Everything you need to know about training under tricky circumstances and winning big European mountain races
If you do a lot of travelling you can probably empathize with the difficulty of maintaining a consistent workout schedule while on the road. Which is why we can all learn something from Nike ultrarunner, Zach Miller. The 26-year-old Pennsylvanian, who last weekend won the a difficult alpine ultramarathon known as the Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix (part of the UTMB series weekend), spent more than a year living and training on a cruise ship.
Having left the nautical life behind, Miller now lives at over 10,000 feet on Pikes Peak, Colorado, where he works year-round as a caretaker at Barr Camp, a cabin refuge for hikers and trail runners. We caught up with him to talk about trail running, and learned of the unexpected benefits of training on rough seas.
OUTSIDE: What is your running background?
MILLER: I was a soccer player first, but soon figured out that I was better at the running part than the soccer part. I started running track in eighth grade and added cross-country in eleventh grade. I went on to run in college, at the Rochester Institute of Technology, which is a Division III school. After graduating, I just kept going. I experimented with triathlons for a little bit and then sort of stumbled my way into ultrarunning. It kind of took off from there. I ended up winning the JFK 50 Mile, got signed with Nike, and everything just kind of snowballed.
In college did you have a sense that you would be better at the longer distances?
Yeah, there were almost always guys in college and high school who had more foot speed than I did, so it was always the longer the race was, the better I did. In some ways, I always figured I would go longer, but I didn’t know I would go this long. Some of it was accidental. When I got out of college, I got this weird job managing the print shop on a cruise ship—people don’t realize there are tons of things that are printed on these ships every day—and that was ironically where I figured out that I could run for hours and hours.
What drew you to the cruise ship gig?
I’m a sucker for adventure and it was a great opportunity to travel and see the world. When I got offered the job, I figured it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and it would be silly not to do it. I just jumped in and took it and figured I’d find a way to make the running work. I did that job for about a year and a half. I got to run on six of the seven continents. The only one I’m missing is Antarctica. Hopefully, I’ll get to tag that one someday.
What was it like training on the ship? Were you running around on deck after hours?
Well, it’s been over a year since I had that job, but I did train for both the JFK 50 and Lake Sonoma ultras while I was living on the ship. (Ed.’s note: He won both races, beating heavyweights like Max King and Rob Krar.) I would run on the treadmill and the ship stairwell. I didn’t do much running on the decks because the corners are sharp and chairs and people are always in the way. Usually what I would do is go to the crew stairwell and would go from deck 1 to deck 10, up and down, up and down. I think I started doing it for 30 minutes, and by the end I was doing it for 60, 70 minutes at a time. When I got done, I’d go straight to the treadmill and then, same thing, I’d build it up. At the beginning I’d only do five miles or so, but by the end I was running 15 to 20 miles on the treadmill. When we would port somewhere I would go out and run on land. I liked to get a lot of miles in, so that was my day to just go.
Were you able to throw in some variation? Intervals?
Yeah, so it was really boring to just get on the treadmill and run 7-minute miles for an hour or two. That’s just death. So almost every day, I had some sort of workout, whether it was a progression run, or fartlek, or interval workout, or some sort of hill thing, playing with the treadmill grade . . . every day was different. And sometimes the ship would rock! Often, I just left the grade flat and when the ship would rock I’d be going uphill and downhill. Sometimes the seas would get really rough, so I’d shake all over the place and it was a challenge to just stay upright. That added a nice extra little element to the training.
Any advice to those who want to keep their training up while traveling?
You definitely have to be disciplined, but I think another big thing is you have to be flexible. Some people do really well with routines, and I do well with routines, too. But you can’t let the lack of a routine stress you out. You need to be willing to adapt, to work with what you’ve got. Some people think they can’t train for a mountain race because they don’t live in a mountainous place–they think they need a certain training environment. But I like to think you can prepare for just about anything with what you’ve got, as long as you’re creative. I didn’t have a mountain every day, but I had a stairwell. So I used that. I couldn’t run on land, but I had a treadmill at sea that rocked back and forth. It’s also important to be consistent with your training, but to know that it might not happen exactly when you planned. Some nights, I was doing workouts at 2 a.m., because that’s when I could fit them in.
What about when you did get on land? Any places you ran that really stood out?
