After a long break from ultrarunning due to injury, Zach Miller returned to the big stage by taking fifth at the 2022 UTMB. In the following interview, Zach talks about his injury and recovery process, how he strategized this race ahead of time, and how the race played out from his perspective, including the 100-kilometer-long “bromance” he shared with third-place finisher Tom Evans.
For more on how this year’s UTMB unfolded, read our 2022 UTMB results article.
Zach Miller Post-2022 UTMB Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Meghan Hicks of iRunFar. I’m with Zach Miller. It’s the day after the 2022 UTMB and you took fifth place. Congratulations, Zach.
Zach Miller: Thanks, Meghan.
iRunFar: How are you doing? How are you feeling?
Miller: I’m good. The usual post-race soreness, walking a little funny, but overall pretty good.
iRunFar: We just had the award ceremony and you took the stairs up to the stage better than some people but worse than others. So, I’d say you’re looking okay.
Miller: Yeah, that’s good to know. The down was probably pretty bad, though. I was probably maybe bottom of the pile.
iRunFar: Do you feel good about this performance? It’s been a long journey back to health and back to fitness and back to UTMB for you.
Miller: Yeah, I do feel good about it. It’s been since 2019 that I was here. It’s been since 2017, since I finished here, and not DNFed. Because two finishes, two DNFs. So yeah, it feels good. And not just to finish and be back from injury, but to have a performance that I’m actually quite pleased with.
iRunFar: It’s hard to summarize sort of the backstory to your starting line, because you’ve had surgery, you’ve had a comeback and then sort of some niggles that have like, I don’t know that if hindered progress or mediated progress a little bit, but can you give us some sort of summary of your injury and journey back to health again.
Miller: Yeah, basically, I just had a lot of problems with my feet. I guess it kind of started with my right foot, probably way back in like 2018. I had a plantar fasciitis issue. Then none of that actually healed. Like I had that issue back at UTMB that year, and then while I still had, that I got an issue in my left foot. And eventually, the plantar fasciitis healed on the right and then the left foot was bad. It took forever to figure out exactly what was going on.
But long story short, during the pandemic in 2020, so like two years later, I went home to [Pennsylvania] and saw a new surgeon and got some new imaging. And my surgeon determined that there was a sizable Haglund’s deformity on my heel, and that was the only real big thing on the MRI that he could … they can find a million things in there. But that was the glaring thing that he could find in there.
So he said, let’s take that out and I don’t know if it will fix all of your issues. That’s why it was tricky, because I had pain in multiple areas of my foot. Like I had Haglund’s pain, but I also had like weird side foot pain that shot up towards my toes, along the outside of my foot. Like underneath but outside side. So, it was sort of a bit of a roll of the dice. We can take this off. It may help.
iRunFar: See what happens.
Miller: It may not help. Seems like it should help. There like won’t be a giant piece of bone sticking in your Achilles tendon anymore.
iRunFar: Theoretically, that should help.
Miller: But that’s what we did in December. It was like December 1st or 2nd of 2020. Actually, I just got a text after this race from Sarah Bard and she was like … she’d said, “Remember two winters ago?” I hadn’t, I was just like that’s kind of a weird text. Because it came right after the race. And I was like, oh, yeah.
iRunFar: That’s when you had surgery.
Miller: Because that’s when I had surgery. It was just kind of like a really rough time for me. I was nowhere close to being able to do a UTMB at that point. And so it was like a nice little reminder to be like, oh, yeah, we’ve come a long way.
iRunFar: We’ve come a long way. What has it, I don’t know what the right way to ask this question is without being too leading. Has the ultimate goal been to get to UTMB? Or is it getting back to competitive starting lines at all? Or is it just getting back to where you feel like a version of yourself again? What’s kept you going for all this time?
Miller: I think, yeah. I mean, UTMB has remained a goal.
Miller: You know, I’ve wanted to get back here. But it’s not just … I wanted to run without pain in my foot.
iRunFar: Okay. That’s a fair thing to say.
Miller: I just spent several years where I would wake up in the morning and the first step out of bed, it would just hurt. And then I would go on a run and it’s … I love running but almost wouldn’t want to start running because I knew that the first few steps were going to hurt. And then some days, the whole run was kind of hurt, you know? It’s the thing that usually brought me a lot of release and joy brought me a lot of pain instead. And so, running just isn’t very fun when it’s all, it’s good when it’s voluntarily painful.
