Ryan Miller’s first ultra and a ticket to Western States
Before Ryan Miller ever ran a trail race, or longer than a marathon, he dreamed big. Miller had twice made the Olympic Marathon Qualifying Trials and had been on teams that won state titles in high school. But somewhere deep inside he felt a calling.
“I felt my heart pulling me toward the mountain-ultra-trail scene,” he recalled, two days after receiving a Golden Ticket for winning the Bandera 100K. “I always had in the back of my head that I wanted to run Western States someday. It's a pipe dream of mine. It's going to be difficult to attain, but I have the chops in terms of just raw running ability.”
Miller shot his shot, as his coach, David Roche, preaches.
“What better time, I'm in my 20s. Maybe I take the shot at this now. How do you know you're not the next Jim Walmsley on the trails until you give it a shot? Of course, I could end up being not a great trail runner. Maybe it's not for me. Or I could end up finding that I love it, and it's what I was meant to do. But you never know until you give yourself a shot. And that's what Bandera 100K was for this year.”
It took Miller a little while to discover the joy of running.
‘I didn’t like running’
In middle and high school, Miller played soccer, basketball and baseball while also running track and cross-country, reluctantly. “I didn’t particularly like running. I didn’t like going to practice. I loathed doing interval workouts.”
Then he set a goal to make the varsity cross-country team his junior season at Boerne Champion High School near San Antonio. His team won the state championship that year, which “triggered my love of the sport. If you’re willing to put in the work and give your best effort, you can make yourself a great runner.” Whereas in other sports, he was limited by his natural ability, he says, adding, he was never going to be a Kobe Bryant.
Miller dropped all the other sports during his senior year, when his high school won another state championship and the Nike Cross-Country National Championship. Then he went off to Texas A&M university as a walk-on athlete but later received a scholarship.
After graduating from A&M, he qualified for the February 2016 marathon trials with a 1:04:35 in the half. However, three days before the trials he underwent an emergency appendectomy.
“Talk about the worst timing for something random, right before the biggest race of my life,” said Miller, who drove himself to the hospital, just in time before his appendix ruptured. “I watched the 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials from my hospital bed after surgery. It was really disappointing. It was difficult to come back from. I was 23, one of the youngest competitors registered for the Olympic Trials. I knew I was going to have some more opportunities in the future.”
And, boy, did he take advantage of those.
Success on the roads
First he picked up coach Terry Howell, who guided Miller to a 2:19:17 at Grandma’s Marathon, his first at that distance. He barely missed the qualifying time but was hungry to hit the goal next time out.
“I trained with reckless abandon the next six months to get ready for the CIM (California International Marathon) in 2018,” where he ran 2:14:27.
Things did not go as planned for Miller at the trials.
“I took my shot, and I went out with the lead pack and just totally blew up,” he recalls. “The course was pretty difficult for a road marathon. And I ended up dropping out at mile 21. I could barely run, due to debilitating hamstring cramps. So that left a pretty sour taste in my mouth, for sure, with the road marathon.”
Miller wasn’t excited about the prospect of possibly lowering his PR from 2:14 to 2:12, or dropping his half marathon PR of 1:03:45 by a minute or two. He needed a change.
He credits Howell for his success immediately after college, and notes the similarities he shares with Roche, who started coaching him in March 2020.
Their goal: the Bandera 100K.
“There were a lot of things swirling around me,” said Miller, saying beyond the pandemic, he has a full-time corporate job and a coaching business, and his son was born July 25. “That was definitely a big time stretcher in my life. But David had a lot of patience with me. We slowly got prepped to run Bandera over the course of 10 months.”
Prayer to the ultra gods
Miller’s first trail race was the Moab Trail Marathon in November.
“That went horribly. I clipped a rock and fell really hard in the fifth mile, and then just could not recover. I finished in eighth place there. It was a really miserable experience. I honestly felt worse at the Moab Trail Marathon last five miles than I did at any point during the Bandera 100K.”
While he may not have picked up his feet for the rock, he picked up some valuable knowledge and experience.
“The important thing was I told myself, ‘I'm not dropping out. I'm finishing this thing. I am tough. And this is good preparation for an ultra.’ When things get hard, you don't back down, unless you have severe injury or illness or something. Even though Moab wasn't the result I hoped for, it was definitely good prep for Bandera.”
At the 100K, he also fell twice, though not nearly as severely as at Moab. After the second tumble, Miller clipped a rock and fell on his knees.
“It didn't hurt at all because I was moving so slow up a hill,” he says. “I kind of ended up sitting there like a prayer. And then I got back up. I guess that was my prayer to the ultra gods after I fell, ‘Please get me through these last 15 miles.’"
The moment he knew
Miller’s previous longest run was 26.2 miles. So what was going through his mind when he crossed that mark and still had 36 miles to go?
“That was honestly the hardest stretch of the race, from 26.2 to 60K,” he says. “Maybe it was in my head. I definitely wasn't feeling great physically. I wasn't hurting terribly, but I was at the point where I don't feel great and I also have a really long way to go still. So mentally, it was just like, 'Oh my God, am I going to be able to do this?' But again, I kind of have that mentality. You don't know until you take that shot. You got to keep trying. There was no way I was going to give up or slow down. I was going to keep pressing, keep giving it my all. And that's exactly what I did.”
