Notes from the Underground

Zach is Possessed: The Interview

Getting Zach for this Zach Miller issue of POSSESSED was a coup for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it wouldn’t be much of a Zach Miller issue without his involvement, right? What would that even be? Secondly, it was great to meet the guy—he rules.

Now, we gotta be careful not to embarrass Zach here because he’s reading this right now and probably thinking, ‘Oh jeez, this here's kinda embarrassin', y’know,’ (because that’s how Pennsylvanians talk). Still, we need to acknowledge what a friendly, good-natured, and completely unaffected dude he is. Not that top-tier ultra-athletes are meanspirited and grandiose, but Zach really is a down-to-earth cat, and this conversation with him about how he became pro and lived on a ship, in a van, and on a mountain is testimony to that.

Photography: Peter Maksimow

'My dad built the house we lived in, and besides where we lived in Kenya, that’s the only house I’ve ever lived in.' 

Zach! Where are you right now?

Hey! I’m in California, in Marin, like, right outside of San Francisco. So, San Francisco, basically. 

What are you doing there?

I was up at a North Face race over the weekend that was a little north of the city, and then I came here to do a North Face event. I have a teammate here in the Bay, Patty O’Leary, and Katie Schide is actually coming in later today because she’s running the Canyons race, so I’m hanging around to hang out with her, and then I’m heading for Utah tomorrow. 

How are you getting to Utah?

I’m driving in the bus. After Utah, I’m going to Colorado for the summer to train for Hardrock, so I’m making a sort of roundabout migration. 

Tell me about me about the bus.

I have a little 1998 Ford van—slash—bus. It looks like a little bus.

And it’s a sleeper?

Yeah, I converted it myself. I bought it and then basically tore everything out from the inside and built it out from there. It has a little kitchen and a bed, and I’ve been living out of it for three years. 

Amazing. How many times have you gone cross-country in it?

Probably, like, three times? Mostly, it bounces around out west, though: Colorado, Oregon, California, Montana, Arizona... But every now and then, I make the long drive back to Pennsylvania, but not very often.

Let’s talk about how you were born in Kenya and became a runner. Do people ask you about that enough in interviews?

Yeah, they talk about that enough. They don’t really need to talk about it, though.


I mean, it is interesting that you were born in Kenya.

I know. I guess it is a fun fact. 

Your folks were missionaries over there, right?

Yeah, my parents were missionaries. My dad was a builder—well, he’s a mason by trade, so laying brick and block, but he’s really like a tradesman; he does carpentry as well. So, we were over there for several years. I guess my parents were doing that for ten years; I think they did roughly five years in South America and then five years in Kenya.

'I had good hustle and work ethic in soccer. And then the coaches at my high school started to figure out that I was good at distance running, and so they began to prod me a bit in that direction.' 

Do you have any memories of being a toddler in Kenya?

I don’t know. It’s actually hard to say if I really remember anything or if I just know things from stories and home videos and pictures.

Right. So, you spent the majority of your childhood in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. 

Yeah, Lancaster, Pennsylvania. My dad built the house we lived in, and besides where we lived in Kenya, that’s the only house I’ve ever lived in. So, my dad built the house, they moved to Kenya, my grandparents lived in the house while we were in Kenya, then we moved back and my grandparents moved into the in-law’s quarters. So, I grew up in a house with my parents, my sisters, and my grandparents.

That’s cool. I’ve actually been to your neck of the woods. I attended Ground Hog Day in Punxsutawney maybe a decade ago.

Oh, wow. That’s a great move. I’ve actually never gone for Ground Hog Day. I need to.

It was madness. You gotta go. But one of the things that tripped me out when we were driving into that part of Pennsylvania were the road signs warning drivers to watch out for Amish people in their horse-drawn carts!

Oh yeah, that’s very big where I grew up. Like, Lancaster County is ninety minutes outside of Philadelphia, kinda like the southeast corner of Pennsylvania, and there’s a lot of Amish, and Mennonites as well. Conservative groups in general, like the Amish, Mennonites, and River Brethren. There are all these different sects where I grew up. So, yeah, the horses and buggies would be on the road, and the little kids would be out riding their scooters down the streets because the Amish technically aren’t meant to ride bicycles. 

That’s so cool.

Yeah, you’d be out on a run, and you get passed—or pass, depending on how hard you were running—by a buggy or farmer and his horse-drawn wagon.


That’s crazy. Okay, so how did you start running? I read that you were training on a cruise ship. Is that where it started?

