Thursday, December 17, 2015

Light it Up

This morning I awoke to an unpleasant realization.  I overslept.  I had wanted to wake up around 5:15am.  5:15am gives me enough time to go for a morning run before opening the camp at 7am.  It also allows me to watch the sunrise.  I WANTED to see that sunrise.  Last night I even thought about taking my phone along so I could photograph it.  But now, with the clock reading 6:35am, all such ambitions were lost.  And what was worse in my mind was that oversleeping meant that my morning run would now become a night run.  I would wait until work was done for the day before heading out into the cold, dark night to get my miles in. 
When the storms creep in, the mountain can be both beautiful and frightening.
This made me think.  Why does the night seem so much more foreboding than the morning?  5:15am in December is still dark, and with temperatures in the single digits, it is most certainly cold.  Both dark.  Both Cold.  So why does the one seem so much worse?  Perhaps the answer lies not in the moment itself, but in the one that is to come.  Think about it.  The morning can be just as dark and cold as the night, but in the morning we know that change is coming.  We know that a new day is dawning and in a few minutes (or hours), the sun will be cresting upon the horizon.  As the sun rises it brings forth light, warmth, and a sense of hope.  That sun is a difference maker.
One of the greatest sights on the mountain is the warm glow of the
cabin at the end of a cold, dark run,
Like the morning, the night is also a difference maker, but in a different sort of way.  As the sun fades away and the night creeps in, things become darker and colder.  It’s the sort of difference making that most of us would shy away from.  Partly because we don’t like the dark and cold, but also because we tend to shy away from things with a seemingly negative trajectory.  As humans we like to see things improve.  A change for the worse disturbs us.  It makes us want to run away, to flee the impending discomfort, to bury our heads in the sand (or snow) and wait for daylight.
But, there is a problem with this sort of mindset, for as dark and cold as the night may be, there is still good in it.  The good is found in the bright shining stars and the silhouette of the mountains.  It is also found in the glow of the moon that illuminates the trail and the distant city lights.  And so we must understand that in the midst of darkness, there is almost always a glimmer of hope.  It reminds me of a rescue that I helped with on Pikes Peak this year.  It was a cold, wintry night and the sun had long since set when I got the call about two lost hikers out on the mountain.  As I threw on my gear and headed into the night I hoped that I would be able to find them.  The first few miles were easy as I was able to stick to the main trail, but this was short lived.  I soon found myself plunging off trail into a forest littered with tall trees, big boulders, and deep snow.  I blew my whistle and scanned the forest for lights.  After a short while I heard a noise.  I yelled and much to my delight, my call was answered.  I had made audible contact!
I made multiple trips to the creek today to clear the ice from
the water pipe.

While audible contact is great, it can also be a bit misleading as the human brain can sometimes have trouble determining where sound is coming from.  Additionally, sound can be drowned out by other noises.  Light, on the other hand, is much more reliable.  It doesn’t get drowned out or blown around by wind.  Instead it provides a constant point of focus.  Fortunately, shortly after making audible contact, I spotted a bright light.  With the light of the subjects in sight, I had something to guide me.  “Keep that light on!” is what I yelled over, and over, and over as I trudged through snow and scrambled across boulder fields.  At times the undulating terrain caused the light to slip from my sight, but if I kept my eyes focused on where it had last appeared and pushed onward, it would come back into view.  Stride after stride the light grew closer and the voices louder until there I was, standing face-to-face with the lost souls.  The light never failed.  I had found my way.

