Andrew Miller, 2016 Western States 100 Champion, Interview
Andrew Miller won the 2016 Western States 100 by running a wise, fast race. In this interview, we meet the 20-year-old trail phenom, watch him talk about his mental approach going into this competitive race, how the critical final 10 miles went when he took over the lead, what it felt like winning the race, and where he hopes to race next.
For more on the race, read our 2016 Western States 100 results article.
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Andrew Miller, 2016 Western States 100 Champion, Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Bryon Powell of iRunFar here with Andrew Miller after his win at the 2016 Western States 100. Congratulations, Andrew!
Andrew Miller: Thank you!
iRunFar: Tell me. Who is Andrew Miller?
Miller: Well, I don’t really know now. I just started running ultras when I was 14 years old. I’m originally from Oregon and I’m actually living in Flagstaff, Arizona, right now and going to school there at Northern Arizona University. Running has always just been a big part of my life. It’s been a great escape for me to get outside. That’s really why I do it.
iRunFar: You grew up in Corvallis, right?
Miller: That’s correct.
iRunFar: A great running town, a great trail and ultra town. Did you jump right into ultras? How did you get into running?
Miller: I initially got into running by running with my mom. Someone talked her into doing ultras almost 12 years ago, I think. Initially I just started doing a few runs with her here and there, and before you know it, I was doing all the runs she was doing with her. So my parents said, “Well, you should just sign up for an ultra.” So I ended up signing up for the McKenzie River 50k, and that was my first one. I did that when I was 14. Yeah, I just slowly progressed from there?
iRunFar: Did you enjoy that 50k? It’s a classic Oregon trail, right?
Miller: Yeah, it is. It’s so beautiful. We’ve actually done a lot of hiking along that trail as well, so it was a pretty special experience. I would say I wasn’t totally hooked after the first one, actually. It was after the second one. I don’t know what the difference was, but…
iRunFar: Was it McKenzie again?
Miller: I actually did McDonald Forest 50k as my second one. After that I realized, that’s really what I wanted to do. It could have been other stuff changing in my life, but… Soccer was a huge part of my life. I played soccer, and that was my thing all the way up until high school. But then I kind of started to lose the passion for it a little bit. I think maybe running kind of took its place. That’s probably why the second one really got me addicted.
iRunFar: Did you keep playing soccer in high school, or did you do any track or cross country, or did you say, “I’m just going to run the trails?”
Miller: I just wanted to run the trails. Track and cross country never really had an appeal to me. I did run… yeah, I ran ultras as well as played soccer. I played soccer through my junior year in high school, but after that I said, “You know, I just want to run,” so I gave up soccer at that point.
iRunFar: So you did your first 100 miler in 2013 at Pine to Palm. How old were you then?
Miller: I was 17 when I did that one.
iRunFar: It went pretty well?
Miller: Yeah, I finished third in that one, I think, in just under 20 hours. Yeah, it was just a really good day. I felt pretty good all day. I didn’t really know what to expect. Yeah, just looking back on it, it was a really good experience for sure. I think I learned a lot from that especially… I think I learned a lot running the 100-mile distance, and I think it helped me in the shorter distances like the 50k—which sounds kind of weird—but I think it just helped me find how far I could go and how hard I could push because for 100 miles, you’ve got to keep going for a long ways.
iRunFar: You finished third there. You were under 20 hours.
Miller: Yeah, I had an incredible day with no real low patches—definitely some rough sections but no major problems, so I was just happy with how smooth the race went.
iRunFar: The next year, 2014, you went back and it was not so good?
Miller: Yeah, so 2014 I dropped at mile 40. I had an injury going into the race. Looking back on it, I just really shouldn’t have started. I don’t really regret the experience. I think I learned a lot from it. I learned a lot just about my body and staying healthy. I’ve spent more time doing core strengthening stuff and just keeping my body strong outside of just running. I think that’s been a good addition to my training. It also just allowed me to take a step back that year and just kind of look at all I had accomplished. It’s so easy to get mired down in one bad race. I had a pretty great year.
iRunFar: I don’t know what else you ran that year, but you’ve run some really fast Orcas [Island] 50k’s, you’ve won Waldo 100k…
Miller: Yeah, I’d won Waldo just four weeks earlier, so it was… that kind of got lost on me for two or three weeks because I was just, “Ah man, I didn’t finish. That’s the end of the world.” But I figured out how to move on after that. And it just helped me get a better perspective on things, and I think that’s been good to have.
iRunFar: Last year you ran Bighorn 100 and won it and set a course record. Did Mike Foote have that?