Miller: Self-induced pain. That’s what UTMB is.
iRunFar: AKA yesterday afternoon.
Miller: Yeah, yesterday like the last 10 miles. But it starts before that. But when every run is painful, that’s just … Like Jon, my North Face teammate Jon Albon had the same thing. We talked about it earlier this year. He had a really stubborn injury for a while. And running just wasn’t fun anymore. I was training, but it was basically just cycling and things. And then running just to do workouts. And it wasn’t fun because it just hurt.
And that’s where I was, running was painful. And I wanted to get back to doing what I love without the pain. And wanted to get back to UTMB, wanted to get back to competing. Being at that level where I had left off. It wasn’t just one race motivating me. I think it was more like, this is what I want to do. And I don’t think I really thought about it that much. So I want to do this so I’m going to try to make it work.
iRunFar: I feel like we’ve said, “we” as a sport have said, year over year, that this race continues to be the most competitive long trail ultra out there. You know, we probably said it in 2017 and 2018 and 2019. And, of course, we said it again this year. What did that feel like after kind of like a hiatus? I mean, you ran Ultra Trail Andorra. Aid I say that right?
Miller: Trail 100 Andorra by UTMB.
iRunFar: Yeah. By UTMB. Earlier this year. But I mean, you really liked dove in by showing up at 2022 UTMB, which was like, all the faces of long ultra, almost all the faces of long ultras, right now.
Miller: Yeah, I guess now that I think about it. Yeah, that was kind of a big bite.
iRunFar: Huge bite.
Miller: Sort of whole pie in my mouth.
iRunFar: But I mean, that’s a good metaphor, because you do that with your food anyways.
Miller: Yeah, or just maybe anything really. But yeah, I didn’t overthink that part of it too much. I think going into Andorra I was maybe a little more uneasy about it, because that was my first ultra since surgery. That was my first ultra since my DNF at UTMB in 2019. So there it was kind of like, because in the time after surgery, there was this period of well, do I still have it? Am I still good? Am I still good at this or am I not good, but am I still at that level I was.
So Andorra was probably actually more question marks. But then I went out and had a good race at Andorra and felt good. Then was able to come here. And I guess I don’t study the start lists too much. So I’ll know some of the names and whatnot but then I also feel like Americans don’t, not all Americans but in general, we do a terrible job of being informed of runners from around the world.
iRunFar: The world beyond.
Miller: Yeah, beyond the U.S. Like you know François [D’Haene] and Kilian [Jornet] and stuff like that. It’s all these other runners from France and Norway and all over the place.
iRunFar: Switzerland and Austria and Germany.
Miller: And Japan and China.
Miller: Yeah, it’s nuts now at UTMB. You stood on that line, and the competition is fierce. I don’t even know who all the guys are. And you’re just running the race. It’s like, wow, there’s this is stiff [competition]. But I didn’t really overthink it too much. I went out there and I wanted to be in that lead group. And that’s what I did. And I guess it worked out.
iRunFar: How did you race this? Like, did you plan some splits? Did you plan to run by feel? Like how’d you race?
Miller: Yeah, I feel like some guys are maybe a bit of a mad scientist when they plan out these races. And I don’t feel so much that way. I basically just sat down and I did a very similar strategy to what I did at Andorra. I just sat down. When I was in Andorra training for the race, I did the whole course beforehand. I figured out roughly, when I was out there, I covered generally five miles per hour on this terrain out here.
So then, when I planned that race out, like for nutrition, I planned it out of like five miles per hour. Which I think is about, I think that’s pretty close to what I did on race day, five miles per hour. And then so when I came here, I was just like, I’m just going to plan it out for like five miles per hour. So I laid out nutrition for that, which puts you at Courmayeur at like 10 hours, which is technically on pace for 20 hours.
But if you’re running 20 hours at Courmayeur, you’re probably not finishing in 20 hours, because that back half’s probably slower. But that’s what I planned out. I was like, I’m going to do nutrition for five miles per hour. I’m going to try. And that will put me in the ballpark of a time that could win. But it will also put me in a conservative enough measure that if that’s the calories I’m carrying, I’ll basically have enough.
If I’m going faster, I’ll have more than enough. If I’m going a little slower, I’ll still generally have enough. So I’m safe, calories-wise. And that’s kind of how I planned it out. And then I just wanted to get in, I never know how fast guys are going to go out. I didn’t want to be the one pushing the pace. Ideally, I wanted to go in the lead group and go as easy as I could in that lead group. So not do anything to really make that lead group go any faster.
iRunFar: Than they were already going to get out. Yeah.