While the rescue is over and the sun has returned to brighten the day, we are still faced with other kinds of darkness.  In the world of sports this darkness has come in the form of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs).  Although PEDs have been present in sports such as baseball, cycling, and track and field for quite some time, their most recent impacts on the world of MUT (Mountain-Ultra-Trail) running has caused quite a stir.  All I have to do these days is log onto my facebook page and I will see a plethora of people talking about doping as it relates to the world of MUT running.  Should dopers be banned for life?  Should Lance Armstrong be allowed to run trail/ultra races?  Should race directors have drug testing?  The questions and debates go on and on.  As an ultra runner I am faced with the question of how to respond.  The options are many.  I could write thought provoking letters to race directors, WADA, and various other organizations.  I could boycott races that don’t drug test.  I could refuse to run against known drug cheats.  The list goes on and on as to what I could do.  The real question, however, is not what could I do, but what will I do.  

A lost art, hardly anyone seems to know what a
gas light is.
What I will do is this.  I will continue running.  I will continue training.  I will work hard to be the best that I can be.  And if those drug cheats do step to the line with me, I will race them…hard!  Will I win?  I don’t know, but I will compete as a clean athlete.  I will hold true to my values and I will strive to set a good example for those following along, especially those younger than myself.  For after all, at one point in my life I was the youngster looking up to the pros.  

Growing up in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania I loved following the Tour de France.  More specifically, I loved cheering for Floyd Landis who was a native of Lancaster County.  I remember the year he “won”.  I was working at Gene Forry’s woodshop when my Mom called to tell me about Floyd’s “Miracle Day”, a day in which he made up an insane amount of time.  I remember telling my co-worker that Landis had performed a miracle, only to discover that he thought I meant that a different man named Landis had fixed a piece of equipment in the woodshop (like many names, Landis is quite common in Lancaster County).  Nonetheless, I loved rooting for Floyd, and I really wanted to believe that the accusations were unfounded.  But as is too often the case, my hopes were crushed as we all learned that our “hometown hero” was a bonafide cheat. 

This my friends, is what I want to end.  I want young kids to have positive role models to look up to.  I want them to be able to cheer for clean athletes who exemplify what it means to be hard working, dedicated, and persistent.  And if we can’t get rid of all the dirty athletes, then I hope the clean athletes can put their nose to the grindstone and beat them anyways.  That way young children can watch a sporting event and say “Hey, I don’t need drugs to be good!  The clean athletes are winning anyways.”  While this may seem a bit naïve and far-fetched, I’m up for the challenge.  We can still try to clean up the sport and if we work hard enough, we just might succeed.  But, let’s commit to doing more than just making noise, noise that can be drowned out.  Let us commit to being the light in the darkness, a beacon of hope in a troubled time.  Because after all, the best way out of this mess might be for us to light the way for those who follow in our tracks.  Let’s LIGHT IT UP! 

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Moving Up

This is Me! (Photo Credit: SKI&RUN)
Since graduating from RIT in 2012 life has been anything but normal.  Normal would have been a desk job at an engineering firm, an apartment, and perhaps a week or so of vacation once a year.  Instead of doing that I took a job on a cruise ship and traveled the world.  In about a year and a half I got to visit six of the seven continents and so many different countries that I have long since lost track.  Amidst all of the traveling I continued running.  Much to my surprise I returned home for vacation in the fall of 2013 and ended up winning the 2013 JFK 50 Mile.  A month or so later I signed a deal with Nike and a few months after that I completed my job on the ship and returned to life on land.  This time, however, I moved to Colorado where I started working as an Engineering Instructor for Play-Well TEKnologies.

