Interview with Zika Palmer
By Becky Orfinger

Zika Palmer
(Enlarged version includes ZAP coach Pete Rea.)
Photo courtest of ZAP Fitness

Zika Palmer may only have the 38th fastest qualifying time heading into the U.S. Olympic Team Trials - Women's Marathon on April 3, but she has a unique advantage over the rest of the field: she's a hometown girl. Having grown up in St. Louis, Palmer, 28, is familiar with Forest Park, the Trials venue, and looks forward to seeing family, friends, and other biased locals cheering for her at the top of their lungs next month. Since her debut marathon in 2002, Austin's Motorola Marathon, where she ran 3:02, Palmer has run three others and improved her PR to 2:42 in Chicago last October. Palmer (nee Zika Janes) competed on both the track and cross country teams at Emory University in Atlanta.

As co-founder (with her late husband, Andy Palmer, who died of a heart attack two years ago) of ZAP Fitness, a training center for post-collegiate athletes, Palmer lives a double life as the president/director of ZAP and an elite athlete herself. Pete Rea coaches the ZAP athletes (including Palmer), but as the resident exercise physiologist, Palmer is responsible for periodic testing all of the elite athletes and overseeing the day-to-day operations at the facility. Because ZAP is a non-profit, one of her biggest challenges is ensuring that enough funding is available to meet all of the athletes' needs. ZAP also organizes several running camps each summer, aimed at both recreational and competitive runners, whose profits go directly to supporting the elite athletes. And when she isn't at her desk, Palmer is running on the miles of trails around the ZAP facility in Blowing Rock, North Carolina. We caught up with her in the middle of one of her last "big" training weeks, the night before a planned double of 11 miles in the morning and another 11 in the afternoon. So we're a little less than a month away from the Trials. Are you starting to bring down your mileage yet?
Zika Palmer:
This week, right now, is kind of my last big week. Then, I'm going to run the Gate River [15K] on Saturday. [Note: Palmer finished 19th in 55:35.] This week I'm still running about 120 miles. After this, I'll start to come down.

FW: That's pretty high mileage, even for an elite marathoner. How does your body handle it?
I still get tired, even though I'm adjusted to the high mileage. I had a 'down' week last week — I definitely respond well to the down weeks. I usually do two weeks up [high mileage] and then a week down, and by the end of that second week I'm usually pretty wiped out.

I started running high mileage after college. I think it was back in 1999 when I started running 100 miles a week for my high week. It took me a long time to adapt to it — I could do the mileage, but it was all really slow, and I was just tired all the time. Now, it's cool because I can run 120 miles a week, including two workouts, and still feel okay.

FW: It sounds like you are right where you need to be in terms of fitness. Are you getting excited for the Trials?
Yeah, I'm excited just because it's the Trials, let alone the fact that I'm racing! But I'm also excited because running-wise, everything has been going really well. My workouts have been good, I'm handling the mileage well, I'm responding to everything we're doing — and responding well. I'm definitely looking forward to the marathon — I'm ready to go.

FW: Even though this will only be your fifth marathon, you've already made huge improvements.
I ran 3:02, then 2:53, then 2:45, and then 2:42. I'm hoping to get under 2:40 this time.

FW: What kinds of things have you done in your training to bring those times down so much?
I think the consistency that I've had [with training] is really important. When I first started training for the marathon, four years ago, I knew it was going to take a long time and I was willing to be patient and really have a four-year plan. The first marathon was just so that I could go run one, and just get it over with. Ever since, I've been really consistent, not had any major injuries, and every time we go through a cycle, I'm doing a little bit more mileage and a little bit more quality. I think consistency has helped me get to the point where fitness-wise, I feel like I'm really training at a high level for the first time.

