Choosing to Believe

Zach Miller remembers his grandfather and reflects on the role of belief in the pursuit of running goals.

By on October 21, 2022 | Comments

Next month will mark nine years since my first ever 50-mile race. It was the 2013 JFK 50 Mile and I was every bit a rookie. I gained entry about a week in advance — thank you, race director Mike Spinnler! I paid my entry fee the day before. I did a not-so-easy run two days before. I fueled with Gatorade. I think there were also some bananas and gels; some of the latter may have been homemade. My crew was my college roommate who probably knew even less about ultrarunning than I did. To say the odds were stacked against me would be an understatement.

And yet, I made it to the finish line well clear of the field in 5:38:40. I was shocked. Afterward, in a post-race interview, I mentioned that going into the race I figured I might be able to run under six hours. Well aware of my rookie status, a second interviewer questioned my logic. I simply explained that it seemed like a time I might be able to achieve based on my recent training.

A young Zach Miller breaking the tape at the 2013 JFK 50 Mile

A young Zach Miller breaking the tape at the 2013 JFK 50 Mile. All photos courtesy of Zach Miller unless otherwise noted.

I understand why they asked. There is a lot that can go wrong in an ultra. For many, it is a tough cookie to crack. I didn’t have any proof that I could run such a time. I had no way of knowing what I could do. All I could do was believe that I might and give it my best effort.

Belief is a funny thing. It is not the same as knowledge. Knowledge is more straightforward. It springs forth from things that are proven and justified. Belief is different. By definition, to believe is to accept something as true, to have faith, to feel that someone can do something, or to hold an opinion. In other words, belief gives no guarantees.

And yet, it’s important. One of the strongest human examples of belief that I have ever known was my grandfather. Recently, on October 5, 2022, he passed away at the age of 96. A husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, great-great-grandfather, brother, friend, carpenter, deacon, and member of the United States Navy, my Pop Pop was a lot of different things to a great number of people. But of all the things he was, the one that rose above all else, the one most evident and of utmost importance to him was that he was a believer.

For Pop Pop, being a believer was a religious matter. Yet as important as his faith was to him, and as strongly as he held it to be true, even he would have likely admitted that he could not prove it. His faith wasn’t a matter of fact, but a matter of belief.

Zach Miller's grandfather in his old age, surrounded by family.

The extended Miller family, with Zach’s grandfather at the center.

Some might think that such strong belief might have stemmed from a life void of much struggle, but this was not the case. When my grandfather was young, his father walked out on their family, leaving him to be raised by his mother alone. Then, much later in life, two of his six children died well before he did. Those were the big things, but can’t help but think that over the course of 96 years there were a great many more. Yet, his faith remained strong.

Perhaps it held firm because, as my sister Ashley pointed out at his memorial service, he made room for the mystery of it all. He acknowledged that there were things he did not understand. But this lack of understanding did not disqualify his faith. Instead, he made room for the mystery, and in turn, room for his belief.

Now, I’m not writing this to tell you what to believe. No, I’m writing this to point out that belief has value and doesn’t have to be abandoned simply because you have some uncertainties. In fact, uncertainty is often part of belief.

When I stood on the start line of the 2013 JFK 50 Mile race, I had no way of knowing what I was capable of, but I had enough belief in myself to try. When the start signal was fired, I leapt off the line and boldly ran with the leaders. Around mile 20, the pace got so fast that I questioned if any of us would survive.

Despite my concerns about the pace and my inexperience, I stubbornly hung on. As the miles passed, the lead pack dwindled from three to two, and then finally, just me. I could hardly believe what I had done when I crossed the finish line in first place. My belief had paid off.

Zach Miller - 2013 JFK 50 mile - tow path

Zach cruising the tow path at the 2013 JFK 50 Mile. Photo: Eric Senseman

Since that day, I have stood on a lot of start lines. Each one has been an opportunity to believe in myself. But start lines extend beyond racing, and life is full of them. There are jobs we can pursue, colleges we can apply to, people we can befriend, date, or marry, and many other things that call for a bit of belief.

Sometimes the belief is in ourselves. Other times, as in relationships, it is a belief in the other person. But no matter the situation, when it comes time to matters of belief, there will always be an element of mystery. Just don’t let it keep you on the sidelines.

Call for Comments

  • Has having belief helped you in your running?
  • Is belief in yourself something that comes naturally or do you have to work at it?
Zach Miller
Zach Miller lives in a school bus he outfitted himself. 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.