It’s Western States 100 week! Read our women’s and men’s previews and, then, follow along with our live race coverage!

Better Than Best

A thoughtful piece about training and never being fully satisfied with one’s own performance.

By on May 20, 2022 | Leave a reply

One of my favorite training tools is the Manitou Incline. Located in Manitou Springs, Colorado, the infamous Incline is an old railway bed turned hiking trail that climbs nearly 2,000 feet in just under a mile.

Unlike many of the trails found in Colorado, the Incline is void of a single switchback. It’s a true straight shooter.

A snow-covered Manitou Incline

A snow-covered Manitou Incline, Manitou Springs, Colorado. Photo: Alex Nichols

Though popular with tourists, likely as a one-and-done, bucket list achievement, it lies near and dear to the hearts of many locals. For them, it’s so much more than just a trail. It’s a proving ground, a church, and a therapist all in one. It’s a reason to rise early, to train late, and is quite possibly the reason your significant other isn’t happy with you this week. You know, because you spent a bit too much time on the Incline.

As many of you know, I lived and worked for a long time at Barr Camp, located above Manitou Springs and the Incline, but moved away a couple of years back. Last week, I drove my converted short bus back to Manitou Springs and spent some time visiting some of my favorite people and trails. No doubt I made a couple of trips up the Incline while I was there.

The Incline is a great fitness litmus test. There is no easy way up it. If you are out of shape, it hurts. If you are in shape, it also hurts. But, if you want a fast ascent time, you have to be in shape. There is no room for faking.

Zach Miller's bus

Zach Miller’s bus in front of Pikes Peak in Colorado during his recent visit. Photo courtesy of Zach Miller.

Aside from being fit, practice is the other thing that makes for a fast time on the Incline. It’s not your typical trail. The relentless and steep grade is unique and seems to reward those who pay their dues. Additionally, the thousands of steps that lead to the top have a way of dictating your rhythm, and you have to learn to flow with it rather than against it. This too takes practice. In my experience, it takes some Incline-specific training to get really good at the Incline.

Needless to say, if you spend a significant amount of time away from the Incline, you are bound to get a bit rusty. Returning is like running a race after a period of rest or low aerobic training, you just have to bust the rust and be prepared for a sub-par performance.

Hence, you can imagine my surprise when I jumped on the Incline for the first time in about a year and clocked a time that was less than a minute off my all-time PR from 2015, and one minute and six seconds faster than my fastest time last year.

Well aware of the rust-buster effect, I hopped back on the Incline four days later to try to better it. Sure enough, my second go felt significantly smoother and I managed to shave six seconds off my time from four days prior.

Zach Miller uphill training with friends in Colorado

Zach Miller uphill training with friends on Pikes Peak in Colorado. Photo: Peter Maksimow

These efforts seemed like a great success, and they were, but there were a couple of small things. And aren’t there always?

On that first day, I did the Incline with my good friend and Incline training partner Allie McLaughlin. When we do the Incline together, it’s pretty much a race, with me going out hard and running scared as I try not to get caught. On this particular day, I thought we started together, but unbeknownst to me, Allie stopped to reset her timing device and I got a little head start. Sure, I was in front at the top, but Allie had ascended faster by a few seconds. It was certainly well deserved, and I was stoked for my friend, but I am a fierce competitor, and it bugged me that I got beat.

The second time, I did the incline with my pal Joe Gray. This time, the race aspect was less important to me as Joe kicks my butt just about every time we train together. But, this was my second go, the rust had been busted, and I had my eye on breaking 21 minutes.

When I got to the top, I knew two things. One, I had bettered my time with Allie, and two, it was gonna be close on my goal time. I waited until after my run to check the official data.

I synced my watch and cringed. Twenty-one minutes and one second was my official time. What were the chances? I couldn’t have run just 1.1 seconds faster? On Friday, I got beat by mere seconds and on Tuesday, I was eluded by the clock.

The funny thing is, both efforts were awesome achievements for me. They should have sent me over the moon. In some respects, they did, but then there were those two small things — two small things which felt quite big.

Zach Miller with friends on Pikes Peak

From a day of running on Pikes Peak in Colorado with friends. Photo: Peter Maksimow

Reflecting on this experience, I am reminded of what a trap this sort of mindset can be. How many times in life do we find ourselves dissatisfied with something good because we didn’t get what we thought would be even greater? We run a PR for the year, but sulk because it’s not an all-time PR — even though it makes no sense to be running all-time PRs at this point in the training cycle.

We live and train in one place while wishing we were in a seemingly better place, only to move there and miss the last one while simultaneously longing for the next one. The same happens with our jobs, our college majors, our relationships, and so much more. We are creatures with a constant yearning for the next best thing.

Now, I’m not saying that wanting more out of life is a bad thing. You can certainly aspire to climb the ladder that life sets before you. But, what a shame it would be to miss the goodness of the rung on which you presently stand because you are too distracted by the ones above or below. After all, you can really only be in one moment at a time, so bask in the one you’re in.

Call for Comments

  • Have you experienced anything similar to this?
  • Do you find you always want a little bit more from yourself in training and racing? We’d love to hear your thoughts.
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.