And this is my sister Ashley!
With my feet on the ground and my lungs at altitude I spent the rest of the year working, training, and racing all over the world (Italy, France, Qatar, etc.).  In fact, as I type this I am sitting on the floor of the London Airport awaiting my final flight home from the Transvulcania Ultra Marathon in the Canary Islands.  And much like last year when I boarded a flight after the Lake Sonoma 50 Miler, I am once again prepping for a significant change.  No, I am not returning to the ship.  I'm not moving out of Colorado.  I am simply switching jobs and moving lofts (I still get to sleep in a loft...hooray!).  So where am I headed?  Well, it is with great excitement that I announce that I, along with my sister Ashley, have been hired to be a full-time caretaker at Barr Camp!
Barr Camp is an off-the-grid mountain camp/refuge located on the side of Pikes Peak.  With the camp sitting at 10,200 feet (3,109 meters) and approximately six miles up the Barr Trail, I like to think that I'm moving up in the world!  While working at Barr Camp Ashley and I will be responsible for taking care of all of the guests who book a stay at the camp.  This means we will be cooking meals for them (pancakes for breakfast and pasta with garlic bread for dinner), maintaining the camp, hauling in re-supplies, responding to rescues, and many other things.  While the work will be plentiful and tough, I am very much looking forward to it.  Plus, I am pumped to have miles and miles of high altitude trails right out the door!

Ashley and I will be taking over in the next few months.  Please feel free to venture up our six mile "driveway" and say hi.  I'm really looking forward to getting to know the community of people that frequent Barr Camp / Trail and exploring the mountain.  I've done a lot of floating around in the past, but I'm happy to have the opportunity to focus on getting to know one place really well.  In the words of Ricky Gates "...I think that a single mountain range is enough exploration for an entire lifetme".

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Dear Coach,

Justin, Alex, Peter, and I found some fresh "pow"! (Photo Credit: Peter) 

You stood on a soccer field before a match with Manheim Township and told us to believe that we would succeed.  You played music from your red Honda Civic while we ran down Montezuma road and carted me to one of my first ever trail races.  You drove me all the way to Mount Gretna and let me run the 18ish miles back to school.  You took me on cycling trips and did even longer ones of your own, showing me that life is about living, not just existing. 

No water bottle?  No problem! (Photo Credit: Peter)
As I grew older you taught me the importance of consistency and expressed that any circumstance could be viewed as a burden or an opportunity.  You urged me to see it as the latter.  Some lessons came easily, others took time.  You told me I would "get nothing and like it", a motto I have come to love.  You tried so hard to teach us not to over-analyze, over-think, or draw conclusions from an inadequate sample size.

Time and time again we heard, but did not understand.  We nodded in agreement, then proceeded to mess up and wonder what was wrong.  Yet you pressed on.  You didn't give up.  You preached your lessons like a broken record, hoping we would catch on.  You were faithful.  We were young.  When that fateful day finally came, you didn't fence us in.  You deposited your final two cents, turned the crank, and waited for your prize like a child at a gumball machine.  The prize, however, wasn't even for you.  It was for us.  You just wanted to see us enjoy it.
"Hey Alex!  I'm gonna make it rain!...I mean snow!" (Photo Credit: Peter)

And for that I would like to say thank you!  Thanks for the prize, because so far it's been down right fantastic.  The lessons you taught have gone a long way.  I'm living my dreams, loving life, and having a blast.  Hopefully the joy goes both ways and you're having just as much fun watching it all unfold.  With that said, I'm sure you are wondering what's next, where I am headed and where the next adventure will be.  And so, I present to you my 2015 race schedule.  Some of the race plans are still "in the works" and "yet to be confirmed", but this is what I'm looking at/wanting to do.  Races in orange are high priority and races in white are flex races that I look to mix in as I see fit.  Also, there is talk of a rim2rim2rim run at the Grand Canyon, a thru-run of the John Muir Trail, and possibly a couple of other big adventures thrown in along the way.  May the adventures take flight!

