Can the third time be the charm for Zach Miller at the 2018 UTMB? In the following interview, Zach talks about his big August of training on the UTMB course and the risks it involved, what drives him to race besides just winning, and how exactly he’s addressed some of his weaknesses in his training and race preparations.
Zach Miller Pre-UTMB 2018 Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Meghan Hicks of iRunFar and I’m with Zach Miller. It’s the day before the 2018 UTMB. Here we are again, Mr. Miller.
Zach Miller: Yeah, here we are again [laughs]. The third time, I guess.
iRunFar: The third time’s a charm, perhaps. I just arrived a couple of days ago, but you have been here for a while. What’s been going on?
Miller: I’ve been here for about a month. I was in Alaska for a week, I think I left there on July 31 and got here on the 1st. I’ve been here since then, just training. I’ve never really taken the “train on the course, do all the recon, be really specific” to pretty much any race. Except for The North Face 50 [Endurance Challenge 50-Mile Championships] and only in the sense that I know what it’s like because I’ve done it before, so I kind of mimic it in Colorado. But I’ve never really done the whole “come over to Chamonix for a month to train on the course” and I figured I’d give it a shot this year and kind of go all-in. We had enough hands at Barr Camp for me to finally do that, so that was one of the main things leading to that decision. There were finally enough people working at the camp for me to get away.
iRunFar: So you’ve had a proper European vacation.
Miller: Yeah, I guess so. It’s probably not quite like other people’s European vacations, but, yeah, I’ve definitely been over here for a while and it’s been good.
iRunFar: We need to set the rumors to rest. How many times did you run around Mont Blanc between August 1 and when you started to taper?
Miller: This is kind of funny. As soon as I started to get back into town and people started showing up for the race, I was getting all of these questions. I met this guy, Anthony, when I was training and we’ve become friends. I was like, “Anthony, I think I’m going to get a lot of questions for when the race comes.” Yesterday I was talking to one of our BUFF guys and I was saying, “the rumor’s growing, somebody came up to me and said ‘I heard you did it six times!'” I didn’t do it six. I went around four times.
iRunFar: Four complete loops. Were you on the TMB the whole time, or did you go off on some other courses?
Miller: No, on the UTMB course: up the pyramides, down the pyramides. Basically, I tried to stick as closely to the course as I could. Ironically, the only part I couldn’t really get was going down into Saint-Gervais [21 kilometers/13 miles on the UTMB course], which is ironic because that’s the part I messed up last year. That descent has like a million options in turns and signs. You go through some cow pastures and things. I feel like I got a lot of it right, but the course was never marked when I was out there and I never train with a GPS. So, I knew I was mostly correct, but I always came into town at a different spot. I mean, I pretty much always entered town the same way, but it was different from what the race does and I knew it. One day I kind of ran backward to try and figure out exactly how it comes in. On race day, when it’s marked–I mean, I didn’t have any issues my first year. It was just last year where I got kind of lackadaisical. So, that was the one point where I couldn’t quite remember how it was marked. I stuck to the course. Sometimes I veered off just to go bivy somewhere, like I do an extra little climb or something just to go up somewhere to sleep and then come back down in the morning. My last loop, I was staying in hotels and hostels, so I ran up to Les Contamines and then back to Saint-Gervais because I was staying in Saint-Gervais. So I tacked on some extra miles that day. Otherwise, I basically stuck to the route.
iRunFar: The TMB. Now you basically know it by heart.
Miller: Yeah, I guess so. I raced it twice, I ran it four times, and I did it once a few years ago before JFK 50 Mile. So, I guess that’s seven.
iRunFar: And another two-thirds with CCC.
Miller: Yeah, now will it bode well for race day? Hopefully. But right now all it means is that I’ve gone around that loop a few times.
iRunFar: But in terms of numbers, what that means is you trained a lot. The volume was pretty high.
Miller: Yeah, it was [shrugs]. It was high volume. It was different training for me because I wasn’t finishing a big run and then going to cook for 45 people. I could put my sleeping bag down on the ground and go to sleep, then wake up whenever I wanted. You know, if I was hungry, I could eat. If I was tired, I could sleep. The only thing I needed to accomplish each day was, for the most part, to wake up and run. That was different, it changes the aspect of things.
