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Inside ZAP Fitness: The Life Of An Aspiring Elite American Runner

Hopes and dreams of aspiring Olympic hopefuls are cultivated at ZAP Fitness.

Zap Fitness athletes Alissa McKaig and Dave Jankowski go through a training run on a quiet road in Boone, NC. Photo: Gerry Melendez

This piece first appeared in the September issue of Competitor Magazine.

Written by: Matt Fitzgerald

The sun rises over Blackberry Valley, a lush fold in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina. It is a cool Sunday morning at the end of May. At 7:30 young men and women wearing running clothes and shoes begin to filter into a kitchen and dining area. They talk as people do who see each other every day. Bananas, bagels and cold cereal with milk are consumed.

At 8:15 the runners pile into a couple of cars and crackle down a long dirt driveway. Twenty minutes of slow driving along roads that see frequent deer crossings lead them to Moses H. Cone Memorial Park in the town of Blowing Rock, N.C.

Seven runners emerge from the two vehicles. Six are 25 years old. All of them were exceptional collegiate runners, but not among the handful of very best who graduated and secured contracts with running shoe companies. Alissa McKaig, for example, finished 10th at the NCAA Cross Country Championships while at Michigan State—one of three colleges she attended without graduating from any. Chris Clark was a five-time All-American at University of Pennsylvania, a Division II school.

A hybrid SUV pulls into the lot. Out steps head coach of ZAP Fitness, Pete Rea, who is still boyish-looking at age 42. Rea warns the runners that the park will likely be full of horseback riders this morning. “Please slow down and say something nice when you pass them,” he says.

Photo Gallery: A Day In The Life At ZAP Fitness

Moses Cone Park

ZAP athletes heading out on a group training run. Photo: Gerry Melendez

Moses Cone Park is a paradise for distance runners. Its 3,500 pristine acres are home to 25 miles of carriage trails. Based at 3,600 feet of elevation, the park does not become the summer furnace that the surrounding lowlands do, although record temperatures approaching 90 degrees are forecasted for the next few days.

The runners begin jogging as a single group but quickly splinter into smaller packs. Sunday is long-run day for everyone, and most of the sessions are similar. McKaig will run 90 minutes, starting easy and finishing under six minutes per mile. Her goal this week is to rest and sharpen for the following Saturday’s Freihofer’s Run for Women 5K in Albany, N.Y.; McKaig finished fourth and was the top American in the June 4 race.

Photo Gallery: A Day In The Life At ZAP Fitness

There’s a certain amount of spontaneity within the structure of the team practice. The runners choose their routes on the fly, making quick decisions at forks in the path that sometimes cause groups to divide and new pairings to form. Jesse Cherry starts with McKaig and jumps to Clark, Cole Atkins and Joe Driscoll before he finishes. Driscoll sets out with Atkins and returns with Clark.

Back at the cars, Clark and McKaig quickly change from their running clothes into church clothes. They will stew in their dried sweat for an hour inside a small Baptist church before returning to ZAP. The others go home to feast and nap.

In the evening it’s time for “hot tub Sunday.” Brainchild of ZAP team member Cameron Bean, hot tub Sunday is a ritual that entails soaking in a hot tub on the lawn after sundown. But tonight there’s a new twist. Driscoll has come home with a 100-foot roll of plastic sheeting. It is unrolled onto the gently downward-sloping lawn and wetted from a hose—a homemade Slip ‘n’ Slide.

Josh Simpson takes the first turn. Simpson did not run this morning, as he’s nursing a stress fracture. But his injury does not stop him from sprinting, diving headfirst and flying along the sheet, shrieking in exhilarated shock. Simpson’s twin brother, Justin, is visiting from Morgantown, W.Va., where Josh also lived before joining ZAP.

Cole Atkins, who played four years of soccer at High Point University before switching to track and running 29:20 for 10,000 meters, tries a foot-first approach, slide-tackling his way down the plastic. Simpson goes next, then Clark, then McKaig—a former national-class swimmer—who glides down the contraption with more grace than the boys.

A stopwatch is produced, and the play becomes competitive. After numerous improvements, Clark sets a new ZAP record of 4.39 seconds. Cherry ties it. Shouts of protest issue from both men when the deadlock is announced. The night ends when Cherry puts an arm through the tarp, coming to a violent stop halfway through another record attempt.

