Vella Shpringa

“Vella Shpringa!”

It rang loud and clear. So much so that I was actually able to comprehend it as I drug myself into the Champex-Lac aid station. I was 124 kilometers into UTMB and I was leading, but I was in trouble. Aside from a low patch climbing out of Courmayeur at 78.8k, my day(s) had been going really well. I had moved well up the Grand Col Ferret as I crossed into Switzerland. I even felt pretty good as I made my way through La Fouly at 110k. But soon after I left that tiny Swiss village, someone handed me a refrigerator. Now normally I like refrigerators. They are filled with tasty treats and snacks. They keep milk cold and meat from going bad. They are really quite wonderful, except for one thing. They are difficult to transport. This particular fridge was no exception. As I descended to Praz de Fort at 118.5k, the fridge got very, very, very, heavy. After consuming several gels and a bit of liquid, the weight eased a bit, but not much. I arduously made the climb to Champex-Lac. That’s when I heard it, bursting forth from my friend Jake’s mouth, “Vella Shpringa!”

Fast forward two weeks and I’m running through the rolling country roads of Bird In Hand, Pennsylvania. I’m there because I’m the guest speaker for the Bird In Hand Half Marathon and 5k. My legs still recovering from UTMB, I trot along in the 5k, taking in the sights, carefully taking water cups from the little Amish children, and chatting with those around me. For nearly the entire race, I run with a couple of Amish kids. As we run I notice that just about everyone along the course seems to know them. “Jake!” They call out, and he and the young girl with him turn their heads and respond with a few words. “Everyone seems to know you guys,” I say, about halfway through the race. “Well, yes, we live around here,” they say, pointing into the distance.

Having figured out the reason for their celebrity status, I move on to names. “Your name is Jake,” I say, “but what’s yours?” My eyes turn to the young girl. “Esther,” she says. “How old are you guys?” I say, inquisitively. “I’m eleven.” “And I’m thirteen.” They ask back, “How old are you?” “Twenty seven,” I say. They seem surprised. We continue on, Jake in his long black pants, suspenders, and blue shirt and Esther in her long blue dress. We pass a water station and Jake dumps water on his head, a welcome refresher in the midst of some pretty intense heat and humidity. A short while later we come across a sprinkler and run through it. Then, running down a dirt farm lane we pass a man in a racing chair and Jake cheers him on. Eventually we pull ahead of Esther, but Jake keeps pace with me. Rounding the corner for home, Jake kicks it up a notch and edges me out at the finish line. “You’re a good runner. You ran the whole way,” I say as I shake his hand. A short while later Esther comes across the line and I congratulate her as well.

An hour or so later I find myself delivering my speech from atop a farm wagon. I share my crazy story of how I became an ultrarunner. I tell tales of my races and adventures all over the world. Most importantly, however, I speak about what running has taught me. Of course there are many things that fit this bill, but on this night, amongst the people of my home, I talk about community. This, you see, is what myself, Jake, and Esther all have in common. We all have a community of people supporting us.

Sometimes our community is full of runners. Other times it’s filled with people who barely even exercise. But it need not matter what they do. The important thing is that they are there. Running into that aid station at Champex-Lac, “Vella shpringa!” was probably one of the best things that my buddy Jake could have yelled. A Pennsylvania Dutch phrase, it loosely translates to “let’s run” or “gotta’ run.” But, for me, “vella shpringa” means so much more than “let’s run.” For me, it is a great reminder that running is not a selfish act, but a means for developing community with others. This idea stems from a picture that I’ve seen. The photograph is of a sign that says the following: “Vella Shpringa: not for personal honor, but for community.”

When I first read this sign, I kind of assumed that it was a definition of the phrase itself. Further evaluation led me to think otherwise. I’m not sure when it hit me, maybe on a run, but one day I got the idea that perhaps it was an explanation of why we run. The sole reason for running shouldn’t be to attain fame, fortune, or as the sign said, personal honor. Rather a better reason for running is to build community with others.

This doesn’t mean that running can’t be done solo. I myself spend many hours running through the mountains on my own. I’m not really alone though. In a physical sense I am, but there are people all over the world thinking of me, praying for me, and supporting me. From family to friends and even fans, there is a wonderful community of people pulling for me. Some days we share a more tangible interaction: a run, a meal, a high five at the aid station. Other days the support comes from afar: a letter (from Grandpa), a text, an email, a prayer. But no matter the interaction, the act of running has a way of bridging gaps, making connections, and joining people together. Running creates community.