But yeah, it was big, it was a lot. I know it was a lot, and my body could feel it was a lot. By the end of it, I was very tired. The last day of it was really good–the last day of the fourth loop, I was really happy with how it went. After that, it all starts to settle in, to sink in. The next day, I went out for a run with a friend and I was like, “I don’t have much of a gas pedal, but that’s okay because I shouldn’t.” It was like that, you know, for a little while at the beginning of the taper. It makes you worry, and you wonder, “Did I overdo it? Am I overcooked?” It’s hard, but you try to trust it. In time the energy comes back. I slept a lot more than I’m used to. I ate. I got massage. Bit by bit, the body comes around.
iRunFar: So, here we are standing in Chamonix. The race starts tomorrow. How does your body feel after that huge training load, and then a taper?
Miller: Yeah, there was a taper and, to be honest, it was a more aggressive taper than I usually do. It was probably because the training load was so big at the end and I knew it; I knew I needed some rest. I felt like I needed some rest. Usually, for a big race like this, it’s a two-week taper. I’d say I took the first week of taper lighter than I normally would. Then I took the last week of taper probably on par with what I’d normally do. Maybe a little lighter. Yeah, the legs feel good. I did kind of freak out Sunday night. I went out and did a little run and felt really good, then that night I felt achy and kind of like I was getting a cold. It just freaks you out. Then, the next day, I still felt strange in the morning so I just waited and did a really kind of easy run in the evening. It actually felt good. I feel good. Sometimes I do feel, “Oh, am I a little sick?” Maybe there’s still something a little linger, but there’s so many nerves and emotions. I’ve had that before in races and then the race ends and I feel completely fine. There’s nothing here; I’m not sick. It could be a slight cold, I don’t know, but today I feel good and I’ve just been mindful of getting a lot of rest and stuff like that. Just trying to be 100% for race day.
iRunFar: Right on. You’re a two-time finisher of UTMB. Your first go was in 2016 and you got fifth place. Your second go last year got you ninth place. Now you’re back again. Whenever I see people return to a race, I think hunger. Are you still really hungry for this race, and for your best race here?
Miller: Yeah. Tim Tollefson and I just did a podcast with Billy Yang and we were talking–not about hunger–but he was bringing up the fact that, you know, still no American male has won this race. I said, “Yeah, that’s definitely a really tempting carrot.” There are quite a few who are after that accolade. We were also talking about how I’ve been like, “How can I run this race and still have some other purpose or fulfillment if you don’t get that at the end?” Like Tim said, even if you win everything, there’s still a sense of “What’s next?” No matter what you achieve.
iRunFar: When you win, that’s the first question people start asking you. You’re like, “Can’t I just enjoy this?”
Miller: Yeah, if I accomplish this, I’m going to feel like I accomplished my life’s work. I don’t plan to retire or anything, but I’m going to be like, “This is the biggest goal I had on my plate for like the past three years.” You have no guarantee of achieving it or anything, but you have those thoughts: What if it were to happen? What would I think? It’s definitely a really tempting carrot, but I want to see… I want there to be more to the race than just that winning aspect. Of course I want to win, I’m competitive, but I know there’s like 20 different guys in this race who could win.
I used the example, when we talked about it with Billy, of Desi Linden when she won the Boston Marathon this year. I didn’t even watch the race because I live at Barr Camp, but from what I read of the race, they told this bizarre story of this runner who had waited for Shalane Flanagan when she had to use the bathroom, to help her back up the group. There was some other instance where she helped another runner get back in the pack, I forget what she did. If her sole goal was to win that race, you wouldn’t wait for Shalane. There must be something deeper to Desi, that she’s doing all this. Either she’s given up on her day and she’s like, “Oh, I’ll just help these other people if I can because I’m not going to win,” or there’s something in Desi that sees more than just the winning aspect. I think that’s really cool and that made the Boston story this year, like a million times better than any other year. In the end, Desi won the whole race, which is crazy because Desi’s not supposed to win that race. I’m not bashing Desi. I’m saying, the type of runner Desi is, and you could ask her yourself, she’d say, “I’m not supposed to win Boston unless maybe it’s a conditions year like that.” Conditions like that, that’s Desi’s race. In a normal year, if you rank them up all by their PRs, a betting man doesn’t pick Desi. The fans pick Desi, but the betting man doesn’t, not in a good conditions race at least.
iRunFar: Let’s talk for a minute about nutrition. Last year you had a big bonk. Was it between Grand Col Ferret and Champex-Lac?
Miller: I had a really big bonk there my first year. I don’t know, maybe I bonked there last year, too. I don’t remember a huge bonk there last year. I remember I had a really big bonk there the first year because I got up Grand Col Ferret [101.8 kilometers/63.3 miles], basically couldn’t see anybody’s headlamp behind me. Got to La Fouly [111 kilometers/69 miles] and was told I had 24 minutes. Got to Champex-Lac [125.9 kilometers/78 miles] and there were two other people that were in the aid station with me. I had hit a huge bonk in between.
iRunFar: Okay, I might be confusing the two years, then.
