Stride by Stride

Zach Miller advises against prioritizing sponsorship and prize money over the act of running.

By on January 19, 2024 | Comments

Earlier this month I started reading “Bird by Bird,” by Anne Lamott. As stated by its subtitle, the book offers “Some Instructions in Writing and Life.” The subtitle feels accurate, as before I read the introduction, I gave myself a sneak peek at some of the book’s latter pages.

Now, I’m not so much for reading out of order, but when my four-year-old nephew, Ansel, handed me a copy of the book one night, I found myself lost in the chapter on perfectionism, a trait which I am quite guilty of.

As I read, I felt a bit confused. Lamott seemed to be writing about writing, but at the same time she also seemed to be writing about life. Was this a book about life, or one about writing? According to the subtitle, it was both.

When I started the book from its beginning, a had yet another similar experience. While it was very clear that Lamott was writing about writing, all I could hear, in a sense, was a piece about running.

As Steven Wright states in the epigraph to John Koenig’s book, “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows,” “I read the dictionary. I thought it was a poem about everything.” Just as Wright saw poetry in the dictionary, so I saw a commentary on running in a book about writing and life.

Zach Miller - snow-covered hills

A beautiful winter scene on one of the author’s runs. All photos: Zach Miller

Writing Versus Being Published

Lamott spends the introduction writing about her youth. She details growing up in a house of readers and writers. She explains her journey into writing, both the struggle to find her voice and the triumph of finally getting published. Yet, she admits that “publication” is not all that it is cracked up to be, and that the true gift is writing itself.

She goes on to talk about how she came to teach writing as well, how it wasn’t really planned, but now it’s something she continues to do. As she tells of her experiences as a writing teacher, one thing becomes abundantly clear: She’s trying to impart her knowledge as a writer on to her students, but all they seem to want is to figure out how to get published.

They ask about agents and sending manuscripts to publishers. She says, “The problem that comes up over and over again is that these people want to be published. They kind of want to write, but they really want to be published.”

Running Versus Being Sponsored

Reading on, I couldn’t help but think of the world of trail running. As the sport grows, more and more opportunities seem to exist in the way of sponsorships and paid partnerships. In fact, sometimes it feels like we as runners are becoming like the writers in Anne Lamott’s classes.

While I’m not certain that the situation is as problematic as my brain might sometimes make it out to be, I still feel that there is reason to be concerned.

There seems to be at least some degree to which people are asking, “how do I get sponsored, and how do I get paid (more)?” And while these can be legitimate questions, I think we ought to be mindful of not getting to the point where we as runners kind of want to run, but really want to be sponsored.

Now, I realize that I say this from a place of luxury. I am fully aware that over the last 10 years or so I have worked my way into the “career” side of the sport. But, if I think about my relationship with running, I feel as though I am in it for the right reasons. I got into this sport because, one, I love it, and two, I’m good at it.

To this day, I feel that this holds true. Lamott shares a similar sentiment in the introduction to her book, stating that her true reason for writing is because she wants to and because she’s good at it.

She correlates it to a scene in the movie “Chariots of Fire,” in which a famous Scottish runner, Eric Liddell, tells his sister that he wishes to return to doing missionary work in China, because he feels it is God’s will for him, but first he is going to train with all of his heart, because God also made him very, very fast.

To me, this love of the sport is very important. Sure, people are more than welcome to pursue things for other reasons, but I think there is a great deal of value in pursuing something not because it makes money or garners attention, but because you enjoy it.

Zach Miller - post-cold run

Zach is not put off by the elements when it comes to getting his run in.

As Lamott states in “Bird by Bird,” “I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do — the actual act of writing — turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what to really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.’’

Replace the word writing with running in the last few sentences and you’ve pretty much summed up my feelings on this subject.

Earlier this month, I did a podcast with Finn Melanson of “Singletrack,” in which he asked me what advice I would give to my younger self. While I didn’t think to reference Lamott’s writings, I essentially echoed what she shared. I said that my advice would be not to get too caught up in chasing prize money or sponsorships, but to instead focus on chasing my passions and crushing my craft.

I like to use the word craft here, because for me, it evokes the right sort of vibe. To me, a craft is more art form than business. While a businessperson cares largely about money and productivity, a craftsperson cares about how they go about doing things and the quality of the finished product. To me, they are more artist than businessperson.

As the sports of trail running and ultrarunning continue to grow, it is my hope that we can keep our motives true. Money and business can have their place, but let’s not put those things before our passion for the sport. I’ll return to the quote I shared earlier, in which Lamott states that people “kind of want to write, but they really want to be published.”

She follows this up by saying: “You’ll never get to where you want to be that way, I tell them. There is a door we all want to walk through, and writing can help you find it and open it. Writing can give you what having a baby can give you: it can get you to start paying attention, can help you soften, can wake you up. But publishing won’t do any of those things; you’ll never get in that way.”

The same is true with running. It can give us things that sponsorships cannot. And so, as we proceed in this sport, let’s write with our feet, rather than publish with our heads.

Call for Comments

  • Are you a competitive runner with sights on being sponsored?
  • What are your thoughts on Zach’s perspective?
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.