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

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

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.

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