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

A Typical Work Week

ZAP Fitness Founder Zika Rea's vanity license plate. Photo: Gerry Melendez

On Mondays, the athletes sleep in and train on their own schedules. Rea arrives at 9 a.m. and goes straight to his office, which is nothing more than a desk positioned against a wall in the open mezzanine of the dorm. The walls throughout the building are covered with running memorabilia including a signed photograph of Bill Rodgers winning the 1979 Boston Marathon and a sign that once stood at Mile 19 of the New York City Marathon.

Scattered about the walls are several mounted and framed articles from newspapers and magazines published in the early months of 2002—memorials, eulogies and tributes to the late Andy Palmer, cofounder of ZAP Fitness and first husband of Rea’s wife, Zika. ZAP is an acronym of Zika and Andy Palmer, but also works, coincidentally, as an acronym of Zika and Pete.

Photo Gallery: A Day In The Life At ZAP Fitness

Rea comes to the office this morning to take an important call from an executive at General Mills. The breakfast cereal maker is offering a $15,000 grant to one of the country’s half-dozen major elite running groups, and ZAP has applied. Rea spends about two hours a day working on applications for such grants. Today is decision day for General Mills.

After hearing ZAP didn’t get the grant, a subdued Rea sits down for weekly individual meetings with some of the runners. First up is McKaig.

Rea draws the Fort Wayne, Ind., native’s attention to the whiteboard. He has drawn a squiggly, more-or-less horizontal line on it and spaced the numbers 1, 2 and 3 across it—a crude elevation chart of the Freihofer’s 5K racecourse.

“Not drawn to scale,” he jokes.

Rea will make the same joke later with Esther Erb, ZAP’s only other female athlete, who was also training for Freihofer’s at the time; she finished 15th. “The pace is going to be fast,” coach warns. “Don’t worry about time, though. I want you to race—and take some risks.”

They next discuss the IAAF World Championships marathon in South Korea, which McKaig was selected to run on Sept. 4. She’s been on a roll lately, having qualified for the World Cross-Country Championship in January and returning home with a team bronze medal in March.

“I’m thinking about bumping your peak mileage up to the 107- to 112-mile range for that,” Rea says.

McKaig’s eyes sparkle and she smiles self-consciously, like a little girl who has been promised a pony. She’s been pushing coach to let her run more.

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