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Need for Speed: Blowing Rock quartet among just 32 elite runners competing in USATF 5k Road Championships, Nov. 5

By David Rogers. BLOWING ROCK, N.C. — Out of 32 men entered into one of the nation’s elite road running events on Nov. 5th after qualifying for it, four of them represent Blowing Rock-based ZAP Endurance. The local quartet that will be racing through New York City’s Central Park and beyond include ZAP’s three newest team members, all making their professional running debuts.

High Country Sports met with the ZAP runners following a recent workout around the Brookshire Park area and, as might be expected, there was a high level of anticipation for the upcoming event.

Eric van der Els of ZAP Endurance, preparing for the USATF 5k Road Championships in New York, being held on Nov. 5. Photo by David Rogers

“I am so excited to be making my pro debut just 40 minutes from my hometown of Norwalk, Conn.,” said Eric van der Els, one of ZAP’s rookies. “Coach Pete Rea has given me a lot of great guidance over the last eight weeks since I joined the ZAP team, so yeah, I am excited to mix it up with the pros for the first time.”

Since ZAP runners have historically focused primarily on marathons and longer cross country events, a 5k race is almost a sprint at only 3.10686 miles compared to the 26.2 miles of a marathon. All three of the ZAP rookies have shorter distance collegiate pedigrees.

“My distance specialties in college were the 5k and the 10k,” said Ryan Ford, another one of the ZAP rookies making his professional debut. “I am hoping  as my career advances to move up in distance, though. It would be amazing to do some of the stuff that ZAP runners like Tyler Pennel and Josh Izewski have done at those longer distances. For me, the 5k and 10k are a good mix, sort of a meeting point of speed and endurance. There are a lot of opportunities at those distances in college, but I am looking for pro opportunities at longer distances with ZAP, too.”

ZAP’s third rookie making his pro debut at the USATF 5k Championships is Dan Shaffer, who put an insightful spin on this opportunity.

Ryan Ford of ZAP Endurance, preparing for the USATF 5k Road Championships in New York, being held on Nov. 5. Photo by David Rogers

“Being my pro debut, this is a special race. It is incredibly exciting to have this opportunity,” said Shaffer. “Not many men or women really have the chance in college to run at the Division I level and, when you think about it, not very many of those Division I athletes go on to run professionally. So, I am extremely fortunate to have this opportunity.”

Like van der Els, Schaffer was a sub-4 minute miler in college, putting them in elite company, globally. Having run a 4.05 in college, Ford (the longer 5k and 10k specialist) isn’t very far behind.

“Coming out of college, my distance specialties were the mile and 5k,” said Schaffer. “Moving forward, I want to focus more on the 5k and 10k.”

How about the 26k? asked High Country Sports with a smile.

Laughing, Schaffer quickly replied, “I tell you what, if I ever want to do that I am in the right place here at ZAP because I have a lot of guys on this team to learn from. And Coach Pete has coached countless successful marathoners.

“As a professional, I am so thankful to be here and to be a part of ZAP,” Schaffer added. “I have so many teammates from which I can learn. They have all had their own pro debuts, previously. They all have had a lot of experience and sharing those experiences and advice with myself, Eric and Ryan. It is making the transition from college to pro a lot easier.”

Dan Schaffer of ZAP Endurance, preparing for the USATF 5k Road Championships in New York, being held on Nov. 5. Photo by David Rogers

The “old man” of the ZAP quartet racing around Central Park on Nov. 5th is veteran road racer and cross country specialist, Andrew Colley.

“I didn’t know until last week that I was going to be able to run in the 5k national championships,” said Colley. “I was looking for another race and the coaches were able to get me in this one as a late addition because I have worked out well at this distance.”

How does running a 5k compare to his usual marathon runs?

“A 5k is a lot different than a marathon – a lot nicer!” said Colley. “I typically have done marathons and long distance cross country running with ZAP, but I am not in a marathon block right now. I am training for the U.S. Cross Country Championships, which is a 12k or about 7 miles. This U.S. 5k will be a good chance to get some speed work in. The distance is much shorter than a marathon, but much more intense, too, so it will be a good chance to flex different muscles.”

