Well, we now know for sure, Zach Miller only races one way… all out. He went out hard, led for most of the race, and, then, hung on to finish sixth at UTMB in his 100-mile debut. In the following interview, Zach talks about how his race played out, what it felt like when the win slipped away, and what he needs to improve upon in the future.
For more on the race, read our 2016 UTMB results article.
[Click here if you can’t see the video above.]
Zach Miller Post-2016 UTMB Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Meghan Hicks of iRunFar, and it’s Sunday in Chamonix, France, the day after the 2016 UTMB. I’m with Zach Miller who finished sixth place yesterday. How are you feeling today?
Zach Miller: The body is not too bad. It’s actually about the same as it is after a 50 miler.
iRunFar: Really? Not too much damage?
Miller: Yeah, my toes are in a little rough shape. They’re probably a little swollen and blistered, but it’s a long day in shoes. Otherwise, I feel about the same as I normally do. Physically, I’m pretty good. Mentally, the race was a little bit heartbreaking. It’s a little hard to wake up… last year I was waking up and jumping on the first-place podium spot. Waking up this morning, the body will be fine, but the mind will take a little while to process everything.
iRunFar: I’m not going to lie. It was hard to watch you finish yesterday. You wear your emotions on your face very clearly. There was a look of relief from being at the finish line and not having to move anymore, but there was heartbreak in your eyes and in your face.
Miller: It was kind of a weird last 15 miles for me. I fought so hard all day, and it had gone so well for so long—nutritionally, energy-wise, pacing-wise—for so long. Even emotionally, I was having a lot of fun. The mountains were great. I was loving the climbs. They were so much fun. I was somehow hanging on… I was getting caught big time on descents, but I was holding people off just barely so I could get up the next ascent and get a bit of a time gap. So, so much had gone so well all day long. Then at La Fouly, one of the cameramen had told me I had 25 minutes. It had been growing. It had pretty much doubled since I’d seen you at Lac Combal.
iRunFar: I think at Grand Col Ferret and La Fouly was the point at which you had the biggest gap.
Miller: Grand Col Ferret is going into Switzerland, right?
iRunFar: Yeah, before you begin the descent.
Miller: I felt good. I had a good strong climb. Last year, I had a strong climb up Grand Col Ferret. This year, same thing… probably less running this year, but I powerhiked pretty much the whole thing. I hiked strong. I think I ran little sections of it. I felt good. There was this beautiful inversion out in the valley. It was just amazing. I was doing great. I think I had 25 minutes at the top of that climb. Like I said, it was growing. That was a really good sign. I’m building a lead. I’m doing good. Bryon saw me at La Fouly and said I looked great. Somewhere after there I hit a low patch nutritionally. Every now and then throughout the day, my stomach would get kind of queasy. One of my worst fears was that it would go completely and I’d be done. Basically when it would go a little queasy, I’d go a little lighter on the calories. I know that’s not ideal, but I’d rather have five minutes of a low patch than a useless stomach for the rest of the day. Then usually that would work. I’d do more water and less gels for a few miles, and it would come back and I’d feel okay and I’d get calories in again.
iRunFar: So it was after La Fouly where you started feeling bad?
Miller: Yeah, so after La Fouly…
iRunFar: La Fouly is 112k, and I saw you at 124k. So it was a 12k span where things were just not so good?
Miller: I was moving still sort of in a rhythm for awhile. Then I started to get really low, and I think I probably just didn’t want to eat. Most of the day, nothing really sounded good. I’d get it in because I needed to, but nothing really sounded good. Then I think that’s maybe one of my struggles. Everybody kind of talks about that, but I often wonder sometimes if maybe because I do kind of run so intensely, that… when I pace friends, when I’m pacing, I can eat whatever I want.
iRunFar: “Give me a hamburger…”
Miller: Yeah, I can eat pizza and anything really. I have no trouble being like, “Let’s eat something.” But when I’m out there racing hard, my stomach and my mind get into this zone where I can still do it but nothing sounds good except maybe Coke and water sometimes. Somewhere in there I bonked. I full-on bonked. My hands went tingly. Everything just said, “bonk.” I know exactly what that is by now. I know how to fix it, but when you don’t feel like eating, that’s hard, too. I just made myself do it. I think I took pretty much…
iRunFar: Was this coming into La Fouly?