Onward and Upward! (Photo Credit: Peter Maksimow)

May 9th - Transvulcania (73.3km, La Palma, Canary Islands)

June 6th - Rothrock Trail Challenge (18.9 Miles, Boalsburg, PA) OR Vail Pass Half Marathon/10k Spring RunOff (Vail, CO)

June 20th - Mount Washington Road Race (Mount Washington, NH)

July 25th - USATF Mountain Championships (Bend, Oregon)

August 28th - CCC (~101km, Chamonix, France)

September 19th - World Mountain Running Championships (Pending Qualification, Wales)

September 27th(?) - Conestoga Trail Run (Conestoga, PA)

October 18th - Skyrunning Extreme (Limone sul Garda, Italy) 

December 5th - TNF 50 (50 Miles, San Francisco, CA)
 Transvulcania will take me back to one of my favorite places that I visited while working on the cruise ship! Check out this video about the race:

CCC is a sister race to UTMB and the course should be similar to what is shown in this video about UTMB:  

In other news, I've been enjoying this song by Lancaster County native Cory Shenk:

And in other, other news, if you are looking for a race this spring check out the Cheyenne Mountain Trail Race!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014


Photo Credit: Didler Lanne
Just the other day I re-read my JFK 50 race report.  Reading that report floods my mind with a plethora of fond memories.  It was a magical day.  It was near perfect.  It changed my life.  No, really, it changed my life!  The funny thing about change though, is that it needs to continue.  You can't settle, you have to keep moving, pushing, and striving.  You have to continue to CHANGE.  We change seasons, we change clocks, we change jobs, we change where we live, but most importantly we change ourselves.  Change can be a scary thing though.  It opens us up to the great unknown, forces us out of the beloved comfort zone, and beckons us to take a risk. 

If change is so necessary though, why does it instill such fear?  Well, that's easy.  It often comes down to a single word…FAILURE.  Like it or not many of us are afraid to change because we are afraid to fail.  That dream job that we've been thinking about chasing, that college application for our "reach school", that pretty girl who lives across town, very rarely will such things come to fruition if we don't act on them.  And so at times we must throw caution to the wind, pull up the anchor, and set sail on a voyage of change, even if it threatens to push us off the edge (of the World).  Are such actions crazy?  Perhaps.  What might be crazier, however, is refusing to try.  After all, the explorers of old already proved that the Earth isn't flat.  Worst comes to worst you'll probably just circle back around with a few cuts, bruises (and scurvy), and possibly an even greater desire to try it again (Side note…circling back around might take a while.  Trust me, I've been out there.  There's an awful lot of, well, not much.).

Photo Credit: Didler Lanne
Amongst all of the changes, however, there are those things which remain, those things that need not changing.  This includes things such as our morals, our faith, and the very core of who we are.  Such things serve as a sort of personalized compass, an absolute North.  They guide us, direct us, and help us to stay the course in our pursuit of change.  Do they prevent us from failure?  No!  But they give us something to return to, something to hold onto when all else is falling apart.  They drive us, they inspire us, and when necessary, they catch us, reminding us that failure is oftentimes an agent of change.

Looking back at my most recent race (a forty-something mile ultra-marathon in France), I can't help but think about how this pursuit of change applies to what happened.  And so we take a look at the race, the motivation, the strategy (or lack thereof), the execution, and the end result.  In regards to motivation, people often ask me why I run.  It's a valid question, no doubt, for I spend a great deal of my time doing it.  But perhaps an equally important question is why I race.  Is it for attention, money, a need to feel successful?  Is it for the opportunity to travel to and explore a new place?  Or is it because it's what the sponsors want?  While all such reasons can contribute, none of them are my primary reason.  So what is my reason (or reasons)?  Perhaps the answer to this is found in my pre-race rituals.  No, I'm not talking about applying spit to my shoe laces (a trick I learned from Coach Dave Hummel back in high school).  What I'm talking about is a prayer that I say before the gun goes off.  It's simple, but I pray that my race will be glorifying to God.  Now, is this my sole reason for racing?  No, but I would be lying if I said I didn't want to glorify God with this gift that he has given me.  So back to the whole glorifying God does one do that?  How does a human being manage to glorify God?

