For someone who’s spent the majority of his short and spectacular ultra career literally at sea level, or at least a few cruise-ship decks above it, Zach Miller’s recent move to the mountains and altitude of Colorado Springs, Colorado is probably frightening the bejesus out of his trail running peers. If the guy can crush races after training sessions on a cruise-ship treadmill, what can he do with actual mountain training? I caught up with Zach to talk crests, troughs, valleys, and peaks, and to find out about his journey into running ultras.
iRunFar: So, Zach, where are you right now?
Zach Miller: I’m in Colorado. I’m living here now, in Colorado Springs. It’s a great place to train; I’m really enjoying it. I’m from Pennsylvania originally; that’s where I grew up. But I got a new job up here in Colorado so I moved out here to work and train.
iRunFar: You’ve given up the job on the cruise ship? No more life on ocean waves for you?
Miller: No, no, not anymore. I switched jobs so I’m not on the boat anymore. I got a job as an engineering instructor for a company called Play-Well TEK-nologies. What we do is teach engineering to school children. So I’m the engineering instructor for Colorado Springs. I teach a lot of engineering camps and after-school programs and things like that. Basically getting kids interested in engineering.
iRunFar: Cool, it sounds like an interesting job?
Miller: Yeah it is, I think it’s going to be a lot of fun. So far it’s going pretty well. It’s just a new job. Before that, like you said, I was on the boat… a lot! The schedule is going to be a bit different now; I think it’s going to be good to stay on land. [laughs]
iRunFar: Was it primarily for the job, Zach, or was the decision [to move] based on training and your blossoming ultrarunning career?
Miller: It was a bit of both, I guess. When I took the job on the boat, I didn’t think I’d do it for a real long time. I thought I’d do it for about a year or two if I liked it. I did it for about a year and a half and my running was going really well and I wanted to concentrate on that a bit more. I also wanted to run on land a bit; I didn’t like the treadmill so much. I guess I just wanted to get back on land and focus on running a bit more. The timing worked out pretty well with the new job.
iRunFar: Sweet. How are you finding the transition to what would be considered ‘normal’ training to how you were doing it on the boat with your treadmill and stair running?
Miller: It’s going well. It’s different, especially being in Colorado, training out here in the mountains there’s a lot of up and down. Just a lot of trail running. I did a lot of trail running when I lived in Pennsylvania, too, but here it’s a just different atmosphere with the altitude and all. And, yeah, it’s a lot different from the boat. I can really tax my lungs here easily and get my legs burning—I could do that on the boat, too, but it wasn’t really the same. It’s definitely nice to be able to go outside and run on trails everyday, to actually go somewhere as opposed to being stuck inside on a treadmill. [laughs]
iRunFar: [laughs] I can imagine it’s a lot nicer. You had your big breakthrough at the JFK 50 Mile (post-race interview) last year, your first ever 50 miler. You came into that race on the back of training on the boat and crushed it. What do you feel about your potential now that you’re training at altitude and on some technical trails?
Miller: It’ll be interesting to see. I kinda’ figured out how to train properly on the ship so I had it dialed in pretty well. Now I have to find out what works on land. I feel like the training here on land is harder. Like I said, I feel like I tax my lungs more now and the climbing, I think, will make my legs really strong. As long as I can find the right balance, I think it should be really helpful. Once I start racing, it’ll be interesting to see how it goes—if I can notice a big difference or not. I don’t know, I had a really good mix on the ship and that worked, too.
One thing is that I hope I’ll get a lot better with my technical skills—running on difficult, technical trails. I’m running on trails here all the time now in Colorado so hopefully I’ll really improve as a technician. The other thing is having people to train with, I was alone a lot on the ship but here in the Springs there are a lot of good runners. I did a workout with Joe Gray the other day—he’s a really strong mountain runner—so I’m hoping to keep running with him and that he helps me to get to the next level. People to push me and train with… I think that’s going to be really valuable.
iRunFar: I guess one of the big advantages of being on a cruise ship was that you got to travel a lot. Did you get the opportunity to run some mountains when the boat docked? Did you find some dream spots to stretch the legs out?
Miller: That was definitely the upside to my job, all the places I got to see. I did get a lot of nice runs in. We made quite a few trips to Norway and that was really good for some mountain running. I really enjoyed Norway. We took a trip to Iceland, too, and they have some really good trail running there. Basically anywhere we went with mountains was good. [laughs] We went to Cape Town in South Africa, too, parts of New Zealand with the hills and small mountains was really nice as well. I did some good running in Argentina, down in Ushuaia.
iRunFar: The Canary Islands have been in the trail news recently. You made it to the Canary Islands, didn’t you?
