Friday, December 6, 2013

For the Ones Who Can't (JFK 50 Mile Race Report)

Ascending the final pass of the TMB between Italy and Switzerland.
As many of you may already be aware I had the race of my life on November 23rd (2013).  If you want the short version, here it is (you can stop reading at the end of this paragraph).  On a brisk November morning I went to the bathroom one more time, stripped off my long sleeve shirt, and toed the line for the 2013 JFK 50 Mile.  OK, technically I toed the imaginary line behind the guys and gals in the front row.  Usually I would step to the front, but it was 50 miles...I guess you could say I wasn't afraid of getting boxed in.  Call me crazy but it seemed like there would be plenty of time to get "un-boxed".  At 7am the gun sounded and with that we were off.  Fast forward 5hrs, 38min, and 53sec and there I am standing shell shocked on the celebratory side of the finish line (as opposed to the "I need a gel, a hand bottle, and a tailwind as strong as the tornado that swept Dorothy off her feet" side).  I won the race.  I ran 5:38:53.  It was the third fastest time in history.  The end.

But that's not really the end.  In fact, it's not even really the beginning.  So if you're interested in the full story, sit down and hold on tight.  But where do I begin?  Do I start on October 30, 1988 (the day I was born) in Nairobi, Kenya (I was a missionary kid).  Do I start on the soccer field or as a 5th/6th grader running the mile at Farmdale Elementary School?  Do I start in middle school, high school, or college?  Do I start with my job as a digital print shop manager on cruise ships?  Do I start with my trip to the Alps or my race at the Bootlegger 50k in Boulder City, Nevada?  Or do I just jump right to the JFK 50 Mile and give you the play-by-play of the race?  Fortunately for you (and me) many of the aforementioned things have been covered in an interview that I did with Meghan Hicks of  And so, since you can all read the 8,500 word irunfar interview during your vacation at the beach this summer or your next trip to the ER waiting room (if your reason for being there involves running, blood, and a shiny new scar be sure to tell the story in the comments section), I'll (try to) focus on the race itself.

And so I will begin with a simple question...WHY IN THE WORLD DID I CHOOSE TO RUN 50 MILES?  For the most part it was pretty simple.  In fact, you could say that there were three primary reasons. good friend and high school track coach Jeff Bradley said I should (best advice / peer pressure EVER!).  TWO...I was curious.  THREE...I wanted to run a high profile race and see what I could do.  And with that my mind was made up.  I was diving in head first and hoping I either sprouted gills or swam fast enough to surface before passing out.  And if I blew up and died like a Ford Pinto, at least I would have four months on a cruise ship to recover.  It seemed like pretty good logic for a guy who doesn't want to live his life on "What ifs".

Cinnamon Bun Pancakes at the Silver Spring Restaurant!
Having made up my mind, my college roommate/teammate (Mike "Lars" Kurvach) and I made the trek from Victor, NY down to Lancaster, PA (of course we made a stop at the Silver Spring Restaurant for cinnamon bun pancakes and The Inside Track for some last minute running supplies) and then on to Boonsboro, MD.  After registering for the race we checked into our room at the Red Roof Inn (What can I say? I'm from Lancaster, PA...I'm cheap!  The Red Roof Inn was a step up from sleeping in the back of Mike's Chevy S-10).  After chucking our gear in the room we headed to the Olive Garden for a pre-race meal of pasta, soup, and bread-sticks.  Once back at the hotel I prepared my homemade gu and discussed with Mike what I wanted him to have ready for me at each aid station.  With my race day nutrition prepared and my race gear laid out I called it a day and went to bed.

Nutrition prep.
The next morning I awoke around 5am.  Soon after that I started eating breakfast...bananas, Gatorade, and oatmeal (5 packs in total).  I figure it came out to around 1,000 calories.  Around 5:45am we loaded our gear into Mike's truck and set off for the start line / pre-race meeting.  On the way we listened to some music.  You would think that the morning of a 50 Miler you might listen to something like "Sail" by Awolnation.  But to tell you the truth, we were listening to country.  That's how Mike and I least ever since we took that trip to Nashville a few months back.  I'm pretty sure that "Drink a Beer" by Luke Bryan came on at one point and that just got me going.

