Once again, Zach Miller took his hard-chargin’ ways to The North Face Endurance Challenge 50-Mile Championships. This year, he sprinted away with the win. In the following interview, Zach talks about how much his hot pace early hurt later, how running in front of Max King scares him, and how it felt to have his parents watch him race an ultra for the first time.
For more on how the race played out, you can read our TNF 50 results article.
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Zach Miller, 2015 TNF EC 50 Mile Champion, Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Bryon Powell of iRunFar here with Zach Miller after his win at the 2015 The North Face 50-Mile Championships. Congratulations, Zach.
Zach Miller: Thank you, Bryon.
iRunFar: Did you feel awesome from start to finish?
Miller: Sort of. Sort of. I felt good, but we went so aggressive in the beginning that I was really painful the last eight miles or so.
iRunFar: When you say, “We ran really fast,” do you mean, “You ran really fast and everyone else tried to keep up?”
Miller: Today I kind of dug my own grave there, but a couple guys went with me when I went hard. Ryan Bak and a couple other guys went along. It probably pushed me to go a little faster than I might have went if they’d have just stayed back. But that’s racing, and it’s great they went out with me.
iRunFar: When did you finally pull into the lead by yourself and have some separation?
Miller: Pretty much at the far point of the course with that out-and-back section on the road. We got on the road and we got out to that aid station and when we turned around and got back on the trail to go towards where we were coming from, that section of trail started to climb a little bit. When it started to climb a little bit, that’s where I started to pull away. I started feeling really good, and I started seeing all the people coming the other way. That got me really excited. So I just kind of took off there. That’s where I slipped out of view.
iRunFar: Once you slipped out of view, it seemed you put your head down and ran even faster.
Miller: Yeah, kind of. I kind of bombed it down to Stinson. I was feeling great. I considered the uphills to be more of my strengths, so I figured if I could break away going down, all I needed to do—not all I needed to do—but if I’d climb strong out of Stinson, then I could potentially get a bit of a gap. So when we started the big climbs up from Stinson, I just tried to take advantage of that.
iRunFar: When I saw you coming into Cardiac at mile 30 the second time, it looked like you were running a 400-meter dash. It seems like it always does, but what’s going through your head? It looks like you’re charging. It’s not like it’s something easy and relaxed.
Miller: I get excited at aid stations where there are fans, so I tend to pick it up a little bit. You told me to run harder.
iRunFar: I DID because I didn’t think it was possible.
Miller: Yeah, no, I was feeling good at that point in the race. I loved… I liked the climbing today. There were points in the race today where I was like, I need to climb. I want to go back to climbing. It’s easier on my joints and I like climbing. The Dipsea Trail was awesome because there were so many stairs in it. I train on the Manitou Incline, so I was right at home when I got on those stairs. Ah, this is just like the Incline but in sections instead of all at once. I was loving that part.
iRunFar: The climbing must have felt easy because you weren’t climbing with three feet of snow.
Miller: Yeah, I’ve kind of… up at Barr Camp at 10,000 feet, we’ve been snowed in for the last month or two. Every run is just a snow run. So that’s been good for leg strength, I guess. Climbing without snow was a treat. Climbing at sea level was a treat.
iRunFar: All the resistance training was taken away.
Miller: Yeah, it was like somebody took the shackles off.
iRunFar: And put on helium balloons as well.
Miller: Yeah, I could just skip up everything which was fun.
iRunFar: Were the conditions pretty perfect out there?
Miller: Yes, especially for me. I think of myself as a cool-weather runner, and the temperatures were just about perfect. It was overcast probably pretty much all day. The sunrise was still amazing, but it stayed a bit overcast. The trails weren’t completely dry. Some of the steps were a bit slick, and bridges maybe, but pretty ideal—great conditions.
iRunFar: Do you think you could run much faster here?
Miller: I’m always trying to get stronger and fitter and faster. Yeah, I hope if I came back I could run faster, but at the same time, what we did today was incredibly painful at the end. Starting like we did set me up for a world of pain at the end of the race. Right now, I need some time to forget that. Yeah, I’d have a go at a faster time.
iRunFar: Now those last eight miles, you probably knew you had a decent lead at that point. Are you still going all out, or do you pull back a little bit?