Miller: Yeah I was just thinking that. I’ve been to the Canary Islands a bunch of times and I really like running down there. La Palma is probably my favourite in the Canaries. I only went once but I had a really good run there, way up in the mountains. It’s a really cool place, so spectacular.
iRunFar: Now that you’ve signed with the Nike Trail Team, I would imagine that you have opportunities to travel to race. Is that something that you’re planning?
Miller: I do want to do some traveling and racing. This year, though, a bunch of my focus races are in the U.S. but I would like to get over to Europe eventually to race. I’m thinking maybe next year I’ll pick a big race over there somewhere and try and race. Transvulcania looks really good, UTMB, too, but there are a lot of other races over there. We’ll see, but I definitely want to get over and do more races in Europe and do some more traveling with Nike.
iRunFar: Let’s go back a little to when you were growing up in Pennsylvania. Tell me a little about your journey into running.
Miller: I was into sports when I was young and, in elementary school, I played soccer a lot. I was always playing soccer and doing a little bit of swimming, too, not much, though. Then in eighth grade, when I was about 14, I started running track and field. In high school I started running cross country—but not until my last two years. So around age 16 I started with cross country and ran track as well. Then I ran in college at a Division III school up in northwestern New York, near Rochester. That was at RIT [the Rochester Institute of Technology]. Then I just kept running after I graduated, I started to get more into running trail races and through that I kind of stumbled into ultras. [laughs] I just kind of found my way into it.
iRunFar: Were you a good runner straight off the bat?
Miller: Hmmm, I had a natural talent for it in some respects. I was good pretty much from the start but I wasn’t the fastest kid on my team. There were other kids with more foot speed than me—I could just go really long. There were always faster people than me, even in middle school and college. But, as I kept going up in distance, that’s where I did better and better. When we started racing the two mile instead of the mile that helped. Then in cross country we raced the 5k and that was a little longer; that helped. Then in college I could race the 8k and the 10k and I was pretty good at those distances. My main race in college was the 10k—that’s where I had the most success. Then, after college, I started going longer—half marathon, marathon, 50k, and then 50 mile. That’s when it started going good for me, when I started going really long. I don’t have all that good of foot speed; I can just go for a very long time. [laughs]
iRunFar: Yeah, I think I saw that your 5k pace is pretty much the same as your 10k pace…
Miller: [laughs] Yeah, you noticed that?
iRunFar: Can we just keep multiplying your 5k time to see how fast you can run 50 miles, 100 miles even? Is that how it is?
Miller: [laughs] Yeah, that’s kinda’ how it is. As the distance goes up I just don’t slow down that much. I would run 10k’s in college but almost run my 5k PR in the first half of the race and then just keep going. It was good but sometimes I wish I could just run a 5k faster. [laughs]
iRunFar: Now that you’re running ultras maybe you don’t have to worry about it too much anymore.
Miller: Yeah, maybe not, but I’d still like to go down and run a 5k or 10k again and better my time. My main focus now, though, is on the ultras so it’s not that important.
iRunFar: What was it about running ultras on the trails that appealed to you?
Miller: I just find it to be a lot more entertaining and enjoyable. I love mountains and the scenery. I simply enjoy the experience of trail running. Sometimes when I’m out on the trails, it doesn’t even feel like I’m training or running even. It feels like I’m exploring and having fun, the minutes and the miles pass by so quickly. I also just really love climbing and getting to the top of mountains. With trail running, that happens a lot. I really enjoy that. Some guys only run on trails, though—like they got burned out with track and don’t like it anymore and you’ll only ever find them on the trail. I’m not really like that. I’ll still run on the roads sometimes and even enjoy a track workout once in a while. Now in Colorado, I don’t need to run on road but sometimes I like the rhythm of the road. Having said that, most of the time you’ll just find me on the trail.
iRunFar: Let’s talk about the JFK 50 win. You took a lot of people by surprise there. Did you go into with a master plan on how to pull off the victory or did you even think about winning it?
Miller: I surprised myself, too. Mostly by how fast I ran. I didn’t think I could run 50 miles at that pace. I didn’t have a plan going into it. I hadn’t run 50 miles before so I didn’t really know what was going to happen. I had done a 35-mile run, so I knew I could run that far [laughs] but I didn’t know what was going to happen after I got past mile 35, especially in a race when you’re pushing really hard. I was just trying to stay relaxed and run with whoever was in the race, see if I could hold on for 50 miles. I was in pretty good shape and I guess I figured that I could do pretty well… but I didn’t know I’d get so close to Max King’s record. I didn’t even know the guys that were running the race, I was really naïve. I didn’t pay too much attention to ultrarunning in general, so I didn’t know who a lot of them were. It was only half way through the race that I found out that I was running with Rob Krar. I didn’t know who he was!
iRunFar: You just thought he was another bearded trail runner. There are thousands of them right?