FW: What about rest days? Besides your down weeks, what do you do to ensure that your body is getting enough recovery time?
I take probably one day off a month, and that would be during a down week. If I really need the day off, I'm okay taking it, because I've gotten to the point where I know if I'm really tired, I should take it. I don't mean that I'm going to just skip a run or something, but if it's a day where I have an optional 0 or 5 miles, and I'm just really wiped out, then I know I'm better off taking the day off and feeling better the next day, instead of struggling through a run.

And on easy run days, I would rather have one day when I'm running 8:30 pace and know that I'll feel better the next day than keep trying to push, push, and push through every run.

FW: How much of your training is done with the ZAP guys? [Note: Dan Wilson, Karl Savage, Joe Driscoll, Ian Connor, and Brian Rosetti are the current ZAP athletes.]
I start out with the guys — I run probably half a mile to a mile with them, but probably 95% of my runs are just by myself. Pete will run with me occasionally, for just a normal run during the week. And three or four times this winter, I had really long workouts, either part of my long run or a workout that was something like 12 miles of hard stuff, and he would run those with me. But everything else is on my own.

FW: Does that get lonely?
Yeah, it does. It always helps just having the guys to start with, and it's much easier to get going with them around if it's cold or bad weather. But sometimes it is hard, when I see the five of them running away and talking to each other, and I'm thinking, 'Ten miles to go [by myself]!'

FW: Speaking of bad weather, was it hard doing the brunt of your Trials training during the winter months? Did you get a lot of the cold that the northeast and Mid-Atlantic got?
The guys were actually all gone for five weeks in January — they went to Florida State to train. But I stayed up here…and January was rough. It was really cold and windy, but the snow wasn't that bad. Still, after three or four weeks of that kind of weather, I needed a break, too, and I went down to Florida for about four days to train also. I had had enough of -20 degree days and 80 mph winds!

FW: It's nice that you have that arrangement with Florida State — how did that come about?
We know the coach there since he brought his team up here for a preseason training camp, and we had heard that the running in the Florida State/Tallahassee area was good, so we talked to him and he helped us work out a deal where we could stay in a dorm on campus. It worked out really well for the guys — they had great weather, good places to train, and access to all the facilities there. It was great for them.

FW: And the guys have already had some success in 2004.
Yes, Ian [Connor] made the World Championship team in cross country, so we were all pretty excited about that. They are all getting ready to really go for it during the outdoor season. They start racing at the end of this month.

FW: Do you plan out their whole season in advance, like where the athletes will race and such?
Pete does. He's the coach and we only want the athletes answering to one person, and not having any conflicting information out there. Pete and I will talk about their training, but when it comes to when they are racing and their day-to-day training, Pete's the one that makes all those decisions.

FW: What's Pete's background and coaching experience?
He was a very good runner for the University of Connecticut, and after college ran for Nike South and was living down in Georgia, eventually Atlanta. He started teaching English at a high school in Atlanta and was coaching there for a couple of years. In addition, he has been doing private coaching at different levels for over 10 years — and now he's here.

FW: So with Pete as coach, what are some of your day-to-day responsibilities at ZAP?
The biggest thing for us, since we're a non-profit, is fundraising. Right now, pretty much all of our funding is through private donations or the programs that we put on, like our adult running camps and other programs for college and high school teams. Now I'm working with a grant writer to help us apply for a grant for funding. Marketing and advertising for the programs and camps is also a big part of my day-to-day work. Pete takes care of all the coaching, but I get to do the fun stuff — like pay the bills [laughs].

FW: And with your background in exercise physiology, do you do a lot of testing on the ZAP athletes?
The testing that we do on them is done every three to six months. We'll do it once in the fall and once during the track season and once at the end of the track season. It helps us see what's changing. It's interesting to compare test results from the fall, when they are doing base work and aren't quite as fit, with results from around this time, when they are just going into their track season. We can find out what needs to be improved and where their strengths and weaknesses are. And then from year to year, we can compare the end-of-season results — when they are fittest — to see what's improved over the long term.

