunner. I still probably thought that he ran slow. It was just this bizarre, crazy thing. But I was fascinated by the story. 

iRunFar: Did you finally think, Okay, I can do this better, is that what motivated you to try ultrarunning?

Miller: You get out of college and you try to find your way in the running world and I wasn’t fast enough to be an elite road runner. But I would run trail races and I loved them. I would run half marathon, 10-mile trail races and I started to figure out that running sub-seven pace for these trail races, that’s going all out. On the road that’s just a day of training. I started to get it a little bit more.

iRunFar: And maybe you respected it a little bit more?

Miller: Yeah. I started to do runs in training that were pretty long. I got a kick out of seeing how far I could go, covering big—I think it started after college, or partly in college, I loved killing a day. I loved having a day where at the end I was completely exhausted, eating a huge dinner with my parents that I completely earned, thinking, I completely crushed today, I lived it to the fullest, I went out and ran 25 miles on really gnarly terrain. I loved that, and that kind of morphed into everything else. 

iRunFar: Did you feel like it gave you a sense of purpose, like an objective, quantifiable way of defining what you do?

Miller: [pause] Um. Yeah. I mean I would get a real kick out of doing really big stuff, or just racking up a ton of mileage in one week. Part of it though I think was that I just liked to run. It was fun. It was an adventure for me.

But what really pushed me into ultrarunning, I think, was working on the cruise ship. I got my cruise ship job and right before I left I ran this race in Pennsylvania in my hometown and it’s a 10-mile race with about 3,000 feet of climbing. But it’s Pennsylvania, so you’re either going up or you’re going down. In 19 or 20 years, no one had broken 90 minutes. So they were offering $100 to anyone who could run under 90 minutes. I went out and did some training on the course beforehand and ran the whole course once or something. It completely wrecked me. I was amazed by how slow it was. But I ended up doing the race and breaking 90 minutes. And everyone was like, “Wow, we didn’t think this was possible!” And I got my hundred bucks, which was a big payday then.

Zach Miller - 2012 Conestoga Trail Run

Miller with his parents at the finish line of the Conestoga Trail Run, where Miller was the first to break 90 minutes in the 10-mile race.

iRunFar: What year was this?

Miller: 2012. So I ran that race and I was like, I think I might have found my thing; I’m pretty good at this.

Zach Miller - Madeira Island Ultra Trail - Start

Miller readies himself ahead of the 2016 Madeira Island Ultra Trail in April. Photo: Miro Cerqueira | Prozis Trail Running

iRunFar: Was that race what turned you to ultras?

Miller: That wasn’t the thing that turned me to ultras, but it was a steppingstone. That race was a different style from college. College is all about flat and fast, but this race was about being strong and tough, about being able to following markings on a course. There’s so many more variables, so many more things you have to be good at. I did that and was good at it.

Then I went and got on the ship a couple weeks later, or maybe a couple days later. But when I was on the ship, I would run on the treadmill. I didn’t really like it, so when we were at port I would try to get really long runs in. We were at different places and I would want to explore and I figured out—in college we never ran for more than a couple hours—I can run for several hours and that’s actually possible.

When I was first on the cruise ship, we went to La Palma [in the Canary Islands], and I ran pretty much to the top of the volcano. I went from sea level to six- or seven-thousand feet. I had no idea what I was doing and completely wrecked myself. And there were people up on the top of the volcano saying there was a race that crosses the island. I had no idea what they were talking about. [laughs] Then two years later I’m running Transvulcania there for Nike.

So the whole cruise-ship thing showed me that I could explore mountains and run for long periods of time. Then when I came home, I was strong but not fast. I wasn’t road ready or track ready—or at least I didn’t think so. That’s why I did the Music City Trail Ultra in Tennessee.

iRunFar: You won that 50k?

Miller: Yeah.

iRunFar: Let me get this straight. You come back from the cruise ship, you’ve been doing these long runs, and you just decide to jump into an ultra?

Miller: So my old roommate from college, Max Ferguson, he was one of the guys who ran after college and was running pretty decent. I was paying attention to what he was doing and I saw that he was running these ultras. I was exposed to ultras through that; that was most of my exposure to the sport. I knew more about track and road running than ultrarunning.

I was always drawn to longer distances because I knew I was better at them. I went to Tennessee because my buddy was running a steeplechase and he wanted me to go with him. I wasn’t going to run a 10k on the track or run in the meet because I wasn’t ready. I thought, If I go all the way to Tennessee, I’m going to race something. So I looked for trail races. I found the 50k.

