In this interview, he talks about how the race played out from his perspective, the ways in which it resembled and differed from last year’s race, what it felt like to be out front for a time, and the significance of the men’s race being won by an American.
For more on how the race played out, read our in-depth UTMB results article.
Zach Miller Post-2023 UTMB Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Sarah Brady of iRunFar. I’m here the day after the 2023 UTMB with second-place man, Zach Miller. Zach, congratulations.
Zach Miller: Thank you, Sarah.
iRunFar: So, how has your last few hours been since you finished? How are you feeling? Have you gotten any sleep?
Miller: Yeah, I’ve gotten some fairly restless sleep. But yeah, a bit of sleep and a bit of food as well. So that should start helping me down the recovery road.
iRunFar: Okay, I guess you’re still trying to process everything that’s happened as well.
Miller: Yeah, I think my body is still just kind of coming down off of all the caffeine during the race and just sort of getting back to a state of equilibrium.
iRunFar: Yeah. So just to talk about the first half of the race. It was pretty close. You were running with Jim [Walmsley] I think, for a good while. And then he moved ahead, I think, just shortly before Courmayeur, was it? So how was that earlier part? Was it quite intense running together? Were you just chatting for a time or how did that work?
Miller: Yeah, I mean, Jim and I have done this race so many times. This year actually played out very, very similar in the front half to last year. Very familiar. Like, Jim and I kind of sat back a little at the beginning. We caught up to everyone on the first climb. Got in that lead pack. That lead pack broke down to me and Jim and Tom Evans, which was exactly the same as last year, except no Kilian [Jornet]. But it felt different to me. The run from Saint Gervais to Les Contamines felt really good to me this year. I guess I led the charge for most of that. I didn’t pull my poles out until it’s kind of rolling up. But a lot of guys still pulled their poles out. I didn’t pull my poles out until the last little steep climb on that section. I was just feeling really good. Then it was me and Jim and Tom going into there, and out of there. We just kind of grouped up. I did not feel as good on the climb, the first big climb over Notre Dame. But I think part of that is Jim and Tom are probably both like six foot something.
Miller: And I’m five foot six. And I found both last year and this year, my rhythm does not match their rhythm when we’re hiking.
Miller: If you’re all running, you can run at a higher cadence or whatever. But when you’re hiking, it’s that sort of like, rhythmic long stride. And their stride is so long, it’s hard for me to match it. And that seems to just kind of mess with me, and makes it feel harder than it should be.
iRunFar: Yeah. It’s good that you know that and can just accept, “Okay, they’re better at this bit, but I’ll get them later on.”
Miller: Yeah, I sort of just have to find, I’ll like, hike a few steps then run a few steps, and then hike a few steps, and then run a few steps. Or sometimes will fall into a little trot. And then I’m almost more comfortable just doing that. If we can get the whole group just kind of trotting rather than hiking.
Miller: But we stayed, the three of us, very similar to last year, stayed together all the way up Col de Seigne. And then, you know, you’re curious. Like, is it going to be exactly the same? Like is Jim going to make all the same moves as last year? And we went down. It was very foggy as soon as we got to Italy. Like, you could barely see. Visibility was really low. And we went down to the bottom of the Pyramids. Made the Pyramids climb. Last year, I remember that feeling. feeling like Jim was making a move. He climbed really strong up the Pyramids, and the group sort of started to break up. This year we went up strong, but it didn’t really feel like Jim was making a move. We basically all stayed together. But when we went down, that was the next question. Because last year him and Kilian took off on the descent, and Tom and I did not keep up. This year was similar, but again, not quite the same. I could see glimpses of Jim’s headlamp pretty much the whole way down. He was faster down the Pyramids, but I could at least keep his headlamp in sight most of the way. He got to Lac Combal a little bit before me. Tom got to Lac Combal just after me. We all left Lac Combal probably 30 to 60 seconds apart.
Miller: And yeah, then when we start climbing again, the last little climb before descending to Courmayeur, that’s where Tom fell back. I started climbing. Wanted to see if I could catch up to Jim. And then Tom disappeared behind me. I never caught Jim on that climb. I think I may have caught a glimpse of his headlamp at the aid station, the final aid station before we descend into Courmayeur, but never actually caught up to him. Got to Courmayeur and he was still there.