Miller: No, this was after the aid station.
iRunFar: I’m sorry, this was between La Fouly and Champex-Lac. So you’re going good…
Miller: Going into the last little village before the climb, I think I took three gels in a row. I was filling bottles with Roctane and taking down liquids and just trying to turn it around. It started to come back. The hands started to come back. I was trying to get to the climb. Then I was first into Champex-Lac, but then they rolled in behind me. I went from being in the lead to having company, and that wasn’t very comforting.
iRunFar: When you left Champex-Lac, you were in second place behind Julien Chorier but ahead of the guy who was Fabien Antolinos, who ultimately dropped. You would get past Julien again who finished behind you. It wasn’t actually the second and third places at the time you needed to worry about it, it was fourth and fifth.
Miller: Yeah, I think that’s why… and I realize now… a 100-mile race can be so deceptive. I imagine if you look back at the trackers, my gap ahead of those two guys was growing throughout the day because that’s who they’re measuring—Julien and Fabien, was probably growing throughout the day because that’s who they were measuring throughout the day. I bet if you look at my gap to the other guys (Gediminas Grinius and Ludovic Pommeret), they were gaining on time because he had had, the eventual winner, was with me in Saint-Gervais and then had stomach issues and dropped way back and had a ton of ground. He was probably gaining on me for a long time, but I never knew that, but I just knew who was second. Anyway, I got confused because I thought, They’re with me. The race is on. I have to try and beat these guys. I went out and left the aid station before one had gone. Julien was in front of me. It took me probably a mile or two until I finally got ahead of him for good, but my calories kicked in and I started climbing really strong. I surged by him really authoritatively. I was like, I’m going to let him know that I’m passing him. I’m not going to pass gingerly. I passed really strong. I dropped him right away. Then when descended to Trient, I got caught. I thought it was him. Apparently it was Ludovic. We started climbing out of Trient. It was kind of setting up that I get six minutes on the climb, and he gets six minutes on the descent. We’re going to do this two more times and then sprint down the street to the finish line into Chamonix for this big finish. I start climbing out of Trient and Ludovic starts climbing, and all of the sudden I’m like, This is a different climber. I had no clue. I thought it was the same climber, but actually it was a totally different runner. It was Ludovic.
iRunFar: Very similarly sized guys wearing the same Hoka gear. You’re this far into a 100-mile race…
Miller: Yeah, I’m 90 miles in. I’m thinking it was the other guy, so I’m thinking I’ll try to pull away. Ludovic comes in with his poles, and he’s just super strong. I gave it basically everything I had, and by the time I got to the top, he was long gone. I was physically… My body was just kind of like, “You’re done.”
iRunFar: So you get to the top of the second-to-last climb, and you drop into Vallorcine. Then where in there did Gediminas come upon you?
Miller: He actually got me on the descent to Vallorcine. He got me pretty early. I came over the climb, and probably within a half a mile he passed me.
iRunFar: At that point, is your mentality, “I just need to figure out how to shut off the off-gassing as hard as I can?” What was your mentality? “I’m going to try and maintain as I can? I’m in survival mode?” Where were you?
Miller: It was hard because I think that was one of the lessons I’ll take away from the 100 is to try to figure out what I do when that happens. It was kind of new for me. I feel like…
iRunFar: To feel torched?
Miller: Yeah, I’ve been in more pain before. At Madeira [Island Ultra Trail] I was in a ton of pain, but I could still push. There was still a fight—mentally, physically, emotionally—there was still some sort of a fight. There wasn’t much. There was barely anything, but there was something. Here it was like, I wanted so badly to win, but it’s weird… I kind of don’t understand it. It was like I gave up, but I’m not one…
iRunFar: Was it your body or your mind?
Miller: I hate the thought of giving up, but it was like something in me kind of started to give up.
iRunFar: Physically or mentally?
Miller: It was kind of like my mind wanted to do one thing, but my body didn’t have what it took to do that. That made…
iRunFar: It wasn’t your mind…
Miller: I think most runners would say, “I blew up and my legs were trashed.” I think that’s how most runners would describe it—their legs were gone. I have trouble believing that your legs are totally gone because I’ve seen in training where you take in some calories and they’re back, but I’m not sure it was that. My hands weren’t tingly. I wasn’t dizzy. I didn’t have all those other bonk signs.
iRunFar: So you had a new experience, and you’re just trying to sort it out.
Miller: I’m trying to… maybe I’ve had it before, maybe it was just exaggerated by my being up for 20 hours or whatever. It was just kind of different. I’m kind of trying to piece it all together. I think the other thing was, and maybe I should go home and call Jim Walmsley, but I think it was just such an all-or-nothing thing. I was in it… I was in it to do my best, but I was going for the win.
iRunFar: You ran for the win from the gun.
Miller: Yeah, and when the win seemed to be slipping away… at Champex-Lac it was, Oh, no, here… it’s slipping.
iRunFar: You’re ready to fight now.
