Zach Miller is the defending The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Championships men’s champion, and he’s returning for his third shot at the race. In this interview, watch Zach talk about what he thinks of his 2016 season, what his physical and mental recovery has been like since his sixth place at UTMB a few months ago, and how he anticipates strategizing this weekend’s race.
By the way, Zach’s interview is part of a pre-race men’s interview show. Check it out!
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Zach Miller Pre-2016 The North Face EC 50 Mile Interview Transcript
iRunFar-Dylan Bowman: Good morning. Day two here, Friday, at the San Francisco Running Company. I’m Dylan Bowman with iRunFar.
iRunFar-Meghan Hicks: And I’m Meghan Hicks with iRunFar. We are with Zach Miller, The North Face Endurance 50 Mile Championships defending champion. Good morning.
Zach Miller: Good morning, Meghan. Good morning, Dylan.
iRunFar-Bowman: Good morning. Welcome back. Good to have you.
Miller: Thanks, it’s good to be here and good to be back in the Bay Area.
iRF-Hicks: Three years in a row. You keep coming back.
Miller: Yeah, I guess I like this race.
iRF-Bowman: Yeah, you’re the defending champion like we just mentioned. You’ve had another 11th-place finish two years ago when you came in a little tired after a huge season. How does it feel to come in as the defending champ? Does it add to the pressure, or did you approach it in a different way?
Miller: The approach isn’t too much different, just trying not to come in comfortable at all, knowing nothing is a done deal. I’m coming in with hard training and a mindset that it’s anybody’s game on Saturday. Pressure? I guess it feels like there’s a little more pressure, but I try not to let it get to me too much. It’s just another day of running. Yeah, there’s maybe a little extra drive to try and defend, but like I said, it’s anybody’s race, and anything could happen, especially this year.
iRF-Bowman: You’ve had a great year. It seems like you started in April where you won the Madeira Ultra on the Ultra-Trail World Tour and used that sort of as a springboard to attach UTMB which you did in August. How do you feel about your season, and are you excited to step back down to some shorter distance racing this weekend?
Miller: Yeah, I’m excited to get back to the 50-mile distance especially here in Marin. I really like this course. They’ve changed it a little, but I really like these trails. Yeah, the UTMB experience was really good just tackling that new type of training and that new type of race. I’m looking forward to giving that another go at some point, but I’m excited to get back down to a race distance that’s a bit more familiar to me, a race distance I really, really enjoy. Yeah, we’ll see how it all plays out on Saturday. The season as a whole, I think it started off really well racing internationally and doing Madeira Island Ultra Trail and then onto UTMB which was a really good experience. The first 100 miler is always kind of a wild ride, but it was good, and then just trying to learn the recovery process after that, trying to figure out how I train for The North Face coming off of a 100 miler, and then I guess I’m still pretty hungry. I feel like I still want one more punch for the season. Any year you can get at least one big ultra win I think is really good. I managed to do that at Madeira, but to be honest, I’d like one more punch before I go back and start resting.
iRF-Hicks: I want to ask you about the recovery process, mind and body. At the finish line of UTMB, you were quite heartbroken. It was actually quite hard for me to interview you that day. But then you wrote about your experience for this one website called iRunFar, and your perspective kind of changed. You had grown from the full-on disappointment to, “I know there’s a learning experience here; I still haven’t figured out what it is, but I’m in the middle of that.” You just said that running 100 miles is always a mixed bag. Is that kind of where you’re at now that you can toss that into, “I had to start somewhere with 100 miles?”
Miller: I think I knew all along that it was a learning experience and that there was value in the experience that I had, but in the initial days and weeks and maybe even month after the race, it was still… it was that acknowledgement mixed with a whole lot of disappointment and just trying to figure out… because I’m just so ingrained with, “Well, if you just work hard enough, you can do it.” I got to a point in UTMB where it was almost like, “I want this so bad, but it just isn’t going my way.” Dealing with that is very difficult. So, yeah, I guess as time went on it was almost like it was this grieving process. At first I was just too overwhelmed. I could rationalize it and think of it in a positive light, but to actually live that out was difficult. I was just in this slump. Then as time went on and there was more time between me and the race itself, I was more and more okay. Then eventually the legs came back and the training came back, and then I was focused on The North Face and able to learn and think how I would strategize differently for next year, how I would train differently for next year. Yeah, so the mental was the biggest thing. The physical was just longer. The soreness was less… the soreness was gone quicker, but the deep-set fatigue and feeling labored on runs… usually for me that’s gone by the end of two weeks—I’m ready to train again and to run something fast. This took about two months. Yeah, it was until about The Bear 100 when I went out and paced Kaci Lickteig out there. It was like the day after the race I went out a run… I was talking to Kaci because she’s obviously run a lot. She said, “One day, it’s just going to all come back. All of a sudden you’ll just be like, ‘Okay, it’s here.’”
iRF-Hicks: How much more?