Miller: I was running scared. Max King scares me. When we did the little lollipop out-and-back, he was not that far behind. I just figured he was laying low back there and was going to try to reel me in. The whole, once I pulled away, the whole time, I just envisioned Max back there trying to reel me in. He’s a great runner, and I was just so scared he was back there gunning me down. I started to get some indication from the fans and things that I was running pretty fast, so I thought maybe I had a pretty good cushion, but it’s hard to tell. Nobody told me a time gap until… well, Gary Gellin yelled to me at one point that I was 16 minutes ahead of Rob Krar’s time at one point on the course. Of course, Gary would know that.
iRunFar: He probably said 16:20.
Miller: But he didn’t tell me how far I was ahead of the next person. So I didn’t hear that until I got to Muir Beach when Meghan [Hicks] told me I was five minutes up. I don’t think that was at Muir, that was at the previous checkpoint because I was the first one through. Later, I heard some times after that. It was kind of hard to know how close they were, and I didn’t know who it was until finally someone told me it was DBo [Dylan Bowman]. Yeah, I was running scared for awhile.
iRunFar: You live up at Barr Camp, but you don’t just live up at Barr Camp, you work at Barr Camp. I was talking to someone the other day who knew the previous caretakers there. He said it is a ridiculously hard, time-consuming job.
Miller: It is. If we do our jobs right, when the hikers come up, our job looks like the greatest job in the world. They’re like, “All you do is sit here, sip coffee, and talk to people, and go out for runs.” No, there’s so much more. The summers are so busy. Basically in the summers, we get up around 6 a.m. and we’re pretty much busy until 9 p.m. You just eat dinner and go to bed. You’re just exhausted. Cooking, cleaning, doing chores, chopping firewood, doing all this physical labor—you’re on your feet all day.
iRunFar: How do you fit in your training?
Miller: I work with my sister and then two assistants. They’re very gracious to let me go out the door for a few hours and do my training. You go out, do your training, come back, and you’re back to work. Where my sister might take a break to hike or to read or to take a nap, I take a break to run. That’s in the summer. In the fall and winter, it does slow down. Right now it is pretty good. I’m living the dream right now because we don’t see nearly as many people. I have a lot more time to do my training. I can be a little more flexible with it. Every now and then I’m up there by myself. Then it’s wake up and run at 4 a.m. and serve breakfast at 7 a.m. Or it’s wait until everyone goes to bed and run in the middle of the night with a headlamp on the mountain with the mountain lions. I find a way to make it work, and I love it. It’s great.
iRunFar: You work with your sister at Barr Camp, but your parents were here. Is this the first big ultra your parents have been to?
Miller: This was the first time I’ve have them ever seen me run an ultra. They’ve seen me run mountain races, trail races…
iRunFar: Cross country and track…?
Miller: Cross country and track. But they’ve never seen an ultra. When I ran JFK, I didn’t really know what I was doing, and they didn’t really know what I was doing. They knew I was running 50 miles, but they didn’t know I was going to win the thing. It was close to our house, but they didn’t go which was fine. This was the first time they got to see me run an ultra.
iRunFar: Was that pretty cool having them here?
Miller: That was awesome. It was great having them come out. Being able to have a good performance was cake. There was a little bit of pressure—all these people came to see me.
iRunFar: You had a posse almost.
Miller: Yeah, my parents and then a couple friends from Pennsylvania—it was like, I’ve got to deliver here. I don’t have to because they’re going to be happy either way.
iRunFar: Guess what? You did. Nice work out there.
Miller: Thank you.
iRunFar: Bonus question for you: you’re scared of Max King. What else are you scared of?
Miller: What else am I scared of? I don’t think I’m scared of too much.
iRunFar: Just Max King?
Miller: Max King, and maybe I’m a little bit scared of getting too cold on the mountain. It gets really cold at Barr Camp. Some days when I go out training, it gets a little scarily cold sometimes.
iRunFar: Like when you’re in shorts and three feet of snow?
Miller: I’m almost always in running shorts, but there was this one day I went out for a run, and I thought I was going to run for three hours. I came back after an hour-and-forty-five minutes, and I’d only gone four miles. It was snowy and slow. I came into the cabin covered in snow. I don’t know if I’ve ever been that cold in my life. It gets a little weird out there sometimes when it’s really cold. I guess maybe a hint of fear there, but I’m learning how to handle it.
iRunFar: It looks like you’re learning how to handle your fear of Max King, too.
Miller: Well, I think he’ll still instill some fear in me.
iRunFar: Thank you.