Two-time defending champion Zach Miller is back at the 2017 The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Championships. In this interview, Zach talks about why he was such a late entrant into the TNF 50, how his injuries have in large part controlled his training and racing this year, how he recovered from his ninth place at UTMB, and if he’s healthy and fit once again.
Be sure to read our in-depth men’s and women’s previews, and follow our race-day live coverage.
Zach Miller Pre-2017 The North Face 50 Mile Championships Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Bryon Powell of iRunFar with co-host Dylan Bowman, and our guest right now is Zach Miller going into the 2017 TNF 50. Welcome, two-time champ.
Zach Miller: Thank you. It’s good to be here.
iRunFar: You are back for another year. You were 11th a couple years ago and then won back-to-back. Will you make it three in a row?
Miller: We’ll see. That would be awesome, but it’s anybody’s day out there. We’ll see what happens.
iRunFar: You were a very late entrant into this race. Were you on the fence for a long time? What made you decide to go ahead and get off that fence?
Miller: Yeah, I think I kind of suffer from male non-committal syndrome. Yeah, I was just really on the fence because the gap between UTMB and this race was three weeks shorter this year. I felt like last year was tight. With the 100s, you always give your body some time to come back around. I just kind of took my sweet time seeing how the body was feeling and making that decision.
iRunFar: It seems to be the story of your 2017—waiting around seeing how your body is.
Miller: Yeah, it’s been largely because I’ve been battling injuries this year which is really abnormal for me. I’m not normally doing that. I’m just healthy. I at least have a body that feels like it can commit to races. This year was a little different—struggling to kind of commit in the first place and then for much of the year having a body that wasn’t quite cooperating. It made it extra hard to make those decisions. Yeah, I don’t like that. That’s not how I want to run my season, but that’s kind of the way it ended up this year.
Dylan Bowman: Tell us about your injuries. What happened earlier in the year, and how do you think that has affected the progression of your season?
Miller: It basically gave it a slower start and not quite the set-up that I wanted. Coming out of late winter and early spring, I slipped on some ice and messed up my back. I tried to run through it and that didn’t work. I had to take five to six weeks off not running at all which I never do. Then the initial injury started to heal, but then as I started training again, it developed a new injury on the other side of my back. Then at one point I wasn’t so much battling the initial injury anymore as this new issue. That kind of plagued me. I was still able to train and prep for UTMB, but I wasn’t able to prep the way I wanted to. Coming out of UTMB, it seemed to improve quite a bit. The human body is weird. You run 100 miles and it fixes it self. It wasn’t completely fixed, but it was doing better. It just kept getting better and better. Then in the lead up to this race, it got to the point where I could pretty much train the way I wanted. It wasn’t, Oh, I can’t do that workout because my injury might flare up. I could pretty much do what I wanted, and it just kept getting better and better and better. Then I got to this race.
Bowman: What have you done between UTMB and this race to prepare? How did you recover? Do you think the fact that you didn’t race earlier in the year helped you recover post-UTMB and train for this?
Miller: I don’t know if it helped me. I’d say more just having run the 100-mile distance before. I did feel that UTMB recovery went faster this year and afterward training started to click faster. Last year it was pretty sluggish. I think it was more just my body experiencing that 100-mile distance before. It kind of knew how to recover better. It was just a little more conditioned. The nice thing is, yeah, I guess coming into this race, it’s my second ultra of the year. It’s not like I’ve raced a ton, which is good.
iRunFar: Does that give you a little bit extra… because you have to think about yourself comparatively to some degree and there are a lot of people who have raced a lot more than once.
Miller: Yeah, but at the same time, I’m still searching for that race this year where yeah, I’ve still got it. Last year I raced well at Madeira. I was on. UTMB was not quite what I wanted, but it was still strong. So I kind of had that confidence.
iRunFar: You haven’t had that success at a fast ultra yet this year because…
Miller: Yeah, I haven’t run one, so it’s like, I guess you could say I’m really hungry. I want to go out there like, Yeah, I’ve still got it. Yeah, I did race one small trail race in Pennsylvania between here and UTMB to kind of test the waters and see where it’s at.
iRunFar: Which one?
Miller: I did a tiny little race called the Dire Wolf.
iRunFar: There are a whole bunch of great little trail races in Central PA.
Miller: Yeah, it was a 10-mile trail race. I just wanted to go out and throw down the hammer for a full 10 miles.
iRunFar: You crushed some rocks along the way?