Miller: No, it was hard. It was slipping. It was really defeating mentally. But I left there and when the calories kicked in, the fight came back. I want somebody to post the pictures of me climbing out of Champex-Lac because I have this full-on grimace on my face, and I was grunting, and I was in the biggest fight of my life. I probably looked angry. I was having a good time, but I was determined. I was so on fire going out of Champex-Lac. I was pulling away, but what I didn’t know was that I was also being caught by the guys further back.
iRunFar: So I’m thinking about something just as we’re talking. I fully expected you to run off the front, but I also fully expected you to run… the course is different once you get to about 70k… course-record numbers don’t work anymore because they’ve changed the course. The early splits, if you compare with past years, I kind of expected you to be ahead of course-record pace, but you were running slower than record pace. I thought, He’s running off the front, but he’s actually running a reasonable pace. I think this is a potentially reasonable strategy. Now I’m sitting there listening to you talk about having this bonk between La Fouly and Champex-Lac, which is a totally normal thing as almost everybody bonks at least a little bit. You have to figure out how to recover it. Then I’m listening to you talk about really putting yourself in this box to get back in the lead coming out of Champex-Lac, and I’m just wondering if you tanked because you worked so hard for an hour… if that blew an unrecoverable gasket that late in the race.
Miller: Maybe. I look back and judging how I felt at Trient, if I would have just been shooting for top-three, I could have climbed out of Trient at a reasonable pace. I could have gauged my energy levels. I could have drank, eat, and done much more of a rhythm running, and maybe I could have finished second or third. I’m not saying I would have, but I could have maybe salvaged a second or third. But the thing is, to me, it was an-all-or-nothing venture at that point. It was a fight for first and…
iRunFar: Even with three hard climbs to go. You were willing with three climbs to go to hammer for your life to maintain the lead?
Miller: Yeah, because I figure, here’s first. This is what I’m going for today, so I’m going to fight with everything I’ve got for this position. If I can’t keep it and I blow up, then… It kind of sounds bad, but to be honest, once I lost first when I was out there, there almost wasn’t much difference in getting passed and pushed to sixth as there was to fourth. Once I didn’t have first, sure I would have loved second, and third would have… top three would have been better than fourth or fifth or sixth, but at the same point, I was just like, first was so much on my mind, that it was an all or nothing day and once that was gone… I mentioned Jim earlier, and I imagine he had a similar experience at Western [States]. Once he made the wrong turn, once he lost the lead, I’m sure… I kind of looked at Jim’s race a little puzzled, too. What happened? I’m not saying he didn’t fight. I was just… you would have thought, oh, still second or third. I was just kind of puzzled. What in the world happened out there? Then if you do the math, I don’t know what went on, but it still seems like it should finish a little differently. Then when you have that all or nothing mindset and then you’re left with the nothing side, it’s really hard. It’s really hard mentally. I could imagine that before, but now I’ve experienced it.
iRunFar: You’re here right now, or what you feel is here right now.
Miller: It’s not nothing. It’s something. I have had so many people… my social media is a mess right now. It’s going to take awhile to sort through it. I received so many emails and messages already… and people here in France coming up to me just saying how much they appreciate the effort and how hard I pushed and for how long. That’s all… I’m very appreciative of that. That helps a bit. But deep inside it’s still hard for me to swallow. I could almost taste it, and then it slipped away.
iRunFar: Because this venture was a high risk/high reward strategy, running off the front, I’m sure you manifested the scenario of how to win. Did you at all envision it not going the way you wanted it to? Had you done any emotional preparation for this possibility? What you see is not the end ultimate goal?
Miller: Not really. I guess I don’t really sit around thinking much about…
iRunFar: “What’s going to happen if?”
Miller: It’s a gutsy venture to undertake. I say if you sit around and think too much about the possibilities too much, you might not be able to muster up the guts to do it.
iRunFar: That’s fair.
Miller: If it doesn’t work out, it’s a pretty bleak scenario. I really don’t think about it all that much. The ultimate goal is to give it my best and get everything out of myself. I totally understand that I could strategize differently. I totally understand that yesterday maybe I could have strategized differently and won. But I don’t really regret the way I ran. I ran the way I wanted to. Yeah, I’m a little curious what would happen if I raced more conservatively, but at the same time, I also don’t feel like I’m way out of the box when I’m out there doing it. I feel like I’m moving efficiently within the means of my fitness. At some point it’s going to hurt anyway, so I don’t know how much I would… maybe if I ran… I don’t know if I would run any faster going out easy or not because I try and move efficiently. I don’t necessarily think slower is necessarily easier. I think maybe I could have powerhiked some sections and saved some of my legs. The one thing that really fascinates me… I’ve had the question plenty of times, “If you come again, would you change?” “If you come back next year, will you change?” Really, looking to next year, assuming I come back, I’m not sure I would really change the strategy. What I want to change is the training. I want to better prepare myself for the course. Largely what I feel went was my legs. By the end, they wouldn’t go up, they wouldn’t go down, and every step hurt. If you gave me a flat road, I’d run and that was about the only thing I could do anymore. So, I want to go out and run a ton of steep downhills. My climbing was great. My climbs went great, but if I can learn to run rocky uneven downhills, and if I could make my downhill legs twice what they are now by next year, I’d be very interested. If I could do that and go out with the same strategy and same general effort level but my legs last 25% longer, that’s essentially what I need. I need 25% more of my legs.