Miller: But if I could stay there, and, ideally, I wanted to be comfortable. I’ll admit I wasn’t super comfortable in that group. I was working a bit to stay in there. But I was able to do it. And that was kind of put yourself in position and then see what happens. That was kind of my strategy.
iRunFar: Get in there. Put yourself in position, and try to like keep things together as long as possible?
Miller: Yeah. I guess, and just see how you feel. If you’re having an amazing day, and you know you can pull away at some point great. If you’re kind of hanging on and making a push at the end then you can do that. But it gives you options. I’m always nervous to sit way back, but looking from afar, I’m always like it would be good to sit back. It would be kind of fun to sit back, if I could just have a freebie race where nobody cares where anybody finishes today. Just try a new method.
Miller: It would be interesting to sit back and then work up through. But the way I look at races and I’m usually the winner, not every race but a lot of races. The winner will come from somewhere from that lead pack. Only one, but somebody will usually come from at lead pack.
iRunFar: Someone sticks it.
Miller: Yeah, someone sticks it. So if I’m shooting … if I would ultimately like to stick it, then I’m going to put myself in there.
iRunFar: You got to be there. We interviewed Tom Evans also, and we asked him the same question. But how did the bromance partnership come about and how did it last so dang long?
Miller: Probably just lonely desperation that is the middle of the night at Courmayeur.
Miller: No, I mean that beginning pace was hot. I didn’t know how hot it was until Tom and I start doing the math going down to Courmayeur. Tom [said] we’re going to get to Courmayeur in like 8:40, and then we got to Courmayeur in 8:30. And I think it had been a pack of four: Kilian, Jim [Walmsley], me, and Tom. And when we got to the top of the Pyramides after Col de la Seigne, Jim and Kilian gapped me and Tom going down the technical descent. And then Tom and I regrouped on the next climb.
And then as we were approaching Courmayeur, we just started chatting. And we were kind of like, well do you want to work together? And I was game and he was game. So, then we just worked together. And we started realizing at some point that it was anybody’s race. We were like, this pace is really hot, so anybody could blow up. And if we stay steady back here, and somebody in front of us was up, we could end up in that top three. I didn’t do [it] but Tom was able to do it. Tom was like very determined, we’re getting one of us on that podium.
iRunFar: I love that. That’s fun.
Miller: Yeah, there was actually talk, which is strange. There was actually talk of if we both got to that spot, there’s talk of sharing it. Tom suggested it in the race. He’s like, if we get to third, and we’re in La Floria together, what do you think about sharing it?
iRunFar: It really was a bromance. [laughs]
Miller: And I was like, that’s not really my nature. And so I was kind of like …
iRunFar: I have to think about this and get back to you.
Miller: Yeah. I kind of hesitated and didn’t give him a straight answer. I think I was like, well, let’s see. Like, let’s cross that bridge if we get to it. Let’s see how we feel when we get there, whatever.
iRunFar: I think you answered his question. It was not yes.
Miller: But no. But then later in the race, we were running. We ran together for a long time.
iRunFar: I think you ran together for 60k, 70k.
Miller: Well essentially, he caught me shortly after Notre Dame. And then we went up and that group of four started to form. So we essentially ran together from just after Notre Dame all the way to Vallorcine.
iRunFar: Wow, so you ran together for over 100k.
Miller: Yeah, so his proposal wore on me over time, and after a while, it was actually just such a nice camaraderie. It’s such a nice effort to work together. As much as I’m a race-to-the-line kind of guy and tying is like kissing your sister. Like, it wore on me. And I was like, well, if we did all this effort to work together to achieve something that would have been that much harder for us to do alone, it would be kind of nice to share it.
iRunFar: And kiss your sister. [laughs]
Miller: Yeah. Well not that, but … So at some point in the race, I was like, you know, Tom, if we do get that third. Now granted, don’t think I’m getting soft. This is also me when I’m in the midst of a lot of pain. So in that altered state.
iRunFar: Slightly compromised state.
Miller: I was like, you know, Tom, if we do get to that third, I was like my usual beat around the bush, kind of not so directly self. And I was like, if we do get that third spot, it is sounding very appealing to share it. Which also means we don’t have to hammer each other out in the final, but he also said La Floria, which is so late. I think he’s still a competitive guy. He’s going to potentially try and hammer me between Vallorcine and La Floria.
iRunFar: I can see you both would have done that.
