A conversation with trail running speedster Zach Miller

Not yet 30 years old, Zach Miller has won some of the premier ultras in the country and abroad. In his quiver of victories: JFK 50 Mile, Lake Sonoma 50 Mile, CCC® (the little ‘sister’ of the UTMB®), back-to-back wins at the North Face 50 Mile, Madeira Island Ultra Trail. He’s been a member of Team USA at the 2014 World Mountain Running Championships and the World Long Distance Mountain Running Championships. We caught up with Zach at the Colorado Running Company where he was delighting a standing-room-only crowd on Saturday evening, January 21, with stories, quotes and quips. We learned what makes this affable speedster tick.

Peter Maksimow, Nancy Hobbs and Zach Miller

Zach Miller grew up a far cry from the mountains of Colorado. Born in Kenya to missionary parents, Miller was not yet three when the family moved to Lancaster County, PA. It was there he started running, but not competitively until the eighth grade on his school track team. It wasn’t until the eleventh grade that he ran cross country. “I was first a soccer player and just a little kid who loved to be outside,” said Miller. “I played on traveling soccer teams and figured I was better with the running part of soccer, not the ‘soccer’ part. The coaches saw that in me I guess.

“In high school, I wasn’t really a ‘star,’ (even though he did captain the team), there was almost always somebody on the team that was faster than me. I was just kind of pretty good,” said Miller. He studied electrical engineering at Rochester Institute of Technology, and pursued his running. He referred to himself as “nothing special” in the collegiate ranks as a freshman, with times for 8K in 27 or 28 minutes. His sophomore year was arguably his breakthrough year in college which Miller credits to good coaching. That year he notched some impressive wins.

Zach racing up Pikes Peak

As a post-collegiate, Miller, like many of his peers, who after graduation lose the familiar running structure, tried to figure out where the sport would take him. He set his eyes on a trail race, the Connestoga 10 Miler in Lancaster County, PA. It wasn’t the lure of the trail so much as it was the $100 prize awaiting someone who could run 90 minutes or less on the course. Miller, the engineer, calculated a nine-minute pace was all he’d need. How hard could that be?

With 3,000 feet of climbing, pretty tough as Miller found out. He did a training run on the course, looked down at his watch and saw a time of about two hours. He admits he might have gotten lost a few times, but still, he saw that $100 slipping away. Nevertheless, this goal-oriented, success-driven athlete showed up on race day back in 2012, and ran 1:28:19, besting the second-place finisher by more than seven minutes.

Zach speaking at the Colorado Running Company

Having signed a contract to work on a cruise ship, Miller set sail. He was trying to learn a new job, and stay in shape while training in a completely different environment. After seven months on the cruise ship, back he went to dry land where he raced to a win at the Music City 50k in Tennessee. “I ran so fast, they thought I cut the course,” Miller said. His time of 4:26:03 was more than 14 minutes ahead of second place.

When he raced to victory at the JFK 50 in 2013, Miller says, “After that win, all things changed.” He was offered a sponsorship with Nike, but he had a contract with the cruise ship so he had to go back to work. He signed with Nike while on the cruise ship and a few months later, with mostly treadmill training, Miller ran the Lake Sonoma 50. He remembers looking at a note he wrote before Sonoma which read, “We’ll see how I do training on sea legs.” He won the race besting some of the nation’s top ultra runners.

Miller, who is self-coached, does most of his training near his home at Barr Camp, where he is one of four caretakers. His address is 10,200 Barr Trail, which is the elevation at Barr Camp. “A lot of my training is between Barr Camp and the summit (Pikes Peak at 14,110 feet), and also from Barr Camp to town (Manitou Springs at 6400 feet),” said Miller. “My average training elevation is about 10,000 feet. Five days a week I just run, usually with a goal time, and twice a week is focused training with hard workouts. One day maybe it’s an uphill tempo, another day…intervals. I keep it fun, I do things I like to do. Mountain strength translates. Strength is strength, and fitness is fitness. At the end of the day (with mountain training), you’re still strong.”

Zach racing up Pikes Peak

Miller says his cross training includes chores around Barr Camp, like splitting logs. “We probably split six cords of wood this winter.” He also includes a daily strength routine with push-ups and core work. “Keep it short, simple, and sweet and it makes it easier to get done. My workout takes about 15 minutes…everyone has 15 minutes.”

Miller talked about nutrition, relaying what he often imparts to high school kids, “Skinny isn’t always fast. You don’t always have to look the part to be the part. It’s about being healthy and strong.” This from a self-professed, “food lover,” who doesn’t follow a strict diet.

A big crowd gathers to hear Zach at Colorado Running Company

“I consume mostly whole foods, and not much processed, (although he admitted to eating a Tastykake earlier in the day). I eat lots of eggs, red meat, spinach, oatmeal, and I drink a ton of milk,” said Miller.

As far as eating during an ultra, Miller says, “If the nutrition gets messed up, it’s flat out hard. If the fuel is there, I find I can push really, really deep.” During the JFK 50, Miller thought, “I’ll ‘eat my way to victory.” This is a mantra he suggested others follow, “If I can eat something, it’s my ticket to victory. Think about where the food gets you.”

Asked what his spirit animal is, Miller smiled and said, “Snow leopard. A friend says it’s a powerful beauty that doesn’t want to be seen or heard. I guess that’s sort of how I train on Pikes Peak.” Miller’s Instagram account is @ZachMiller38. The 38 refers to the 3.8 feet, which is the average length of a snow leopard.

Miller has quite a few quotes he lives by, one such quote is from a fortune cookie wrapper tucked into the tape deck of his aging Mazda, “Great men live dangerously; small men don’t take chances.” Another is, “Take a leap of faith to get the success.” And by far his favorite, which was imparted by his grandfather, “Rough and tough and used to hardships.”

What’s in Miller’s racing future? Hardrock Hundred Mile Endurance Run, UTMB, Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, and another crack at JFK 50, are all in the mix. This year, Miller isn’t sure whether he’ll race at Hardrock, or UTMB®. “Definitely not both,” Miller said. “That would not be responsible.” However, he did say that a future Western States/UTMB® double was not out of the question.

A final takeaway from Miller, and the lifestyle he aspires to, reads like this, “The kind of person we are is more important than what we do.”