Zach Miller put on quite the show alongside Hayden Hawks at the 2016 The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Championships. Honestly, their duel was one of the most impressive things I’ve seen in a decade and a half around ultras… and I’m not prone to hyperbole. In the following interview, Zach talks about how exactly their duel went down, how deep it made him dig, what he thinks about Hayden, and whether or not he’ll race Hardrock in 2017 after finding out that he is in next year’s race.
Read our TNF 50 results article to find out what else happened at this year’s race!
[Click here if you can’t see the video above.]
Zach Miller, 2016 The North Face 50 Mile Champion, Interview
iRunFar: Bryon Powell of iRunFar here with Zach Miller after his win at the 2016 The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Championships. Congratulations, Zach!
Zach Miller: Thank you, Bryon.
iRunFar: Two in a row!
Miller: Yeah, two in a row.
iRunFar: Two in a row—and this one, what a race!
Miller: This one was hard. Last year was hard. This one was insane.
iRunFar: Insane. It was insane to watch. It felt that way from the inside?
Miller: Oh, yeah. It was nuts. It was probably one of the craziest races I’ve run. My mom didn’t want me to run stupid, and about two miles in it was like, Thiiiiiis might be stupid.
iRunFar: At least he was thinking of you, Barb Miller. You kept running stupid. You kept running with Hayden Hawks.
Miller: Chasing him for awhile. He gapped me. He was gapping me on climbs, so… yeah, he was close. I’d catch him on descents. He had me gapped for a little while.
iRunFar: Then he took a wrong turn?
Miller: He did. It was confusing. He was going into Cardiac, approaching Cardiac. I was looking for his headlamp. Oh, I think he’s there. I think he’s like 100 meters off, so it’s still pretty close. Then I crossed the bridge and ran through the field to go up Cardiac, and all the sudden there was somebody behind me. Tim Tollefson was coming down. I was like, “Tim, is somebody up there?” Tim was like, “No, you’re leading.” Okay, this is Hayden behind me. I didn’t know what happened. I didn’t know if he had stopped at Muir Beach to go to the bathroom or took awhile at the aid station because I’d just blown right through it. Then I talked to him afterward, and he said he had taken a wrong turn and went off to the left and had to come back. Then we ran up Cardiac together. Then we were just neck and neck. We had been neck and neck and now we were just more neck and neck.
iRunFar: Then the out-and-back, were you guys really pushing the pace? Was there any time where you guys were not comfortable but, Alright, I’m not going to push.
Miller: Yeah, it was hard because it felt like we were almost always hammering. There were some points where I kind of wanted to back off and see if he’d back off, but our competitive juices were flowing too much. One would edge up on the other. I’d maybe lay 50 meters behind him sometimes, but I didn’t want to let him get away. When we did the out-and-back, he was in front and I was kind of chasing him. We went in and filled our bottles at the same time and left together, and then I took the lead. Last year I had run pretty well from McKennon Gulch down to Stinson Beach, so when we left, I had that in my mind. I hope I hit my groove here. So I passed him and took the lead, and we were just kind of hammering. He was staying right with me. I couldn’t shake the kid.
iRunFar: When did you finally get a little breathing space?
Miller: Pretty much never. We got to Stinson together. I was able to pass him climbing up to Cardiac. I had a 15-second gap at Cardiac.
iRunFar: You were sprinting!
Miller: I was running hard, and he was right there. Descending from Cardiac into Muir Woods, I thought I was pulling away, and the next thing I know he was right on my heels again. We climbed out of Muir Woods, and I started to separate a little bit. Then I saw Gary Gellin on the course, and the next thing I know, Hayden is right back behind me again. I think at Muir Beach with nine miles to go, I think I had a 20-second gap, which was insane. Then I pushed the last two climbs hard. I really wasn’t gaining much. I think by Tennessee Valley, I pushed that climb going up hard and then bombed downhill, and it hurt like crazy. I got to Tennessee Valley probably a minute ahead of him, but with three miles to go at the top of the last climb, I probably had a minute or less. Then I just… I just had to go. Everything hurt. I was just like threw down a bottle of… I went in and I’d been using Gu Roctane all day, and I didn’t have any more powder with me. I was just like, “Tailwind!” They put in one cup. I was like, “Anything!” They put water and Gatorade. It was this weird mix. I chugged it, shoved it in my running belt, and hammered to the finish. I ended up with a two-minute gap, and that was probably my biggest gap all day.
iRunFar: That’s like a 5k stretch from Alta to the finish, and you were under 16 minutes.
Miller: That’s what they told me.
iRunFar: It is downhill, but…
Miller: It’s downhill, but I didn’t even run that in high school for 5k cross country races. That’s…
iRunFar: Do you run with any GPS running watch or anything like that?
Miller: No, I just have my Casio.
iRunFar: It would be interesting to see what Hayden ran.
Miller: I want to know what my last mile was because I was just hammering. I want to know what I split for the last mile. It was just nuts. My legs hurt. So. Much. Every time they hit the ground it was just pain. But I was like, I just have to go.
iRunFar: What motivates you in that? To push yourself so hard? That’s pretty miserable.
Miller: Yeah, there were moments where it’s like, it’s hard to keep yourself going mentally. I’m really competitive, so I really want the win, but at the same point I’m proud of good honest efforts. There were points where it hurt so bad I was like, Well, if I get beat and get second, at least I’m really proud of this effort. But then it’s like, But I don’t want to finish second. The running is waaaaayyy more than the money, but when you’re out there and there’s 10 grand [$10,000] on the line, and second is what like three grand? That’s a steep drop off. Okay, I can hurt pretty bad for three miles for 10 grand, but it’s more than that. You just dig down. I really like to suffer. I do and don’t like to suffer. I get on the climbs, and I would just get in the zone and just hammer. There’s part of me that… maybe it’s a masochistic side of me… but that just loves getting in that zone and just grinding it out. That keeps me going, too, just embracing the pain I guess.
iRunFar: I’ve heard that before, people wanting to go to the dark place. It’s explained in different ways but wanting to go to the dark place just to see what they can do or see how it felt.
