Heart Not Smart

Zach Miller’s thoughts on his recent run at the 2023 Trail World Championships 80k with Team USA in Innsbruck, Austria.

By on June 16, 2023 | Comments

One week ago, I toed the line at the 2023 Trail World Championships 80k, competing for Team USA. The course boasted 53 miles of challenging mountain terrain through the breathtaking mountains around Innsbruck, Austria. My Garmin clocked it at 52.98 miles with 20,092 feet of climbing and a maximum elevation of 7,878 feet. My brain clocked it as a real-life Rocky Balboa boxing match. In other words, it was one of the most challenging courses I have ever ran.

Right off the bat the course hit us with back-to-back 4,000-plus-foot climbs. It then kept us above 5,000 feet for the next 17 miles as we made our way up and down a series of 1,000- to 2,000-foot climbs. The ups were steep. The downs were steep. Cruisier bits were rare. It was relentless, like we were in the ring with Clubber Lang himself.

Team USA men

Zach Miller (left) with USA teammates Drew Holmen (center) and Eric LiPuma (right) at the finish of the 2023 Trail World Championships 80k. Photo: Peter Maksimow

It wasn’t a surprise though as I had carefully studied the course beforehand. I flew to Europe on May 30, rented a camper van in Munich, Germany, and drove it to Innsbruck where I immediately started scoping things out. And when I say immediately, I mean it. The night I arrived I parked at the base of the course’s final climb, grabbed my headlamp, and climbed high above Innsbruck in the fading evening light.

I then spent the next few days doing the same. I’d pinpoint a section of the course, drive the camper van to it, and check it out. Then at night I would drive my camper van up to 6,600 feet so I could sleep at altitude as I do when I train out of my bus in Oregon.

Given the proximity of the race, I tried not to overdo it. I didn’t want to obsess over seeing every inch of the course and cook myself before race day. Even though I didn’t see everything, by the time I finished my reconnaissance mission, one thing was very clear. The course was a beast. To me it seemed like a course of patience, one that would likely reward a smart, patient runner and eat alive an overly aggressive one.

Zach Miller - 2023 Trail World Championships 80k - reccon

Zach Miller scoping out the route before the 2023 Trail World Championships 80k. Photo: Sarah Keyes

Hence, on race day, I decided to go out controlled. I kept myself well within my means for the first big climb and descent. I pressed a bit on the second climb, cruised through the next descent, and then started grinding it out as I approached the halfway point. My hope was to be able to push in the back half, especially up and over the final climb.

Going into the second half of the race, I was somewhere inside the top 10. There was plenty of race left. If I ran strong and others faltered, things could really work out.

Unfortunately, things didn’t quite play out in my favor. Don’t get me wrong, my performance over the back half of the race was still strong. There were low moments and high moments, but no major bonks. I caught several people in the final 15 or so miles, then got out-kicked by my teammate, Drew Holmen, as we charged to the finish.

Zach Miller reaches the finish of the 2023 Trail World Championships 80k

Zach Miller reaches the finish of the 2023 Trail World Championships 80k. Photo: Peter Maksimow

Looking back, it still feels like a good performance. My nutrition was solid, the effort was steady, and my final climb and descent were strong. And yet, it left something to be desired. I simply felt like there was more to give. This isn’t to say that I didn’t try — not in the least. But I like to empty the tank. I like to give a race my absolute all. I like to fight for the win, even when doing so might seem a bit foolish.

When I run at the front of a race, it fuels me. It gives me this spark and desire that is incredibly strong. I think back to some of my past races and recollect the ferocity that I brought to those start lines. Some of them I won, some I didn’t, but the common denominator amongst them was that I approached them as if winning was the only option. That mindset had an incredible effect on the way I raced. I didn’t overthink pacing. I didn’t settle into a lackadaisical state. I simply positioned myself at or near the front of the race and ran like mad to keep myself there.

It’s kind of wild how motivating this tactic is for me. Sure, it can certainly blow up in my face, but I think it can also help me exceed my wildest expectations. You see, I have this theory that most people struggle to empty the tank, probably because it hurts. The body doesn’t want to be in pain, so the brain resists by telling the body to dial back the effort. However, I like to think that if the desire is great enough, the heart, or the soul, or whatever you want to call it, can override the brain’s logic and push you through the pain and toward your goal.

Zach Miller - 2023 Trail World Championships 80k

Zach Miller running a controlled race during the 2023 Trail World Championships 80k. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

I feel like when I race up front — covering moves, hanging onto people’s heels, and surging to get away — my heart and my soul are easily engaged. Sure, I still think about the effort. I still try not to mess up the race. But the fire burns so hot that I am way less likely to settle. I remember in college when my coach would stand on the infield as we ran around the track and yell at us not to settle. It’s a terrible feeling to settle. You know when you’ve done it — that feeling when you’re no longer attacking or hitting the pace. You’re surviving, not thriving.

In a way, that’s how I felt at this race. Granted, I didn’t feel like that the entire race. I actually spent a lot of the race focused and trying to keep pace or catch up. But there were moments where I just stayed controlled. People passed me and I didn’t fight like I would have if I was leading the race. I got to the final descent, and I didn’t run like my life depended on it until the last two-ish miles. Sure, I was trying, but it just felt like something was missing. The spark, the urgency, the do-or-die mindset that I thrive on, it wasn’t quite there.

What I am trying to say is that there is something to running from the heart. Perhaps some people run best with their head, but I’m not sure that’s me. Maybe the best strategy is to run with both, to figure out how to use the head for tactics, and the heart for motivation. But, if I had to choose between the two, I’d take the heart any day. It simply has a habit of finding its way.

Call for Comments

  • Do you run with your head or your heart?
  • Or have you found a way to balance the two?
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.