That’s not where I started, but it was part of my journey. I started running formally on a team in eighth grade, I think, which is like...

Age fourteen?

Yeah, like thirteen or fourteen years old. So, I started then on the track team. I was a soccer player, so I’d play soccer for our school in the fall, and then I would run track in the spring. I split it between soccer and track for a while, and then in eleventh grade I started running cross-country instead of playing soccer in the fall.

Was that how running won out against soccer?

Well, the part of soccer that I was good at was the running part, not the sprinting part, but just the running around forever and being a pest on the field part.


So, I had good hustle and work ethic in soccer. And then the coaches at my high school started to figure out that I was good at distance running, and so they began to prod me a bit in that direction. Then I finally decided to just run cross-country instead. I ran cross-country the last two years of high school. And then I went to college at a Division III school in Rochester, New York: RIT [Rochester Institute of Technology]. I ran track and cross-country there.

What did you study at RIT?

I studied Mechanical Engineering.

Oh, so you’re a Mechanical Engineer?

Yeah, I mean, technically.


I got my degree, and I did very well in school. I worked some jobs out of school that kind of implemented my degree; that’s how I ended up working on cruise ships.

'Unless you’re addicted to online shopping, there’s not much you can do with your paycheck on a cruise ship.'

When did that start?

Almost right out of college. I’d done a sort of internship with Ricoh, who make these industrial-size printers for large-scale production printing. So, I worked with a team of engineers, and we designed stuff for the print industry. When I got out of school, I had this weird combination of engineering experience and print experience. So, I ended up getting hired by a British printing company that was contracted by the Cunard cruise lines to man and operate all the print shops aboard their ships. Which always surprises people, but a ship is basically like a small floating city.

Oh, I know. Dude, I’ve been on a cruise ship. It was terrible. But go on.


Oh, yeah, they’re not my vibe either, not at all. Probably the only thing I jive with in the cruise industry is eating lots of food—


—and the adventure aspect, like, going somewhere. So, I took the job for those reasons. Well, that and there were no living expenses.

Nowhere to spend your money.

Right. So, I basically just paid off my college loans very fast.

That’s great. 

Yeah, I didn’t have to pay rent, I didn’t have to buy food, and I when I’d get my paycheck, I didn’t know what I was supposed to do with it. Unless you’re addicted to online shopping, there’s not much you can do with your paycheck on a cruise ship.


Right, right.

But oddly, that job is kinda how I got into ultra-running. 

Yeah, so what happened there?

Well, I wanted to keep running right out of college, and I thought that maybe triathlon would be more my thing. I had done some triathlons in high school and college, and I thought that might be a way to make it to a higher level of sport. So, I toyed with that for a bit but didn’t really do it super-seriously compared to a normal triathlete. Like, I didn’t really know what I was doing, and I didn’t really have access to a pool to swim; I was mostly just running and biking a bunch. So, I was kinda doing that, and then right before I got the job and left on the ship, I did a ten-mile trail race in my hometown called the Conestoga Trail Run, which was pretty hard, pretty technical; it’s pretty much steep up and steep down the whole time. And they were offering a hundred dollars to the first person who could break an hour and a half on this ten-mile course. I was like, ‘90 minutes? That’s nine-minute-mile pace,’ you know? Like, ‘That shouldn’t be so hard.’


One day, I went out and ran most of this course in training, and, oh my gosh, it was hard. So, I went from, ‘That shouldn’t be too hard,’ to, ‘Oh, I’m not sure if I can do that...’


So, what happened?

Well, I went anyway, on race day, and I did it. I broke 90 minutes.

Hell yeah.

And everyone was like, ‘Wow! No one’s been able to do that yet. This is the first time.’ So, it was impressive to the locals, and I was like, ‘Huh. Maybe this is my thing.’


And then I got on the ship.


And then you began training on the ship.

Yeah, but I really struggled at first to do that well. But, in time, I dialed it in. It got me into ultra-running because I hated running on the treadmill, and even though I did run on the treadmill, I would save my training hours for when we were in port. 

So, while you were on the ship, the only available training was treadmill?

Well, when I trained on the ship, my volume wasn’t crazy, but it was a lot of quality work. So, days in port, I’d go out and run two or three hours, and I’d get some good efforts in, but on the ship days, I ended up doing a ton of workouts, like, I was either doing a fartlek run or a tempo run or an interval workout—I was always doing something to keep my brain entertained, which ended up getting me really, really fit. 

