Zach Miller will debut at 100 miles with the 2016 UTMB. In the following interview, Zach talks about what he’s learned from so far from his trail-ultra career that will be useful this weekend, if he thinks a void exists between the knowledge and experience he has and what he needs to finish UTMB, and what he thinks will happen when he experiences a new level of discomfort in racing this distance.
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Zach Miller Pre-2016 UTMB Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Meghan Hicks of iRunFar. I’m here with Zach Miller in Chamonix, France. It’s three-and-a-half days before the 2016 UTMB. Hi.
Zach Miller: Hi, how are you?
iRunFar: We just both transplanted ourselves here from the U.S.
Miller: Yeah, we did. I think we both got in today, I think you this morning and me this afternoon.
iRunFar: Yes, so we’re both fresh off red-eye flights and haven’t slept.
Miller: Pretty much.
iRunFar: Real dynamic interview about to happen.
Miller: Yes, might be a little weird.
iRunFar: This is your second time here in Chamonix. You come back as the reigning CCC champion. You decided to come back for the bigger version of the race around the mountain?
Miller: I think all the races are great. CCC is an awesome race, but UTMB is definitely the headliner here. So, yeah, back for the big show.
iRunFar: Back for the big show. Knowing what you do know now about having been on a bunch of the course with CCC last year, does it make you more confident, or does it make you more afraid about what you’re going to encounter?
Miller: No not really afraid. I thought maybe I’d get a lot more fear going into this, but I think with the training and stuff, that kind of stayed at bay. I think it gives me some confidence just having that experience on the course, especially that second half when your brain is kind of tired and you are kind of fried, I kind of know what’s coming. So, no, more of the confidence side.
iRunFar: You’re debuting at 100 miles, and you picked the biggest 100 miler out there.
Miller: Yeah, pretty much. I guess I like a big stage. I figure if I’m going to train for it and put all the effort into doing it, it might as well be worthwhile.
iRunFar: Go big, or go home.
Miller: Yeah, exactly.
iRunFar: The Zach Miller that we’ve seen in 2016 in my opinion is a different Zach Miller from 2015. You are racing so much less.
Miller: Yeah, I guess in some ways. I think partially it’s because I knew I had UTMB coming up, and it just takes a lot of prep and focus. Last year I ran three ultras. The goal was to do the same this year.
iRunFar: You did a bunch of… it seemed like every other weekend you were doing shorter races, too.
Miller: I guess I did some. I definitely did more than I did this year. I guess this year I did a couple snowshoe races in the winter, and then I just kind of held out until Madeira [Island Ultra Trail]. I ran Madeira, and then rested after Madeira. Then I ran a half marathon trail race in Georgia and kind of checked my fitness. Then I kind of thought I was going to do some more racing, but really it was partially just because I got to traveling a lot, and it was getting draining. I really just wanted to hunker down at Barr Camp.
iRunFar: Do your training and focus.
Miller: Just kind of hide on the mountain and focus. I think I ran that race in Georgia, and I ran the U.S. Mountain Running Championships, and then I just kind of hid. I was supposed to go race in Italy…
iRunFar: Yeah, your name was on a couple entrants lists.
Miller: Maybe, but probably not too many. Mainly I was supposed to go to Italy and run the Red Bull K3. Part of it was I just wanted the time to focus on UTMB. Part of it was I had one glitch in my training. I had a bout of what I assume was some sort of Giardia—some sort of stomach bug, but it seemed like Giardia. That threw me off for about a week pretty close to when I was supposed to go to Italy. It’s hard to commit to a race like that coming off of a week where you’re barely able to go out and run three miles. So I just said, “No, I’m going to hang out at Barr Camp and focus on UTMB and enjoy the summer.” I guess other than the snowshoe races, this is my fourth race of the year. Yeah, pretty selective.
iRunFar: From my perspective watching you go and hermit yourself on the mountain and do your thing, you’re kind of not in the limelight. You go into your camp hole and train really hard. Then you come out and just blow things up, and then you go back into your hermit style again.
Miller: I like doing that. I tell all my friends, “I like hiding.”
iRunFar: Barr Camp is perfect for you.
Miller: It works really well for me. I see a ton of runners when I’m up there. The local runners come up, and that’s great. They come up and we chat. They wish me luck and what not. Out-of-towners that are ultrarunners come up and chat with me. But in terms of training and not racing too much, I can just kind of hide up there which is really nice. I really enjoy it up on the mountain. I enjoy the style of training I can get up there.
iRunFar: I want to ask you about your training. What you put out on social media seems to have two main themes to it. One is exploration and really an enjoyment of the adventure and the movement in that pretty wild place. The other these I see is just working yourself until you bonk and have to sprawl out on the ground and just really putting it out there with your training. Is that what’s actually happening?