We went to my 50k in the morning and then my buddy’s race in the evening. The real spark was my high-school track coach though. I had done the 50k, I won it, and I figured I wasn’t bad. I did the 50k, went back on the cruise ship and was in decent shape so I kept training. At the end of that stint, they let me off the ship in Europe. I wanted to do something cool. I bought a plane ticket to Geneva, went to Chamonix, France and ran around Mount Blanc in four days. It was about 100 miles in four days. When I came home, I thought, I just ran around Mont Blanc, I’m in really good shape.

At that time I would help out with my high-school track team. The coach pulled out his phone one day and showed me the JFK 50 Mile and said, “You have to run this race!” I didn’t even know what it was. I thought, 50 miles, 26 on the C&O Canal. One, that’s a long way; two, 26 miles on a towpath, I don’t know about that. I had biked the canal from Washington D.C. to Pittsburgh. I knew what the towpath was like. It’s great but 26 miles of it? I wasn’t sure about the 50-mile distance. That’s when I started looking at other things because my high school coach was saying, “You need to run something, you need to do something big, you need to test your metal.”

That’s when I found the Bootlegger 50k and I had run 31 miles. So I did that, which was only two weeks before JFK, and ended up sixth or something. I finished and thought, Maybe I’m not so good at this. I just kind of kept rolling with it. Then I ran JFK. That was the turning point. My mind was blown. Everyone else’s mind was blown. I ran 50 miles, that was the goal, but apparently I did a little more than run 50 miles.

But now in planning a race schedule I would never run a 50k two weeks before a 50-mile race.

Zach Miller - JFK 50 Mile

Miller captures the news of his JFK win with a screenshot on his phone.

iRunFar: But you would run a 100k two weeks before a 50-mile race…

Miller: [laughs] Well I did that once and I wouldn’t want to do it again. I’ve made a few mistakes. [Author’s Note: Miller finished ninth at the 2014 IAU 100k World Championships in Doha and doubled back two weeks later to finish 11th at TNF EC 50 Mile in San Francisco.]

iRunFar: You just ran your first ultra of 2016 in late April. When is your next one?

Miller: UTMB in August.

 iRunFar: So that’s two ultras in eight months.

Miller: Yeah, I’ve become more disciplined. I try to limit myself to three races per year that are a marathon or longer. That’s partly why you rarely see me in a 50k. If I want to run an ultra, I want to make it something really in my wheelhouse, like a 50-mile race, or 100k. I try to spread them all out, three or four months apart.

iRunFar: You started racing ultras in America on runnable courses. Lately you’ve turned to more technical races in Europe. What’s the motivation for the change?

Miller: I like to be on a big stage. I really like racing in Europe. They love it so much, the sport is so developed, and I think it’s one of the best ways to advance myself as a runner. The style is so different. I could race in America all the time but I wouldn’t necessarily develop as much.

American races are still challenging but I feel like they largely come down to a matter of fitness. You can get on a start line and run a non-technical course in America and if you’re fit you’ll probably run pretty well as long as you don’t mess up the nutrition or have something go really wrong. In Europe, there’re a lot of other factors, a lot of other skill sets involved that you have to develop. The runners over there are used to it and are good at it, so putting yourself into those challenging races and circumstances develops you and pushes you as a runner.

There’s part of me that wants to stay in my comfort zone in America and race Lake Sonoma and TNF and JFK and those races are great, but if I really want to be serious—I don’t want to be a one-dimensional athlete, to only be good at one type of race. That motivates me to go to Europe and test my metal over there. The more platforms you can prove yourself on, the better.

iRunFar: In terms of your decision to move to the 100-mile distance at UTMB, I guess your answer about motivation would be the same?

Miller: Yeah, somewhat, but it’s also an infatuation with the UTMB course and the atmosphere. I’m infatuated with that race, the atmosphere, the people, the way it’s set up—one big loop, all the way around the mountain, three countries, the thousands of feet of climbing. It’s beautiful. To me, it’s almost—it’s not 104 miles, it’s one big loop, one big adventure that happens to be 104 miles.

iRunFar: Is that how you view races in general, as just one big adventure?

Miller: [pause] Not exactly. That’s maybe more unique to UTMB. It’ll be daunting if I’m out there counting miles. I’m just going to think of it as a big adventure, a big loop.

iRunFar: When it comes to racing, or your racing style, you typically just run to the front and stay there.