Miller pushed through, feeling good in the second half and that he could have gone another “10 to 20 miles at that pace.”
But he played it smart, knowing he had an 8-minute lead with 10 miles to go.
“I didn't want to risk injury on the technical trails,” says Miller, whose sponsors include Squirrel’s Nut Butter, Maurten and Klean Athlete. “I played it a lot more conservative heading into the finish, just because it was unknown territory for me. I didn't want to risk taking away achieving my ultimate goal of winning and going to Western States.”
When Miller ascended Cairn's Climb, the course’s final uphill, he knew he had earned his ticket to Western States.
“As soon as I got over that and made it down without hurting myself, it was in the bag,” he says. “I was crying a bit during the last two miles. I was getting emotional. I was just talking with my pacer, thanking him so much for his time and energy that he gave to me. That was the moment I really knew I had it. But even going through the final aid station, while I was playing it conservative, I knew I had to concentrate still, because one fall, a broken rib or an ankle that just won't function anymore, would do me in. And I didn't want that to happen.”
The tears of joy continued at the finish line where he embraced his wife, Lacie, and son, Maverick.
“I'm generally an emotional guy, but I don't cry like that every week,” he says. “It takes something to bring it out of me. My wedding, the birth of my son, and then a select few moments in races from CIM when I ran to 2:14:27 to the Bandera 100K here, and then even winning that Nike Cross-Country National Championship in high school. Those are kind of like key moments that I just pinch myself. It's like a dream come true. We spent so many hours out there on the trails training, hurting, doing mobility work, going to get massages and the chiropractor, so much money and time invested, and energy and heart. When it culminates in something as beautiful as that, your heart just explodes. At least I know mine does. And to share that moment with my wife, who is the ultimate teammate and my best friend, and then my son, who if I could leave this world knowing that I inspired him to be a better person, that would be enough for me. I think that's what makes me the most emotional.”
After doing his research, Miller reached out to Roche to guide him on his ultra running journey.
“It uses much different energy systems, and it requires a different mentality. And so when I did the research, listened to multiple podcasts, David's the man, and so is Megan, out there for ultra runners, especially ones based in the United States. So I just reached out to him. I had a conversation with him. We clicked really well on the phone. I knew this was going to be the guy for me. Especially his mentality of seeking happiness above all else, and then consistency, and just a little bit more of a relaxed attitude towards things was really helpful in the time of the pandemic, especially having a newborn son.”
From time to time in the training cycle injuries forced Miller to take some time off. Enter Roche’s positivity to soothe the anguish.
“He changed my mentality towards running in general and helped me relax more,” Miller says. “When things don't go perfect, that's OK. Roll with the punches. I think you definitely need that in ultra-marathon world.”
Of course, Roche also wrote up a training plan to prepare Miller. But the runner also drew confidence and inspiration from Team SWAP as well as David and Megan Roche’s book, The Happy Runner.
“I drew inspiration from all the other SWAP athletes taking their shots and sometimes failing,” Miller says. “Sometimes it's even the greatest wildest accomplishments of life. It gave me the confidence and the desire to take my shot. I made a move at mile 20. I don't think it necessarily broke everybody in the field, but it definitely was a winning move to get away from the lead pack. And that was my shot, and it paid off.”
‘It’s surreal, scary and exciting’
As the realization that he would be lining up at the Western States starting line crept in, Miller went through various emotions.
“It’s surreal, scary and exciting,” he says. “I think every emotion is flooding through my veins right now.”
As a lifelong Texan, Miller doesn’t have easy access to the mountains he’ll be running next June on his way to Placer High School.
“That’s the thing that's most intimidating— climbing mountains and vertical training has never been what I do. For Western States, I think there's 23,000 feet of descent and 18,000 feet of ascent. So that's going to probably be the absolute biggest hurdle, in addition to the distance. It's 100 freaking miles. I just ran two and a half times farther than I'd ever run before for 100 kilometers, and I'm about to tack on 38 more miles to that.”
Still, beyond the Golden Ticket and trophy from Bandera, Miller took away so much more.
“If I'm able to take away anything from this Bandera 100K practice, it's that David's going to have me ready. I have trust in his training. And I know that I don't have to run a 100-mile run before I get the Western States and be confident I can complete the distance and complete it well and be competitive there.”
Name: Ryan Miller
Hometown: San Antonio, Texas
Number of years running: 13 years
How many miles a week do you typically run: 75-85 miles/week
Point of pride: Husband to the best partner I could ask for, father to the cutest little baby boy, and mentor to all the athletes I coach.
Favorite race distance: 26.2 miles
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Maurten 320
Favorite piece of gear: Nathan ExoDraw 2.0 Insulated Handheld 18oz
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: Dark Horse by Aaron Watson
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: “You don't become a runner by winning a morning workout. The only true way is to marshal the ferocity of your ambition over the course of many day, weeks, months, and (if you could finally come to accept it) years. The Trial of Miles; Miles of Trials.” - John L. Parker in Once a Runner
Where can other runners connect or follow you:
• @ryanmiller34 on Instagram
• @ryan_miller_34 on twitter, Strava and Facebook.
• Also the co-host of the Tempo Talks Podcast, which can be found on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and anywhere quality podcasts are shared!