Miller: Yeah, there were definitely some rocks. It was actually a cool course with a mix of… some of it was like cross country running, some of it was rocky trail, and then some fire roads which was good practice for here.
iRunFar: I can’t help but ask. We’re about to talk to Hayden Hawks next. Last year you and Hayden had one heck of a showdown. Are you excited to…?
Miller: Yeah, a competition like that makes you nervous and gets the jitters going on the start line, but that’s exactly what we want. We want races to have that type of head to head… not rivalry, but just competition. Hayden is a great guy. I think there are some other guys there this year in the mix that should make it even more interesting. Last year was just amazing. We ran that fast because we were racing each other all day.
iRunFar: Is it even possible to race earlier? It seemed like from the gun you guys were…
Bowman: It’s not possible to race earlier.
iRunFar: Can you guys just race right now—a good 21 hours early?
Bowman: Warm up while racing?
Miller: Yeah, we were pretty much right out of the gun last year. It could be more this year? You could always go faster. You know what I mean? I think maybe the question more this year will be what pace does it go out at and who’s in the group? I think this year there could very well be a bigger group with the field that’s in here. Maybe there won’t be a group at all. Maybe someone is just going to shoot off the front and run by themselves. I don’t know, but I think there are so many competitive and strong guys in this field that could go out at a fast early pace. Basically the only thing I know is that Saturday is going to hurt. A lot. After last year, it’s basically going to be the most painful day of my entire year. That’s pretty daunting, but that’s also what I love.
Bowman: Can you give us a little insight into your training? I don’t want to blow up your spot too much, but at the first day of our The North Face Athlete Summit, the first day you did four hours of training. You had said you’ve pretty much been doing that for 10 days in a row at that point. You’re not on Strava, so nobody really knows what you do. Without giving away too many secrets, can you tell us what it’s looked like over the past few weeks?
Miller: Yeah, you should probably ask my buddy standing outside who lives with me. We were talking to Blake Hose last night and we were talking about how Tim Freriks works as a nurse, so he’s got three days where he’s got three days where he works and four days off, and he thinks it helps him structure his training so he doesn’t overtrain. I was talking to him about that and kind of agreeing. We were talking about how you can play those cycles when your life dictates. Barr Camp in the fall is labor intensive on chores, but you can kind of do those when you want, so there’s a lot of time to go out and train. My buddy was joking while we were sitting there at dinner, “Yeah, or you can kind of just go out for five or six hours every day.” I was like… it’s not necessarily that every day, but when you saw me in Sedona, yeah, it was starting to crank up. I don’t necessarily keep super-strict tabs on it. I kind of have a general method that I’m following, but sometimes you just start to hit those weeks where it starts to click. You just start stacking up big days, and it just keeps rolling. I was maybe kind of in the middle of that. I was also traveling, so on that road trip, I started off with a run down the mountain and a big route elsewhere in Colorado. I probably had a 6.5-hour day with 30-some miles. The next day I ran up Mount Humphreys in Flag. I was there, and it’s fun to do. Alicia Vargo said, “You should run up Humphreys!” I went out, and I felt terrible. So I was like, I’m going to keep going.
Bowman: Are a lot of days you just have an idea of what to do, and you build in some intensity?
Miller: Yeah, there’s usually five days a week where I just run. Just go out and run and if I want to run fast, run fast, and if I want to run slow, I run slow. I just get the hours in. There’s usually a limit. I want at least three hours today. I’m not running six hours every day, but I have moments where I start to just go. I might have a three-hour day, then a four-hour day, and then a five-hour day, and then maybe I take a three-hour day again. It just starts to… I don’t know… I have trouble controlling myself.
iRunFar: We’re going to control this interview and wrap this up. Best of luck to you, Zach, this weekend, and have fun out there.
Miller: Thank you.
Bowman: Threepeat! Threepeat! Good luck!
Miller: We’ll see. We’ll see.
iRunFar: Bonus question because I’ve been looking at it all morning. Is this THE Casio from the finish-line photos from the last couple years?
Miller: This is THE Casio. I bought this in Madeira for $5.
iRunFar: This is relatively new? This is not like you had this in high school?
Miller: No, because when I trained for Madeira, I trained without a watch. I used the cabin clock. I just looked and came back and looked. If it wasn’t long enough, I went back out. When I got to Madeira, I had no watch to check my nutrition with, so that’s why I wear it.
iRunFar: It’s not old enough to have a name or anything like that?
Miller: No, it doesn’t have a name. It’s just, “The Casio.”