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Runner’s Paradise In The Middle Of The Mountains

Photo: Courtesy ZAP Fitness.
Photo courtesy of ZAP Fitness.

An interview with ZAP Fitness elite athlete coach and coordinator Pete Rea.

Interview by: Matt Fitzgerald

Everyone knows about the high-profile, Olympian-packed Nike Oregon Project in Portland, Ore., and Mammoth Track Club in Mammoth Lakes, Calif. Lesser known ZAP Fitness, located in the mountains of western North Carolina, can’t match the star power of its better-known peer organizations on its roster of elite runners, but it’s a pretty special phenomenon in its own right.

Recently the group’s elite athlete coach and coordinator, Pete Rea, took a break from picking up a supply of food for the program’s residents and staff at a barbeque restaurant where’s it’s dropped every week to tell what life is like in the nearest thing to a running commune. When and how did ZAP Fitness get started?

Pete Rea: The real inspiration for ZAP Fitness came from my wife, Zika, and her late husband, Andy [Palmer]. “ZAP” is an acronym for “Zika and Andy Palmer”. In the mid-1990s, when they first met, they started talking about ways to assist young American runners in their pursuits toward Olympic trials, world teams, and even Olympic teams in a team training environment.

This was at a time when things weren’t going particularly well for American running. We had the top tier with the likes of Todd Williams and Bob Kennedy and Lynn Jennings. There were some great individual performances, but the depth of the early 1980s was largely gone.

So Zika and Andy tossed around a lot of ideas, and what they decided was, let’s see if we can put together a nonprofit foundation and actually a full living situation with a facility and a place for athletes to live year-round. It was a six- or seven-year process. They bought the land in 2000 and started building.

I hear it’s absolutely gorgeous out there.

I know that Zika and Andy looked all over the country. It goes without saying that places like Albuquerque and Boulder and the Pacific Northwest are wonderful places to train, but there wasn’t a whole lot going on on the East Coast. They had both worked at Roy Benson’s Nike high school running camps in the summers and really liked western North Carolina. They took a look one day at the little town of Blowing Rock—there’s a national park here with about 30 miles of groomed carriage trails, the cost of living is pretty low in the southern Appalachians—and they were sold.

Tell me a little about the facilities and where you actually run around there.

We’ve got two main buildings. One is a 24-bed guest lodge that we use only when we have our retreats and adult running camps. Lots and lots of high school and college cross country teams come here for preseason camps, corporate retreats, church groups—anybody who wants to rent the place out. That’s one of our main methods of funding. The other building is the athletes’ apartments, our offices, the dining hall, a full kitchen, and our exercise science lab and weight room. It’s sitting on about 70 acres in a little valley in a large grass field. And across the street from us is another little farmhouse that we own where another three of our athletes live. It’s all very tight-knit, very close together—a little bit like a cult. We’re just not armed.

In terms of the running, we do probably 60 to 70 percent of our training at Moses Cone Park in Blowing Rock. There’s 5,600 acres there and about 30 miles of it is carriage trails. Moses Cone built those carriage trails for his wife to ride her horses on about 100 years ago. Most of the running is between 3,600 and 4,600 feet. And there’s also lots and lots of dirt roads here in the High Country, which is what they call this Blowing Rock area.

Is there a track?

We use Appalachian State University’s track. The campus is 10 miles from us. Their coaches, John Weaver and Mike Curcio have been gracious enough to let us use their track up there when we do our track sessions.

Who are your top runners currently, and can you characterize the type of runner you generally lure there?

The types of athletes who tend to apply to us are, in baseball terms, the Triple-A players. For the most part the kids winning NCAA titles are not applying to ZAP Fitness. Those athletes are taken care of by the individual shoes contracts and they can be a little more selective about where they want to live. The athletes applying to ZAP tend to be a little more of the emerging elites—the 16:10 to 16:20 female 5K’ers, the 28:50 male 10K types. As you know, there are more and more of those now.