Race day gear laid out and ready to go!
This might seem like an odd song to get you pumped to run 50 miles, but let me explain.  Over the past fifteen or so years I have lost quite a few people in my life, many of them at a young age.  Weather they were friends, teammates, teachers, family, or the parents of my friends, they all played a role in my life.  Having lost so many people over the years, it is no wonder that this song, which is essentially about dealing with the loss of a loved one, hits home for me.  And seeing as I don't drink alcohol, my way of coping with such situations is a bit different than what's described in the song.  I guess the song simply motivated me to go out and run for some people in my life who no longer could.  It's sad that they had to leave this Earth so soon.  So as a young 25 year old with plenty of life left to live, I might as well live my life to the their honor.  And if running 50 miles is the way to do that, then so be it!
Having found a purpose for the run, we proceeded to the pre-race meeting and then to the start line.  It was about half cold that morning and as we made our way to the start line I contemplated wearing a long sleeve shirt for the beginning of the race.  After mulling it over a bit I finally decided to just go without it.  Hence, I stripped down to my Mizuno singlet, Adidas running shorts, Swiftwick socks, Nike Zoom Terra Kiger trail shoes, Amphipod hand bottle, and Saucony visor (can you say "un-sponsored"?) and hopped on the starting line.  Not feeling a need to be on the front line, I tucked myself into the second row and waited for the gun.

At 7am the gun was fired and with that we were off!  As we surged forward, Jason Wolfe and another runner, both of whom raced at Bootlegger, recognized me and struck up a conversation.  Wolfe, who wasn't quite ready when the gun went off, was still pulling on his arm sleeves.  "I didn't think they would start on time," he said.  Knowing that Wolfe was a good runner, I opted to shadow him for a bit. I did not know that Rob Krar, Matt Flaherty, Mike Wardian, Josh Arthur, and Iain Ridgeway were in the race.  Not that it would have mattered though, for I was so naive that I didn't even know who most of those guys were.  No offense to them, I just didn't really know much.  Of course, I did know who Rob Krar was, but I didn't really know what he looked like.  And so I continued to shadow Jason.  By the top of the first road hill Jason was in first and I was second.  Iain hopped in front of me on the first small trail section but by the time we got to the top of South Mountain I was back in second, a few meters behind Jason.  As soon as we stepped off the paved path and onto the dirt trail section of the AT, I was freight trained by a slew of runners.  I think I dropped from second to sixth in about 45 seconds.  I, however, wasn't too concerned.  I knew that there would be plenty of miles left after the AT.  Hence, I let the guys do there thing as I focused on trying not to turn an ankle.  Eventually I started gaining on Wolfe and Krar.  At an aid station part way across South Mountain some people asked me my name.  "Zach Miller" I yelled back.  At this point Wolfe and Krar were just a little bit in front of me.  As we continued across the AT I gradually pulled them in.  I passed Wolfe and soon after that Flaherty was hot on my heals.  I'm not sure how he ended up behind me because I was pretty sure that he was somewhere in front of me.  My guess is that he stopped at an aid station or for a bathroom break in the woods.  Regardless of the reason, Flaherty and I descended the switchbacks and exited the AT in fourth and fifth, just a little bit behind Krar and about a minute behind the leaders.  As I ran through the aid station I grabbed a banana and exchanged hand bottles with Kurvach.  I fell a few steps behind Flaherty as I grabbed my nutrition, but quickly re-passed him as we exited the aid station.