Miller: [laughs] Yeah, well I—at Barr Camp I tell the people I work with that it’s easier to keep up than catch up. I’m usually referring to something like dishes or stacking wood, but in my mind I also kind of think the same thing about racing. It’s easier to just be in the front from the get-go than to catch somebody from a nine-minute gap.

iRunFar: To an extent you’re obviously racing other competitors. But sometimes it doesn’t even seem like that’s what you’re doing—in some of your recent wins you’ve been on your own for half the race.

Miller: Yeah I’m racing the other competitors. I’m usually trying to get away from them [laughs]. You know I’m racing the clock and I’m racing myself. Like, I’m trying to go as fast as I can. I’m racing the mountain or—I am racing the other people but I think the difference is that other people use a different strategy: they sit back, they lay low, they let someone else lead where I just kind of do my own thing. I kind of say, “I’m going to race like this and if you want to come along, that’s up to you.” [laughs]

iRunFar: So you’re not out there to share an experience?

Miller: No, not really. I’ll do that in training. If you want to share an experience with me, call me up and we’ll do it on a Tuesday some time, you know? [laughs] But if we’re going to race, we can share an experience at the finish line.

It’s kind of developed though. I wasn’t so off the front in the beginning and then I started to do that and it was working. And then I—I realized, it’s funny now because now I know that people expect it and it entertains them. There’s this whole entertainment side to running. So now I sort of want to do it just because it’s entertaining. But [laughs] I don’t think that should be the motivation. It’s funny because I’m like, This is what they want; this is what they want to see.

iRunFar: Give the people what they want.

Miller: Right. They love when I get away with it but then they’re also really entertained when it doesn’t work. But it’s more about doing my best and just being gutsy with it. One thing is—people care so much when they get on a start line. They care so much that they’re afraid to mess it up. So they race cautiously. But really if you get rid of that fear—if you’re not afraid to mess it up anymore—it’s so freeing. It opens up so many windows.

It’s just one race. Who care if you mess it up? There’s going to be another one four months later. You’ll be on another start line. You might as well go for it, and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. But you’ll at least learn something from it. Then you pick up the pieces and try to figure out the next one.

But when it works—it’s really exciting [laughs]. It’s not to say I don’t care. I do care. I get a bit nervous going into races and stuff. But I don’t know. Sometimes I think about sitting back and running more strategic. But then they shoot the gun and it never happens.

iRunFar: You can’t help yourself.

Miller: Yeah. I think I also just run to my own feel and a lot of times that ends up taking me off the front. At UTMB, I don’t know. That’s another animal. We’ll see what my mind decides when that gun goes off.

iRunFar: What about the finish-line sprints?

Miller: That’s always me just trying to get there as fast as I can. Because I mean, it’s right there! So I always try to bring it in strong. The clock is still ticking. I’m just trying to stop the clock as fast as I can. I might as well, if I’ve got 200 meters, I might as well go as hard as I can for 200 meters. I could pick up five seconds in 200 meters, you know? When I race I don’t have course records on my mind. A lot of times I don’t even know what the course records are. I’m just trying to get to the line as fast as I can, whatever that ends up being. I’m just trying to stop the clock. That’s all.

Zach Miller - MIUT 2016 - finish

Miller after pushing hard to the finish of the MIUT.

The jumping through the finish line is a little funny. I did it at CCC and I don’t know what sparked it—I think I was just so excited. I just did it. I just jumped. But now, I kind of don’t want to because Andy Wacker does it and I don’t want to steal his thunder. But then Bill Dooper saw me jump at CCC and I talk to Bill on the phone and he’s always telling me that he wants to see my two feet in the air. So now I feel like every time I get to the finish line I have to jump because Bill wants to see me jump [laughs]. So at MIUT I jumped. I think it was mostly for Bill.

iRunFar: Historically, you’ve stayed out of the spotlight. But lately you seem to be more open and more active on social media.

Miller: I’ve been realizing—some of the motivation lately. I mean, for the most part, I just love to run. But also, now, I’m starting to realize how much of an impact it has on the running community as a whole. The more people I meet, people write to me, or come up to me at races, and say how—how inspiring it is, or motivating it is. Even the local community here on Pikes Peak, people come up—somebody came up the other day, telling me that seeing how well I did at MIUT, realizing what the conditions are like up here all winter, and how he’s struggling to get himself out the door down there in town. He sees me win and he knows I’ve obviously prepared in less-than-ideal circumstances up here. He said, “That motivates me to get my butt out the door!”

Realizing that impact—it’s bigger than running—and seeing how much the sport helps people. Sure, it can be taken to an unhealthy level sometimes but seeing how much good it does, helping people whether it’s overcoming addictions or a healthy way to deal with stress or anything like that. Being a motivator in that is, is nice.