A Typical Work Week

ZAP Fitness Founder Zika Rea's vanity license plate. Photo: Gerry Melendez

On Mondays, the athletes sleep in and train on their own schedules. Rea arrives at 9 a.m. and goes straight to his office, which is nothing more than a desk positioned against a wall in the open mezzanine of the dorm. The walls throughout the building are covered with running memorabilia including a signed photograph of Bill Rodgers winning the 1979 Boston Marathon and a sign that once stood at Mile 19 of the New York City Marathon.

Scattered about the walls are several mounted and framed articles from newspapers and magazines published in the early months of 2002—memorials, eulogies and tributes to the late Andy Palmer, cofounder of ZAP Fitness and first husband of Rea’s wife, Zika. ZAP is an acronym of Zika and Andy Palmer, but also works, coincidentally, as an acronym of Zika and Pete.

Photo Gallery: A Day In The Life At ZAP Fitness

Rea comes to the office this morning to take an important call from an executive at General Mills. The breakfast cereal maker is offering a $15,000 grant to one of the country’s half-dozen major elite running groups, and ZAP has applied. Rea spends about two hours a day working on applications for such grants. Today is decision day for General Mills.

After hearing ZAP didn’t get the grant, a subdued Rea sits down for weekly individual meetings with some of the runners. First up is McKaig.

Rea draws the Fort Wayne, Ind., native’s attention to the whiteboard. He has drawn a squiggly, more-or-less horizontal line on it and spaced the numbers 1, 2 and 3 across it—a crude elevation chart of the Freihofer’s 5K racecourse.

“Not drawn to scale,” he jokes.

Rea will make the same joke later with Esther Erb, ZAP’s only other female athlete, who was also training for Freihofer’s at the time; she finished 15th. “The pace is going to be fast,” coach warns. “Don’t worry about time, though. I want you to race—and take some risks.”

They next discuss the IAAF World Championships marathon in South Korea, which McKaig was selected to run on Sept. 4. She’s been on a roll lately, having qualified for the World Cross-Country Championship in January and returning home with a team bronze medal in March.

“I’m thinking about bumping your peak mileage up to the 107- to 112-mile range for that,” Rea says.

McKaig’s eyes sparkle and she smiles self-consciously, like a little girl who has been promised a pony. She’s been pushing coach to let her run more.

“Breakthroughs Can Happen Here”

ZAP Fitness athletes go through a team session with sports psychologist Stan Beecham at the training center in Blowing Rock, NC. Photo: Gerry Melendez

On Tuesday morning, David Jankowski, the team’s best male runner, is left behind at ZAP. Rea has given him a treadmill workout. He was four weeks away from running the USA Track and Field Championships 10,000m, in which he took sixth place in 2010; this year, he finished 11th.

Jankowski weighs himself before warming up. He jogs three miles in 21:06. The air seems to warm considerably in that short time. A high temperature of 89 degrees is expected in Blowing Rock. Jankowski is doing strides and drills when Ryan Warrenburg arrives. “Burg” was a ZAP runner until a mysterious hip injury ended his career at age 26 last year. Now he’s the assistant coach.

The two men head inside to the gym. Jankowski plays Incubus and cranks the volume. Warrenburg directs two box fans at a treadmill and turns both fans on high. Jankowski prepares to do a workout that Rea calls “minute minute minute,” which he learned from the Italian running coach Renato Canova. Each minute the belt’s speed is changed, and often the gradient, too. Warrenburg has the whole complicated session scribbled out on a piece of paper. He starts Jankowski at 11.0 mph (5:27 per-mile pace).

Photo Gallery: A Day In The Life At ZAP Fitness

Jankowski falls into a relaxed, somewhat bouncy stride. He wears his training shoes, Reebok Veronas—Reebok sponsors the team—because he says he likes to save the ultralight feeling of his racing flats for races.

His shorts quickly become drenched. Sweat drips off his face and flies off his torso and arms in all directions. His shoes start squishing.

Thirty minutes into the workout Jankowski hits 12.0 mph (5:00 per-mile pace). He quits at 40 minutes, at 12.4 mph (4:50 per-mile pace), having covered 7.74 miles. He had the option to go two minutes longer, but he didn’t have it in him. “I think I got dehydrated at the end,” he tells Warrenburg.

After a two-mile cooldown, Jankowski weighs himself again—he’s six pounds less than he was two hours ago.

To kill time before dinner, Atkins, Jankowski, and a special guest—two-time Olympian Anthony Famiglietti, also known as “Fam,” who arrived this afternoon—play a game of basketball.

Warrenburg arrives with boxes and boxes of Thai takeout and the team eats together. After the feast, they move outside to the breezeway for a team meeting and form a circle. Stan Beecham, a sports psychologist in Atlanta who visits a few times a year to work with ZAP’s runners, leads the meeting.