As we ran the small section of trail between the aid station and the tow path Krar pulled off to make a pit-stop.  I moved into third and hit the C&O Canal Towpath feeling good.  I continued down the towpath, munching on my banana and looking ahead for the leaders.  After a little while I caught Ridgeway.  The two of us exchanged a few words and I learned that he is a British guy who lives in Germany.  After chatting for a bit I surged on until I came upon Arthur.  Once again, we exchanged greetings and chatted for a bit.  Our conversation, however, was short lived as a charging Rob Krar caught up and threw down the hammer.  At this point I still didn't know it was Rob Krar, all I knew was that this guy seemed to mean business!  Although the pace fluctuated a bit, for the most part it was quite fast, so much so that I was afraid that I might blow up around mile twenty-five if it continued.  I contemplated backing off, but for whatever reason I just stuck with it.  Sometimes Krar lead, at other times Arthur took the reigns, and there was even a time or two when I found myself in the front.  For all I knew we had just revved up a freight train bound for destruction, but nobody seemed to be stopping any time soon and so we pushed on.  After a while Arthur stepped off the train, leaving Krar and I to journey into the great unknown.

So there I was, duking it out in the JFK 50 with some bearded mystery man.  After a while the mystery or lack of introduction started to bug me, and so I decided to investigate.  And with that I piped up and said "Hey, my name's Zach, what's yours?".  "Rob", he responded.  I wasn't expecting Rob Krar to be in the race so the name Rob didn't really mean anything to me.  "What's your last name?", I asked.  "Krar", he said.  The minute he said it I was FLOORED.  What in the World?  I'm like 20+ miles into the JFK 50 mile and I'm going toe-to-toe with ROB KRAR!  I quickly apologized to him but he was really cool about it.  If I remember things correctly, he actually acted as if there was no real reason that I should know who he was.  The other funny thing was that I didn't realize that he was Canadian.  As we ran along fans kept saying "Go Canada!".  I couldn't figure out why they kept saying that, but oh well, I just kept running.  Looking back, it's pretty funny.  Hopefully my naivety didn't offend Krar.

Once I figured out who the man behind the beard was, I could have freaked out and backed off.  My response, however, was quite the opposite.  Knowing that I was running with Krar just pumped me up!  I thought to myself, if I get second to Krar, I'll be ecstatic, if I win, I might cry.  And with that we pressed on.  Mile after mile, aid station after aid station, we just kept going, and going, and going.  Every now and then Krar would make a pit-stop, and then catch back up.  That impressed me.  And finally, probably around mile 34, it finally happened.  I had to make a pit-stop.  It wasn't that big of a deal because Krar had been doing it throughout the day.  Nonetheless, it's a bit nerve wracking to let someone like Krar get a gap on you.  I really needed to stop though, and so I did.  What I didn't know was that we were about 200 meters from an aid station.  Hence, Rob ran through the aid station with a 45 second lead.  All of a sudden it looked like bib number 1019 had cracked.

Running for the finish line!
I was actually feeling pretty good though.  OK, so it's not like I was as fresh as the Prince of Bel-Air, but I was doing alright for how far into the race we were.  As I ran on Krar slipped back into view and started coming back to me.  Just as I was about to catch him, Krar stopped for a pit-stop of his own.  With that I was back in the lead.  When we got to the aid station at mile 38 I think people were a bit surprised to see me back in the lead.  As I passed through the aid station I spotted Greg Cauller, a fellow Hempfield High School alum.  I yelled at Cauller as I passed and he yelled back.  Banana, gel, and hand bottle in hand, I exited the aid station in pursuit of the end of the towpath section of the race.  When I made the hairpin turn to get on the road at mile 42, I took a look at the trail behind me.  Much to my delight there wasn't a runner in sight, but for all I knew Krar was just a few meters out of sight.  I would later learn that Krar dropped out at mile 41, but this was news I would not receive until after the finish.

The final strides of the race!
After 42 miles of running all that lay between me and the finish line was 8.2 miles of rolling asphalt.  As I counted down the miles Mike Spinnler started reading me my mile splits.  The first split that I heard was 6:15!  I could hardly believe what I was hearing.  I felt like I was running so slow and yet Spinnler was claiming that I had just run a 6:15 minute mile.  With seven miles to go Spinnler read me my over all time.  This was the first time all day that I had received any information about my total time.  As soon as I heard it I started doing the math in my head.  I figured that if I ran the next seven miles at seven minute mile pace (49 minutes) I would finish with a pretty good time.  But I wasn't running 7 minute miles.  I was running around 6:30-6:40 minute miles (Spinnler showed me the splits at the end of the race.  There was a 6:59 at some point.  He said that mile was into the wind).  With a mile to go Spinnler told me that I was at 5:32 something and that I could break 5:40.  That was the first time I really realized how fast I was going.  With the thought of breaking 5:40 on my mind, I tore into the last mile.  I crossed the line in 5:38:53, the third fastest time in history.  My last mile, Spinnler told me, was a 6:10 (how did that happen?)!