'One day we ported in La Palma, where Transvulcania is... I think I ran from the ship to the top of the island where the course goes through, and I had no idea what Transvulcania was. I was just up there running.' 


But I also mixed it up. For a while on the ship, I would do a mix of treadmill running and spin classes. So, I’d be in the gym running on the treadmill, and then they’d come in and start a spin class, and I’d finish up my run and jump in the spin class and just hammer myself.

Dude, spin is so hard. I feel like people don’t know that.

Yeah, you can basically make it as hard as you want it to be. Anyway, I used to do that, but then [towards the end] I didn’t spin as much. I mostly just ran the treadmill and the stairwells on the ship. Not the nice red-carpet stairwells for the guests—the dungeon-like stairwells that are just metal staircases; there’s foodservice people in their lugging food up and down; and we had ten decks that I would train on in the stairs, and I would just go up and down, up and down, up and down, and ship stairs are funny because the ship goes up and down, so it’s kinda like a core workout and a balance routine all at once; sometimes the stairs are coming up into your body, and sometimes they’re going down away from you—

Right, wow. 

Anyway, after that, I would jump on the treadmill and do my running workout. And that got me very fit. And I would do that any day that we were not on land. When we were in port, I’d go out and explore and do these long runs. One day we ported in La Palma, where Transvulcania is, and I think I ran from the ship to the top of the island where the course goes through, and I had no idea what Transvulcania was. I was just up there running. And I met this old couple who told me, ‘Oh, there’s this race that goes across the island!’ And I had no idea what they were talking about. But then, two or three years later, I was running that race.

Ha! That’s awesome.

Yeah! The same thing kinda happened with UTMB: I was working on the ship, I had a break in Europe and flew to Chamonix, and spent, like, a week in Chamonix, and it was fall, shoulder season—kinda the wrong time to be there, but I didn’t know—and I tried to run the Haute Route, got really sick, and bailed on it. Then I went back to Chamonix with these French guys I’d met who were running the UTMB route, and I didn’t know what that was, and they explained how you could run a route around the mountain that was a race—

Right, right.

And so I recovered from being sick and then took four days and ran around Mont Blanc. Then two years later, I was there racing CCC, and then UTMB the next year. 

What year did this happen with the French dudes showing you the UTMB route?

This was, like, 2013. About a month before the JFK 50 race.

Which was the race that broke you, right?

Yeah, I came back to the States, and my track coach from high school was like, ‘You need to run something big and long,’ and he suggested JFK, but I wasn’t sure. I thought the route sounded kinda boring—and it was 50 miles, which I had never done before. I had run a 50k in Tennessee, you know, a low-level 50k, and I had won it, but I’d never run 50 miles. So, I found out the US Trail Running 50k Championships were gonna be in Nevada, and I was more comfortable with that, so I was like, ‘I’m gonna go run this 50k race instead.’ So, I got in my car in Pennsylvania, and I drove to Nevada—


–which is a really long way.

Yeah, it is. 

I think I just wanted to have an adventure and take a trip.

And this was before the bus, right? What were you driving?

Yeah, this was before the bus. I was in this little Mazda Protégé, just kinda dirtbagging it, y’know?


'I was like, "Hey, I’m Zach. What’s your name?" And he’s like, "I’m Rob." And I was like, "Rob what?" And he goes, "Rob Krar."


So, I went to Nevada, and ran this bootlegger 50k race, and I think I placed like 6th, and I was like, ‘Maybe I’m not so good at this.’ I mean, 6th isn’t bad. There were a lot of runners there.

6th is pretty good.

Well, I was thinking, ‘Maybe I can win this thing,’ but 6th wasn’t as good as I thought I should be. So, I road-tripped back. But I met this guy at the race and gave him a lift back to Flagstaff, and in exchange, he let me crash at his house for a few days. And he lived across the street from Rob Krar, and Rob, at that point, was the guy; no one could beat Rob in the US. So, my friend was like, ‘Rob Krar lives across the street,’ and I was like, ‘Oh, this is cool and kinda funny. I’m staying in this house, and Rob Krar lives across the street!’ 

Did you see him?

No, I didn’t. But then I made my way back to the East Coast, and I was still kinda thinking about JFK, like, ‘Should I do it? Should I not?’ and then I just thought, ‘What the heck. I’ve got nothing to lose; nobody knows who I am; I’ll give it a whirl.’ So, [after writing to the race director] I showed up, paid my fee, got in the race, and I was bib 497 or something; no one knew who I was. And I didn’t really know much about who was in this race, but there were some good guys, and one of them was Rob Krar.

