The 25-year-old came out of nowhere to win one of the country’s most iconic ultra faces last year.
The ultrarunning community is small enough that surprise winners of major races are a bit of a rarity, but such was the case last November at the prestigious JFK 50-Mile in Boonsboro, Maryland. Twenty-five-year-old Zach Miller, originally from Columbia Pennsylvania, toed the line and ended up winning the prestigious race with the third-fastest time in history, clocking 5 hours, 38 minutes, and 53 seconds, defeating the likes of ultra ace Michael Wardian. We caught up with Miller last week while he was at work aboard the Queen Victoria in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
What do you do aboard the Queen Victoria?
I’m a digital print ship manager. I work for a company called Ryan Edwards Communications. It’s actually a British company. They are contracted by Cunard to do all the printing on the ship. Basically, I just print everything. I don’t know if you’ve been on a cruise, but there is a lot of stuff that gets printed every day.
Like activities and schedules?
Yeah we call it the daily program—the menus, the newspapers, all the invitations for different parties—everything, really.
How do you like your job?
It’s pretty laid back, which I like. I make the print schedules work for my training schedules. We work every day. We don’t necessarily have strict hours. It’s really flexible, so I really enjoy that part of it. I can come and go in and out of my office as I need to — as long as everything gets done. It’s good. I actually have a Mechanical Engineering degree. A big part of my job on the ship is to keep all the machinery running. They aren’t like little desktop printers; they are really big printers. Sometimes they break down. If they break down when we are in the middle of the ocean, we have to fix things or else we start to lose a lot of money, so I’m the guy who fixes them all. If things break down, it can get really crazy and I work long hours and am forced to run at strange times of day. But it’s fun to fix the machine; I do enjoy the challenge of that.
How do you run on a cruise ship?
That’s what everyone wants to know. You asked me if I like my job. That’s one of the biggest downsides. I have to run on the treadmill a lot. I’m not a treadmill guy. When I was at home, I was never on a treadmill unless it was like the last resort. I’m the guy who, if it’s blowing 70 mph winds and minus 15 [outside], everyone thinks it’s dangerous, I’m the guy who’s trying to run outside. But I can’t run on the water. There’s a crew gym and a passenger gym. There are treadmills and I run on them. I used to do some cross-training, too. But right now in my training, I’m just running on the treadmill. I also do stair workouts. There are quite a few stairs on a cruise ship, so I run up and down them. Up and down; up and down. I’ll do that on some days and then go run on a treadmill afterwards. On port days, when we are on land, I just go out and run. That’s how I get my long efforts in. I run up mountains and find trails. Those days are good.
You said you run on the stairs while on the ship. Do you have to do those workouts in the middle of the night, because people are using them? Or do you find stairs that no one uses?
I use the crew stairwells. I actually do it in the early afternoon or evening. The only people using them then are housekeeping stewards or chefs, carrying food up and down. I pretty much have the stairs to myself. I just go up and down, up and down.
What kind of mileage are you able to do on a ship?
Everyone wants to know numbers. It depends on the phase that my training is in. When I came back to the ship a couple months ago, I was in a more active-rest phase, so it was pretty light—like 5-7 miles on the treadmill. I was recovering from [the] JFK [50-miler] and getting my legs rested. I’ve started to build back up. I used to not really track the mileage on the treadmill, but this time I am. I don’t track the mileage on land during my port days, because I don’t have a GPS, and it’s too much of a hassle to log it all on the Internet. Right now, I’m up to 12 miles a day on the treadmill. I’ve done like one or two 13-mile days. I’m running like the 80s-90s [weekly mileage] right now, but that’s not including my stair workouts, which are about 30 minutes each.
You completely came out of left field to surprise the running world at JFK. Did you know you were going to do so well there?
No. I didn’t know I was going to do that well. The biggest thing that surprised me was how fast I ran it. I thought I could do well. I didn’t know that I could win. I didn’t know who was in it, really.
Did you know the course?
No, I didn’t. I’ve actually done the entire C&O Canal just after I graduated from high school. I did that with my high school track coach and a couple guys.
You ran the entire length of the canal?
We didn’t run it; we biked it over like six days, so I have seen the C&O canal. But that was quite a few years ago. I had never been on that section of the Appalachian Trail. I just knew about it from what was on the Internet. I saw a few pictures, but I didn’t really know the course. I knew the elevation profile; I knew how it played out for the most part. I didn’t go out and preview it or anything. I just got on the start line and ran.
Was this your debut ultra?
It was my 50-mile debut. I actually had done two 50Ks. In May or April, I did a 50K in Tennessee called the Music City Trail Ultra that was my first ultra.
How did you do there?
I won that. I didn’t run that fast. It was a brand-new course. I had a blast. But it wasn’t a big, big race. After that, I went back and worked on the ship again. I was just home for vacation. Two weeks before JFK, I ran the Bootlegger 50K in Nevada, which was a U.S. 50K Trail Championship race last year. I got sixth there. I drove out there. I did a road trip and ran the 50K and drove back. When I got back East, I was still on the road trip and ran JFK.