What the heck just happened?
At this point I was just flat out shocked.  How did this happen?  How did I win?  How did I run that fast?  It was the greatest feeling ever.  The cameras were firing, the reporters were asking questions, and people were trying to get me to go inside where it was warm.  But to be honest, I didn't want to go inside.  I wanted to stay outside and soak it up.  I was just so excited!  Eventually I did go inside where Kurvach and I made our way to the cafeteria and sat down at a table in shock.  I wanted my phone but
it was in Kurvach's truck.  Being the great guy that he is, Kurvach went and got it for me.  The first person I called was Jeff Bradley, my high school track coach who told me to do the race.  He wasn't home, he was out riding his bike.  So I told his wife Nancy and asked her to have him call me when he got in.  A little while later he called me back and I told him what had happened.  Believe it or not he told me that he wasn't surprised.

Awards ceremony
Kurvach and I spent the rest of the day soaking up the moment.  We spent hours and hours at the post race activities, talking to people, eating, and just taking it all in.  At the end of the night we booked a room at a hotel and attended the post race party.  When we finally made it back to our room for the night I struggled to go to sleep.  Falling asleep was no problem, but getting myself to lay down and close my eyes was the hard part.  I was just so pumped!

The next day we went to the Air and Space Museum in DC.  Then we drove home to my parent's place in Pennsylvania.  After a 7ish mile night run we turned on Kip Moore's "Comeback Kid" and drank a couple of celebratory root beers.  Since that night a lot has changed.  But no matter what happens from here on out, I want to stay true to myself and hold on to what I believe in. 

In closing, I would like to thank everyone for all of the congratulatory messages, emails, phone calls, facebook posts/likes, etc.  I would also like to thank all of the people who took the time to interview me and type up / record interviews.  And finally, thanks to those who have given me help/guidance along the way, both before and after the race.  A special thanks to the Kurvach family for hosting me the week before the race, to Kurvach's Grandma for feeding me so much good food in the days leading up to the race, to Coach Haldeman, Coach Hummel, Coach Newman, and Coach Warth for guiding me with my running, to my parents for showing me how to work hard, and to Coach Bradley for pushing me to run the race! 

And oh yeah, I want to say one more thing.  The local newspaper wrote an article on me after the race.  In that article they stated that I didn't know where this talent of mine came from.  In support of this statement they noted that my parents were not real big in sports when they were growing up.  So in some respects they are correct.  It's true that I am the odd-ball in my family.  I'm the only real competitive runner in the herd.  And yet I think they missed something (no complaints to them…they wrote a fantastic article and I am grateful for that).  I think my parents and my family as a whole has a lot of the qualities that make for a good ultra-marathoner, even if running isn't one of them.  I'm talking about things like a strong work ethic, dedication, passion, determination, and a bit of "crazy".  If you don't understand work ethic just spend a Saturday splitting wood with my Dad and Uncle Gene or try to keep up with my Mom as she juggles a teaching job, college courses for her masters degree, and entertaining family over the holidays.  If the thought of passion is perplexing to you, then sit down and talk to my sister Ashley about her decision to pursue a career in social work.  If that doesn't clear things up have a talk with my sister Leah about her job as an occupational therapist.  If dedication or determination is still unclear to you, then take a look at my sister Kayla's report card.  Finally, if you want a lesson on crazy, ask my Grandpa Koller to tell you the story of how he and my Grandma met.  I'm telling you man, that "crazy" factor might be more important than people realize!  After all, it's kind of what got me (and my family) here in the first place!