Miller: Yeah, I made a lot of weird noises in the last six miles. I came into Tennessee Valley wheezing or grunting or heaving or whatever, making so many noises. It was the same at the finish. It’s nuts.
iRunFar: Almost literal beast mode, kind of.
Miller: Yeah, pretty much. Yeah, I was just going for it. I really didn’t want to get caught.
iRunFar: Do you think that’s your best ultra performance or close to it?
Miller: Yeah, I think that’s arguably the best race I’ve ever run hands down—track, cross country, road races, ultras. I’m still kind of dumbfounded because we hammered so hard so early. I was just like, We’re hammering. I don’t know if either one of us is going to win. Sage [Canaday] might win. Alex Nichols might win. Somebody back there being reasonable… I was just like, the train just started rolling, and I couldn’t jump off. I was just like, Okay.
iRunFar: You rolled with it. Is it crazy to think that this was Hayden’s first 50 miler?
Miller: Yeah, that’s nuts. That’s probably… I don’t know history too much, but that’s got to be one of the most impressive 50-mile debuts ever of all time, in the whole world. I know people thought my JFK [50 Mile] was great, but no, what he just did today puts my JFK… my JFK is down here. His North Face today is like… levels above what I did at JFK three years ago. It was insane. He is so strong. I could not… I pretty much never shook him. He finished two minutes behind me which is pretty much a sprint in an ultra. I’ve always kind of had this dream of a spread-eagle finish where it came down so close that we both dive…
iRunFar: You’ve practiced that at Lake Sonoma [50 Mile] before. I’ve seen it.
Miller: I thought today I might get it. We were so tight, that I thought it might come down to finishing all-out, spread-eagle lean for the line where we just both collapse. It didn’t, but it was all but. I was looking over my shoulder… I shouldn’t look back… but I was looking over my shoulder with 400 meters to go because… I saw Dylan Bowman with 6.5 miles to go. I wish somebody had this on video because I must have sounded so panicked. I was like, “Is he back there? Is he back there? Can you see him?” I must have sounded so panicked, but somehow it held together. Huge props to Hayden. What he did was absolutely incredible. Gutsy as heck. He’s so gutsy.
iRunFar: Coming from you?
Miller: I took it out for the first half mile, and then he took the reins, and it was the Hayden show for the next 10 or 15 miles.
iRunFar: Can he climb?
Miller: Oh, he can climb. Yeah, I have these tree-trunk legs, and he has these thin, muscular legs. He just runs up the climb. I felt like I was running the climbs too hard, and he was just gapping me. He can climb like crazy, and he doesn’t fall apart. I was trying to break him, trying to break him. He wouldn’t fall apart. He obviously has his nutrition well. It was insane what he did.
iRunFar: This probably ends your 2016 season.
Miller: Oh, yeah. I’m done. I’m done doing this year. I’m going to go take naps by the fire at Barr Camp. I’ll run or snowshoe or something, but I’m done racing.
iRunFar: You’ve got some things to think about for next year because you had one heck of a three-quarters of UTMB. Today your name was drawn in this lottery… oh, yeah, the Hardrock lottery. So… you’ve got some thinking to do.
Miller: Yeah, my name wasn’t supposed to be drawn today. It was drawn, but to be honest, I put my name in the Hardrock lottery to start the process because it’s supposed to take eight years. I have a ticket, and I might as well put it in. I was hoping it wouldn’t come out, so I could just have more tickets next year. Once I was satisfied at UTMB, then I’d go run Hardrock some year. Then it came out. Now it’s like, “What will I do?” At this point in my career, I won’t run both in the same year.
iRunFar: You won’t. Definitely not?
Miller: No, for me personally as a runner, I don’t think it’s smart. I will pick one or the other. I was hoping not to have to make that decision yet, but now I do. I’ve been leaning towards UTMB. My mom wants to go watch, and my uncle and aunt are talking about going. But now it’s like, Oh, I still live at Barr Camp at 10,000 feet. Hardrock is super high. I don’t know how long I’ll be… I’ll be at Barr Camp for awhile yet, but I don’t know how long. So it’s kind of a hard decision to make. I don’t know. I’m not going to make it today. I’m going to go to the ‘Deuce,’ and I’m going to relax a little bit. Yeah, I don’t know. Maybe. It’s a big honor to be selected in the lottery, so… and it’s a special race. I don’t know. It’s a hard choice.
iRunFar: I hadn’t even thought about it until literally this moment, but to see you throw down versus Kilian Jornet in the San Juans and Jason Schlarb and whoever else got in today. I have no idea.
Miller: yeah, I heard it’s pretty stacked. I don’t know. I’ve wanted to race Kilian. Kilian and I, I think, are a bit different. We have our differences. He’s a very good big-mountain athlete. I kind of came from the fast track style in the U.S. I’ve been trying to get better at the big mountain stuff. I’ve wanted to race Kilian. He might clobber me, but I’d like that opportunity. It would be an interesting thing to take a crack at. That’s assuming he takes his spot and runs.
iRunFar: He’s taking his spot.
Miller: But yeah, I don’t know. It would be interesting. It’s something to think about while I nap by the fire.
iRunFar: Enjoy a little celebration this evening to cap off a great season. I look forward to seeing you out there next season.
Miller: Thanks. Yeah, I look forward to seeing you out there, too.