Meet The Guy Who Won The First Ultra Marathon He Ever Ran

Zach Miller is a 25-year-old dude who travels the world while working on a cruise ship. Last week, he won the country's oldest ultramarathon, the JFK 50 Mile, a race he'd never heard of until October and a distance he'd never come close to running before. His time of 5 hours 38 minutes and 53 seconds—in strong headwinds and dropping temperatures, no less—was the third-fastest JFK 50 Mile finish ever. The race director pronounced it "the greatest performance" in the event's history.

So instead of the usual playlist stuff, let's sit for a minute with Zach and learn how a guy who does most of training on treadmills managed to win the first 50-mile race he ever ran. Pay special attention to how long he thinks a perfect run is and how he goes about setting goals for running. I found them insane and very interesting, respectively.

First off, ultra marathons? Are you crazy?

I think it depends on how you define crazy. But yeah, I probably am a bit crazy. My buddy Kevin Hull says I'm the craziest guy he knows. Maybe Kevin just has a bunch of boring friends, but then again I did coax Kevin into hiking beneath Yosemite falls once. And by beneath it I mean the water was crashing down on our heads. It was freezing cold but so awesome! But back to the matter at hand. I think it can help to be a bit crazy. I mean what normal person can will themselves to run that far? You just gotta throw your heart into it and go for it!

I never ran for the sake of running before a few years ago, I'd play other sports and get my activity like that but some people always ran. Were you always a runner?

Not exactly. I played a lot of soccer when I was growing up and I loved it! But I was pretty good at the actual soccer part and really good at the running part. Eventually I started running track in addition to playing soccer. In tenth grade the cross country coach started asking me what I planned to do the following fall. I guess he wanted me to run cross country. I had a tough time deciding but eventually I chose to run cross country. I fell in love with it and just started running year round (cross country, indoor track, and outdoor track). After high school I went to RIT [Rochester Institute of Technology] where I continued my running career as an NCAA DIII athlete.

A related question: Why do you run? Fitness, pleasure, stress release? All of the above?

I would have to say all of the above and then some. Running is a lot of things for me. For one I just love it. I really think that you should do things because you enjoy them, not just because you're good at it. In high school I didn't like it when they cancelled practice due to bad weather. I was the guy who went home and ran in the snow anyways. I also run because I value being physically fit. I don't want to sit around and get fat, I have to stay active and see myself improve my level of fitness. You also mentioned stress release. Running is phenomenal for that. One time in college I was trying to study for some sort of math exam, I think it might have been calc III. Anyways, I was way too stressed so I wasn't really accomplishing anything. That's when one of my roommates, Maxwell Ferguson, pretty much forced me to go on a run with him. It was amazing that he succeeded because I am very studious and I can be really stubborn. But somehow he got me out the door. It was the best thing ever because it cleared my head. Max (and running) saved me that day. We used to joke that running could cure anything...World hunger, cancer,...you name it, running could fix it. In addition, it's also a bit of a spiritual thing to me. And by that I mean its like an extension of my Christian faith. It's kind of like singing worship songs in church. I'm not a great musician or anything like that but when I sink into a groove on a rolling country road or a flowing single track trail in the mountains, that's like the sweetest song of praise I can sing! In addition to that running also gives me time to think, pray, and interact with other people. All of those things are very important.

When I first started running, I literally did the couch-to-5K thing. Then I skipped a whole bunch of steps and went right for a half-marathon. Did you have a more natural progression to ultras? Or did you just decide, fuck the marathon, let's do an ultra marathon?

Not really, I kind of did what you did. I think some of my coaches really wanted to see me run a marathon when I got out of college. I figured that I would run one eventually but I wanted to wait until I could do some proper training and rip off a pretty good time. I didn't want to rush into it, I wanted to do it right. But then I got a job working on cruise ships and everything started to change. Training on a ship was strange. To make up for my lower mileage days at sea, and in an attempt to see cool stuff, I would get off the ship on port days and run for hours on end. Then I came home for vacation and my buddy Mike Kurvach wanted me to coach him at a track meet in Nashville, TN. I was game for it but I wanted something to do.

So I found a 50k trail race (Music City Trail Ultra) just outside of Nashville. I ran the 50k in the morning and then watched my buddy race that evening. I had a great time and won the race but my time was pretty slow. [Ed. note: O_o] After that I went back to the ship for work. When I got back to the US for vacation my high school track coach, Jeff Bradley, told me that I should run the JFK 50 Miler. It seemed so far to me but he thought that I could win it. I was leery about doing JFK so I started looking for other races. I found the USATF 50k trail championships (Bootlegger 50k) in boulder city, Nevada. I knew I could run a 50k but Nevada was a long way away. Eventually I just decided to drive out and do it. I turned it into a road trip and visited with friends along the way. I got 6th. It was good but it wasn't out of this world. Then I emailed Mike Spinnler, the JFK race director, told him how I did and asked if there was any way I could get into the JFK 50 mile race. That was about a week before the race. The Monday before the race Spinnler told me he would let me in. I was still on the fence about it but a few days before the race I just decided to go for it.

I've read a bunch of the stories about your experience at the JFK 50 and every single one of them refers to you as "Previously Unknown Zach Miller." Is that annoying to you? I understand part of the interest in the story is that you weren't a favorite going in, but I mean, hey, you are known, you know? There are actually people in the world who know who you are, even if the Running World didn't.

It doesn't bother me at all. I actually think it's really funny.

