Zach Miller of the U.S. placed fifth at the 2022 UTMB, as part of his comeback to full fitness after a prolonged period of injury. A year on, he is well and truly back — and ready for another bash at this iconic race.
In this interview, he reflects on his race from last year and contextualizes it against returning to UTMB again, and relays hope that he will have the fire needed to get the best out of himself this weekend.
Zach Miller Pre-2023 UTMB Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Meghan Hicks of iRunFar. I’m with Zach Miller. It’s a couple of days before the 2023 UTMB. Hi, Zach. Here we find ourselves again at UTMB.
Zach Miller: Yeah, yeah, it’s like a regular old reunion I suppose. [laughs]
iRunFar: [laughs] I mean, at this point, it really is. Your relationship with UTMB dates back to 20…
iRunFar: Well, 2015 for CCC. Is that right?
Miller: ’15 for the series and ’16 for the race itself.
iRunFar: Yeah, that’s eight years. And how many years have you been ultrarunning?
Miller: About that long. No, a little more than that. I think I started in 2013 with JFK, and a couple 50ks or something in like, 2013. So yeah, since then, like 10 years.
iRunFar: So, I think it’s fair to say that you have a regular old relationship with UTMB at this point.
Miller: Yeah. I guess you could say that. I at least faithfully come back every year, so, yeah, if that counts as a relationship.
iRunFar: I mean, it may not be a healthy relationship, but you come back every year. [laughs]
Miller: Whether or not it’s healthy is questionable. But yeah, I keep coming back.
iRunFar: You have two top 10 finishes at this race, a couple of DNFs, and coming back in 2023, after your best finish at UTMB last year, what keeps drawing you back to this race?
Miller: Yeah, I think it’s pretty simple. I’ve wanted to win this race for a long time. And that’s what keeps me coming back. I mean, that’s pretty much it. I do think it’s a great course. And it’s a very competitive race. And those are two things that really draw me to a race, but mostly it’s just a race I’ve wanted to win since the first time I ran it in 2016, I guess we just said. And yeah, I haven’t been able to do it, so that just keeps me coming back.
iRunFar: So, is it the win, or is it refinement of your performance through time that you’re after? Are we just here for the win?
Miller: The performance, I think, has been refining. Like, actually until last year, my highest finish was my first year when I finished sixth. And then I had a ninth. And then last year I had a fifth. So, it has been a refinement over the years. Last year I had a race that I was pleased with. Like I felt like it was a good performance. I actually left quite satisfied, but not fully satisfied, because I’ve always dreamt of winning. And I don’t know if I’ll ever do it, but I keep trying because I haven’t succeeded yet, and I’m stubborn like that.
iRunFar: Yeah. Well, I think we interviewed you after the race last year. So, if you want the full rundown of how Zach thought about his race the day after, you can check out that interview. But just as a reminder for us, the basis of your race was just sort of “steady as he goes” all race long, and it got a little tough for you in the in the last bit, but you kept it together.
Miller: Yeah, it was really just we started what seemed like aggressively at least. Especially when we started figuring out our splits at Courmayeur. I think, you know, everybody in the top four or five was kind of like, well, I don’t know if everyone, but at least I was like, Wow, we’re really moving here. But yeah, then I just kind of plugged away all day and there was like, I guess kind of like not a super high high or super low low until I got to Vallorcine. I dipped a bit on nutrition and I had to like, chug some Coke and pull it back together at Vallorcine. But then again kind of went like, you know, sort of, steady is relative at that point. Went kind of steady to the finish and was able to hold my position. So yeah, Steady Eddie was pretty much the way to describe last year.
iRunFar: And you, also just as a reminder, I think last year was the bromance with Tom Evans. Is that right?
Miller: Yeah, it was. We ran together for a long time. I mean, he was in the initial pack that formed shortly after Notre Dame. And then he and I stayed together all the way until just before Vallorcine where he got away from me.
iRunFar: While you were chugging Coke and bringing yourself back to life.
Miller: While I was trying to come back to life, he was getting away up the trail, which, hats off to him. He ran a great last 10 miles and ran a brilliant race. But yeah, it was actually this year I posted about a group run that I’m doing with The North Face tomorrow, and he actually commented or sent me a message and said, “I’ll wait until Friday.”
iRunFar: Aw, I love it.
Miller: He’s going to wait to have a group run on Friday. So.
iRunFar: The second annual Tom and Zach group run.
Miller: Yeah. That’s if I guess we can both have good days out there.
iRunFar: And so, given that you had what you would call a performance that you were happy with last year, you’ve had what I think is a pretty solid year of training and racing. Like, maybe just little blips here and there of things you need to take care of. But you won the Tarawera 100 Mile. You were in the top 10 at the Trail World Championships 80k. Like, do you feel a sense of, I don’t know what the right word is, extra confidence, or just extra knowing that you’re standing on all that?