Miller: I went out the next day and I was like, “Well, it feels like it’s back.” Maybe that’s because I was 7,000 feet lower in elevation, but yeah, that was about a month out and I was like, Okay, I can start again.
iRF-Hicks: Did you do a month block prep for The North Face?
Miller: That was about a month out after the race. I would have had about two months left. Then I was… I had been running all along, but that’s when I started my build for The North Face. Even once I started it, it was different in the sense that maybe when I did hard efforts I didn’t recover quite as quickly after them. Then little niggles here and there—normally I’m pretty niggle-free in terms of an adductor hurting or a groin muscle or a calf or something like that. In the training blocks themselves, I noticed a few things here and there. Nothing ended up being too serious, but it just felt like my body was a little more fragile after 100 miles.
iRF-Bowman: So you just talked about your build-up and your training block. I’m curious to know how the training looked in comparison to when you were building up for your first 100 miler at UTMB. Did you get back to doing some shorter distance and harder efforts?
Miller: Yes, the volume was still high but probably not as high as for UTMB. Basically for UTMB, I let the volume—the adventure days where I’m just out all day—I kind of focused so much on that for UTMB that instead of doing my typical two hard workouts per week, in the UTMB stuff there were probably some weeks where I did one or I did two but the quality was a bit less because I just didn’t have the pop in my legs. For this one, I kind of went back to my more usual 50-mile method. There were some long days, but there weren’t as many as in the 100 training, then just trying to keep things a little snappier and steadier.
iRF-Bowman: Do you feel like you’ve got that pop back a little bit in this training block?
Miller: Yeah, I change things from time to time. I don’t just do the same workouts all the time. I think there was a lot of strength carried over from UTMB. Then I think I kind of brought a bit of that pep back by cutting the volume back a little and maybe keeping some of my runs a little more focused.
iRF-Hicks: Is it fair to say we don’t need to even ask you what kind of strategy you’re going to employ tomorrow? Are you just going to time trial it?
Miller: Yeah, that’s probably pretty fair. I don’t really see me running any other way. I don’t know. The dynamic of this race is interesting. It changed a bit when Jim Walmsley decided to sit out, which I totally understand. I’ve done JFK [50 Mile] and I’ve done The North Face and the two weeks in between is not a lot of recovery. I chatted with Walmsley last night, and it sounds like it was a smart decision. It would have been fun to have him out there on Saturday, but I totally understand the decision. So it’s changed a little bit since he’s absent, but even without him, there are still so many good guys and new faces and fresh young legs and guys with fast backgrounds.
iRF-Hicks: D-Bo, do you kind of want to know from him what he was going to do if Walmsley was here?
iRF-Bowman: I think the world wants to know, the world demands to know what would have happened if you and Walmsley were on the start line. I think honestly there’s a huge appetite, or people around the world were very excited and are still excited for the day when you guys line up on the same start line. Do you have an idea how that would have played out?
Miller: I think it would have been very painful. I joke to people that the world was going to blow up once the gun went off. Eventually it was just going to explode. It’s hard to kind of say how it would play out, but I just feel like it would have been a ferocious pace, and we would have just both ran until somebody or something snapped. Either one of us would win or somebody smart and level-headed like Alex Nichols would come in from behind and take the win which would be fine because we’d get a very exciting race and somebody smart would take it. It could have also been we hammered and it got to a point where I couldn’t hammer anymore and Walmsley goes off and wins or vice versa. I spent a few days down in Flagstaff while Jim was running JFK. I thought I’d go steal his Strava record. Not at all—I’m not on Strava. I have no Strava, and I’m not after Jim in anyway like that. It was just funny that I happened to be in Flagstaff while he was at JFK. I was down hanging with the Vargos. When I got down there, I think I said to them one day, “Well, I kind of honestly think I’m just going to go absolutely as hard as I can, and I don’t even care if I win. We’ll just go as hard as we possibly can. I want to win, and if I win, it’s great. If Jim win’s, then he wins. If we both break and someone else wins, then that will be a cool thing, too.
iRF-Bowman: You brought up JFK and his performance there. I was curious to hear your perspective on his race there because you are a past champion at that race. That was almost your ‘coming-out party’ to the ultra world. Do you have an opinion on that performance? It seemed like just an otherworldly type day.
