Zach Zarda Taking No Races for Granted

Aug. 31, 2011

083111aaa_680_4157034.jpegFew Kansas cross country runners are as excited as junior Zach Zarda to kick off the 2011 season. The build-up and anticipation after months of training not only has him and his teammates eager to see what they can accomplish, but the first meet also marks his return from a 2010 season that was plagued with injury, forcing him to watch from the sidelines for the majority of the year. While his lost season hurt for a variety of reasons, Zarda has come out on the other side with a resiliency and passion that has made him a better runner, teammate and person.

Growing up in Shawnee, Kan., Zarda never envisioned himself being such an avid runner when he got older. He claims that he was the slowest of his entire family, even his little sister, which didn’t exactly foster an immediate love for the sport. Even with his father, Bernie, being the head track coach at nearby Maranatha Academy, track and cross country had very little appeal. When he entered high school, his father told him he would have to go out for the track team for at least one season, and, luckily for Zarda, he was forced to oblige.

“I didn’t want to run track at all,” said Zarda. “I hated running. Unless I was kicking a ball, I didn’t want any part of it. My dad told me I had to do track at least one season, so I agreed. After that season though, I would be done.”

Following the first few meets Zarda’s apprehension slowly turned to fascination. Running had so many aspects that he had never known before, and it didn’t hurt that he was winning the majority of his races either.

“It turns out I got good at it once I got going my freshman year and I really liked competing,” Zarda explained. “The purity of the competition in track really drew me in and I was hooked pretty fast. From there, the rest is history.”

After ending a fantastic high school career where he was an all-state cross country selection for three seasons, a 2A state champion on the track and his class’ valedictorian, Zarda made his way to Lawrence to run for coaches Stanley Redwine and Michael Whittlesey.

He made immediate impacts in his first two seasons with the Jayhawks, showing potential as one of KU’s top runners. He claimed high finishes and gained valuable experience in some of the biggest meets his freshman and sophomore years, setting him up for a junior campaign that was sure to bring accolades. The 2010 season wouldn’t go quite as planned.

083111aaa_680_2555375.jpegAfter fighting through the first two races of 2010 with intense pain in his hip, Zarda made the trip to the doctor and had an x-ray taken. The diagnosis wasn’t good. A femoral stress fracture, an injury that could potentially end his running career, would force him to hang up the spikes for at least six months.

“I’ve gone through injuries in the past but nothing that impacted me that much for that long,” Zarda said of his year-long battle with the injury. “The toughest part of it was the affect it had on my team because I couldn’t be there to help. I feel like it could’ve changed our season a little bit if I would’ve been out there.”

Instead of sulking and feeling sorry for himself, Zarda made it his mission to come off the injury stronger than ever. Long hours of rehab and training away from his teammates tested his level of dedication to the sport, but ultimately paid off.

“One thing that Zach has done over the past 12 months is (that he) really dedicated himself to making himself a lot better,” said assistant cross country coach Mike Whittlesey. “It took a lot of self-discipline and dedication to take care of his injuries but also doing the training to put himself in a position to be able to execute once this season rolls around.”

Zarda would eventually make his return to the track in a race that he won’t soon forget. Despite the fact he hadn’t seen a competitive race in weeks, he suited up at the Outdoor Big 12 Championships in May for the 5,000 meters. In a display that was pure will and determination, he ran with some of the top distance runners in the country, finishing 14th and setting a personal best time of 14:32.10.

083111aaa_680_3625071.jpeg“Before that race I just told myself to just trust in the training, trust in God and see what happens,” Zarda explained. “I put myself in the position to compete and I ended up PR’ing in that race. There was no physical reason I should have done that well, especially because of the lack of training that I had leading up to that race. I feel like that was a turning point in how I see racing.”

After the Big 12 race, Zarda had a new-found confidence, not only in his abilities but in his training as well. He entered the summer with a focus and determination that did not go unnoticed by his teammates and coaches.

“With all the dedication he put in during the off hours, a lot of people were pleasantly surprised to see where he has gotten from a fitness standpoint after the injuries,” said Whittlesey. “For his teammates to see that he really hasn’t skipped a beat showed an awful lot of dedication to the team.”

Zarda enters this cross country season as one of the anticipated leaders of the men’s squad. While he is hoping for success from an individual standpoint, his main focus is to help his team reach conference and national supremacy.

“Cross country is very much a team sport and I want to help the team get to nationals,” Zarda explained of his goals this year. “I definitely think we have the talent and I think we have the right mindset. It’s just a matter of putting in the work every single day. When the bad days come, don’t get down, just roll with the punches and move on to the next day.”

This year’s Jayhawk team could surely take a few lessons from Zarda in regards to working hard every day and “rolling with the punches”, and it all begins this weekend. He will be one of the few veterans traversing the trails at Rim Rock Farm this weekend in the Bob Timmons Classic and will be looked upon to lead his young teammates. After the arduous comeback he was made over the past year, the race on Saturday should be a piece of cake.

“Zach’s going to have a big advantage this year,” Coach Whittlesey explained. “When he’s hurting in the middle of a race, being able to push through the pain becomes a lot easier now because he knows how hard he has worked to get himself in that position.”

Through his struggles over the past year, Zarda has learned a lot about himself. He has had to reinvent his work ethic and passion for running and has had to digest some tough life lessons. Of all the things he was learned, there is one lesson that will stick with him for some time.

“I don’t take any race for granted anymore,” Zarda concluded. “Every day I get to run I thank the Lord for that opportunity.”