Miller: And then he left first and I left slightly after.
iRunFar: You were well enough spaced out at that point, though. Like, he has a good few minutes and then you had quite a gap on third. So, you were quite on your own there for a while. Was that kind of nice? Was it easier to just run at your own pace when there’s no one right beside you?
Miller: Yeah, so some of the nicest parts of the race were actually where I ended up alone. So, at first it was in this gap between Tom and Jim. I didn’t have to worry about matching their stride, and I just kind of found my own rhythm. And that was actually really, really nice. The other thing I changed this year was I actually strategically took caffeine leaving Courmayeur. I always feel so bad in that stretch from Courmayeur to the base of Grand Col Ferret. And it’s a bummer because a lot of is a balcony trail. It’s very runnable.
Miller: But it’s like, 3:00 in the morning and I just feel awful.
iRunFar: Yeah. That seemed to be one of your really good patches this year, though.
Miller: Yeah, every year that’s probably not a particularly good patch for me. And this year that was a really strong bit. Yeah, and I think the caffeine and just sort of being in a better mental headspace helped with that.
iRunFar: Yeah. Okay. And I think you made a bit of a move then, was it on the climb up Grand Col Ferret. Was that when you started to take the lead or close on Jim a little?
Miller: Sort of. I mean, I didn’t really feel like I was making a big move. I was feeling good going up out of Courmayeur. I was just kind of like, okay, find your rhythm. Like, just do this well, and then go across Balcony Trail is just kind of, okay, find your rhythm again. And I found this really good rhythm, and it was feeling really good. And then I just ended up catching Jim. I mean, I was looking for him. But it wasn’t like, we need to break away. I just caught him. I passed him right before Bonatti. And then slightly after Bonatti, we were just going different paces. I don’t know if he was holding back, or if he wasn’t feeling good. I sensed maybe he wasn’t feeling good, but I was, so I just kind of continued running the pace I was running, and he didn’t go with me. And it was actually funny because my headlamp has a cord that goes down into my pack. And it was a little loose. So like, you might think this is crazy, but the entire night my headlamp cord just like, kept smacking my back.
iRunFar: Oh, god.
Miller: And it sounds it makes a sound like someone is right on your tail.
iRunFar: Yeah. [laughs]
Miller: And I could have stopped it fixed it, but I was like, you know what, it’s kind of good, because it keeps me honest. Like, when I passed Jim, for a while I was running and I wasn’t looking behind. I was like, well, I don’t know if he’s still with me or not. Because there’s that noise, but I think it might just be a cord. And eventually, I looked behind me. He’s not even there.
iRunFar: It’s just headlamp Jim. [laughs]
Miller: It’s just headlamp Jim.
iRunFar: So you’re well at front end when I seen you coming into Champex-Lac, and how did that feel then to be leading the race? Was it a little scary or was it just good?
Miller: Oh, I felt very good going into Champex-Lac. I was amazed how long like, when I said I started feeling good, I was thinking about that this morning. I was trying to think how long I felt good. Because sometimes you get a high for 15 minutes and then it’s done, but I just felt really good for a really long time. And not overexerting myself. Just this is very smooth and efficient, and a good pace, but I’m not like, pushing pushing. And so yeah, I felt good going into Champex-Lac. I was a bit concerned about the guys behind me, because I had…
iRunFar: Germain [Grangier] was pressuring.
Miller: They were starting the climb and I was like, that’s like, a little closer than I’d, you know. Or I thought maybe they were a little farther behind. But yeah, I felt good going into there. And I was really just waiting to get to Champex. And then I was like, basically the whole race, in my mind starts in Champex. Like, the race doesn’t start until Champex. We’re just getting there, smooth and comfortable. And then that’s where we start racing.
iRunFar: Okay, and it was a close race then even. Did you feel like you had to keep battling to hold on for second the whole way?
Miller: Once Jim passed me, yes. It was a mix of trying not to give up, and I was still fighting to try to catch Jim one more time. And then also kind of scary because Germain was 12 minutes behind me forever. He was just always right there. Which is close enough that you can’t relax.
Miller: And yeah, so I was very much running scared from him, but also trying to catch Jim. Because it was very tough when Jim caught me. I was pretty bummed. I mean, it was like, we were kind of cheering each other on, as we passed each other, but it was also like, we both wanted to win, right?
iRunFar: Of course.
