by Carrie Adams
While running in Central Park after college, Josh Zitomer gave himself a heart attack. He was doing hill repeats and his heart rate hit 209. He felt his chest tighten and his left arm began to hurt. He recalls, “I’m on my hands and knees in the dirt bridle path and all I see are feet walking past me. Nobody stopped. I felt like I had done six ultra’s in a row.” After several agonizing moments on the ground he managed to collect himself and then headed back to the gym where he worked to meet with a client who happened to be a doctor. She took one look at him and said, “What’s wrong with you?” An EKG at the hospital confirmed her suspicion that he had suffered a heart attack.
That moment served as a wake-up call of Zitomer. Now 37 and a very successful Personal Trainer and the President of PhysicalFix.com, Zitomer is going to be participating in the upcoming Spartan Death Race. Alicia Keys, client and friend of Zitomer, Tweeted his participation in the Race shining a spotlight on Zitomer, who is accustomed to helping those around him shine. No doubt that light is a reflection of what he’s brought into their lives through his training, teaching, and outlook on life.
Hailing from Albany, New York, Zitomer and his wife Nicole now life in the small town of Leonia, New Jersey where they are raising their two kids five year old Talen and two and a half year old Riley.
Zitomer went to the University of Rhode Island on a decathlon scholarship and that’s what he focused on during college. He was also involved in the military during that time but an unexpected eye injury ultimately ended his quest for Special Forces placement in the armed services. While trail running as a college senior, he ducked out of the way of a branch only to run headlong into the next one, piercing straight through his right eye. He was able to keep the eye but he has limited vision on the that side. He looks back on that injury as being“one of the defining moments in my life – my main goal in life was to be special forces. I focused on that from the age of 12 and it was ripped from my grasp.” He says, “It was several years before I realized and appreciated what it came to mean for me, but it teaches you a lot about yourself.”
After his dream of being in the Special Forces was taken away, he took the opportunity to apply for work in the NFL as an intern. He landed a coveted job doing strength and conditioning coaching for the Eagles, a job he held for three years. “It taught me a lot about hard work and obviously that’s a platform. It looked good on a resume,” he said. After leaving that job his intention was to take a year off and focus on personal training and get his Masters. Zitomer quickly realized that he loved personal training and he had an affinity for it. He realized, “I wanted to help people become better people. Happier people.”
It was around this time he signed up for a race that would become yet another defining moment for him. Never a long distance runner, he signed up for what he thought was a 5K assuming that 50K was a typo. Arriving at the race he was informed of the distance and ill-equipped and under-prepared, he ultimately completed the run by “willing my body to go the distance.” He knew that the boundaries he had set for himself were no longer applicable. “That’s why I love doing ultra distances now,” he says. “You find out so much about yourself. Literally every single step is a test of something. Your first five steps are a test of your preparedness. Are you scared? What are you thinking? How long is this race going to be? If you wonder, you’ll end up in trouble. Will yourself NOT to focus on too much. You learn every step of the race.”
He finished the race – but suffered some significant stress fractures and had to take some time off to heal. Once better, he wanted to stay with ultras but he wanted to do it right. It escalated from there. He went rapidly from 50 milers to 100 milers and did his first Double Ironman event in 2001. “That was again a moment where you just realize so much about yourself. I did fairly well but got beat up in the process.” After scaling back some distance when his son was born he went after an even longer triathlon – the Triple Ironman, the place where he actually met Peak Race Director Andy Weinberg. That Triple Ironman was “The worst race I’ve ever had – worst time I’ve ever had. I ended up in the back of an ambulance for six hours. I finished. I was second to last finishing. But I still finished.”
For the Death Race he admits, “I am hoping to find that line where I don’t know which side of the line I am going to end up on. A lot of the races I have done in the past, in the first few hours you know if you are going to be successful. I could get ¾ of the way through and still not know.” The Death Race offers less assurance: “I enjoy straddling that line and not knowing. I imagine that every single step after a certain point will be arduous and unsure.”
Zitomer’s goals for the Death race are clear. “My goal is to be happy the entire time. You tend to forget when you are in the middle of suffering that in reality there is no other place you’d rather be. I hope to find myself smiling.” The ultra runner admits he’s comfortable being uncomfortable: “That’s part of it for me. I don’t care what he [Andy Weinberg] says or throws at me – I like suffering – if I can remind myself that.”
He also admits that to be successful he’ll have to acknowledge when to fight back and when not too. “It should be interesting. Do I turn it off or accept it? Take the next step?”
Zitomer adheres to high impact interval training as his main means of preparation. “I don’t put in the mileage because I believe so highly in intervals. Even training for the triple my maximum long run was 18 miles.” His methods prove successful. “When Alicia [Keys] and I talked about running a marathon she was worried she wouldn’t have time. I asked her, “Do you trust me? I will promise you that our longest run will be 13 or 14 miles.” And that’s what we did.” The pair ran the original marathon course in Greece.
Zitomer looks forward to challenging himself again and seeing what he’s capable of when the stakes are high and the pressure is extreme. “I know when the pain hits I can accept it. I feel really good about that. And It means I am going to give myself the best chance to finish. I’ll keep taking those next steps. I don’t know any other way.”