Zach Miller saw the finish line tape and sprinted through the final stretch, knocking away the tape with his right fist in securing a first-place finish at the Trail 100 Andorra last weekend.
The June 26 victory was impressive in itself — running the 105-kilometer ultramarathon with a time of 14 hours, 19 minutes and 52 seconds and beating the next finisher by more than 17 minutes.
Yet what those in attendance didn’t witness was the summit Miller needed to conquer just to get back to his winning ways.
Miller had ascended to the top of the sport as one of the most recognizable names among mountain and ultramarathon runners. Yet every premier name has their own obstacle to overcome.
For Miller, a 2007 Hempfield High grad, that initial stumbling block came in 2019 as he failed to finish Ultra Trail Du Mont-Blanc in France.
In December 2020, Miller needed surgery to correct Haglund’s deformity — an enlargement of the bone in the back of the heel that tightens and irritates the Achilles’ tendon.
The recovery took several weeks before Miller was physically at full strength, but the mental stress took its toll on the former Lancaster County resident. Even when he did get to a point in his recovery when he could run and bike, the doubts were front and center.
“I just didn’t know after surgery if I would finish healthy,” Miller said. “Even on the start line (in Andorra) there was an element of uncertainty both physically and mentally.
“But, at some point, (competing) is the only way to figure it out.”
That right foot injury, according to Miller, was something that he noticed throughout the first 20 miles of the race. But as he continued to get warm, that discomfort disappeared as he found his groove.
While Miller knew he was ready physically — his longest training run in preparation was a 32-miler that came on the heels of a six-mile run earlier that day — it all came down to the mental concerns of what may or may not go wrong along the way.
Yet once he hit around the seven-hour mark, any doubts seemed to wash away. The focus was, once again, winning.
“Mentally to feel truly back takes having that performance like that,” Miller said. “I’m here and I’m back. I’ve done some shorter races where I’m doing pretty well but on the long stuff, which is my bread and butter … for me it’s a relief to be able to hold everyone off. You start the day just trying to win but you never know what will happen. You either get it or you don’t. So it’s a big relief when you achieve it.”
As Miller toed that starting line at 7 p.m. EST on June 24, those concerns stayed with him one final time. But over the course of his 14-plus hours on the trail everything seemed to break correctly.
And as he turned the final corner with the finish line in sight, Miller started pumping his fist with one final thought.
“That’s the final stamp,” Miller said, “knowing, ‘I’m back.’ ”