FW: How long do most of the current athletes plan to stay at ZAP?
It really depends on the individual, but I'd say anywhere from two to four years. I kind of look at the Olympic cycles — I don't expect the athletes we have here now to be gone after the upcoming Olympic Trials, but I think being 24, 25 years old and living in a dorm-like environment is something you grow out of, too. After the [2004] Trials, we want to get three or four more athletes and hopefully keep them until the 2008 Olympics.

FW: Does that plan include getting some more female runners?
Yeah, we're working on expanding that area and creating a true women's program. Having one woman was a good opportunity, but it's really hard to be training at that level by yourself. [Note: Ann McGranahan had been with ZAP but is taking some time off from competitive running.] We're trying to set it up so we can get three or four women at once and they can really feel like they have a team. We're hoping to set up a separate house for the women athletes, just to give them some separation from the guys. [Interested? E-mail Zika Palmer at]

FW: On an elite-running tangent, did you expect to continue running at such a high level when you graduated from Emory?
I was pretty sure I was going to continue running, but I didn't know what I was doing — I didn't even know much about the sport, like what was out there and how people even qualified for the Olympic Trials. I had no clue. But when Andy and I were dating, he kind of put it in my head that I could qualify for the Trials one day. And I thought he was nuts. But at the same time, I started thinking, 'Maybe I can,' and decided to go for it.

FW: How much running did you do before college? Did you run in high school?
I ran in high school — not much, about 10-15 miles a week if I had to. Even competing in college, when I think about training, I don't think I really started to train seriously until my last two years of college. During the first two years of college, I never ran in the winter or the summer and was maybe doing 35 miles a week. I did get more serious toward the end of college, but it wasn't really until about two years after college that I really got started on the path I'm on now. And I've just continued progressing every year.

FW: I think that's a good way to go about a running career, sort of progressing slowly and not doing crazy mileage in junior high or high school.
Yeah, sometimes I do have regrets and wonder if I could have done better in high school or college, but at the same time, I feel lucky to be still improving, and know that at age 28, I have an even better shot at making the Olympic team in 2008 because I won't be burned out yet.

FW: Do you think that the lack of burnout can be attributed in part to running for an NCAA Division III program? Looking down the list of Trials qualifiers, there are definitely a good number of "late bloomers" who I believe ran for DIII schools.
I think there's definitely a connection there. Having been at ZAP for two years now, I've met all kinds of runners and a lot of Division I runners, who I've never really been around, and have noticed that a lot of them finish college and need a whole year just to recover. They are just totally wiped out, worn out, broken down and need some time to heal up. But it works for some people; not everyone wants to run for more than those four or five years. And getting a scholarship to pay for your education is also really important.

FW: Changing the subject completely, how supportive has your family been in your pursuit of such a high level of running as well as your role in ZAP?
My dad is actually on our Board, so I go to him for a lot of things. My parents don't know too much about running, but they are definitely proud of what I'm doing and supporting of it. That helps.

FW: And being from St. Louis, it's great that your family will be able to come out and watch you at the Trials. Are you the only qualifier originally from St. Louis?
I believe so, yes. I'm excited. I think whoever is around that knew me from high school is going to come watch. I'm going to have to run a little fast when I go by them.

And I'm actually speaking at my high school the Monday before the Trials. I think I'm more nervous about that than the race! I'm not sure how big their team is, because it was tiny when I was there, but has grown from what I've heard. They've had some success in track.

FW: Do you know the course at all, just from being familiar with the area?
I know the park it's in. I didn't run there a whole lot, but there is a 10K loop around it that I did run on some or rollerblade around. I know the area, and seeing the map I have a pretty good idea of the course, but I'm definitely going to have to go see it to make sure.

FW: The Trials marathon will be on a loop course, right? Does that appeal to you?
I think it will be cool. It's good for the spectators, and it's nice to be able to mentally break it down into parts. You can separate it and not have to look at it as 26 miles at once. I think it will be neat, kind of like a criterium course.