Trudging out of Champex-Lac, I was in a world of hurt. I wanted to press on and stop all at the same time. Stopping wasn’t a serious thought, just my body’s request in light of the pain. But as the quote that my mom sent me before the race said, I hadn’t “come this far to only come this far.” Pressing on was without a doubt what I was going to do. And so I did. For a brief moment I regained the lead and relinquished it a few minutes later. Yet I refused to quit. A short ways into the steep climb out of Champex-Lac, I got a surge of energy and took off. I started climbing strong again and for the second time I seized the lead. Though nowhere near what it had been earlier in the day, it was a lead nonetheless and by golly I was going to fight to try to keep it.

Topping out on the climb, I knew I needed to run well on the downhill to avoid being caught again. Descending was painful, but I tried hard to keep the pace up. Coming through La Giete, at the top of the climb after Champex-Lac, I was told I had a six-minute lead. That was encouraging, but a short while later I was caught by Ludovic Pommeret. We ran into Trient together where I left first and he followed, hot on my heels. Though I had great hopes of pulling away on the climb, Ludovic was incredibly strong and passed me in no time at all. I fought hard to keep him close, but my body was struggling. By the top of the climb he was long gone and my legs were about as good as a set of chicken bones stripped of all muscles, ligaments, and tendons. After getting passed by Gediminas Grinius on the descent, I rolled into Vallorcine, now 151k into the race, in third place.

I was miserable. I was fading. The leaders were running away. And yet, amidst all of this, one very positive thing remained: my community. In the coming miles my race would fail to improve. In fact, I would drop three more places and finish in sixth. Though respectable, it was far from what I had dreamed of. But, no matter how far back I dropped, people continued to support me. From Vallorcine to the finish, they never abandoned me. In fact, one of my favorite pictures from the entire race is of me running through Vallorcine. When I look at the picture I see a runner whose day is falling apart. But then I look in the background and see a whole bunch of people who look really happy and excited. They’re cheering me on. It puzzles me. Why does everyone look so happy when I’m in so much misery?

The answer lies in community. In my eyes I’m failing. In theirs I’m doing something great. I’m putting up a fight. I stand a chance. A chance they want to support. But it’s not just the chance. It’s the runner. It’s me. I don’t say that to sound conceited. I say it to emphasize the power and value of community. No matter if we are succeeding or failing, true communities never abandon. They hold strong. They stand tall. They hang on when others let go. So tomorrow, when you wake up and search for a reason to press on, think of those supporting you, and fight like heck for the community that always has your back.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • In life, who is your community? Who has your back no matter what?
  • And what about running? Can you describe the people who surround and support you?
Zach Miller

is a mountain runner and full time caretaker at Barr Camp in Colorado. As caretaker, he lives year round in an off-the-grid cabin halfway up Pikes Peak. He competes for The North Face and Team Colorado. Additional sponsors/supporters include Clean-N-Jerky, GU Energy Labs, and Nathan Sports. Follow him on Instagram.

There are 10 comments

  1. Alex

    Great thoughts. I saw you running into Chamonix at the end of your race. And you are right, they all did not only support you in your struggle or as a runner, they supported you as a person. All the people around me in Chamonix were enthusiastic about you, your spirit and your personality. Even though you didn’t win the UTMB, you won much more. Probably no one will be talking about Ludovic in several years, but you will stay in our hearts as a role model.
    I am looking forward to all of your next races!

    1. Sebas B

      “Probably no one will be talking about Ludovic in several years”… Mmmhhh… Ludovic did the greatest comeback in the history of the UTMB (from 50th at 50 k, about an hour back), maybe even the most impressive one in the recent history of international level ultras, so well, I’m pretty sure that in 10 years people will still be talking about his race rather than Zach’s…
      But this should not be the point here. Great article and very inspiring point of view ! Thank you for that Zach !

      1. Alex

        I agree with you that Ludovic’s comeback was more than remarkable and will be remembered as an outstanding performance with regard to strategy and physical strength. Nevertheless I think that Ludovic’s charisma and role for the ultrarunning community will not excite people that much as Zach is doing. And therefore it will maybe like so often in history that the one who failed at first glance, won the hearts of most of the people and will be remembered more emotional.
        This is only my personal opinion, even though Ludovic’s racing is geographically closer to me than Zach’s as I am German.

  2. Mike

    Thanks Zach, you are a winner. Because a winner is an athlete whose spirit is greater than his body. At UTMB you reached your limits, but it was your first 100 miler, and you’re still young. So if that is your desire to accomplish yourself, your mission on this earth, I am positive you’ll win many more ultras including 100 milers in the future. Although I do not know you I am part of your community because you inspire me! So keep being who you are and take care of yourself: our body is a gift, a temple for our spirit, which has its own limits, and we ought to respect it always.

  3. Elias

    “Vella Shpringa” sounds very german, actually. It’s something like “let’s jump” rather than “let’s run”, originally (like in the word “spring” for an elastic coil. Related to the season “spring” as well, though, where little animal use to jump around)…there have been heaps of emigrants from the southwest of Germany to Pennsylvania, too!

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