It’s funny because I used to hide more. My nature is not to get involved in all that. After JFK, I had a Facebook page, but that was about it. I didn’t have Instagram or Twitter and I wasn’t really into social media. If you asked me for an interview I would do it—I would happily do an interview but I kind of hid and did my own thing. Over the past year I’ve opened up a bit more. That’s opened my eyes to the positive impacts it can have. As much as I don’t want to be stuck on my phone and sucked into all that stuff and want to be free, I realize that in some ways it’s a bit selfish because there are a lot of people that really, really get something out of following along. It’s a bit selfish for me to hide and say, “I’m not sharing any of my stories with you because I like to be a hermit on the mountain.” You know? I used to have a brick phone and I used to hide more. But it’s important to share your story and have a presence in the community. For me, I’m in a spot where I acknowledge that the day of social media is a really good way to reach a lot of people and have a positive impact on a lot of people.

It’s kind of like calling your mom. Twenty-five-year-old guys don’t always like picking up the phone and calling home to mom. Some of them do. But mom loves to hear how you’re doing. It’s the same with social media and the fans: they love to hear what I’m doing. So picking up the phone is good and hopefully I’ll get better at both those things at the same time [laughs]. Otherwise my mom has to follow Instagram.

iRunFar: What do you think about five years from now, are you doing the same thing?

Miller: I hope so. I was thinking about that today. It’s like, you know, I’m still young but the years are passing. I’m 27. But I raced against Tofol Castanyer and the guy is 44 and he’s still killing it. There’s plenty of guys killing it in their thirties. I hope to be doing it for quite a while.

iRunFar: The racing and living at Barr Camp?

Miller: The racing and the ultra stuff. Barr Camp I’ll take one year at a time. I’ll be there at least until July of 2017, so another year basically. I think there’s a good shot I’ll continue, but it’ll be a year at a time. Racing, I hope to race for a while. I don’t think I’ll ever be done racing. I think I’ll be that 90-year-old man running the turkey trot.

iRunFar: Going for the age-group record?

Miller: [laughs] Yeah, try to win the Dipsea Race or something. I don’t know. At some point there will be a transition, there will be a day when other young guns are faster and maybe that’s when I’ll try to tackle some projects like the fastest known time (FKT) on the Appalachian Trail (AT) or the Pacific Crest Trail. That stuff is very intriguing to me; that really long stuff. Right now, if I wanted to go for the FKT on the AT, that would be a really cool project, but that would be my year, just that.

I think right now it makes sense to do the races and later down the road, maybe transition to some of that long, long stuff and some records. I don’t know. I like it. I don’t plan to retire any time soon.

iRunFar: Longer term, what races are on your short list? Which races do you want to run at some point?

Miller: UTMB is the big one.

iRunFar: Western States?

Miller: Yeah, I think so, eventually. I need to dial in nutrition really well for the heat. But eventually Western at some point. The Hardrock 100, if I can get a ticket and get selected. Bill Dooper really wants to see me run Hardrock. I think I have to at least give it a go for Bill. I think it’s a cool course. If I could do it while living at Barr Camp, that would be great because that course is so consistently high. I think with my living circumstances it would be interesting to see how that would play a role.

Yeah, so Hardrock, Western, maybe the Leadville 100 Mile. Maybe Run Rabbit Run 100 Mile. I think those are the big ones. There are some other really long races in Europe that are starting to come on my radar a bit more. But UTMB is the one that’s really captured me. Maybe eventually some other ones over there.

I don’t plan to go do them all in one year. At least for a while, I don’t see myself doing more than one 100 miler per year. I’d have to check them off one at a time. So we’ll see. We’ll see how UTMB goes first. Maybe I’ll run UTMB and say, “I’m never do that again!” [laughs] Maybe I’ll be a one and done 100 miler. Or maybe I won’t be a 100 miler, maybe 85 miles is all I have in me. I hope not.

Zach Miller - diners

As a hearty eater, Miller likes to frequent diners.

There are 4 comments

  1. Rob

    Thanks for sharing your unique story. How could you go wrong with the Amish influence and the Kenyan connection? Nice to see you putting your elevation advantage to good use while you have it. Some of us envy your situation, but I have a feeling that it takes quite a bit of motivation to get out the door when conditions are tough.
    The pictures really help tell the story…thanks for coming in off the grid.

  2. Sven Horlemann

    Loved getting to know Zach better. A lot of truth in his reasoning. To me running is part of making my life a happy one. I am interested in PBs, ok. But the main drive is being out there and running. Cheers, from Germany.

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