FW: I know you set your PR at Chicago — what did you think of that course?
It was definitely a fast course. For me, it was great. I'd run Motorola twice and Grandma's once, which were both good but didn't have that many spectators. But being at Chicago is kind of overwhelming. I wasn't prepared for hundreds of people cheering the whole way, and I got kind of caught up in it. It was fun to run. I felt like I was Rocky or something.

FW: Were you with other women most of the way?
Not really. There were one or two other women I was running with early on, then I passed them and they came back and got me again later on. I was kind of surprised, because I got to the start and was sure there was going to be a big pack of women to run with and feel like I was really racing. But the race started, and there was no one around. I think it was Michelle LaFleur I ran with for a couple of miles, but she was going faster than I wanted to go, and I just ended up running mostly with guys. That was the only disappointment — I was hoping to hook up with three or four women who were trying to run 2:40 or something and cruise with them.

FW: There should be some good competition at the Gate River Run [the USA 15K Championships] this weekend. Have you run it before?
No, I've never run it, but I hear it's fast so I think it will be fun to do. It will be a good tune-up, and they are doing an 'equalizer bonus' — starting the top 25 women before the men — so whoever wins outright is the winner. But chances are it is going to get spread out pretty quickly among the 25 women. I hope it doesn't turn into a time trial where I'm running by myself until the men start passing us.

FW: Do you still get nervous before races?
Not like I used to. Now, I'm a lot more confident because I know I've done the work and my workouts and training have been going well. I'm not scared nervous, I'm more anxious that I'll go out too hard or get hurt or something.

FW: You've been lucky to have been injury-free recently, right?
I haven't had any major injuries in a while, so I've definitely been lucky there. Typically, after a marathon, I struggle for about two months getting back into running. I have a lot of lower back problems and hip problems and for whatever reason, for the six weeks after a marathon, I can run, but it just doesn't feel very good. Massage helps, or a chiropractor, but what I've really found is I have to take it easy during that time. I can't just jump right back into training and hope to be racing again in two months.

After Chicago, I was hoping to race a little in November and December, but after running for two or three weeks and it wasn't getting any better, it just got to the point that if I ran more than five miles at a time, everything would tighten up. So I just ran forty minutes every day, twice a day, and it was all slow. For me, it's just a matter of resting and taking it easy — I seem to respond best to that.

Plus, here, the majority of the running is done on trails, and that reduces the pounding. Aside from that, I'm just healthy — I eat well and I'm strong and sturdy.

FW: Do you think that the marathon is ultimately your best distance?
Yeah, definitely. I'd like to be a 5K or a 10K runner, but I know I'm not fast enough. I think that physically, I'm suited best to the marathon. And mentally, too — I have the focus to stay in the race for two and a half hours. Training by yourself, you get used to finding the strength to stick out those tough workouts or long runs.

I'd like to get back to doing some track races in the next couple of years, but after this marathon, I'm going to take a pretty big break. Since my first marathon two years ago, I've just been continuously going at it, and I think that my body needs a break. Plus, I think it will be good for me to back off on the training a little and focus more on work. I'd rather take a big break now and then be able to get back into it and shoot for 2008.

FW: So are you thinking of this Trials experience sort of as your inaugural one?
Sort of, but at the same time I want to go and run as fast as I can. I don't expect to make an Olympic team, but I'd like to finish in the top 20 or 25. I'm not just going for the experience or anything — I'm going to race.

FW: Who are your picks to make the team?
I think Deena Kastor and Marla Runyan will be up there, and probably Colleen DeReuck as well. [Note: Runyan had not entered the race as of this posting.] If I had to pick three, I'd pick those three. They are the most experienced. Deeja Youngquist could be there, too — she had a great race in Chicago but you never know who's going to have a good day. There are a lot of women who have run in the low 2:30s and any one of them could take a spot.

(Interview conducted March 8, 2004, and posted March 15, 2004.)

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