Photo Credit: Didler Lanne
As difficult as that might seem, I think it's really quite simple.  God has blessed us all with different gifts and I think it brings honor to him when we use those gifts to the best of our ability.  Does this mean that we have to win every race that we enter?  No.  What it does mean is that we give it our all while competing with honor, integrity, and good sportsmanship.  I like to think that it means we run until there is nothing left.  From gun to tape we give it everything we've got, pushing all the way through the line until we are so broken that we can barely stand.  Note that I said we push through the line, not run through it.  Preferably you WILL run through it, but sometimes, when you've done it right, it's more of a crawl.  If that doesn't make sense, watch the video of my finish at Le Templiers…you'll understand.  And for the record, I thought I was at least sort of running when I came through the finish.  Oh how very wrong I was…that was a walk…with an excessive amount of arm movement.  Let's just call it a march.  It sounds better that way.

Now I know what some of you might be thinking.  "Oh, Zach didn't win, so now he's just acting like winning doesn't matter, painting this fake picture of success because he blew up and finished 5th."  But that's not it.  I love winning, and by golly gee wilikers I sure wanted to win Les Templiers.  Don't get me wrong, I am very proud of my effort at Les Templiers, but I'm still human, I'm still competitive.  A part of me still kicks myself for messing up the nutrition (I should have had more to eat and drink.  How did I mess that up?  I'm Dan Miller's son…I love to eat!) and falling apart in the final miles.  But, do I regret going out like I did?  Of course not!  Running like that was a blast!  I loved going out fast and running down Ricky Lightfoot on the first climb.  I loved cruising the fire roads with Ricky and Chris Vargo, spooking the birds from the trees, watching the orange/pink glow of the sunrise, and trying to keep up with the Europeans on the first technical downhill (OK, maybe that part was a bit nerve-wracking). 

Photo Credit: Nico Raybaud
Zipping through the quaint French town at the first aid station was a rush!  The streets were lined with SO many people cheering me on as I took off in pursuit of the leader (he was about 100m in front of me).  Having ditched my headlamp (actually it was my roommate, Brandon Stapanowich's headlamp…thanks Brandon!) I ran nice and steady up the climb out of town.  The guy leading the race was alternating between power hiking and running and it wasn't long before I passed him.  Having regained the lead I pushed onward.  With a runner hot on my heals I kept things rolling pretty good.  We went up, down, and around on some really cool forest trails.  Eventually I reached for a VFuel gel.  Opting to switch flavors, I reached for another and ended up dropping one on the ground.  Not wanting to litter, I turned around to pick it up.  Both gels in hand, I stuffed the one in my pack and ate the other.  Shortly after eating the gel (I think) we came across a group of people blocking the trail.  A quick beep of the emergency alarm on my awesome 300 Lumin Nathan Sports Zephyr Fire 300 hand-light and they got out of the way.  Soon we ran into an old stone building in the middle of the woods.  Upon entering I didn't know which way to go.  Fortunately the guy running behind me pointed me in the correct direction, thereby clearing up my confusion.  A quick turn left, then right, and we were on our way. 

Shortly after exiting the church(?) I started to pull away.  Coming into the second aid station I was in first place with just a small gap back to 2nd.  I was in such a rush to get out of the aid station that I ripped my Nathan hand light right off my hand.  I thought I might have broken it (the light, not my hand), but as it turns out, I just undid the Velcro (Velcro…good thinking Nathan!).  Having ditched my Nathan Firecatcher pack I pulled on a fresh one and took off (Note: Pennsylvania's Nathan Sports supplied me with five Firecatcher packs and tons of hand bottles and hydration bladders for this race so that I could go "crewless" and still get in and out of aid stations nice and fast.  Thanks so much Nathan for your great products and wonderful support/service!  Pennsylvania proud!).  Fearing that second place had passed me during transition I asked a spectator if anyone was in front of me.  Fortunately he told me that I was leading (side note: When racing internationally, the language barrier can add a whole new element to things.  Communication just isn't as easy.  Thank goodness for body language!).  Tearing off through the countryside I nearly missed a turn.  Fortunately I noticed it at the last minute.  Crisis averted, I continued on.  Diving into a set of switchbacks, I descended to a flat section before embarking on a relatively steep climb up to a ridge.  Running across the ridge, I encountered some pretty cool rock formations, including a rock arch (think less Utah arch and more giant hole). 