How were your final miles of the 50-miler? You had never run that far before. Were you hurting?
I was in the great unknown. I was talking about the race before. It’s funny, because I was talking with my family before the race and they asked me how far it was. I was really cautious and told them it was really far. I had never run more than 35 miles. I really didn’t know what was going to happen after the 35. I knew that when I did the 35, it felt like I could have gotten 40 and if I go to 40, I was pretty sure I crawl 10 more miles. The last few miles at JFK were a lot faster than I would have thought. They didn’t necessarily feel fast. Over the last 7 miles of the course, I was probably averaging 6:40 [per mile] pace. I felt like I was running 7:30 to 8:00 pace. I had no clue. I was actually shocked that I was running as fast as I was. By the end, the adrenaline was kicking in. I was tired, but I was going to get to that finish line. You think you’d just be crawling or dying. I wasn’t really. At first, the race director thought I’d run my last mile at 6:10, but then a month or so after the race, he told me that I ran it in 5:57. Regardless of what it was, I didn’t predict it would be that quick.
What’s your background as a runner?
I was a soccer player for a while. I played soccer in the fall and did track in the spring. In eleventh grade I started running cross country. I kind of ditched the soccer thing and focused on running. I did cross country and track year round. I then went to RIT. I wasn’t super fast in high school. I ran the 1600m in like 4:47. I then ran the 2-mile in like 10:05. My 5K time was just under 17 minutes. Then I went to college. I ran at RIT, which is a Division III school in western New York. The head coach there did a great job with me. He really developed me. I got down to 31:23 for 10K. I wasn’t a very fast 5K runner. I only ran 15:32. My 5K time made no sense, because it was like the same pace as my 10K. I think it was because I focused on the 10K. I ran there [RIT]. I was a high-mileage runner, a 10K specialist. Don’t ask me to run a 400m, because it won’t be pretty. Then I got out of college and messed around with the whole triathlon idea for a while, but then I started to see the potential in trail racing and ultra racing. I was getting pushed a bit by my old high school track coach. He was the one who told me to do JFK. I wasn’t even thinking about JFK. I didn’t even know that it existed. Then he showed it to me one day when I got home from the ship. He was like, “You have to run this.” I said, “That’s a long race.” He kept at me about it. I’m glad I did it. [He laughs.]
Are you self-coached?
Yeah. I’ve been coached for years in high school and college. I learned a lot through the years. My coaches really taught me a lot. They showed me how to train and get myself in shape. But right now I’m self-coached. I kind of make it up as I go. I can bounce ideas off friends or old coaches, but for the most part I kind of feel it out.
What’s next for you?
That’s a good question. I’m on the ship right now, so nothing. I have been on here for about two-and-a-half months. I am getting off hopefully in San Francisco on April 1. It’s still a little bit up in the air what the first race will be. I thought I might jump in something early, but I’m kind of re-thinking that now. I’m trying to figure out what to tell you. There’s definitely going to be more racing. I’m actually running for Nike now. I signed with them after JFK.
Did someone from Nike contact you?
Yes. After JFK, Nike got in touch with me to see if I wanted to run for their trail team. I went through the process and hashed it all out. I’m very happy to be running for them and get out on the trails again.
What does your sponsorship entail? Are you getting gear or are you getting paid as well?
I’m getting a bit more than gear. Nike has a whole team now. There are a couple women and seven guys. It’s a new team called Nike Trail Elites. I’m a member of it. I get sponsorship and so I get gear as well as other perks and things. I won’t go into all the details. It’s a bit more than gear. It’s basically gear with some financial aid to help with some expenses. There is potential for some financial earnings without going into all the details. They are just helping me pursue the sport of ultra running and I get to represent them. I’m excited to be back on the trail scene and see what happens.
Is Nike telling you what your racing schedule will be?
I get to make my own schedule. But they have some incentives for me with certain races that they want me to be in. I have a list of races that Nike would like to see me at. They don’t force me to go, which is really nice. They do provide incentive for me to be there. UROC (Ultra Race of Champions) is on the list. I was actually invited to UROC after I won JFK. Nike would like to see me there. It’s likely you will see me there in September. I’m trying to let you see where I might pop up. My race schedule is not 100 percent set in stone. I’m also looking at maybe the Pike’s Peak Marathon race. The U.S. 50-mile Championships are in upstate New York. I’ve been in touch with the race director there. I haven’t committed, but I’m thinking about it.
You’re new to ultras and had a lot of success right from the start. What advice would you give to someone who wants to run their first ultra?
You’ve got to get yourself strong. It’s a long way. I see from my first 50K to JFK, I’ve seen myself develop as a runner. You’ve got to get strong. You need to be strong to cover that distance. Enjoy it and have fun with it. Once you’re strong and you’re ready physically, it’s a battle mentally. You got to love it and go after it. Stay positive. Just throw your heart into it. If you can get that mental component done after you’re physically in shape, you can be really successful. Nutrition is always important. Eat and drink early and often. Don’t wait until you feel like you need it, because you are in scary territory then.