Right now, I’d say the athlete who probably had the best year for us was David Jankowski, who just finished his first year with us. He was an Oklahoma State graduate. He won the [USATF National] Club Cross Country [Championships] in the fall and also ran 28:27 for 10K this year, which was about a 30-second PR. He ran a 13:40 5K and was fifth in the 10K at USA outdoors.

And then, one who’s a bit more of a veteran athlete for us on the women’s side is Allison Grace, who was a good runner in college but by no means anything exceptional. I think she ran 16:35 her senior year at Kentucky. She ran 15:47 this year and 32:54. She’s come a long, long way.

Are you actually in competition with some of the other programs for athletes and other resources, or is it the kind of situation where they’re doing their thing and you’re doing your own thing?

I would say more in the last couple years we are in competition with the likes of [the Hansons-Books Distance Project] and Team USA Minnesota and McMillan [Elite] for kids. We’re interviewing right now. We have a couple of athletes leaving—one retiring and one moving after five years here—so we have some fully-funded spots open for us. As these athletes are coming through here and going through the interview process, we’re finding that most of them are also interviewing with one, if not three, of the other programs that I just mentioned.

We don’t see that as a bad thing. I like the well-educated athlete who wants to get a feel for a number of programs.

I would imagine that, given your remote location and intimate living situation, you have to consider more than just the talent level of candidates. You also need personalities that fit with the group.

Perhaps more than any other group. We have a beautiful training facility in the mountains, but we are in a town of 800 people on a dirt road. It’s not for everyone, which is why we ask our candidates to come out for a few days and spend time with the team, help Zika work on the website, help our chef prepare a meal. You never know; with the way we run our business and raise our funds, one day you might be helping our chef prepare a meal, the next day you might be out in a field on a tractor.

For a lot of city kids who come here it’s a bit eye-opening. But we also get the kids who really like a rural lifestyle and like the solitude of training [here] and working an online job on the side. But our environment is one where it has to be the right fit. Plus, our athletes live very close together. The housing is all here within two houses and three apartments, so it’s tight-knit and we have to have athletes who get along with others.

I have this mental image of that scene from Rocky IV where they’re preparing for the fight and Rocky’s doing everything super old-school, chopping wood and running through snowdrifts, while Ivan Drago is surrounded by men in lab coats and doing everything high-tech. Is that the difference between ZAP Fitness and the Nike Oregon Project?

Well, you know, I think Paulie and Mick might be a little disappointed to learn that we have an Alter-G! But the basic concept is putting athletes together in an environment where everyone wants to get better. That’s the idea that Zika and Andy had when they put ZAP together. It was definitely training based—Andy was a believer in volume, as am I—but more than any detailed training philosophy it was just the idea that you put people together and they all desperately want to be good in any way—any legal way—they can.

I would guess that while runners come there to improve, they come away with a lot more. I can’t imagine spending a few years in that environment without having a life-changing experience.

It’s funny you say that, because half our funding comes from the facility and the other half comes from donations on the nonprofit side. Zika and I were just looking at this year’s numbers and saw that 13 former ZAP athletes donated. To me that says a lot. It means a great deal to us and it tells me they appreciated everything they got from us.

One of the differences between ZAP and some of the other elite teams is that I can’t just walk onto the Nike campus and run with Galen Rupp and Kara Goucher, but you’ve got your adult summer running camps there, where everyday runners like me can mingle with your athletes.

Right, well if you showed up everyone would want an autograph on one of your books! But yeah, we do about six weeks of running camps every year, some long weekends and some full weeks. It’s every end of the spectrum. This year about 20 percent of the people who came had been running less than a year, and at the other end of the spectrum we have runners who come every year, they run four or five marathons a year. This year we had a couple of women who broke three hours in the marathon. And the ages range from 14 to 68. So it’s pretty neat.


To learn more about running camps at ZAP Fitness, or to donate to the program, click here.