This has been quite a year for our son-in-law Dave Vanmiller. He began the year as Dave Miller, but when he and our daughter, Gretchen Van Dyke, adopted our sweet newborn granddaughter, Nola, they decided to combine their two last names to make life easier for Nola and to avoid a hyphenated last name. So Nola Vanmiller it is, and as grandparents we are delighted no matter what her name.
He capped off the year by finding out he had been accepted to run in the Western States 100 Endurance Run in California, which bills itself as “the worlds oldest and most prestigious 100-mile trail race.” It’s the equivalent of the Boston Marathon for ultra trail runners. It doesn’t have Heartbreak Hill; instead it has it’s own heartbreak with 18,000 feet of climb and 23,000 feet of descent.
Dave and Gretchen are avid campers and hikers who have spent many happy days exploring the mountains and trails near their Tacoma home, as well as in other areas, including the Pacific Crest Trail and the Grand Teton Mountains of Wyoming.
Dave would also do solo trips on the Wonderland Trail, which is a 93-mile trail around Mt. Rainier. Calling it a trail is a bit misleading, because it has over 22,000 feet of elevation gain from one end to the other. It takes most people 10-14 days to hike the entire route, and each year only a few hundred finish it. But Dave doesn’t hike it, so much as he attacks it, having done it in a bit over two days in mid-summer when the days are long. He is familiar with that landscape and its vicissitudes as I can tell by the many astoundingly beautiful pictures he posts on his Facebook and Instagram accounts. Mt. Rainier is his neighborhood where he challenges his body and feeds his soul.
In recent years Dave has taken to competing in ultra marathon trail races after road racing and running marathons lost their allure, and the mountains beckoned. He has run over 30 marathons, including the prestigious Boston Marathon, the Vancouver Marathon, the Portland Marathon, the Tacoma Marathon and the Chicago Marathon. His first marathon was in Vancouver in 2003 where he ran 3:43, and that was just the beginning. He devoured everything he could find about running and training, and his times began to drop. Over time his goal was to get three hours. He came achingly close in the 2008 Boston Marathon where he ran 3:00:25, just 25 seconds shy of his goal. Eventually he did break three hours several times, culminating in a PR of 2:49 in 2010 Chicago Marathon, almost a full hour faster than his first marathon. He had accomplished much, but he was looking for new challenges, and he found them in ultra trail running through his beloved mountains.
He was introduced to trail racing by his friends Jon Robinson and Dan Paquette who would often urge Dave to try it when they went together on hikes in the mountains around Seattle and Tacoma. He resisted at first, but gradually he relented and entered the White River 50-mile race in 2011. That race started well enough with Dave running in 10th place for the first half, but then the wheels fell off, and he finished in 23rd place in 8:45. He said of the race, “It was the lowest I’ve ever felt in a race.” He vowed never to run another one. But running amnesia has a way of erasing such bad experiences, as most of us can attest, and he entered more mountain runs. In 2014 he redeemed himself when he ran the White River race again in 7th place, in a time of 7:45, an hour faster than his first one.
I interviewed Dave and asked him a few questions about his running and trail running. Below are his responses.
When did you start running?
Not until my mid 20’s. I was an inconsistent jogger for a few years. When I was 26 I signed up the Vancouver Marathon and the rest is history.
What are your personal bests, so far?
5k-17:49, 10k-36:51, ½ Marathon-1:22, Marathon-2:49, 50 mile trail run-7:46 and 100 mile trail run-20:20
What is your favorite racing distance, and why?
Right now it’s 100 milers. I love the endurance test, the certain adventure through the mountains, the competition, the training, and the preparation–all of it.
Have you had what you would consider a breakthrough race?
What was the race and what made it a breakthrough?
Probably the Chuckanut 50k in 2013. I beat my previous year’s time by over 40 minutes and edged out my much-respected running buddy, John Robinson, who I’d never beaten before–not even in a training run. I was shocked; I honestly didn’t know I had that kind of a race in me.
Why did you start running ultras?
Once I realized that I could run in the same places that I liked to hike it was a no brainier. I had been running a bunch of marathons so I was probably ripe for the transition.
What are some of your favorite places to run and train, and why?
Anywhere near Mt. Rainier is pretty special. On the weekends I like to run in the foothills of the Cascades, places like Tiger and Cougar Mountain. I love big climbs with a view.
I’m also lucky to live close to Point Defiance in Tacoma for weekday runs, and I recently discovered nearby Fort Steilacoom Park.
What do you most enjoy about running?
I just like being outside. I also like how it makes me feel during and afterward.
What do you least enjoy about running?
It can take up a lot of time. Long runs in the mountains can be a whole day affair. It’s especially conflicting when you have a cute little baby girl at home.
What is your favorite post ultra food?
Coffee, sandwiches from QFC, maybe pizza or a burger after a particularly long training run or race.
What are your running goals for 2016?
Stay healthy, get stronger, run my possible best race at Western States.
So we wish Dave good luck and look forward to rooting for him on his next adventure in June.