“When athletes live and train together in an environment such as this one, there can be a competitive advantage for each individual athlete,” Beecham says. “That’s the whole point. But it’s not automatic. There has to be a shared intention to talk about things, bring them out in the open, assess the current situation. That’s what I’d like to do now.”

A general embarrassment fills the air as Beecham waits for someone to speak. It’s like pulling teeth. At last, Erb says she feels things are going much better than when Beecham last saw the team in January, at their winter training camp in Tallahassee, Fla. A couple of the guys mumble agreement.

“Can I say something?” Famiglietti interjects. “I’ve trained in a lot of different places and seen a lot of groups. What you have here is special. You have a great coach, awesome resources and an incredible environment. Some of you are on the verge of major breakthroughs. Believe me, they can happen here.”

Beecham takes advantage of the momentum that Famiglietti has built, preaching a sermon on treating each day as a self-contained opportunity.

Turning to Simpson, Beecham adds, “How about you, Josh? Do you have anything to say?”

It’s a setup. The mood changes. Simpson’s eyes drop.

“I don’t want to make a big deal out of it,” Simpson says, his voice quavering. He stops, closes his eyes, then swallows hard.

McKaig’s eyes wet. Erb sniffles. Cherry bites his lip. Warrenburg wipes a hand across a cheek. Zika Rea’s eyes shine, and coach Rea’s are suddenly red-rimmed.

“I’m leaving soon,” Simpson continues.

There’s another long pause—this one so long that some in the circle begin to doubt Simpson will be able to resume. “It’s not ZAP,” he finally manages. “I just have a lot of personal stuff going on.”

He stops again and puts a hand over his eyes. Tears stream down McKaig’s face.

“I just want to say, I’m grateful for the friendships,” Simpson says. He gathers himself once more. “Pete and Zika. Thanks.”

A Special Night

Zap athlete Dave Jankowski plays the drums during down time in Blowing Rock, NC. Photo: Gerry Melendez

On most nights, even Fridays, the runners are in bed by 10:30, but tonight is special. It’s distance night at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Ore. The men’s 10,000m will be streamed live on the Internet at 11:50 p.m. (EST). American record-holder Chris Solinsky (26:59) and American all-time No. 2  Galen Rupp (27:10) are in the race along with a murderer’s row of Africans. It’s going to be epic. Warrenburg, Jankowski and Simpson gather with Atkins and Driscoll at the house they share with Warrenburg to watch.

Photo Gallery: A Day In The Life At ZAP Fitness

“Where’s Rupp?” Simpson asks.

He’s not there. An announcer says he’s scratched because the pollen count is too high. The guys are deflated. But at least Solinsky remains.

Solinsky drops out of the race at 3,000m. Tim Nelson, an American with a 27:22 PR who’s in the race as a pacemaker, also quits. Alistair Cragg, an Irishman, is the next and last white man to go. Only Africans—and Mohammed Farah, a Brit by way of Somalia—now remain. Farah sneaks from the back of the lead pack to the front, leads the last three laps, and wins with a European record time of 26:46. The best 10,000m time among those watching is Jankowski’s 28:27. He’d still have a lap to go.

“See, we can beat the Africans!” Simpson jokes in reference to Farah’s citizenship.

Nobody laughs.

Despite the late bedtime, several of the runners wake up early Saturday morning so they can squeeze in a run before they go zip lining at noon. Rea shows up at 10:30 a.m., just before they leave. He bestows on Jankowski a $75 coupon for Hawksnest Zip Line in Seven Devils. Jankowski throws up his arms and celebrates in a taunting manner as Driscoll, Cherry and Simpson groan. Zika Rea won the coupon two weekends before as the first woman to finish a small 5K road race in Boone, N.C.

They pile into Jankowski’s Toyota Corolla and begin the 45-minute drive to Seven Devils. Halfway there, Jankowski receives a text message from Rea, who reports that McKaig just finished fourth at Freihofer’s in 15:52. She will come home with a $2,000 check. Erb finished 15th in 16:54—out of the money.

On Sunday morning Simpson says his goodbyes in the parking lot, where the runners have assembled to start the drive to Moses Cone Memorial Park for their long runs and a new week of training. Simpson’s father, John, has driven up from Morgantown, W.Va., to ferry his son and his possessions home. “I love you, man,” he says to Atkins, stretching his lips in cartoonish fashion and speaking through clenched teeth. Atkins responds
in kind.

The runners cram inside Jankowski’s car and leave for the park. Simpson still has a few more things left to pack in his dad’s car. He will be long gone by the time his former teammates return.