The Best You’ve Got

I’ve been fiercely competitive for about as long as I can remember. Capture the flag, kickball, spoons, writing contests, eating competitions, you name it, I wanted to win it. I’m what my high-school track coach would have referred to as a gamer, someone who simply wants to win, who will fight like crazy in the heat of battle. I’m not necessarily the guy you want when it comes to skill and finesse, but late in the game, deep in the fourth quarter, lap 25 of a 10-kilometer race, overtime, those moments where fatigue takes over and skills deteriorate, I’m your guy.

This is not to say that my bullheaded determination has led only to wins. Not in the least, as I have experienced plenty of losing in my lifetime. But that’s alright, because while a win is great, I would be remiss to label it as the be all end all. In fact, I feel that labeling it as such can be quite detrimental. Not that wanting to win is a bad thing, but when the desire to win is so great that it instills a crippling fear of failure, there is a problem. Allow me to explain.

This past weekend I competed at the 2021 U.S. Mountain Running Championships at the Gnar Gnar race in Oregon. It was my first big race back since having surgery for my Haglund’s deformity back in December. I had done a few smaller, more low-key races, but this was by far the most competitive thing I had tried since then. Jumping into the race was an interesting choice. My training was, and still is, a mix of running and cycling and I was only about halfway through a series of interval workouts that I like to work my way through prior to a big race. It would have been easy to sit on the sidelines, to wait until I felt fully ready. There would have been no shame it it. And yet, I jumped in. I felt fit. A day or so prior to the race, I did a semi-unintentional six-mile progression run on the roads that left me feeling optimistic, but still with a lot of question marks.

The morning of the race, I stepped to the line. I could only play with the cards in my hand, and to be honest, I didn’t even know exactly what those were. They might be garbage and I might get trampled, or I might surprise myself and have the race of my life. I lined up directly behind Joe Gray and waited. There was a countdown, and we were off.

I got out of the gate well. There was a bit of jostling, but no one seemed to go down. I kept up pretty well through the early switchbacks, but was soon passed by Andy Wacker and Max King. I labored as we crested the first climb and got taken to school on the following fire-road descent. As the descent ended, we turned sharply to the right and headed straight up the mountain. It was here in this steeper terrain that I found my climbing legs. I started picking off runners, counting as I did so. I eventually lost track, not so much because I was passing that many people, but more because I was focusing so hard on moving forward, trying to reel in as many people as I could. By the top of the climb, I had nearly cracked into the top 10, a good improvement from where I had been at the bottom of the first descent.

I had my work cut out for me, as descending is not exactly my strength. I caught one runner in the first half mile or so of the descent, and then I was alone. Runners were likely bearing down on me from behind, but there was no sense in looking back. Though not very technical, the descent was fast and furious. A simple glance over my shoulder could very easily spell disaster. I kept my eyes focused ahead, flying over berms, twisting through turns, and dancing over what few rocks lay in the way. Somehow I made it all the way to the edge of the forest without getting passed. A set of long, swooping switchbacks and one final steep shot to the finish were all I had left to navigate. As I twisted my way through the turns, I could hear people chasing me down from behind. I was really cranking now, trying desperately to hang on. I heard a crash, a yell, and an “Are you alright?” from behind. Someone must have biffed it, but apparently there were several guys on my heels because someone was still charging hard. I pushed hard to stay out front, but finally my pursuer sped by. I let it fly down the final straightaway and ran across the finish line in 12th place.

It was my lowest place at nationals yet, as I have placed in the top 10 three times before. But as I reflected on the day, I found a lot of value in my experience. What stood out to me, was that even though my preparation was far from normal and I didn’t feel like I was at my best, I still had a chance to go out there and give it my best. I pushed hard up that climb. I kept my eyes ahead and didn’t look back as I charged down the descent. I held my own in the space. Looking around at my competitors, I saw similar stories.

Kimber Mattox was coming off of a win at the USATF 50k Trail National Championships at the Ragged 50k last weekend, so she was fit, but likely a bit tired. Max King was feeling like he could have used a few more weeks to get his speed back, as he tried to transition from going long at the Western States 100 this past June to fast and short here at Mount Hood. Allie McLaughlin may have her sights set on racing both the Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon races in just one week, but still showed up to throw down in a field that seems to keep getting younger and faster each year. Joe Gray fought through a delayed start to his race preparations due to injury, Andy Wacker ran the race off of training mostly on a bike, and I myself have been trying to navigate the tumultuous waters that are recovery after surgery.

And yet, we all showed up, we all threw down, and hopefully, we all gave it our best, though our obsessive natures would probably say that there is something we shoulda’, coulda’, and woulda’ done differently. This is the beautiful thing about start lines. They don’t ask for you to be perfect, they simply ask that you show up and give the best you’ve got. Simple as that.

Call for Comments

  • Can you share a story of a time where you still gave it your best, despite the fact that you knew you weren’t quite at your best?
  • What value do you see in trying to find the best version of yourself for a race, or a day?
Zach Miller - 2021 US Mountain Running Championships

Zach Miller crosses the finish line at the 2021 U.S. Mountain Running Championships. All photos: Peter Maksimow

Kimber Mattox - 2021 US Mountain Running Championships

Kimber Mattox crosses the finish line at the 2021 U.S. Mountain Running Championships.

Max King - 2021 US Mountain Running Championships

Max King at the 2021 U.S. Mountain Running Championships.

Joe Gray - 2021 US Mountain Running Championships

Joe Gray crosses the finish line to win the 2021 U.S. Mountain Running Championships.

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.