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

“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.”

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