ZAP Endurance — less than 2 hours away in Blowing Rock — had always been an enigma for me. I’d read an article about this spot in Runner’s World a while ago. It discussed the coaching and training that goes on there and also showed pictures of lithe, fast young runners seemingly flying around some rustic-looking buildings. I’d thought that if I were a super-serious runner, it’d be amazing to check out.
When my friend won a contest this summer through Charlotte Running Company and asked me to accompany her to a weeklong Marathon Week Running Camp at ZAP, I felt like I had hit the jackpot and been dealt a bit of a trick hand at the same time. What in the world would a regular runner do at an elite training facility? The opportunity to solve the mystery of ZAP far ended up outweighing my nervousness, so I hit the pause button on life, packed up some running shoes, clothes and a foam roller and hit the road.
I immediately relaxed when I was welcomed upon arrival by resident athletes with smiles and waves as I drove into campus down a winding, gravel road. Three of them helped unload my trunk and put me at ease right away by assuring me that I wasn’t the only one with a lot of shoes.
Running brings people together, and in no place is it more evident than at ZAP. After I settled in my room, I walked out to the covered common area for a welcome-to-camp reception. As soon as I spoke with fellow campers and realized that they were just as excited, the last of my apprehension fell away. Our group of 21 included a married couple who had been coming for 5 years, a few very serious runners, a guy about 75 years old, some middle-aged moms (ahem), and some 20-somethings who seemed to know the ropes. This mix of people told me that it was going to be a week not only of running but of getting to know folks from different backgrounds and stages in life, which is always a win in my book.
For those that aren’t familiar with this place, a brief history. ZAP was named after Olympic-level runners Zika and Andy Palmer, who were opening it as a nonprofit in 2002 to give back to the sport of distance running. Andy Palmer died before he could see it open for the coaching and care of elite, post-collegiate runners who go there to live and train hard. To keep their dream alive, Zika opened it. Later, realizing that the setting is prime for runners of all levels, ZAP began hosting camps, retreats and weekends geared to recreational runners.
Right away, the staff made it crystal clear that this was our personal vacation. If we didn’t feel like running, we didn’t have to run. We could hang out in a hammock, sit in the creek that runs adjacent to the property, read a book, get in the hot tub, take a nap and even get a massage. All of the runs could be tailored to our wants and needs. For the group runs off site, there’d always be an option to go shorter or longer. If you needed extra miles, you could hop on the trail that circled the campus, where on any given day at any given time, those professional runners would be floating like gazelles. The emphasis was on making the week what we wanted it to be.
The staff, which included the owners — now Zika Rea and her husband, Pete — coaches Ryan and Matt, and the athletes, made it comfortably known that we were all there to have fun, run, eat and get to know each other — not necessarily in that order. While I sat on the patio, had a glass of wine and listened to these expectations with 20 of my new friends, all of these things combined with the overall ease of the place. I felt welcomed, relaxed and seriously ready to run all at the same time.
Generally, a typical day looked like this:
The alarm went off at 6 a.m. The schedule was so packed that if you needed to do any sort of work or personal stuff, you had to figure out a time to do it, and for me, it was before breakfast. I’d hit the coffee (they even have their own ZAP blend), which the residents made sure was always strong, hot and ready, and I’d gear up for the day.
By 7 a.m., breakfast was out and people were meandering around in the dining room.
Promptly at 8 a.m., the van left for the destination run of the day. We mostly hit up areas in Blowing Rock, so they were fairly close. The runs were not road and not single track but somewhere in between and mostly gravel. Elevation wasn’t a killer for me, but some were surprised, and it definitely altered paces and expectations.
By around 10:30 a.m., we’d finished up runs. Since everyone’s distances weren’t the same, we didn’t all finish at the same time. It all just kind of worked out and although I usually ran longer, there was never a time that I felt stressed to get back or annoyed by waiting for others. We all just hung out in the beautiful mountain air and enjoyed the gorgeous views and each other.
Around 11 a.m., we’d load up the vans and head back to ZAP, and either hang out until lunch or do a mini-activity like yoga.
Noon was lunch, and let’s talk about the food: It was amazing. The chef, Mike, made some incredible meals during our stay. A former chef at the Ritz, he found that rare balance of healthy and delicious. One camper introduced herself as being there for the food, which wasn’t a lie (she was the parent of one of the athletes and lived her best life that week — I don’t think she ran a single step, but she happily took pictures and hung out). The food alone is a reason ZAP has repeat campers.
The afternoons had the most wiggle room for customizing the schedule. Between 1-5:30 p.m., there’d be options for a talk, an activity like a pool workout or zip-lining, a combination of the two, or you could opt out and just relax.
Dinner was at 7 p.m., and again, this chef did us right. Fave meal? Salmon, roasted Brussels sprouts, beets and Israeli couscous, and pies that were out of this world.
Around 8 p.m. we’d have the option to listen to a guest speaker or coach talk about something running related, such as training, nutrition, form or mental toughness. The informal group setting made it really comfortable to jump in and ask questions. One guest speaker was Cathy O’Brien, who talked about her experience as the youngest female to run in the first ever women’s Olympic Marathon Trials.
By 10:30 p.m., I’d fall into bed, tired and excited for the next day. Although the chef formerly worked at the Ritz, this place is not a 5-star hotel, it’s camp. The rooms are modest, clean and cozy. It’s a suite setup so you’re sharing a bathroom with another room, some are singles and some are doubles. There’s a common area inside with sofas and a TV, a basic weight room, a washer and dryer, and a dining room that felt like I was staying at a friend’s home. My favorite spot at ZAP was an amazing outdoor covered area where I spent 99% of my free time; it was the thoroughfare where everyone would come and go, eat and just hang out.
The resident runners and coaching staff, all of whom contribute in a positive way to the overall vibe of ZAP, were around the whole week. To watch the athletes run and talk with them on a daily basis was fascinating and inspirational on a level I’d never experienced. Each and every one of them was engaging and easy-going. It wasn’t lost on me that they held this attitude while strangers had infiltrated their space and after running copious amounts of miles every day. These runners quite literally eat, sleep and breathe running. To do that with a genuine smile is remarkable and speaks to the atmosphere of the place. That level of commitment is not only motivating, it’s just good to be around. The staff mastered the fine line of being around without being in our faces, being informative without being overwhelming and being professional without being too formal. To put it simply, it’s a very cool group of people that run a very cool operation.
I’ve described ZAP to everyone I’ve spoken with as a runner’s utopia. That’s the closest description I can get. For me, personally, the mystery is solved. The passion for running lives in every space on that campus and in the eyes of the runners of all levels who are there. The setting, the buildings, the people and the activities merge in a way that left an imprint on my heart and added a spark to my ever glowing love of the sport.