Definitely. Let me see . . . Norway was a highlight. I absolutely loved running in Norway. We visited a lot of the fjord towns, and the Norwegian mountains are fantastic. There were also incredible mountains in Iceland. Other favorites were Ushuaia, on the southern tip of South America–that was pretty incredible, as was Cape Town, South Africa. Also, the Canary Islands.
Any idea how many countries you ended up visiting?
Oh man, I lost track. I couldn’t tell you a number.
What’s it been like being on the Nike Trail team?
It’s been great. I was an unsponsored runner, and now I’m able to travel all over the world. I can basically just pick the biggest, most competitive races and Nike helps me get there. But out of everything, the best part is the team atmosphere. We have about twenty athletes, about nine or ten men and women—Nike sponsors an equal number of men and women, which is awesome. Having all those teammates to hang out and go to races with is just really fun. We had a good group of five athletes in France last weekend, and three of us got on the podium. Now USATF is coming up with this team national championship for ultrarunning, so the Nike guys are pumped about that whole team competition idea.
We recently published an article about trail running vs. traditional road and track running. Having competed in both, how would you say do the two sports compare?
I read an article a while ago, where they got feedback from Alicia Shay, who is actually one of my teammates at Nike Trail. She ran for Stanford and was an absolute stud on the road and on the track before converting to trail running. Alicia made the comparison that road or track running is like driving an automatic, and trail running is like driving a manual. In trail running, you’re climbing, you’re descending, you’re twisting, you’re turning . . . and your heart rate is fluctuating and doing different things. Whereas road and track runners are much more into shooting for an even pace—they want to get into a race and feel very comfortable for, maybe, the first 75 percent of the race, and just be cruising and have a very steady heart rate. On the trail, we’re constantly changing directions, shifting and turning—the effort level is very up and down. In a mountain or trail race, you might be redlined within the first quarter mile of your race, and that’s not necessarily bad, because chances are you’ll get a descent and your heart rate is going to come back down.
What about training for each type of running?
A lot of it is very similar. The concepts that you use for track and road running, which I learned in my early years, are still applicable to the trails. You can still get on the track and do 1,000-meter repeats and that’s beneficial for your trail running. But you might also go on the trail and do three-minute surges, on a twelve percent grade, at altitude, and that’s also very beneficial. Your pace for those three-minute surges might not be much faster than, say, 6:30 miles, which sounds like a joke, but your heart rate might be even higher than it would be on the track because of the altitude and the terrain. But you’re still trying to train your cardiovascular system, lactate thresholds, VO2-max, and all of that. All those concepts are still the same. It’s how these things get applied that’s different. One other big difference in training, which I think a lot of ultrarunners will tell you, is that we have to do downhill workouts. On the track and on the road, I rarely ever did specific downhill workouts—maybe some downhill striders. But, for mountain running, we will actually go out and do specific downhill workouts, where we just beat up our quads. You have to teach your quads to take all of that pounding, and you have to teach your body to be efficient running downhill, especially over technical terrain.
What was in like racing in the Alps last weekend? How did it compare to the races you’ve done in the U.S.?
Racing in the Alps was incredible, the trail, the scenery . . .the course markings in particular were out of this world.
In the sense that they were so easy to follow?
Yes, incredibly clear. I heard someone say that if you’re anywhere on the course and you can’t see a marking, then you’re actually off course. It felt like there were markings every 50 meters. Everywhere you could mess up, they were really good about marking it, so you didn’t go the wrong way—incredibly easy to follow.
But, yeah, the atmosphere was amazing over there. There were cattle and goats roaming through the mountains. We saw a bunch of ibexes coming back into Chamonix.
What about the spectators?
In the U.S., you get maybe a couple hundred guys on the line, you shoot a gun, and we all just disappear into the woods and eventually stumble out bloody, and covered in sweat a couple hours later. But in Europe you pass through towns and the people come out and you get crowds. People hike up the passes to cheer you on. And finishing, I ran through wall-to-wall people for maybe a quarter mile. It’s like you’re finishing Boston or something. Europeans just love mountain and ultrarunning so, yeah, the atmosphere is really electric over there.
Last question. Will we be seeing you compete at the North Face Endurance Challenge in December?
Yeah. I guess technically I still need to go in and register for it, but that’s my next big goal.