Elite Trail Runner Zach Miller Lives, Works and Trains on Pikes Peak
Zach Miller makes pancakes every single day. And spaghetti too. And he’s been doing it for months on end. But that’s not what he eats to fuel him for the arduous trail runs he goes on every day right outside his front door. Helping make those basic meals every morning and evening is just part of his job.
Miller, a 27-year-old elite-level trail runner, is one of the six year-round caretakers at Barr Camp 6 miles up Pikes Peak. The camp is a nonprofit community- and volunteer-supported organization centered around a 94-year-old wooden cabin and bunkhouse situated at 10,200 feet above sea level, roughly halfway up Colorado’s most famous mountain.
Although it’s hardly a 9-to-5 gig, the caretaker role is perhaps the best job a committed mountain runner could ever want. Miller and his younger sister, Ashley, have been at it since early 2015, and this summer Ashley’s fiancé, Nathan Josephs, has come on board.
In addition to making meals, Miller also does dishes, sweeps the floors, sells bottled water, snacks and souvenirs, cleans out the camp’s composting toliets and offers hikers and runners trail information and tips about wilderness ethics. He also helps man the midway aid stations in the Pikes Peak Marathon and Ascent races in mid-August. (There are no roads to Barr Camp, so new provisions most arrive aboard the Pikes Peak Cog Railway.)
Oh, and he runs, too. A lot. His running isn’t part of the required daily duties at Barr Camp, but it’s certainly part of his role as a Nike-sponsored trail runner and as a mountain rescue volunteer.
Being a caretaker means living a spartan lifestyle and doing a wide range of odd jobs, but that’s just fine with Miller because the running is second to none. He typically runs 2 to 4 hours a day on the network of high-altitude trails right outside his door, often up to the 14,114-foot summit of the mountain or down to the base at 6,500 feet. That was his routine last winter, too, when he battled frigid weather and trampled over the snow-packed trails.
Blending a unique job, a simple, regimented lifestyle and training are nothing new for Miller. In 2013-2014, he worked as the in-house digital print shop manager on a cruise ship and did the majority of his training on a treadmill, but also managed to do some running in exotic ports of call. Those efforts resulted in a victory and the third-fastest time at the JFK 50 Mile Run in Washington D.C.—his breakout race in the trail running world—and followed that up with a win a record-setting win at the Lake Sonoma 50 in April 2014.
Not surprisingly, Miller has upped his trail running results considerably since living at Barr Camp, having won the competitive Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix 100K in Europe last summer, The North Face Endurance Challenge 50-mile Championship near San Francisco last December and the 115K Madeira Island Ultra Trail in April.
“It’s an amazing place to live and run, and each year I seem to get stronger,” says Miller, who ran competitively in college for the Rochester Institute of Technology—an NCAA Division III school. “Living in the cabin doesn’t get old for me. I’m kind of a simple person, and while it’s kind of the same thing every day, no two days are ever the same, especially when a call from the mountain rescue group comes over the radio. For the kind of races I run, I couldn’t be in a better place for training. It’s kind of hard to beat.”
On Aug. 26-27, Miller will be racing the 167K Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB), a 104-mile race that goes through parts of France, Italy and Switzerland as it circumnavigates the Mont Blanc massif. The UTMB will be Miller’s biggest challenge yet, not only his first 100-miler but also one of the most competitive and challenging trail running races in the world.
Although he lives higher than the highest point on the course, the race is know for its steep climbs and descents. He extended his longer training days to 6 to 8 hours, running up routes that would allow him to have three impromptu aid stations—the Pikes Peak Summit House, the Barr Camp cabin and his car parked down at the base of the mountain. (He has a couple of jugs of water and dozens of GU Roctane gels stashed in his car.)
“I’ve had a lot of fun training this summer. I spent the last few months running steep climbs and steep descents and practicing my nutrition strategy knowing I had these three places I could stop for water and more GU,” he says. “I would often go out after breakfast and spend all day out there and come back in time for dinner. I was amazed at how long my body could go and still feel good at the end of the run.”