I also stalked you on Facebook, sorry if that's weird. But from your pictures it looks like you've run all over the world. As someone who begrudgingly accepts running in his life as something to fight the forces of evil and ingested calories, even I think that looks pretty cool. There's pictures of you running through snowy mountains in Europe and around these huge cliffs. What are you thinking as you're running through these settings?

Wait, you mean people stalk each other on Facebook? Haha. Anyways, I run all over the world because of my job working on cruise ships. When I run through those settings I mostly just enjoy it. I look around and soak it up. Sometimes you can't help but be in awe of God's creation.

Subquestion: if you are thinking about how beautiful the scenes are around you, how do you do that? I've run through some gorgeous trails and stuff and I've only been able to enjoy the beauty for like 5 seconds. The rest of the time I'm struggling to breathe.

Well, I am usually in pretty good shape when I'm out there. That doesn't mean that I'm not working really hard on some of the climbs and stuff, but I enjoy working hard. When the ship I work on is at sea I train on the treadmill and the stationary bike, usually about an hour on each. It's grueling but it helps me to have good runs on land and enjoy the scenery.

Are you a music-while-running guy? If so, what's on a typical playlist?

Not really. I'm adamant about NOT running with an I-pod. [Ed. note: get out.] I love music [Ed. note: alright fine, you can stay], especially country, but I don't need to have it playing while I run. I will use headphones when I ride the stationary bike but not when I run, not even on the treadmill. Sometimes I turn on the stereo when I'm running on the treadmill in the gym, but that's it, no headphones!

The morning of the race though, we were listening to country music as we drove to the race. I'm pretty sure "Drink A Beer," by Luke Bryan, came on and that just got me going. The song is slow but it's powerful. It made me wanna run the race for the many people in my life who have passed away at a young age.

Is there a time when you're running 50 miles and you think to yourself "I can't do this"? What happens next?

Fortunately no, at least this time there wasn't.

What is the next goal after 50 miles, anyway? Is there one? Will you ever be content, or do you kind of have to always be looking ahead in order to even do something like that in the first place? I've run two half-marathons and I can honestly say I have no desire to do a full marathon.

Good question, but for me it isn't so much about completing a specific distance. It's more about competing at a high level and seeing how fast I can go. I have been invited to the Ultra Race Of Champions (UROC) race for 2014. I am looking at doing that race, as well as the Pikes Peak Marathon. It has also been a dream of mine to represent team USA. If i could get selected for a national/world championship team, well that would be a dream come true. I want to keep competing and mixing it up with the big dogs. I wanna see what I can do. As for being content, I'm pretty much always looking for an adventure. With that said, I think I can be pretty content with my life as a whole but still be striving towards some sort of goal. I don't want to sit still. I want to "Make moves son!"

What is the longest you've run on a treadmill? Also, how awful is running on the treadmill?

I usually limit myself to about 60 to 70 min but I think I ran around 90 min once. I think I started out running on one treadmill and then had to switch gyms. I think I hopped on a different treadmill in the second gym and ended up running around 90 min. total. I really don't like the treadmill though. Sometimes you get in a groove and its not so bad but over all I just don't like it. In fact, my next contract for work is pretty sweet. I'm gonna get to go to a bunch of cool places, like Argentina and Chile, but when they offered me the contract I was on the fence about it. I was weighing the pros and cons and my mom was like, well, what are the cons? "Running on a treadmill," I said. I'm not sure that she understands how awful that is for me.

What is your favorite kind of run? Give me the surface, length, surroundings, time of day, etc. What is a run that, when you're done, makes you think to yourself, "That was pretty perfect"?

I have two answers for this. The perfect run is a flowing single track trail consisting of hard-packed red/tan dirt and maybe some rocks to keep you guessing. Ideally, it would have some swooping switchbacks and a few banked turns because who doesn't love to feel like a race-car? Also, there should be a significant amount of elevation change mixed in so you can get in some good climbing and descending. In terms of the length it should be around 20 miles, or some sort of really long network of trails with infinite distance possibilities. Time of day would be when the sun is clearly on the move. In other words it would be early in the morning while the sun is rising or sometime in the evening, finishing up as the sun sets. In some senses what I am describing is the Bear Canyon trail in Boulder, Co. I lived in Boulder for 5 months one summer/fall and I just loved running up and down Bear Peak on that trail!

My second answer is this: 24 miles out and back on the Conestoga Trail in Conestoga, PA. This is a workout that I do in my hometown. There is actually a race called the Conestoga Trail Run that takes place on this trail. The race is 10 miles long. It's pretty much nothing but hills and the footing is pretty dicey. I think you end up climbing around 3000 ft by the end of the race. Anyway, when I train on the trail I do an out and back run that I think is 24 miles long. It takes a really long time to do and it's awesome. The trail stays in the forest pretty much the entire time and it is a lot of single track. Certain parts of the trail overlook the Susquehanna river and the views are just incredible! If you are ever in Lancaster County, PA, go check it out!

Last question: what advice do you have for anyone who's still on the fence about running?

Just go for it! Give it a shot and see if you like it. It's probably going to be a bit uncomfortable at first but I find that if you stick with it it can be awesome. I think a lot of people have trouble enjoying it because they aren't in very good shape. Hence, it's uncomfortable and just seems like a chore. But even good runners can have those moments, especially if they are just coming back from an injury, illness, or a break in training. So you have to give it a fair chance and stick with it for a while. Be consistent with what you do and build up your training over time. But in the end, if you've given it a fair shot and its just not for you, find something that you do enjoy, like hiking, cycling, or swimming and do that.