With the renaissance of U.S. distance running upon us, many U.S. runners have reason to hope to join their East African competitors on the podium at the 2016 Olympics. Part of the credit for the resurgence goes to the handful of post-collegiate running programs for Olympic hopefuls in the U.S. Training centers, like ZAP Fitness Center, the only center in the Southeast. High in the mountains outside of Blowing Rock, N.C., eight elite runners live and train at ZAP while also maintaining the premises and hosting running camps for half the year. To get a better idea of the lifestyle of a professional runner, I tagged along with the team.
I arrived at ZAP on a blustery spring Saturday afternoon to find a half-dozen elite runners mowing the grass and landscaping, some clad in Reebok running gear, the center’s sponsor. Later, some of the athletes set up for dinner and cleaned up afterwards.
Esther Erb, wearing a tank top and tiny running shorts, greeted me with a warm smile. She’s a wisp of a marathoner with strawberry blonde hair. We walked through ZAP’s facility, located on 68 acres literally at the end of a dirt road. The two wooden buildings, connected by a breezeway, are perched on a well manicured lawn, which in turn is surrounded by dense forests.
Esther has lived at ZAP for three years, ever since returning from a two-year stint teaching English in Austria on a Fulbright grant. Inside the building is a large industrial kitchen that opens up to the dining area. Around the corner is the massive fitness room where treadmills and elliptical trainers sit in front of large glass windows overlooking the idyllic creek that flows across the property.
Esther pointed to a treadmill and said, “That’s the loved and hated alternative gravity treadmill. It allows runners to train without bearing weight.”
“It’s where we train when we’re injured. Being injured here is the worst, when you have to nurse your injury while everyone else is going full force.”
Esther led me upstairs where the athletes live, and she showed me her own small apartment where she created a movie watching set-up for the athletes. She feels lucky to be here.
“It’s a dream come true to be able to run for a living,” she says.
She admits that the social aspect can be tough, with the closest town, Boone, dominated by college kids. Esther makes the best of it by singing with a local choir.
In fact, the only thing that rivals Esther’s running is her singing. She sang the national anthem at the 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials in Houston. Because she sang, she didn’t have time to warm-up. She still set her marathon personal record, finishing 27th in 2:37:21.
Esther led me to the adjoining building, a lodge with a large living area and a long hallway leading to bedrooms, where running guests stay. She shows me my simple bedroom before excusing herself to finish her second run of the day, an easy six mile recovery run.
That evening I met some of the other runners at dinner. Alyssa McKaig has long, curly brown hair and piercing blue eyes. She explained that she’s the athlete who has been at ZAP the longest. “I just want to see how fast I can be. As long as I can get faster, I’ll stay. I want to get better at the 5K, the 10K, and the marathon – all of it.”
I later learned that based solely on resumes, Alyssa seems the most likely to have a shot at being part of the 2016 Olympic team. She placed eighth in the 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials, running 2:31:56.
Cameron Bean is a lanky, good-natured Southern boy. By his own account, when he first came to ZAP, a sponsor wouldn’t have even considered giving him a free pair of socks. Cameron, a native of Chattanooga, Tenn., graduated from Samford University in Alabama and didn’t have the race times to meet standards to get accepted into ZAP.
He called up ZAP’s lead coach, Pete Rea, anyway. Coach Pete told him, “If you move up here you can train with the team. It’s on you to find a job and a place to live.”
Cameron spent the first year training in the mornings and working at a local restaurant in the evenings. He was always tired.
“I’d been running forty or fifty miles a week. Coach Pete bumped me up to seventy to eighty miles. Then I’d stand on my feet all night at work. I’d get home and hit my bed like a rock.”
His hard work paid off. He went from being a not-much college runner to being in the top ten in the country in the steeplechase.
Mike and Sarah Crouch
Mike and Sarah, both ZAP athletes, got married last year. Mike married into the infamous Porter running family (Porter is Sarah’s maiden name). Sarah’s mom became an elite marathoner at forty-two years old and currently runs seventy to eighty miles a week. Her fifty-two year old dad races in mostly 5Ks. His goal at every race is to not get beaten by any woman who isn’t in his family. Her older sister regularly logs seventy-mile weeks, her brother runs the steeplechase for Northwest University in Seattle, and her younger sister won the Vancouver Half Marathon this year. Even Sarah’s grandmother was still running ultra marathons well into her sixties. It’s no wonder that Sarah qualified for the Olympic Track and Field Trials in the 10,000 meters in 2012.
Mike Crouch fits right in with the legendary running Porters. As a collegiate runner at Queens University of Charlotte in North Carolina, he was the most decorated runner in school history, and arguably the most dominant runner in the country in 2009 and 2010. He recently ran 13:55 at a 5K.
Sarah and Mike had an intimate wedding at ZAP last December. And, yes, they both ran the day of their wedding. At the reception, her sister proposed a toast to “the couple with a combined body fat percentage of 8.” The couple honeymooned in Cancun, each running about ninety miles in the heat and humidity.