Miller: Yes. I believe so.
iRunFar: Did that give you a lot more confidence?
Miller: It did. Yeah, I had a really good day out there. Actually, I felt kind of crappy the first 30 miles. I think maybe some of it was the 11am start. It’s already kind of hot. You don’t get those early morning hours to knock out a few miles before you’re really thinking about it. Who knows—maybe it’s just that nervous energy before the race tires you out some? I’m not really sure. The first 30 miles I was struggling a bit. I felt better after that. Once I hit the turnaround, I really started to cook. I felt great from there all the way in. Yeah, I just had a lot of energy from the turnaround to the finish. I was pretty happy about that. I was slowly picking up time on the course record. I kind of knew about what the record pace was, and once I hit that last five-mile road at the end I was, You know, if I can run it fast, I can get the record. So, that was an interesting experience. It was motivational, but man, that five-mile road never ends. I had to try to run fast to get the record because you’ve got to give it a go, but man, it as just endless.
iRunFar: When did you decide you wanted to give Western States a go?
Miller: Actually, I was hoping to get into the race last year. I ran the Gorge Waterfall 100k two weeks after the Georgia Death Race. I feel like I was probably recovered from the Georgia Death Race, maybe not 100% recovered, but well enough. But I got sick before the race and the first 20 miles I ran okay, but I just felt tired. The next 20 I ran pretty slow and felt really tired, and then the last 20 miles just turned into a death march. I learned a lot from that one. I was hoping to get a spot there, but I kind of realized that it was kind of an unreasonable expectation to turn around two weeks after and run again. Again, like Pine to Palm, I don’t regret the experience at all, it’s just about the learning experience. Often times you learn a lot more from that stuff than when everything goes right.
iRunFar: Then this spring you got went back to the Georgia Death Race again. Did you have a better race even there this year?
Miller: It’s hard to say. The course was a lot different. I feel like I probably had a better race for sure. It’s hard to compare as the course was quite a bit different. I felt stronger out there, had a good day, and it really gave me a lot of confidence. I felt like I really made the most of all the training I had done so far. Yeah, I just didn’t really know what to expect because it was hard to compare my training from that year or two past because I was in Flagstaff this year, and this was the first time I’d been in Flagstaff. So I didn’t know how you could compare any of my runs.
iRunFar: Even volume or anything?
Miller: Exactly, because you’re at higher elevation, so you’re always going to be slower.
iRunFar: You don’t have your benchmark runs.
Miller: Exactly, yeah. I just really didn’t know. I felt like I was running well, but who knows?
iRunFar: Going into this race, were you thinking, I’m going to try to go win this thing, or what was your mindset before?
Miller: Coming into this, I didn’t really know what to think too much. I knew there were going to be a few guys were really fast. Jim Walmsley is really fast. Sage Canaday is really fast. Neither of those guys had finished a 100 yet. I didn’t know what they would do. They’ve got incredible speed at a lot of the shorter ultras for sure, so it was hard to say. Outside of those two guys and maybe a couple others, I felt like I could pretty much run with anyone in the field. So I was just was going to go out and run the best I could. And yeah, I figured if I have a chance to start to race toward the end of the race that’s great, but I’d really just try to run my own race.
iRunFar: It seemed like you were doing that early. You might have gotten updates on how far ahead the guys up front were?
Miller: Yeah, I was getting that they were up by a half hour or more.
iRunFar: Did you feel like you were running a good race early though?
Miller: Yeah, I felt pretty good. Yeah, I felt like I was running pretty well. I really felt pretty comfortable probably through about Devil’s Thumb. I felt pretty comfortable through there. Then I started having to work a little bit.
iRunFar: Got a little warm there, too?