Miller: I mean, I did have my fair share of struggles last year, so there could’ve been a rough patch in there, too. I think I had a rough descent off Grand Col Ferret, and then a better run from La Fouly up. So you might be thinking of from the top of Grand Col Ferret down. I wasn’t so hot there.
iRunFar: Have you… I mean, I kind of asked the same question of Tim Tollefson the other day… the order of magnitude that you need to improve in this race at this point. You’ve already had such strong performances, we’re talking about like micro-percentages or micro-pieces of the puzzle. Do you spend time thinking about those little things that added up last year or this year? Do you dissect that and try to work on those?
Miller: I think this year we’ve been trying to work on my weaknesses. My prior weakness is planning. Anybody who knows me basically knows that. A 50-mile race, distance-wise, it takes half the planning. Logistics-wise, it takes maybe an eighth of the planning. So a 50-mile race, I’m only gone for six hours. Even for that I’m not the best planner, but I seem to have learned that. Whereas a 100-mile race, for me? If you’d say that a 100-mile race has planning as a big part of it and then you tell somebody that a 100-mile race is what I’m doing, it’d be like, “Well, that’s a stupid idea.”
iRunFar: “How’s Zach going to have success at this?”
Miller: Yeah, exactly. Fortunately, it’s been a very close sponsorship with Buff and our relationship together and they’ve learned my weaknesses. They’ve spent a lot of time with me, just doing normal things like eating, going to races together, all staying at the same house. They’ve learned what my issues are as a person and they see where those issues intertwine with my racing and they help guide me in the right direction. So they kind of encouraged me, they thought it would be a good idea for me to come and train on the course early. They knew last year I went off course, so it makes sense to come here and train early. They saw how I ran at the Trail Running World Championships in Spain and they knew how some of the other runners had done in preparation in terms of learning the course to prepare. They knew I only went the week of and didn’t know much of the course. So they saw those blunders and mistakes and were like, “We could do this better.”
Then with nutrition, they did the same thing. BUFF actually went through and made me a whole PowerPoint presentation this year to help me prepare for the race with all these statistics from last year’s times and stuff, like how long it took me to get from aid station to aid station, and what my nutrition plan had been last year. Then we sent it to Gu and Gu’s been very supportive, too. They have an in-house sports nutritionist so she sat down with all the info Buff had compiled and she asked me some questions, “What works for you? What doesn’t work for you? What are your struggles? What do you like? What don’t you like?” She took all that information and put together a nutrition strategy. Then we sat down the other day via Skype or whatever and hashed it all out: “This is what you should eat here and here, this is what you should drink.” Just laid it all out, which, in the past, has not at all been my approach. If you look back at my CCC, which is comical because that’s the race that I actually did win, the preparation was absolutely hilarious.
iRunFar: It’s also a shorter race by 10 hours.
Miller: Yes, so logistically you can get away with a lot more. Still, I look at it and it’s laughable. The whole Nike crew that year, we didn’t have a clue what we were doing. That’s really funny because three of us nailed it. We weren’t familiar with the gear. We were scrambling for pieces of gear at the last minute. I was throwing stuff together the night before. There was barely anything to the nutrition plan.
iRunFar: “Coke at aid stations for everybody!”
Miller: There was a little bit of a plan, but not much. Somehow it worked. Like you said, it was 100k. Had that race been 100 miles, I don’t know that I would’ve gotten away with it. And this race is 100 miles, so it takes a bit more.
iRunFar: So the short answer is that between you and the people that are on your side, you have addressed those micro-weaknesses.
Miller: Yeah, I’d say we’ve worked on them. Some of them, I wouldn’t even call them “micro.” They’re almost “macro.” They’re pretty big, some of those. So we’ve addressed some of those things. Now, will it work? Will I actually do it in the race? That’s a whole other question.
iRunFar: To be continued everybody.
Miller: My goal is to do it.
iRunFar: Two days from now we’ll have our answer.
Miller: You can do it in the race and then be like, “Well, it just wasn’t my day.” You never know. But we’ve tried to do what we can in advance to make it all work, so we’ve worked on those things.
iRunFar: Well, best of luck on your eighth-and-three-quarters journey around Mont Blanc.
Miller: Yeah, I guess so [laughs]. Hopefully it’ll be a good one. I’ve had fun already regardless.