Miller: Yeah, I think I’m starting to get that like, I’m starting to feel that consistency under me again, that I had in the early stages of my career. I mean, in the early stages, I just barely had any hiccups. And I just rolled the consistency train year after year, race after race. And it was just the snowball that just kept building. And then with my injury issues in recent years, that snowball kind of shattered and fell apart and melted.
iRunFar: Aw, the snowball melted.
Miller: Yeah. And now I feel like I’m building it back up.
Miller: So last year was like, reaching a bit for my footing. Like, starting to get it under me. You know, a very good year. But then this year, definitely, starting to feel the confidence of the ball building. Like you said, like just a pretty consistent year. I’ve been running all year long, really. Like maybe a little hiccup here and there, but just a real consistent base through the winter of running and skiing. And then spring of gravel biking and running, and more skiing. And then the summer of pretty much just full-blown running. I haven’t really touched my gravel bike, which is kind of sad, but also a good sign in a way.
iRunFar: A sign of running health.
Miller: Yeah, a sign of running health and, and a sign of, I guess also being away from the blue-square town of Bend, Oregon, where I’m capable of riding my gravel bike on mountain bike trails.
iRunFar: [laughs] Blue square.
Miller: Yeah, now I’m in Colorado, where it’s maybe not always as blue square. So I don’t get the bike out as much.
iRunFar: The execution of UTMB is really everything. Like you can train like crazy and there’s, you know, 20 guys who could be in the top five of this race, or something like that. But then the race day execution is what makes all of that or breaks all of that. What are you thinking about execution-wise for race days?
Miller: I think just trying to get out there and I don’t know, I feel like I don’t strategize as much as some people maybe do. I guess just trying to get out there and stick to what I know works. Like stick to stuff I’ve been doing in training. Stick to finding my rhythm but also trusting myself to take a chance on my fitness and put it into a proper test, you know. And just trying to try to get the nutrition right, make sure I drink all my bottles on time, take sure I take all my calories on schedule. Make sure I take extra electrolytes if I feel a need, you know. Just trying to stay on top of everything, like staying hydrated. All that stuff, just trying to be very efficient and very smooth. I guess that’s a lot of it. And then not beating yourself up too much when you don’t need to, or when the time isn’t right but then being willing to really go to the well when it’s time.
iRunFar: I dare ask you about the well. Because we’ve seen you take things to the well before, and then you wrote this really like, poignant piece in your column for iRunFar after the trail World Championships, where you said it was hard that day to like, find that extra oomph to really take it there.
iRunFar: Is it here? Do we think we’re going to find that on Friday and Saturday?
Miller: I sure hope it’s here. I mean, I’ve had a lot of fun in training. I’ve done some things differently. And so, I guess I’m anxious. I’m kind of anxious to see like how deep that well might be. I mean, you have your well in the sense of just how much pain you can go through relative like to your pain threshold. But then you also have how deep your well is relative to your fitness. And I’m hoping that the well is very deep. But again, you don’t really know until race day. And yeah, I’m hoping I can get in that zone where I’m just really willing to take it all the way. Because yeah, at Worlds I kind of felt like it just wasn’t quite there. I don’t know, I’m like this person who thrives off of riding the line, and riding off the excitement. And it’s like, when I get in there and just start fighting it’s like…I mean, I’ve started races before where maybe in the first 10 miles I’m like, I don’t know if this works. Like to be honest, this feels like, suicidal. And then you just ride that all day. If you’re out the front that’s exciting. Not all coaches, but like, smart people would not be like, oh, just go out there and like, you know, ride the, like…
iRunFar: Go right to the edge.
Miller: Just push the line early. But it’s counterintuitive, right? It’s like, oh, you should be smart. You should sit back. You should wait. But I think there’s certain athletes who just thrive off of the line. And there’s almost like a second energy that comes from being in the fight. And some people can sit back, I think, and they can hold that in and they can they can be more strategic. But some people it’s like, if they’re back there, it’s like the fire is gone. And you kind of almost just have to be in it to have the fire raging. Yeah. I don’t know. I just feel like that’s me sometimes. And it doesn’t mean that you still don’t try to be intelligent during the race, but I don’t know. I’m just hoping that on race day, my competitive fire can be pumping and I can find that competitive adrenaline that I just like, love to race off of.
iRunFar: Well, best of luck to you in riding that line just as closely as you can on your next lap around Mont Blanc.
Miller: Well, thank you. Yeah, well, we’ll find out. I think, it reminds me of that quote, I think by one of the Tour de France cyclists that says, “If you feel like you’re going too slow, you are. If you feel like you’re going to make it, you’re going too slow. If you feel like you won’t make it, you’re going too fast. If you feel like you just might make it, that’s the sweet spot.” And I really liked that quote. I feel like I’ve been on maybe the upper end of that middle group sometimes. But anyways, I know we’re trying to sign off.
Miller: But I think that little quote I really sort of sums up the spirit of a competitive ultra. Like, if you feel like you just might make it, that that’s the right spot to be.
iRunFar: And that’s the exact right spot to end this interview, too. So good luck to you.
Miller: Well, thank you.