Miller: Yeah, it didn’t seem too bad, actually, in those canyons. Cal Street was the worst for me with the heat. Yeah, I was actually feeling pretty good through all that section.
iRunFar: When did it actually feel like you were racing?
Miller: I would say about by the time I got to the river. I was catching a few guys between Last Chance and Michigan Bluff. I think I passed maybe three or four people in there, but I didn’t have to pick up the pace to pass them. It didn’t seem like they were hurting. I was just moving a lot quicker and they didn’t hang with me at all. At that point I didn’t really care if they ran with me or not. I just kept moving. Yeah, just before the river, Didrik Hermansen was just behind me. He caught up to me at Cal 2. Then I put a little gap on him, and then he caught up to me again at the river road.
iRunFar: Did that put you in stressful racing mode or were you just, Oh, here’s a guy; here’s not a guy?
Miller: I was actually feeling okay with him being there. I knew I probably had a pretty good chance of getting to second place at that point because I was getting reports that Sage was hurting. I think at Cal 1 he was maybe 20 minutes up, and then 15, and then 10. I knew it certainly seemed like things were going downhill for him. I was figuring we would catch him… I figured Jim was just gone at that point. It would be nice to finish second for sure, so I was just thinking that I don’t want him to come flying by and leave me, but I also felt pretty comfortable with him running behind. I knew there were a couple hills toward the end, and that’s kind of where I’m stronger.
iRunFar: You didn’t feel the need to push, per se, at that point?
Miller: I wasn’t pushing too hard. I did want to stay ahead of him, just a little bit ahead, because it’s always nice to have…
iRunFar: When did you find out you were in the lead?
Miller: I found out at Highway 49. It was weird. We ran up to Highway 49, my pacer and I… we actually passed someone walking down with a thing of yellow ribbon, but we were like, “Huh, whatever. That’s weird.” We didn’t even think a thing of it. Then we get to Highway 49 and someone was asking, “How’s the markings?” “Yeah, it was fine.” Didn’t think a thing of it. Then I came up to my crew—my mom, my dad, my brother—and they were yelling, “Jim Walmsley is off course. You’re in the lead!” I’m like, “Okay. Okay.” That was a shock really. Yeah, I was pretty shocked. I think he probably had 50 minutes on me at that point. It was hard to tell exactly because you’d get two different numbers from the same aid station, but he was way up.
iRunFar: What goes through your head the first time you hear that?
Miller: I realized at that point, because they said he was off course and wasn’t back on course yet, so I figured that this was my race to win. If I don’t win it, there’s no reason I shouldn’t.
iRunFar: Did you accelerate at that point, or did you just keep running your own race?
Miller: I definitely got a huge shot of adrenaline at that point because coming into there I was mostly just trying to hang onto second. Turns out, Didrik was maybe 15 or 20 minutes back, but we were thinking he might just be a minute or two back. That’s actually the reports we were getting at ALT. “Don’t waste any time, he’s just a minute back.” I think he was a little bit more. So switching from trying to hang onto second to running in the lead was a huge shot of adrenaline. So I just ran really hard all the way up to the meadow up there. That’s kind of when the adrenaline started to fade a little bit and I realized, Okay, you’re going to have to just… it’s still six miles to go.
iRunFar: So did you rein it back a little bit?
Miller: I was just trying to keep pushing as much as I could, but that’s when I realized, Okay, don’t just go run. Make sure you keep eating. Make sure you keep drinking. I didn’t have any problems with fueling all day really.
iRunFar: Did you have your pacer with you at that point?
Miller: I actually dropped my pacer coming up to the meadow. I just took off. I think we both got a shot of adrenaline, but for me, it was a little bit more than him because I had a chance to win the race.
iRunFar: Did you start feeling dread that you dropped your pacer, or was that another notch in the belt?
Miller: It was just… I didn’t really think too much of it actually. I don’t know. I wasn’t really thinking about that too much. The one thought that crossed my mind was that it would be a shame if he didn’t make it to the finish line because he did such a good job pacing me.
iRunFar: Did he pace you from Foresthill?