Reaching for the back of the "pain cave".  Photo Credit: Guilhem Prax
Part way down the descent from the ridge I noticed that I had some (French) company behind me.  Continuing to lead, I slid out on a switchback and got passed.  Fortunately it didn't cost me much time and I was soon right on the heals of said Frenchman.  Shortly after crossing the road I found my opening and regained the lead.  For a while I ran with the Frenchman right on my heals, but then it struck me.  Don't settle and run down to his level.  Run your race!  Make him work for it if he wants to keep up.  And with that I took off.  Up the steep embankment and onto the road we went.  Weaving through the traffic and into the town, I started to pull away.  As always, navigating the narrow streets and stairs in the town was a blast.  As I exited the town, Gill, the race director, asked if I wanted water.  Declining his offer I turned onto a bridge and threw in a bit of a surge as I crossed the river.  Reaching the other side, I embarked on yet another climb.  The climb was quite fun as there were several spectators scattered along the route.  Trying to increase the gap back to second place, I kept my foot on the gas.  Eventually I lost sight of second and that made me feel much better.  

Coming into the third aid station (45k I believe), I spotted Bryon Powell of  Bryon was quite excited and told me that I was crushing it!  Feeling good, I swapped out my Nathan Firecatcher pack for a new one and surged out of the aid station.  Given that I had 13 miles until the next aid station, it was very important that I get some calories and fluids into my system.  Heading down the trail I gulped a VFuel gel, munched a banana, and sucked down some Powerade.  Fortunately this 13 mile section proved to be one of the most scenic parts of the race.  As we climbed and descended we were treated to sweeping views of the gorge and glimpses of the magnificent bridge that we had been admiring earlier in the week.  Part way through this section we encountered a fairly technical area in which the trail was far less obvious and littered with rocks.  It was at this point that I ran off trail and ended up at a bunch of cave-esque rocks.  Feeling that I had made a mistake, I backtracked and quickly found the trail (I had only ran about 15 meters out of the way).  Plunging down another descent I was surprised once again when I noticed two Frenchman hot on my heals.  Not liking that I had been caught, I took off.  Fortunately we entered another climb and I was able to get some separation.  As I neared the top of the climb I spotted Gill and he told me that I was running the perfect race.  Cresting the climb, I ran through a field, re-entered the woods and was soon heading downhill.  Not wanting to get caught, I tried to keep a good pace on the downhill.  At the bottom of the descent I transitioned onto a road.  Looking back over my shoulder, I couldn't see anyone.  This was a good sign!  Still feeling pretty good, I sped across the bridge, ran through the town, and powered into the climb.  The first bit of the climb was littered with fans and I fed off their energy as they cheered me on (it was fantastic!).  Sometimes I would even get people running along in front of or behind me with a camera.

