From The Bear to the Olympic Trials

ZAP Endurace runners Johnny Crain, left, and Joanna Thompson celebrate winning The Bear race during the Grandfather Highland Games. Both runners are in Atlanta to compete in the Olympic Marathon Trials on Feb. 29.

The 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo are fast approaching, and the running team from ZAP Endurance wants to be a part of them.

A team of eight ZAP runners are in training in Tallahassee, Fla., with the purpose of grabbing one of six spots, three men and three women, on the American Olympic team. After months of training, the Olympic Marathon Trials are Feb. 29 in Atlanta. The team has visited the course in Atlanta, which includes running downtown through Centennial Olympic Park.

The race will be shown on NBC from noon until 3 p.m.

Nine runners from ZAP, the entire team, qualified for the trials through various marathons over the last three years. The qualifying time for men was 2:19, or run a 1:04 in a half-marathon. The women had to run a 2:45 in a full marathon and a 1:13 in a half-marathon.

Those runners include Johnny Crain, Joe Stilin, Tyler Pennel, Josh Izewski, Andrew Colley, Matt McClintock. The women include former App State runner Tristin Van Ord, and The Bear at Grandfather Mountain winner Joanna Tompson. Another runner, Nicole DiMercurio, is battling injury and will not participate in the race.

Crain, who won The Bear in 2019, is also battling an injury, but plans to start the race. The team left Tallahassee for Atlanta on Feb. 26. The overall fields will be crowded with 511 women and 260 men participating.

“I’m not in the best fitness for myself, but I wanted to be there for the other guys on the team and do what I can to help them,” Crain, who finished 53rd in the 2016 trials, said.

Pennel gives the group some needed experience when it comes to the Olympic Trials. He was leading the 2016 trials before eventually sliding to fifth place when the race was over.

Getting to this point doesn’t just happen. Thompson, 27, has been running since she was about 11 years-old and won several state championships in distance running while attending Knoxville Catholic School. She attended N.C. State on a full scholarship and just before graduating college she ran in her first half-marathon.

She decided to run professionally and soon after she contacted ZAP. She’s trained at the Blowing Rock facility for the past four years.

Thompson also ran in the women’s 2016 Olympic Trials. She qualified for her time in a half-marathon, but had never run in a full-length marathon until the Olympic qualifier.

“My mom dug up a newspaper article from when I was in high school,” Thompson said. “I got interviewed after winning the state meet in cross-country. In it, I mentioned that I wanted to make the Olympic Trials one day, so it’s pretty cool. It’s kind of a full-cycle-deal.”

Thompson finished the race in 98th place during the 2016 trials. Running the distance was harder than she thought it would be. She felt that running the full marathon of 26.2 miles would not be harder than a half-marathon she had run before.

“I assumed that the marathon would not be that much different and that I would be prepared,” Thompson said. “It was a shock to my system. This time around, I know what I’m in for.”

Crain said the course in Atlanta has several hills, which aren’t all that steep, but still must be navigated.

Thompson said training in the mountains of Blowing Rock is helpful both with the hills and with the added endurance that the thinner mountain air can offer. The ZAP runners were also training on hills in Tallahassee to get ready for Atlanta.

“Training in Blowing Rock is absolutely an advantage,” Thompson said. “We’ve got years or running up and down hills every day. It’s much hillier than most major marathons that anybody is going to run on, so it will be interesting to see how that shakes out on race day.”

Crain said the course also goes past the Olympic rings at Olympic Park around the 22nd mile.

“It’s like this really cool look,” Crain said. “You see the Olympic rings and you know that it’s the final four miles to see who is going to be on this team.”

Crain said the team might run 20 miles or more in just one run. ZAP has a facility outside of Blowing Rock, but the team does most of its training at Moses Cone Park.

“Most of our team will run anywhere from 19 to 130 miles per week,” Crain said. “You’re starting to talk about averaging 15-plus miles per day. Most of that will be broken up into two runs, so that’s usually one in the morning and one in the afternoon. That kind of lays the groundwork for you.”

Having that type of training habits requires effort. It also requires purpose. Thompson, who feels confident going into the race, said the feeling of accomplishment is a big reason for her to push herself to go all-in on running marathons.

“This is something that we talk about a lot,” Thompson said. “I feel with the marathon it’s really such a iconic distance and it’s a challenge more so even then something like a 5K race or a 10K race or even a half-marathon. We’ve already gotten good at running, so you have to find something that you can do to push yourself. This is one of the most ultimate expressions of that in our sport.”

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