JUST SHOW UP
Running coach and art therapist Jessie Zapo on the process of connecting self-care to community.
– KEYS SOULCARE
Jessie Zapo’s path has been anything but expected. While many in the elite running community know Zapo as a top-tier coach (currently working in partnership with Adidas runners), she is equally passionate about being a 15-year practicing art therapist and founder of the all-level female running collective Girls Run NYC.
Whether it’s advocating for arts access for everyone or running an ultra-marathon, it’s clear that Jessie’s sense of purpose is squarely on track. Here, we chat with her about finding — and keeping — her pace through it all.
What’s your earliest physical memory of running?
It’s really easy to pinpoint because it had such an impact on me. When I was in the sixth grade, we had an end-of-year field day. My teacher put me into a four-by-100-meter relay race, and I had never really run before. I just remember the feeling of complete freedom… just flying.
The other part of the story was that my dad pointed to me and said to my mom, “Wow, look at that girl go. She’s really fast.” And my mom was like, “That’s Jessie!” That story stuck with me.
What do you do as an art therapist?
For the last 15 years, I’ve been an art psychotherapist. Art therapy is the use of art-making within a therapeutic relationship. My approach focuses on giving my clients the tools to deepen their relationship with materials and themselves in the process. I work with young adults aged 15 to 24. And then I have a private practice where I mostly work with young women in their 20s and 30s.
You moved to New York to study psychology. How did you find your way back to running?
It was my therapy — as I was training to become a therapist, myself. I worked as a bartender to pay the bills while in school. I got into going out with this group of nightlife people that I’d see at clubs, but also at the park. These were a unique group of people who didn’t maybe look like “athletes” — but were making healthy choices, and doing it together.
As a twenty-something-year-old woman, I loved being out. But I was also trying to take care of myself and studying to be a therapist… so I had this dual life. Running helped me balance the two. I was hooked.
How do you balance art and running in your life, now?
Both take a lot of work and time! You don’t just “get it” overnight. They are each about chipping away — learning yourself, and learning your limits… and then working with that, and working through that.
In art therapy, we say, “There are three people in the room: the art therapist, the client, and then the artwork.” The artwork itself takes on what we’re carrying, but also takes on a life of its own. Deepening a practice in art-making means deepening a relationship with yourself and your own capabilities.
What lessons do art and running teaching you?
That we aren’t as limited as we think we are, physically. And that mastery is so empowering. When I’m first teaching someone to mix colors, it’s a whole new world. But over time, during that exploration, it becomes about process. The product is not the important thing.
Running is the same way. A marathon is a product. Time is a product. It’s the how that matters. The more proficient we become, the more expressive and deeper our work becomes.
Does this inform your work with Girls Run NYC, which is a super-diverse, mostly female-identifying group of runners?
Whether it’s just me organizing a group or working with a [commercial brand] collaborator, I’m purposeful about how I invite people into a space or an experience.
From how it’s being messaged to the artwork, it matters that people feel welcome. That often means they should be able to see themselves in your message and imagery. When people [I’m working with] clearly aren’t thinking about [that], it bothers me.
What’s your personal mantra right now?
“Just show up.” It’s the hardest part. If you can do that, whatever you do after that is going to be great.
What’s your highest vision for the work you do?
I really do believe that when people can heal themselves or be at their best, that’s when they can care about people. Giving people tools to do so has a ripple effect on society. When you’re working with a group, they’re taking care of themselves and connecting to one another — that ripples out to their families, their communities, and so on.
What’s the ripple effect you’d like to create for yourself and your community today? Share what’s keeping your spirit connected to others in the comments!