Miller: So I was bummed to lose the lead, but I was like, okay. There’s a lot of racing left. There’s even time to regroup, eat well, drink well, and then attack again. You never know, maybe he hits a low and I hit high. Or maybe I can just push super hard. So yeah, I was trying to stay engaged and keep pushing.
iRunFar: Okay. And then, so your time, like, sub-20 hours is pretty special. But was that something you were paying any attention to trying to break 20? Or were you just focusing on the guys in the race?
Miller: I think I ran 21:37 last year. So, before the race I said, when people asked me, I said I wanted to run under 21. And on a really good day, under 20, but on like, a really good day. And in the race, no. In the race I wasn’t paying too much attention to it. I did see that we were getting to Courmayeur pretty quick, like similar to last year, I think. But no, not really until probably somewhere around Trient or so. I was kind of looking at, doing some math and being like, yeah, that sub-20 might be within reach. But then we got to Vallorcine. I was trying to do the math. And I wasn’t exactly sure how long it would take. The course was slightly modified this year. It’s kind of slightly modified every other year. But it was close to the normal course, but there were some changes. And I wasn’t exactly sure how long that slightly different finish would take. But it seemed like it was within reach, but it was going to be close. And then when I got to La Flégère, even there I wasn’t sure if I could do it. I was like, “How long does it take to run into Chamonix?” I was like, “How many miles is it?” And then when I was getting to town people were like “You can do it.” Like, “You can do it. You can do sub-20.” And I was looking at my watch a lot on the streets coming in, sprinting to bring it in hard, but then also sprinting to try to get under 20.
iRunFar: Okay. And I know you’d said about your last big race where we interviewed you about the Trail World Champs [80k], you wrote about it afterwards that you had kind of some regret that you kind of felt you didn’t fully leave it all out there. Or you didn’t have that drive. It sounds like you really corrected that this time. Were you happy that you just left it all out there and had all the fight that you needed?
Miller: Yeah, yeah, much happier. I mean, I put myself where I wanted to be, which was in the lead group and essentially covered moves and raced people. And, it would have been really easy to just give up on Jim. I know I didn’t, like I know his lead grew after he caught me, but mentally I did not. I was still trying to catch him. And leaving Vallorcine, I was running hard, hard. And at the bottom of the climb I was running quite hard being just like, Okay, maybe it’s possible. Like, I know he’s 10 to 15 minutes up, but maybe I can still do it. So I didn’t quit on myself. And I feel really good about that. Hats off to Jim. He was so strong out there. I mean, he was just not coming back. But yeah, he ran a brilliant race and tactically a really brilliant race. But yeah, I was much happier with how I attacked the race as opposed to at Worlds.
iRunFar: Okay, awesome. Yeah, it’s really nice to know you gave it your best anyway. But then you did say pre-race you’ve been coming here for a long time, since 2015 when you ran CCC, that you want to win this some day. So now you’ve gotten close enough to almost taste it. So, will you have to come back and try again?
Miller: Yeah, that’s a good question. I was just talking about this this morning. I said to someone this morning, I feel like a big thing I was chasing was, even though I think an American man winning the race is somewhat of an irrelevant statistic, just because there’s plenty of countries who have never had a man or woman or anyone win the race. I don’t know. In my mind is just, it’s kind of a neat statistic in a way, but it’s also kind of irrelevant. It’s just a person winning race. But even so, I was still chasing it because it was like, it’d be cool to have that on your resume. And so, I think that was partly the persistence in coming back, because I didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity to do that. Because it was like, well, if I don’t come and then someone else does it, then like, I miss it. I kind of missed my chance. But now, chasing the win is not as an urgent thing.
Miller: Because you can take a year off and then come another year, and still chase the win, because that’s just an individual accolade. You’re not competing with other people for this first-ever spot. So yeah, especially after being second, it’s like, oh, man, it would really be nice to have that UTMB Champion title someday. I don’t know if I’ll ever get it. So, I am tempted to come back. But I’m not going to make those decisions right now. I think there’s at least a good chance that next year, I may take a year off and do a different race other than UTMB, and then maybe come back in a future year.
iRunFar: Okay. I think you’ve shown that you can do it anyway. And this race will be here for a while longer as will you. So, yeah. So thanks so much, and hope you enjoy your recovery and a bit of downtime there.
Miller: Oh, thank you very much.