Lincoln, N.H. — Zach Miller looked at the green grass and wild strawberries that grew on the slopes at Loon Mountain Resort in New Hampshire.
He looked at them because he had doubled over, as if he'd snapped at the waist. His lungs ached for air and his legs protested in pain as he climbed straight up a grueling black-diamond ski run called the Upper Walking Boss. It is arguably the toughest kilometer in the niche sport of mountain running.
About 500 grisly runners, men and women, had gathered in the lush White Mountains to compete in the U.S. Mountain Running Championships on Saturday, July 2. They were battling for spots on the U.S. Mountain Running Team, which will travel to Bulgaria for the world championships in September.
This became a great day overall for Colorado's contingent. Joe Gray of Colorado Springs, one of the most decorated runners in the country, galloped to the win in 49 minutes, 11.7 seconds to claim his 10th individual national title. He now has qualified to run on 20 U.S. teams. Longmont's Addie Bracy won the women's title after a year of trying to qualify for the U.S. Olympic trials.
Zach Miller had a fair chance of earning a spot on the world team, but he had really come to test his legs on the mountain's relentless grades. The race was 6.6 miles long, gaining nearly 3,000 feet in elevation. It's a fun distance, a challenge for any runner. But Miller, 27, is a little different. He's an ultrarunner, specializing in much longer distances.
And he has the perfect training ground for his discipline: Pikes Peak. His address is Barr Camp, where he works as caretaker keeping things orderly at the main cabin and several buildings for overnight stays, an outhouse and some equipment. He also plays host to the many guests who hike there to spend the night or hang out on the sunny deck. His sister, Ashley Miller, 25, lives and works there as well.
"I was the one who heard about the job, so I pitched it to her, sort of as a joke, and then she jumped on it," Zach said.
They live there year-round with plenty of time for running. And when Miller runs, he goes big. One day he'll tear down Barr Trail, then up Longs Ranch Road to Cascade, where he catches the Heiser Trail to the Manitou Reservoir Trail. Then he cuts back to Barr Trail and home for a total of nearly 25 miles. The next day he'll go for technical terrain, angling northwest to Bottomless Pit, then up and across Rumdoodle Ridge (it's a real place; google it) to Pikes Peak's summit and back to Barr Camp.
"This is my home base now for training," Miller says. "It's pretty cool getting to live at 10,200 feet — just getting to eat there and sleep there and train right from my door, is pretty special. I'm all over the mountain," Miller says. "I've learned all of the side trails and secret trails, and I know how to get anywhere and everywhere, so I do a lot more than just Barr Trail."
Miller graduated from Rochester Institute of Technology and first found a job working on the Queen Mary II and Queen Victoria. He ran laps on the boat decks to stay in shape.
But his running results have been stellar since he moved to the slopes of Pikes Peak. While mountain, ultra and trail running (the runners call it MUT running) is gaining traction in the United States, it is a way of life in Europe with its flourishing mountain culture. In 2015, Miller won the famous CCC 100K at Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, on a course that began in Courmayeur, Italy, then passes through Champex, Switzerland, before finishing on streets packed with raging race fans in Chamonix, France. No American had ever won there.
He also won the North Face 50 in California, one of the most competitive, and certainly one of America's most lucrative (his first-place finish there paid $10,000) ultra races. Now the time is right to go for one of the biggest prizes in running, the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB), a 100-mile-plus race in the Alps on Aug. 26.
"It's a dream race," Miller said. "It's a race I'm passionate about. I love the course and how it's set up, and how involved and passionate the fans are."
He put in a 200-mile training week (100 is considered a lot by competitive runners) last month while visiting family in Pennsylvania. But the real training begins this week with runs of 25 to 35 miles nearly every day for three weeks. He'll take a couple of weeks off, then grind out more tough runs before tapering for UTMB.
He has never raced 100 miles. His best success has come in the 50-mile range, and he has gone as long as 70. But UTMB is new territory.
"One hundred miles is still a mystery," Miller says. "I'm excited about it, but the distance is, if I'm honest, it's a little intimidating. But I'll go over there and give it my best shot. Maybe 85 miles is all I have. I sure hope not. I've stepped up my distance over time. This is a bit of a jump, but at some point I just have to do it."
After finishing 10th Saturday at the U.S. Championships with a time of 52:48.5, Miller hung out at the top of the mountain, smiling, laughing and telling stories with his friends. His legs were shot, but he had gained some confidence on the Upper Walking Boss.
"This is good," Miller says. "If I can climb here, I can climb in an ultra."