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.

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