Miller: Yeah, that’s pretty much what I thought. [laughs] I didn’t know who he was; everyone in that race were just other runners to me. I didn’t know who was really good or what they had done in the past. So when he told me he was Rob Krar, I knew that name and knew that he’d won UROC and everything. I was just really surprised. I just kept running with him and, eventually, he dropped and I kept running. If it was a huge shock to everyone else, it was an even bigger shock to me. I wasn’t looking at times all day so I didn’t know until about mile 49 how fast I was going. Actually, around seven miles to go, they started telling me some times so I knew I was going pretty fast. Then with a mile to go, they told me I could break 5:40. I knew there was only two guys who had ever done that so I was pretty surprised. Then I took off; I really wanted to get under 5:40 when it was within reach. [Zach finished in 5:38:53]
iRunFar: It’s said that ignorance is bliss. It certainly seemed that way in your case. It allowed you to just go out and do your best, uninhibited with looking around at who else was running. On the other hand, all the other runners didn’t have a clue who you were either.
Miller: Yeah, I think they were probably more willing to let me go because they thought that I’d come back. That definitely worked to my advantage.
iRunFar: Since that win, you’ve become a member of the Nike Trail Team and are no longer an unknown. You go to races now and you look sponsored. You’ve got history and you’ve lost the element of surprise. How does that affect your mental approach to races? It didn’t seem to change too much if Lake Sonoma (post-race interview after his win) is any indicator?
Miller: It does make it a bit different because now there is an expectation when I race. I try not to let it affect me too much. Although before I raced Lake Sonoma, a couple of weeks before, I was a little concerned about what if I didn’t do well. But by the time race morning came around, I tried to be relaxed about it and not let it affect me too much. I approached Lake Sonoma similarly to how I approached JFK—not to be too concerned about others’ expectations. One of the biggest things that’s changed is that before I was with Nike, I’d just jump in a lot of weekend races and there was no pressure. If you won it’d be good and if you didn’t it was alright, too. Now if I jump in a 10k trail race in my Nike kit, I better win. [laughs] Like I said before I don’t have so much leg speed, so there are guys out there who could beat me at a local 5k or 10k trail race. I try and not let it bother me because those types of races are good for training, too.
iRunFar: Your two 50-mile races, your only two 50 milers, could not have gone much better. I mean, you’ve come in and are beating guys like Rob Krar, Sage [Canaday], and Max. It must give you a lot of confidence in your ability?
Miller: Yeah, it does help. It’s give and take. There’s the pressure of living up to the expectations and then there is the confidence that comes from doing well in those races and knowing that, yeah, I can race with those guys. That’s helpful. Especially now that I’ve had two good races and they were both different types of courses. I’ve raced Rob, Sage, Max, and my Nike teammates, and I did well against them. That does give me confidence. You can’t really fake a 50-mile race but after the first one you wonder a little bit if maybe that was your only good 50-mile race and if it’ll happen again. To have a second good performance reinforces your belief. I’m getting ready for UROC now in September and these two results have given me some confidence going into that race.
iRunFar: Are you looking at the longer distances now? Maybe thinking that you’ve ran those two good 50 milers that maybe, like your 5k and 10k pace, you can carry that 50-mile speed over to a 100k?
Miller: Yeah. Generally the longer I go, the better I do. When I go up [in distance], it should actually help me, so up to 100k and, eventually, 100 miles. Now, I don’t know because I haven’t done it, maybe my body shuts down at 55 miles… I don’t know but I don’t think so. Historically, the longer I go the better I do, so 100k should be good for me. We’ll see what happens. Hopefully if I train right the next couple of months, it’ll be a good race for me. Eventually I’d like to go above that and run 100 miles—I don’t want to rush into it, though, I have time to get there.
iRunFar: I was going to ask that. With the win at Sonoma you got an entry to Western States. You weren’t tempted to take up the offer?
Miller: I was a little tempted to take it up. That’s a really cool race; there is a lot of excitement around it, and people would like to see me running it after doing so well at JFK and then Lake Sonoma. It was tempting but I decided that I want to run that race someday but I don’t want to rush into this year. I’d like to prepare for it properly. That race has some serious altitude and I only moved to Colorado about two and a half weeks ago. I’ve only just started training at altitude, so I would want to be ready for a race like that. I also wanted to have time to just run in the mountains. I’m going to focus on UROC this year and then, hopefully, run Western States sometime in the future.