iRunFar: I just want to say that I felt that your strategy was brave. I haven’t closely looked at your splits yet, but I don’t think that what you were really running was unreasonable. You weren’t eight minutes ahead of course record pace at a half marathon in. You weren’t 20 minutes ahead at the marathon. You were at or just a bit slower than course-record pace which I don’t think was unreasonable.
Miller: There are some cool things that come out of it. That’s kind of cool for me to hear because four years ago I was sitting at my desk in college watching videos of Kilian [Jornet]. Four years ago I was sitting at my parents’ house on Christmas break watching videos of Kilian not even considering myself in the same league as mountains like that. Then here I am running the same course at the same pace that those guys did at least for awhile. That kind of blows my mind that I could actually do that.
iRunFar: You’re here. You’ve arrived.
Miller: Yeah, that I’ve arrived at that point in my life. One of the other really interesting things was we were together at the beginning of the race. At Saint-Gervais, it was me…
iRunFar: Fabien was leading, then it was you, and then it was Ludovic.
Miller: I think Ludovic was actually in front of me going in. I had gapped them ascending. Then on that long descent, Ludovic went in first but stopped at the aid station, and I grabbed something small and went. Ludovic and I were right together. We went out basically on the same pace. It was just Ludovic, and this was really interesting, had the stomach issue after Les Contamines, which is really early, and he had to walk, I think he told me, for three hours. He dropped back to 50th place. He was an hour behind me. That’s really funny because it’s almost like it was a blessing in disguise for him. Maybe not. Maybe it wasn’t. Maybe without a three-hour walk break he would have set a course record. I also think maybe with an hour walk break might have been why he was strong so late because he walked for three hours. He said he was preparing himself to take a nap at Courmayeur. I guess he got to Courmayeur and decided he didn’t need it and went on, and then proceeded to catch me. He was super strong. Yeah, there were a lot of interesting things that happened during the race. I had a great time especially all the way into La Fouly, and then I had a grand test of my mettle the rest of the way. It was a good experience.
iRunFar: Sixth place at UTMB—I hope you don’t walk away considering this a loss at all. That’s a position that many hundreds of people would like to be in.
Miller: I don’t consider it a loss. It’s tough to stomach, but I guess anything other than first would have been tough to stomach. I know that may sound cocky or greedy or whatever, but it’s just… that’s just kind of the prize that I’m eyeing. I don’t do it like there’s no way I won’t get first.
iRunFar: “I have no idea if I can, but I’m going to try.”
Miller: Exactly. I kind of take a little kid approach to racing. Little kids don’t ask questions. You tell them not to do something, they say, “Why not?” So when I approach a race that’s my first 100-mile race, everyone says, “Go out conservative. Do this. Do that. Think it through.” I just go out and say, “Well, why not? Let’s just go for it.” I don’t know what I can do, but I’m going to find out, or I’ll find out what I can’t do. Then when I find out what I can’t do, I’m going to go home and get back to work and try and do what I want to do.”
iRunFar: Well, we’ve seen you race for a couple years at all kinds of distances, and you take that approach with everything you do. So I anticipate should you approach the 100-mile distance that it’s probably going to be with the exact same style.
Miller: Yeah, it’s hard to see that changing. I’d rather just change my training…
iRunFar: And give it another shot…
Miller: Not fully change it, but I’d rather work on my weaknesses and just strengthen them until I can do what I want to do.
iRunFar: Well, good luck to you, Zach. Congratulations on your sixth-place finish. You put on a really fun show. I hope you’re proud of yourself.
Miller: I am proud of the effort. Sometimes the ‘failures’ per se are almost better than the successes. It’s hard to feel like that…
iRunFar: We say we learn a lot more from our failures and we grow wiser from them, but it sure hurts.
Miller: Yeah, it hurts right now, but hopefully one day I’ll look back and be able to look back in a different light.
Miller: Thank you.