Miller: There’s a lot of competition that could occur between where we were and La Floria. So, it didn’t happen because I started to bonk 800 meters before Vallorcine.
Miller: I was getting dizzy and I said to Tom, “I’m getting like kind of dizzy.” And he was like, “Well, let me lead and you can follow. You can tuck in behind me.” And so I let him take the lead. And then he didn’t need to run slowly as I was and he got a bit ahead of me. Which was fine, but then I had to take care of myself in the aid station.
iRunFar: Eat some food.
Miller: Yeah. And I hoped to close the gap, catch back up. And you know, maybe work together to catch Walmsley. But he ran really strong that last section and I didn’t run super strong. I was able to hold my position. I tried to catch Walmsley. He left La Flégère, I think, a couple of minutes before I did. But I think it was interesting at the end of the race, because I think Walmsley was struggling to climb and I was struggling to descend. So I think we were like playing this game. And it just wasn’t working. Because neither one of us could catch each other.
iRunFar: Could get a big enough gap or to catch the other.
Miller: Yeah. So then Tom got Walmsley. All those guys out there are great. So it was good to see Walmsley have a get up there on the podium and have that strong finish. But it was also nice to see Tom get up there, get that third that we had kind of been working all night
iRunFar: Talking about. Yeah.
Miller: Yeah, to try and get.
iRunFar: Well, you achieved your goal of getting one of you in that spot.
Miller: Yeah, we got one of us on that spot. So yeah, it was good.
iRunFar: That’s a great bromance.
Miller: Yeah, yeah. And, yeah, I was bummed that I got dropped at Vallorcine. I wish I could have stayed with Tom and maybe we could. But at the same time, if Tom would have stayed with me I don’t know if we would have, maybe together I would have been strong enough to follow Tom up to Walmsley. But that’s hard to say. I think Tom had a bit more in his tank than I did. And I wouldn’t have wanted him to waste that. So, everybody should empty their own tank, and then whatever the order is at the finish is what it is.
Miller: What did it feel like crossing the line to take fifth place at UTMB in this field, like with the history that you have, you know, with this event and the long like comeback trail from surgery?
iRunFar: Yeah, I think other years I’ve crossed the line at UTMB with a lot of like disappointment, especially my first year. Ludo[vic Pommeret] and I were first and second at Trient, and then I fell all the way to sixth. Which was still a good performance, but I was very heartbroken. And then I think the year I was ninth, things didn’t really go how I wanted. So this year it just felt good to get there with a performance that I felt good about. And I knew that the field was so strong. I mean, it’s been strong for years, but I feel like it’s getting so fast. Like two guys under 20 hours, pretty soon if you want to win UTMB you’re going to have to show up prepared to run under 20 hours.
iRunFar: Fast and deep too, because like …
Miller: Incredibly deep.
iRunFar: There’s no room for little bobbles, but there’s no room for big bobbles these days.
Miller: It’s feeling like the Tour de France like, like I think it was I thought at some point. The crowds also help it feel like that, like Saint Gervais was nuts. I jokingly said to my North Face teammates today, because we’re talking about CCC and how crazy fast Petter [Engdahl] ran that race. And I was like it’s getting so fast. I might offend some people. It was like, it’s like starting to turn into like a real sport. I was like, I’m going to be too slow after a while. Like I won’t be able to hack it in here.
But I mean, it’s been a real sport all along, but it’s just like it’s been a budding sport. And a budding sport will just continue to get faster as it grows in popularity. And it’s kind of scary to think what might happen. Not scary, but it’s exciting to think what might happen, especially with like, the Skyrunners Kenya project and the more diversity we’re starting to see in the fields. This year, Des Linden and Molly Seidel were hanging out here. I was like, this is great for our sport, because these guys access a whole different realm of people.
iRunFar: A whole different group of people, right?
Miller: Molly’s just like sitting in the streets of Chamonix, Instagramming the start or whatever. It’s really interesting to see what might happen, but yeah, it’s getting really fast out there. [laughs]
iRunFar: Well, fifth place at UTMB. I’d say you’re part of it.
Miller: Yeah. No, I feel good. And I’m really happy with that performance. And you can always, always shoot to improve upon it. But I’m also very happy with the moment right now.
iRunFar: Yeah. Well done.
Miller: Thank you.