Miller: I’d say that’s a pretty good description of it. Sometimes those two things are combined all in one day—often they are. With UTMB, I’ve just had a lot of fun. I haven’t even run the race yet. I don’t even know if I’m good at the distance. But I’ve just had a ton of fun with the training. I don’t know what’s going to happen this weekend, but regardless of what happens, the experience already has been really good. Being able to try some new things in training, being able to push myself a bit more or in different ways, all the things I’ve earned, and all the great times I’ve had out on the mountain—training for UTMB for me was a lot about putting in big days. I love big days, big adventures, new trails, new parts of the mountain, exploring, doing steep stuff and technical stuff, and just doing a lot of different stuff. That’s been a blast. I’ve already had a great time, and I haven’t even run the race yet. Maybe I’ll have a miserable time in the race, but maybe if the race doesn’t go well, maybe I’ll just train for 100 miles and not actually race them.
iRunFar: “What kind of running do you do?” “Oh, I train for 100-mile races.”
Miller: Yeah, but back to your question, there are some days where with UTMB, I’d want to get a big day, so I’d go out and explore. I’d do new trails and new routes piece things together. I’d come up with goals in my head. How many times can I get to the top of Pikes Peak today? How many different ways can I do it? How many different technical lines and descents can I take? There’s that element. There’s other days when you’re out there working really hard, and maybe you bonk a bit. There are days that are more specific interval days, but all of it is pretty fun.
iRunFar: You have been at trail ultrarunning for a couple years now. You’re a young human being, but I’d say you’re gaining significant wisdom in our sport because of the depth of stuff that you’ve done and also the breadth. You’ve tried all sorts of distances and race styles. What wisdom do you think you’re bringing to the UTMB platform? I know it’s a new distance, but what in your experience bag do you think is really going to be key here this weekend?
Miller: I think my experience with different types of terrain. UTMB is very much a mountain race. It is technical, but I wouldn’t say it’s the most technical. From a European standpoint, it’s one of the tamer races in terms of technicality. From an American standpoint, it’s one of the more technical races. I think my background in more runnable stuff like [IAU] World [Championships] 100k on the road, JFK [50 Mile], Lake Sonoma [50 Mile], because there are parts of the course that have that element in there where you can really roll… but then also because I’ve mixed it up in short-distance mountain racing and the European mountain racing and more technical European courses, I think my experience on that type of terrain and steep climbs and steep descents will come in handy because that’s definitely part of this course as well. I think that breadth of knowledge over multiple disciplines will be valuable. That doesn’t mean that I’m an expert at any of it, but basically I’ve dipped my toes in a lot of puddles, and so I’ve gotten a taste and built some skills in a lot of different areas. I think that should be handy in a race like UTMB.
iRunFar: This is also 100 miles. It’s going to be quite a distance further than you’ve ever run and quite a few extra hours. What’s going through your head in terms of how you’re approaching this extra amount of time you’re going to be out?
Miller: I thought maybe it would freak me out more and that I’d get to this week…
iRunFar: “I’m not afraid!”
Miller: I’d get to this week and, “Oh, shoot, I’m about to run 100 miles. I’m about to try to run 100 miles,” and I’d just be really scared. But it’s weird. This week, I don’t really feel that. Maybe that fear will come crashing down Thursday night, but this week it’s been weird. I’m just really excited and really happy and just have a peace about it. I’m just ready to have a big adventure on Mont Blanc. I think basically I’m going to try to take the mentality I took at JFK, my first 50 miler. I didn’t know what I was doing. I’d never run farther than 35 miles. I just kind of took into that like, “Hey, I’m just going to go out and run. I’m going to try and stay really positive and have a good time and see what happens.” I think I’m going to try and take some of that mentality into this and just try and stay really positive and really upbeat and not be counting miles or kilometers. Just being on this route having this great adventure—okay, now we’re going to go to Les Houches; now we’re going to go to Les Contamines; now we’re going to climb through Italy; now we’re going to go through Switzerland. I’m just going to try and complete this big adventure rather than tackling this intimidating distance of 105 miles.
iRunFar: I love that you said “105.” You’ve got the extra five in your head.
Miller: I’m just going to try and keep it fun and stay happy and just kind of roll with it and have a good day. I think moving smoothly and efficiently and staying on the nutrition. I’ve been working on the nutrition. We’ll see if I’ve worked on it enough or not. I’ve been amazed in training about how the human body is amazing. I’ve been talking to Alex Nichols because he’s preparing for his first 100, too. I was telling him, “Man, I’m amazed at what the human body can do if you just keep it fueled.” I go out on these long training runs, and I’d think I’d just be dead by the end of the day, and if I get the nutrition right, I’m hammering home to the cabin. Just trying to stay on top of that is another strategy to attack that extra time and extra distance. I know full well it will probably hurt like heck at some point because it did at Madeira. I don’t know. I just guess I try not to think about that too much, but I know that it will likely come. When it does, I just have to make the most of it and keep pressing on.
iRunFar: I was going to ask you that question because what you said after Madeira was that that was the most painful thing you’d ever done. Afterward, the photos that all of the media put out was you splayed out on the ground.