Photo Credit: Guilhem Prax
As I climbed higher and higher I kept waiting for the aid station to appear.  Despite my efforts the climb drug on and on…and on.  Finally, after what seemed like too long, the aid station came into view.  This final aid station was approximately 7k (about 4.5 miles) from the finish and this is where I made a BIG mistake.  I needed water and food, but I had only packed one gel and 12oz of plain water in my pack awaiting me at the final aid station.  What I should have done was kept the pack that I had on and just grabbed an 18oz Nathan hand-held (I had one in my aid station box).  This probably would have been fine since I still had 2 gels (containing a total of about 75mg of caffeine) and an entire Enduro Bar (400 calories) in the pack that I had just come into the aid station with.  Unfortunately I stuck with my plan, ditched the pack, and picked up the new one.  After squirting myself with the hand bottle I threw it back in the box, grabbed a cup of some random yellow liquid at the aid table, and left.  Running down the trail I realized that my pack straps weren't routed correctly.  I managed to fix them on the fly but it probably slowed me down a little.  Oh well, I was about to encounter MUCH bigger problems.  For starters, my hands went all tingly…I know that feeling from training and it's NOT good…BAD SENSATIONS!  I sucked down my only VFuel, thinking that I had another.  I also drank all of my water quite quickly.  Struggling on the technical downhill, the Frenchman caught me (probably about 3-4 miles from the finish).  He stayed behind me for a brief moment, and then blew right on by.  I didn't have much of a response (if any).  Coming out of the descent we hit a flatter section as we skirted along the side of the mountain.  I think it was around this point that my hands started to come around and my body (may have) made a slight turn for the better.  Any such improvements, however, were short lived as I was approaching a killer steep climb to the peak.  I was struggling to run and clawing at the rocks with my hands.  I pushed and pushed but my body was fading fast.  The needle was dipping below the empty line and the gas light was nearly on!  I was in BIG trouble.  Nonetheless, I got to the top of the climb about 2-3 minutes behind the leader and was somehow holding onto second.  I was grateful to see Ricky Lightfoot at the top cheering me on (Ricky is a World Champion and he had duked it out with me for the first 12 miles of the race before eventually dropping out).  After the race Ricky told me that at the top he thought that I might catch the leader before the finish as I was one of the only ones still running up that section (to be honest I'm not sure how much running I was actually doing on that climb). 

Head up...I'm gonna finish this thing!  Photo Credit: Guilhem Prax
Once I came off the rocks towards the top of the climb, I still had to run across a grass slope and up a small nub.  On one side of the nub was a set of stairs.  On the other side was a sidewalk type thing.  I thought to myself that if I went left it would be like the Manitou Incline and if I went right it wouldn't.  I went right.  I crested the hill and dove into the downhill.  Running downhill on a body that dead is hard to do, and as I went it got worse and worse.  My calves were on the verge of cramping and my body just did not want to go.  My heart wanted so badly to move faster, but my gas tank (calories) was drained.  With about one to one and a half miles to go I got passed by the second Frenchman.  At this point the trail rolled slightly and we climbed up to a cave.  Inside the cave there was a lady.  She asked me if I spoke French and I said no.  Apparently I was still capable of answering questions.  She guided me through the cave with a small light.  I thought that perhaps I was supposed to take the light so I kept trying to grab it from her, but she wouldn't let go!  Within a few seconds I was through the cave and on my way.  A short while later, with probably about a half mile to a mile to go Alex Nichols came tearing by.  He looked dazed and tired but the dude was moving!  He went on to secure a HUGE come from behind third place (podium) finish!  Huge props to Alex for what he did.  Everyone thinks it takes guts to race up front, but it also takes guts to race from behind!  It can be nerve racking to be way back in the pack where you can't see the leaders.  So once again, HUGE props to Alex for a job well done!

Thibaut Baronian's video of my "march" to the finish was a hit on Facebook.
Shortly after Alex passed me, Sage Canaday came whizzing by.  Sage encouraged me, telling me that I was almost there.  Such encouragement is the sign of a true competitor!  Hats off to Sage for that!  Sage also did a good job of hanging in there and not giving up.  His fourth place finish was key to our team's success (we won the men's competition!).  Soon after Sage flew by someone yelled that I had about 500m to go.  Though I was trying really hard to get to the finish line, I was pretty much walking (perhaps I was completely walking).  When I heard 500 to go I decided to try and force myself into more of a running motion.  Surprisingly, I was able to change my stride.  And to be honest, I really thought I was at least sort of running.  That is until I watched  a video of myself coming into the finish.  Oh how wrong I was!  I watched that video and I am walking!  I might be moving my arms as if I am running, but trust me, I'm walking!  If you don't believe me, check it out for yourself (it's on my Facebook page).  In fact, it was so ugly that Alex Nichols wasn't sure I was going to make it across the little speed-bump type thing that they set up at the finish line.  Yeah, it was that bad! 

