“Waterloo has a vibrant running community, and Geoff is a pillar,” says Lloyd Schmidt, Race Director of Run Waterloo. “He empowers us to start and continue running, to train, to explore, and most importantly, to enjoy the sport. Connecting people with the knowledge, gear, coaches, clinics and groups… is an essential service in every community, and Runners’ Choice is that in Waterloo Region.”

Runners’ Choice has a long history of serving runners at its Waterloo, Ontario location. Started in 1992 by Alan Brookes, who left the retail business five years later to become race director of the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon, Runners’ Choice then became the “baby” of Geoff Todd, who has nurtured it as a community hub for runners ever since.

One of the store’s biggest contributions to that community has been through its partnership with Run Waterloo. Runners’ Choice’s sponsorship of a number of races across the region not only increase participation in running, but have also raised well over $1 million for local charities.

The biggest and oldest of these is the Waterloo 10KM Classic, held every year on Father’s Day since 1978, long before the store even existed. The race typically attracts around 1,000 people, and has raised close to $1 million for various causes. This year’s beneficiary is the Women’s Sport Initiative Fund at the University of Waterloo, which gives female coaches access to professional development opportunities such as clinics with sports psychologists and national coaches.

The store has learned how to nurture a clientele that has matured along with it, while simultaneously cultivating a fresh image, thanks to its youthful staff recruited from the area’s many community colleges and universities.

“Luckily for us, runners’ shoes are their key piece of equipment, so they want to stop in, try them on, and get advice”

“We’re lucky in that we’re in a university town, so we have a lot of younger people,” says Todd. The main change he has seen over the years is, of course, the growth of online shopping and big-box stores, which have hurt many smaller retailers. “Luckily for us, runners’ shoes are their key piece of equipment, so they want to stop in, try them on, and get advice,” which they can’t do when shopping online.

Todd’s staff, all cross-country and track athletes, have helped shepherd the store into the digital age, sharing news of local runs and runners on social media, and helping drive new people into the sport. He says the popularity of obstacle course racing among young people cut into the store’s road events a few years ago, but the numbers are rebounding. “A lot of kids were doing Tough Mudders and so on, but as they get more into regular jobs they realize that time is limited,” he comments. “So being able to get out for a run is time-efficient. You can get out and get a good run in and keep your fitness up without tying up too much time.”

“It’s cool to see the friendships that are built up among people who have never met, then they run together and become friends”

The store’s run groups are especially skilled at making sure new runners, who are often nervous the first time they come out, have a great time and want to come back–especially the groups that start in winter. Participants can progress from the Let’s Start Running group (which prepares new runners for their first 5K race) into the Fun Run group, which is a twice-weekly social run of five to eight kilometres. Both groups are free. “It’s cool to see the friendships that are built up among people who have never met, then they run together and become friends,” says Todd, who credits the groups’ longtime leader, Dave Bedrosian, with creating such an inclusive atmosphere.

There is also a Wednesday night tempo run, year-round, for those who want to add a group run to their training, plus a marathon and half-marathon group, and a 10K clinic focused on training for the Waterloo Classic 10K.

Michele Craddock, who has led the marathon/half-marathon group for 10 years, ran her first marathon in 2001 in Ottawa, and her 36th at Big Sur, California last month, directly after her 10th Boston Marathon (and before that, Hamilton’s Around the Bay). “We thought it was a good idea at the time,” she laughs.

Craddock claims she never had a single injury in 30 years of running, until this year’s Boston buildup, when she was bothered by a tight hamstring. She was only able to do about half the training she would normally do, but her group (there were 19 of them in all) pulled her through, with her infectious sense of humour intact. She even ran a Boston-qualifying time, despite her reduced training and the unexpected heat and humidity on the course this year.

“We have a really good solid base of runners in our group that have been around for a long time,” says Craddock. “We’re very welcoming. I really make a big effort to welcome the new people who come to the group, and to the store. Everyone is so supportive of each other… we go out for coffee after, and people are talking about doing New York, and Tokyo, and we keep coming up with all these great ideas. It’s great to be able to run and travel together.”