Miller: My brother actually paced me from Foresthill to the river, and then my friend, Cary Stephens, from Corvallis, picked me up from the river to just after Highway 49. He did a great job. Huge thanks. That’s why I kept moving pretty well after Green Gate. All that rolling trail, he kept me focused and kept me from just dropping off to a slow pace.
iRunFar: Did he make it to the finish line to see you win Western States?
Miller: Yeah, I was really happy. He said he got down to No Hands Bridge and said, “Hey, I need a ride to the finish line.” One of the photographers was taking off.
iRunFar: What does it feel like to cross the finish line here at Placer High?
Miller: It was pretty surreal. After I crossed No Hands Bridge… it seemed to take forever to get to No Hands Bridge after I got up to the meadow. After I crossed No Hands Bridge, it kind of started to settle in because you have all those people cheering there. Then it was just a grind up to Robie Point. I just ran up there, and once I hit Robie Point, that’s when it kind of started to set in that it was happening. You’ve got the parties all along the road there. You’re just passing people every step of the way. That was pretty surreal. Then you hit the track and it was just unbelievable. I’m just high fiving people running around, and the next thing you know, I’ve got 50 yards to go. It was just crazy.
iRunFar: Was there any point on the course that you’ll remember? Anything stand out memory-wise that you’ll remember earlier in the day?
Miller: Earlier in the day? I can’t think of anything specific right now. The whole first 50 miles there are a lot of pretty views looking out there and a lot of just enjoyable running. I felt pretty good, a lot of good running, felt pretty comfortable and strong. I actually felt strong climbing up Devil’s Thumb which was nice because I’ve heard that is a tough climb.
iRunFar: Not for you?
Miller: Apparently not… at least not yesterday, right? Yeah, a lot of sections to enjoy out there. I felt pretty good all day. It made it fun.
iRunFar: I know it’s just a day after you finished Western States, is there anything on your calendar for this year?
Miller: There’s nothing on my calendar at this point. The only thoughts I’ve had are that I’ve kind of thought about trying to do a Hardrock qualifier. I did Bighorn last year, so that will last another year, but it’s kind of nice not to have the pressure to do one.
iRunFar: Did you put your name in the hat this year for Hardrock?
Miller: I did, yeah.
iRunFar: So you’ve started the tickets?
Miller: Yeah, I’ve started the count, so I’ve got to stick with it now. But yeah, we’ll see. The other thought I’ve had is I’ve thought about running the Wonderland Trail. Yeah, I may try to do one of those at the end of August or start of September. Yeah, I’ve just got to see how I recover. If that’s not in the cards this year then I’ll just do something shorter, maybe just a 50k or a 50 miler. Yeah, I’ve only run two races so far this year, so I definitely want to do another one, but I don’t know yet. I just want to take a week to recover. That’s kind of been the thing I’ve messed up in the past is not taking enough time to recover. I think only having run two races this year has allowed me more time to recover. I think that’s really helped.
iRunFar: Congratulations on your win. Enjoy it.
Miller: Thank you very much.
iRunFar: A bonus question for you, Andrew. Even though you’re only 20, you’ve been running races in the Pacific Northwest for quite awhile. Is there a particular race up there you’d recommend people from elsewhere in the US should check out?
Miller: One of my favorite races in the Pacific Northwest is Orcas Island. It’s just beautiful trail running up there. Orcas Island is a beautiful island. It’s really a great chance to explore a beautiful place that’s not under snow early in the year.
iRunFar: Is there a particular distance up there… I know there are a bunch of races up there…?
Miller: Yeah, there is the Orcas island 50k and the 25k. I think they used to be the same weekend, but now they’re one weekend apart just because it’s become so popular. I’ve done the 50k three times now. I didn’t go back last year just because I was in school. Yeah, if you’re in the area, it’s one of my favorite races.
iRunFar: Besides the course, it’s a pretty good party as well. James Varner…
Miller: It’s pretty awesome. The course is beautiful. It’s tough. It’s just a party afterward. The whole island is kind of a party because there’s a lot of runners there. It’s a pretty cool place to hang out.
iRunFar: Folks, get up and check out James Varner’s island races.