Fortunately I did make it across the finish line where I was greeted by both Alex and Sage.  Collapsing onto their shoulders, they kindly helped me to the medical tent.  I didn't really need medical attention.  I just needed a seat, water, calories, and electrolytes.  Within a few minutes I was handed a bunch of water and some sort of flavored drink.  I downed it in a flash and exited the tent immediately.  Within a matter of minutes I was doing WAY better.  Of course I did have the chills, but after eating some food and downing several cups of the smoothie drink they had at the post-race drink station it cleared up.  Feeling much better, I joined Vargo, Nichols, and Jodee Adams-Moore at the finish where we cheered in Matt Flaherety (Matt may or may not have crossed the line holding hands with another guy in the race…when in France, haha).  Matt, who is a fantastic runner, specializes in racing on fairly runnable terrain.  With the long climbs and technical sections found in this race, Matt really had his work cut out for him.  Nonetheless he stuck it out and finished.  Way to go dude!  He might be the only one of us who can tell you how the cheese, soup, and beer tasted at the aid station.  And while I'm at it, I gotta commend Chris Vargo for his gutsy start.  Vargo and I were running together early on in the race.  We were both up there at the front, even running side-by-side at times.  Unfortunately things didn't go his way and he dropped, but who doesn't love a guy whose willing to throw down early and give it a shot?

Thanks guys!  Photo Credit: Christophe Rochotte
Having said all of this, one of the greatest things of all were the French fans.  From the crowds at the start line, to the streams of spectators in the towns, to those scattered along the climbs and gathered at the finish, the French fans were spectacular!  You couldn't help but feel that they had a true appreciation and love for the sport.  In fact, it was as if they loved my colossal meltdown about as much as (or more than) the rest of my race.  This was made evident by a series of comments that were posted online.  One of my favorite comments was by Benoit Nave, who said "Alors lui, s'il avait couru juste un tout petit peu avec sa tête, il aurait gagné "haut la main " ! Mais il a couru juste avec son cœur ... Mais vraiment tout son cœur !"  According to the internet, this translates to "Then he, if it ran just a tiny bit with his head, he would have won "hands down"! But he ran just with his heart... But really all his heart!"  Thanks Benoit, your words mean so much!  Perhaps the French have a true understanding of taking a risk, giving it your all, and not being afraid to fail!  It is my hope that this attitude be the spirit of the the NIKE Trail Elite Team, and people in general.  May we all have the guts to lay it all out there, even if it threatens to end in a #NIKEfail, 'cause in my book, sometimes a #NIKEfail is the greatest success of all!  In the words of T.S. Eliot, "Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go."

I wore a buff for the first time in this race.  Am I doing it right?  Thanks NIKE!
Finally, I would like to extend a bit of thanks to all those who have supported me.  Thanks to my Mom, Dad, (3) sisters, family, and friends.  Thanks to those who have coached me along the way (middle school, high school, and college).  Thanks to the French for  being such wonderful hosts.  Thanks to Gill for organizing the race and Christophe for doing the athlete coordination.  Thanks to all fans and supporters, especially those who cheered me on during the race and/or sent me kind messages after the race.  And finally, thanks to NIKE for supplying me with awesome gear, VFuel for giving me a bunch of gels, Enduro Bites for providing tasty, natural Enduro Bites, Mrs. Canaday for getting me a bunch of Powerade, and Mr. Nichols for buying me a whole bunch of BANANAS (where would I be without those?).

Thanks NIKE, Nathan, Enduro, and VFuel!
And for those wondering what's next, it will be the World 100k Championships on November 21st in Qatar!  Here's to running 20x5k loops in heat and humidity.  Adventure?  I think so!

Best start line yet! 

Race Recap

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!