Expectations among the quartet for the Nov. 5 race in NYC are practical, to be sure.

“Being my pro debut, there is not a ton of pressure,” said Schaffer. “The No. 1 goal is to go out there and have fun. Since I have been here, I have learned that is a big part of ZAP. Running is fun, so job 1 is to enjoy what we are doing. I saw the field of runners the other day and I would be happy being able to finish in the top 15 among the 32 elite athletes entered. From a grading perspective, Top 15 would be a B-plus kind of day. If maybe I can finish in the Top 10, that would be an A-plus kind of day.”

While Colley is using the U.S. 5k Championships as almost a speed training run in prepartion for the upcoming U.S. Cross Country Championships, van der Els is similarly realistic.

“The field for the 5K championship was just released and there are guys on the list who have been in the professional circuit for a long time. They have a lot of experience. So I am excited about racing with and against the best in the U.S. for my debut. My goals are relatively modest, to get in there and compete and try to beat as many guys as I can. After this, we have a race on Thanksgiving morning up in Manchester, Conn., so I have another race close to home. That will be a little longer, about 4.7 miles. That will be a test, aerobically, to see where I’m at. Following that, I will racing on the track, in the 5k in Boston, Dec. 3.”

Andrew Colley of ZAP Endurance, preparing for the USATF 5k Road Championships in New York, being held on Nov. 5. Photo by David Rogers

Becoming a professional

“Being a professional athlete now is surreal. I feel like I am living the running dream, especially me, because I didn’t realize this could be a possibility until my final year of college. That is when I saw a lot of improvement, in the final stages of my college career. It has been a blessing for me to turn pro and I have really enjoyed it so far,” said Ford.

“I thought it was very cool that there is a pro team at this level on the East Coast,” added Ford. “Almost all other teams are in Colorado, Arizona, or other places out west. ZAP has found a unique location here and it is very beautiful. I just wanted to be a part of it. I live in Boone, but I am in Blowing Rock almost every day for practice.”

“I have a connection with Pete and (ZAP founder) Zika Rea in that Pete is a Connecticut native like myself. He also went to UConn. So I have known Pete for awhile and heard very good things about the program here and I liked everyone here on my visit. I really felt this team would really push me out of my comfort zone and get me to be where I want to be,” said van der Els.

“Blowing Rock and the High Country are a lot different from home, in Connecticut. It is more rural than I thought I might be, but I am really happy about the places we get to run. Having national park settings like the Moses Cone Estate and Bass Lake, those are great places where we train and do loops, as well as long runs. I am really happy with the environment I am in. I can be focused, to get the job done,” van der Els continued.

Colley is one of ZAP’s longest tenured team members as a professional, elite distance runner.

“ZAP is a completely different team now than when I joined,” said Colley. “Back then, we had that facility in the Blackberry Valley and it was all guys, so it was like a ‘Lord of the Flies’ scenario, kind of just living down there wildly in the valley. Now, it is a bit different. We don’t have that facility and we are all out on our own, residence-wise, but the team comes together every day. It is different, but it is great and we have these three new guys that just rolled in, in Eric, Ryan and Dan. They’ve got some really good energy about them so it has been a lot of fun.

“Besides energy, they are bringing different perspectives, too.” Colley continued. “Most of us on the team have been more on the marathon distance, but they are mostly focused on the shorter distances, the 1500, mile and 5k. So they are bringing some track speed, which is helping get us old guys whipped into shape!”

The top 10 runners earn prize money ranging from $12,000, $8,000 and $4,000, respectively, for the first, second and third place finishers, to $250 for 10th place.

Starting in front of the United Nations and Tudor City on First Ave., the race course travels west on 42nd Street, then north on Sixth Ave. to Central Park. The last, approximately 1200 meters of the course meanders through the park until its finish in front of Tavern on the Green, the same finish line as the New York City Marathon, which will be run on Nov. 6.





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