Miller: I saw him last night, and I congratulated him on his performance. I’ve been there. I know the course, and it’s super impressive what he did. I think Jim can probably go faster. I think there are a couple other guys who could go similar times. I think Max King’s record was really good, but I think… people will call it crazy, but I would like to see someone flirt with the five-hour mark at JFK just because…
iRF-Bowman: Get a bunch of guys there?
Miller: Yeah, if you got all the top guys there that are good on that type of terrain all at once… I know it sounds nuts as it’s another 21 minutes, but it would be… Jacob Puzey ran 4:57 yesterday for 50 miles on a treadmill, so that sub-five hour time for 50 miles is doable. It’s challenging at JFK because you have that AT section that’s slow. I think that’s one of the most impressive parts… well, maybe not, but that’s one of the impressive parts of Jim’s performance there was how fast he came off the AT. It takes… I’ve been there, and I remember when I ran, I was about four minutes off Max’s course record. I think I came off the AT about four minutes off of his time off the AT. Basically Max and I ran the same pace on the towpath and the road, and Max ran faster on the AT. Jim came off the AT 10 minutes ahead of course-record pace, so he was going right from the beginning. That’s a heck of a way to do it. I know the terrain up there; it’s pretty rocky. It’s impressive he could chop that much off. Yeah, it was a really impressive performance. I wouldn’t doubt that he or someone goes faster at some point just as the sport develops.
iRF-Hicks: So tomorrow, we’re not going to have Walmsley on the line, we’re going to have you shooting off. I think there are a couple guys who are going to go with you, though.
Miller: Yeah, I think so.
iRF-Hicks: There are some guys out there with raw leg speed that it’s going to feel super easy. They may not have raced 50 miles before, or they may have done it once or twice, but they just have the raw leg speed that it’s going to feel easy. How do you expect things are going to go the first half of the race tomorrow?
Miller: Yeah, I think for me personally it’s a question of what pace do I want to go out at the beginning. If someone goes out really hammering strong, do I want to go out with that? I usually just try to feel it out for myself and try and stay at up at the front. Last year it was Ryan Bak and Tyler Sigl who came along, and we all rolled for about 20 miles together. I don’t discount anyone. I don’t say, “Oh, you’ve never run 50 miles. You couldn’t win this race,” because that was me at JFK.
iRF-Hicks: Somebody is going to stick it whether it’s for the win or third place or fourth place. Somebody will stick it.
Miller: I think there is some really good talent here. I think it’s an interesting dynamic. In the past when I’ve had really good races I’ve noticed that the break just kind of happens naturally. It just kind of eventually just… the field just starts to break apart naturally. It’s not like I get to a certain climb and think, Okay, I’m going to drop the hammer here and try to get away. It’s more like, Okay I’m just going to run comfortably and see if that naturally ends up separating things. That’s kind of probably going to be my mindset for tomorrow. I expect there will be guys that will go. I don’t expect to be alone. You’ve got guys in there, new faces like Cody Reed and Hayden Hawks, and then you’ve got veteran guys like Sage Canaday and Alex Nichols and Miguel Heras, and Dimitris [Theodorakakos] from Greece. It makes for a very interesting dynamic. You know a guy like Alex Nichols is likely given his style—who knows, maybe he’ll sprint off the line—but he’s likely to lay low for awhile and possibly Sage, too, but Sage could go either way. He can go out hard, too.
iRF-Bowman: Yeah, a few years ago he kind of employed your strategy. He held back a little bit at the beginning, but then he made his break.
Miller: Yeah, going up Cardiac. Yeah, it’s just a whole slew of dynamics. I think it will make for an interesting race. Sage and I haven’t raced since I think maybe Templiers… before then we raced at [Lake] Sonoma, and then we raced at Templiers. Since then we’ve just been doing different things. It’s been awhile since I’ve really gotten on a start line with Sage. I think Sage ran really well at Moab the other weekend. I think he’s got a lot of talent. He, like anyone, is nobody to discount by any means. There could be someone we didn’t even put in the preview, some total dark horse.
iRF-Bowman: Good luck on Saturday, tomorrow, I guess. You’re obviously always a fan favorite. I think everybody really enjoys watching you race. Put on a good show for us.
Miller: I hope to.
iRF-Hicks: It’s all about the entertainment value.
Miller: I know. I like that.
iRF-Bowman: It should be a great race. Good luck.
iRF-Hicks: Good luck, Zach.
Miller: Thank you.