Miller: It was hard. It’s a brutal course. It’s a ton of stairs. It’s a ton of steep climbing and steep descending and this year, muddy terrain. I finished that race and talked to some others there, and a bunch of them told me… I finished that and I was like, “Ahh, I’m not sure I want to do UTMB.”
iRunFar: That’s what I was going to ask you. You put yourself in a huge hurt box for 115k. So we’re going to add another 40k to that.
Miller: I finished and I was like, “I’m not sure I want to do UTMB.” But you’re always kind of like that after a race and then it kind of sinks in and you kind of forget it. At the end of any race… I like that 50 mile-100k distance. At the end of The North Face 50, I’m like, “Why do I do this? I’m not sure I want to do this again.” I just have to forget it, process it, move on, and then I’m ready for a new challenge. Also, at Madeira, I talked to some people there, and they told me that Madeira is harder than UTMB. Now it was mixed. I also talked to Tòfol [Castanyer], and he was like, “They’re both hard. They’re hard in different ways.” I think basically the gist of it was from a technical standpoint and from a mile-per-mile standpoint, people find Madeira harder. UTMB is not necessarily easier, but mile for mile from the technical aspect it might not be on the same level, but because it has that extra 32 to 35 miles in it, that adds an extra element. They’re both hard, but they’re hard in different ways. Kind of like, 100 miles and 100 meters are both hard if you run them right, they’re just hard in different ways.
iRunFar: The pain is very distinctive.
Miller: So that gave me some… that comforted me a bit. Yeah, I don’t know. We’ll see. Maybe I’ll be in a massive hurt box here. This was a dumb idea. There’s only one way to find out.
iRunFar: You have to try it to see. Last question for you—you’re here as a team this year. You have some other fine gentlemen from the Nike team who will be accompanying you around the mountain. I asked David Laney the same question in our interview just a few minutes ago. Meow meow meow meow?
iRunFar: What are you going to do as a team? Is there going to be a strategy? Are you wearing matching outfits? What team aspect do the American Nike runners bring to Friday’s race?
Miller: I think the biggest aspect at play is just the camaraderie and the shared support going into the race—staying together leading into the race, maybe running together, just kind of helping calm each others’ nerves, maybe helping each other making sure we have all the gear correct. Race day, at least in the past, we don’t usually do too much sitting down strategizing, “We’re going to do this during the race.” Everybody just kind of does their own thing. You have that camaraderie. Then when you’re out on the course, you know the other guys are out there, too. Everybody is kind of pushing together. You’re trying to run well for the team. Last year the team was able to do really well. That was really uplifting. So I think just having that aspect of it is beneficial.
iRunFar: The reason why I asked is because we’ve seen at this race in past years [train going by]… we’ve seen Team Salomon work as a team at this race. Whether they just are friendly with each other or whether they have the same style of running or whether they are trying to rabbit one particular person or not, they have run together. There’s no chance of Team Nike taking it out together?
Miller: I just got here today.
iRunFar: “We haven’t talked about it.”
Miller: We’ve talked about maybe what we’re going to do for dinner because I’m kind of starving right now. Maybe there will be discussions like that, but I think 100 miles is so individualistic. In some ways, it would be cool to go out together like a pack of three, “Okay, we’re going to work together. Three is stronger than one,” and share the lead on climbs and stuff like that. I could see a benefit to that, but I also think that 100 miles is such an individualistic race. Everybody has such a different strategy or way that they run well. I think more like each of us going in and giving our individual best is kind of the best way to get a good performance.
iRunFar: Maybe working together could get one person further.
Miller: Yeah, and I think we have different styles. I could see that playing in. If one of us races one way and it doesn’t pan out, maybe another person’s strategy will work out and get somebody up there. It’s great to have teammates whether we run together or not. I think it’s such a rhythm race. You have to find your rhythm and efficiency on the mountain and kind of find your flow and work within that, that it doesn’t always make sense to run to someone else’s rhythm. Everybody needs to find their own rhythm, and that’s how you get around the mountain. At least, that’s my theory on how to get around the mountain fastest.
iRunFar: Good luck to you in finding your rhythm. Good luck to you in your debut 100 miler.
Miller: Thank you. Yeah, I’m looking forward to it.
iRunFar: We’ll see what kind of hurt box Friday and Saturday produces.
Miller: Oh, yeah, there will probably be quite a bit of hurt.
iRunFar: Good luck, Zach.
Miller: Thank you.