After dinner the athletes spent the evening talking about running. The daily routine is simple: Eat. Run. Eat. Work out core. Do chores. Run. Eat. Sleep. Repeat. Every couple of weeks the athletes get a massage and meet with Coach Pete for individual training sessions.
Races punctuate the runners’ grueling training schedule. They travel frequently to races where they receive elite treatment – their expenses are covered by ZAP, and their transportation pre-arranged by race officials. The athletes even get spoiled with free running gear.
When training is going well, there’s nowhere these athletes would rather be than tucked away in nature, running without distractions at ZAP.
Even in running paradise, though, it’s not all stipends and free shoes. On days when it’s pouring down rain and freezing cold, some of the athletes admit to daydreaming about going to an office and sitting in a cozy cubicle with a mug of coffee instead of training.
Often, the athletes miss out on the milestones of friends and family. And sometimes they miss out on doing things that “normal” twenty somethings do, like listening to live music. Sure, they can see a show every now and again, but never during important training time. And Cameron, who has a certain infatuation with motorcycles, wishes he could own one, but said, “Coach Pete would kill me. The risk of getting injured is just too great.”
Coach Pete Rea
The next morning I woke up to the sound of wind and rain. My first instinct was to pull the blanket up higher and go back to sleep, but then I remembered that I would be watching the team run and get to meet Coach Rea.
Three runners and I dashed through the rain to hop into Coach Pete’s car. Before we could even close the doors, Coach Pete was all contagious enthusiasm on this otherwise dreary rainy day: “I saw this interview of an Italian hurdler. You guys need to see his extension over the hurdles – I’ll show it to you back at ZAP. Anyway, in the background of the interview, this music was playing and I thought I’d play it for you today, when you might need a bit of motivation.”
Coach Pete finally paused to take a breath, while he fumbled with his iPhone. The only sound was the windshield wipers. “Okay, here it is, a little soul for you this morning.”
Soon the runners were bobbing their heads along the Sam & Dave classic “Hold On I’m Comin.’” We arrived at the day’s running destination, Todd Railroad Grade, a country road that parallels the headwaters of the New River. He parked next to an old-fashioned general store and took off with the runners for their warm-up.
Back from his short run, Coach Pete excused himself to call Cole Atkins, the one ZAP runner who raced that day and placed fifth. “Proud of you,” he said. “You’re fit, you had a good run. The four guys in front of you were really moving. Make sure to take care of those legs – ICE!”
Coach Pete and I zoomed off to catch up with the runners on the road. Each time we passed an athlete, he shouted words of encouragement.
Words to Live By
After the workout, we returned to the training center to refuel. Coach Pete explained that his work is to teach consistency and patience to a generation that expects instant gratification. According to Coach Pete, if his runners train hard week in and week out, while remaining injury free, they will be in a position to qualify for the 2016 Olympic teams. When I pressed him about who had the best chance of snagging a spot on an Olympic team, Coach Pete adamantly maintained that all of his runners have a shot at making the team.
Coach Pete summed up his coaching philosophy, “As a coach, I want them to care about it badly. I want running to be a big part of their lives. But I also want them to have balance in their lives. I remind them that the sun still comes up, that their family still loves them no matter what time they run. Not running well might be disappointing, but it isn’t a tragedy. In the end, it’s just running and doesn’t define a person.”
Run at ZAP Fitness Center
Think you’ve got what it takes to be an elite runner? Check out their website at zapfitness.com to see if you’re fast enough to qualify for ZAP’s A or B standards, which determines the stipend amount and other perks.
But just being fast doesn’t make a ZAP athlete. Coach Pete told me he’s looking for “a diamond in the rough.” He tends to favor runners who have been undertrained or trained incorrectly. Coach Pete looks for runners graduating from smaller, lesser known schools. He takes a close look at each applicant’s training log in search of athletes who potentially could benefit from receiving Olympic-level training.
Personality also plays a huge role in the decision making process. Runners live, train, and work together in a rural environment. An important aspect of the interview is a three-day stay at the running center, where applicants are expected to pitch in with chores.
Don’t fret if you don’t have the race times to train at ZAP full time. The center offers a host of running camps each summer, appropriate for runners of all abilities.
Slacking on your summer training schedule? Use these five tips from ZAP athletes to put get you back on track.
Find a four-legged running pal. ZAP’s unofficial mascot is the neighbor’s dog, Toby, who joins ZAP athletes on afternoon runs around the premises. Toby has been clocked at speeds of 25 miles per hour.
Take meaningful breaks so you come back recharged. Coach Pete encourages runners to take time off after hard races and orders them to forget about running.
Adopt a mantra. Saying a word can change how your body feels. One ZAP runner tells himself, “Stay on the gas,” to remind him to push forward. Another ZAP athlete tells herself that she’s “strong and light” during steeplechase races.
Visualize yourself running. Coach Pete works with runners to visualize races weeks beforehand. Runners report that when race day arrives, they feel more relaxed because they’ve already succeeded in their mind.
Get inspired by looking at pictures of other runners. ZAP athletes tape photos of Olympians above their beds and watch races to motivate for hard training runs.