No way.

Yeah, and Rob was just winning everything he entered that year, left and right. And I didn’t even know he was in the race, but at some point, it ended up just being me and this one other guy, and I was like, ‘Well, this is a long race; I might as well find out who I’m running with,’ so I turned to this guy, and he has this big beard, and I was like, ‘Hey, I’m Zach. What’s your name?’ And he’s like, ‘I’m Rob.’ And it was just like—


—yeah! And I was like, ‘Rob what?’ And he goes, ‘Rob Krar.’

That’s great!

And I said, ‘Oh, great job at UROC,’ because he had just won UROC.


So, I was really stoked to be running with him. And I thought I’d be super-happy if I got second to this guy, but also thinking it’ll be the best day of my life if I win. So, we ran together for like 38 miles or something—


Yeah, we weren’t together every step of the way, but we grouped up around mile 20 or so. And then, at mile 38, we were still pretty much together. I think I came through the checkpoint about 25 feet in front of him or something. But then he ended up dropping at mile 40 or 42, but I didn’t know he’d dropped. I just kept running. It wasn’t until I got to the finish line that I figured out he’d dropped. But that race was what set it all off for me. 

That’s brilliant.

Yeah, he came up after the race and said, ‘Good job,’ and then fast forward a few years and now we’re teammates. So, that was how I got into it, but right after that, I had to get back to the ship because I’d signed up for another contract. So, I got back on the ship. But while I was on the ship, I signed a contract with Nike, and then I jumped off the ship in California a few months later, and then I moved to Colorado and kept running races, and, yeah, the rest is kinda history.

How good was it to get off the ship in California and know you didn’t have to get back on?

Oh, it was amazing.


I had some amazing experiences on the ship—mostly off the ship when we were in port and I saw some amazing places—but I could not wait to put an X through each day on the calendar leading up to California, and I really couldn’t wait to stop training on that stupid treadmill.

Tell me about Barr Camp and Pikes Peak. That was a big moment, right?

Yeah, so I lived in Manitou Springs, Colorado for a while, and then I found out that the caretaker job at Barr Camp was open, so I rang my sister to ask if she’d be into it, and she said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it!’ So, I moved up on the mountain and spent five years living off-grid halfway up Pikes Peak, just being a caretaker, like, a hut worker for this camp. There were no roads. It was this little log cabin that was built in 1922, and it was tucked in the forest. There’s a race up Pikes Peak and it’s situated basically at the halfway point of the race. 

So, you and your sister lived there for five years.

Yeah, 2015 to 2020. So, you just live at the cabin and then you host people. They come during the day just to hang out, like, the local trail runners, or hikers come up on day hikes, and they stop in and you sell them snacks and just chitchat. But then also you have guests who stay overnight, like, they might be hiking to the summit, so they stay at the cabin halfway. You cook them dinner, and then you cook them breakfast the next morning. So, I lived there with my sister and her boyfriend, and then they ended up getting married during that time. And the three of us lived up there and worked for two years. Then my sister wanted to go to grad school, so they moved to Denver, and I stayed. We hired some new folks, and I stayed for three more years. And I worked with a variety of people over those years.

'Your first step out the door was onto a trail. A lot of people think Pikes Peak has just this one trail called the Barr Trail, but there’s actually a bunch of trails up there, and I knew that mountain so well.' 

Great training conditions, I’ll bet.

Oh yeah, fantastic. The camp was at 10,200 feet, so it was probably a little higher than necessary. But, yeah, there were no roads where we lived, so your first step out the door was onto a trail. A lot of people think Pikes Peak has just this one trail called the Barr Trail, but there’s actually a bunch of trails up there, and I knew that mountain so well. There were old, abandoned trails, ridges and collars, trails all over the place. It was great training. 

Okay, man, last question: You’ve lived on a ship, up a mountain, and now you live in your van. When do you think you’ll settle down?

I don’t know if I will!


No, no, I think I will. Occasionally, my girlfriend will look at me and say, ‘Sometimes I wonder if maybe you just wanna always live in your van.’


She’s similar to me, though. She’s maybe even more minimalist than I am. But I think I do want to settle down, and I feel like that might be coming in the not-too-distant future, but I’m hoping to keep the van for adventures and training trips and things like that.

You gotta keep the van.

Yeah, I think I will. 


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