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Once A Running Shoe Salesman

A longtime runner reflects on the motivation and madness behind the endurance lifestyle, and how once you start living it, there’s no turning back.

Formerly the home of Hoy's Sports, 1632 Haight Street in San Francisco. Photo: T.J. Murphy

A longtime runner reflects on the motivation and madness behind the endurance lifestyle, and how once you start living it, there’s no turning back.

I am not an elite athlete; I never have been and never will be. Yet every day I obsess about running. I psych myself up for training. I think about freeing myself from injuries. I dream about races I want to do and study ways to rev up speed and stamina, a search I’ve conducted since the 1980s. It was then that I went mad for running and, recently while reminiscing over the days when I worked at a running shoe store, I wondered why, after so many years of obsession, I haven’t become completely sick of it all.

I’ve raced everything from 800 meters to the mile to marathons and Ironman triathlons, and spent years selling running shoes; after that, I spent years as an editor for endurance magazines. It’s 21 years and counting and I’m still possessed by a sport I stumbled into because I wanted to exact revenge on a childhood nemesis who (sort of, but not really) stole my girlfriend.

I was managing an espresso bar in San Francisco on Kearny Street when I first met Kelly. It was 1989. She had strawberry-blonde hair and green eyes and a great laugh, and she swirled into the bar at 1:30 every afternoon to buy a latte and to chat. It would have been lovely to conclude she dropped in daily because she had a crush on me, but our coffee was ridiculously good. So, rather than simply asking her out, I decided to throw a party, invite her to the party, and then—per my plan—during the party gain more information as to my chances of her saying yes to being asked out. And only then, if this information was of the encouraging variety, would momentum push me over the cliff of white terror and into the adrenalized state of action. To me it was an artful plan, and it turned out I would indeed gain more information. The results would also radically change the direction of my life.

Kelly happily accepted my invitation—an outstanding sign. On the Friday evening of the event, she was the first to show up. But minutes into getting her a drink and an exchange of small talk, she mentioned her boyfriend was on his way. “Is that okay?” she asked. My response was, “Well sure. Yeah. Wow.”

He arrived. Within a few minutes the situation darkened from bleak to disturbingly weird. Through an introduction I quickly learned that not only did the boyfriend and I hail from the same state, Iowa, but we also grew up in the same town, Cedar Rapids. We went to rival high schools, where we both played football. He played defense for Washington and I was a running back at Kennedy. How astronomical were the odds of this? While this was the first time we had been introduced, there was little doubt that on at least one occasion, we smashed into each other’s skulls.

Near San Francisco's Cole and Oak Streets, the starting point for the author's first marathon training run.

And here he was and I was handing him a beer.

Within the next five minutes of painful discussion, he mentioned he was racing the Donner Lake triathlon. Without thinking, I replied: “No kidding? So am I.” I had no such plan of course, and the next day I found an entry form and started training.

To cut to the chase of the story, I didn’t get the girl. But at the triathlon, I did beat the guy. And the final weirdness was that through this suspicious chain of events, I fell hard for the world of running and haven’t looked back.

After experiencing the decadent joy of winning a duel over a lost woman, I started eyeing a marathon. I lived on Cole Street in San Francisco, near the Panhandle, and less than three blocks away was Hoy’s Sports. Originally a general sporting goods store named after the owner’s father, Hoy’s had evolved into a specialty running retail store.

Like many runners, buying a new pair of running shoes is a symbolic act of commitment to a new goal. I went to Hoy’s and was sold a pair of Nike Skylons by the manager, Mike Fanelli, who in time I would learn was a running legend in the Bay Area, with strong credentials from the 10,000m to the ultra. He was also the enigmatic coach of the Impala Racing Team, a powerhouse all-women’s team that continues to thrive today.

Fanelli was fantastic at selling running shoes. There I was, just a guy wanting to see if I could finish a marathon, and Fanelli had me feeling like I was destined for an Olympic training center.

In fact, Fanelli not only sold me a pair of running shoes that day, but he also sold me on the idea of selling running shoes. About half a year later, after I had finished the Big Sur Marathon, I applied for a job at Hoy’s and got it. For the next four years I lived a dream life of the not-completely-untalented-runner: My entire existence revolved completely around distance running; I was as close to being a pro as I could have become.

I was mad for the marathon at the time, and throwing myself so deeply into the sport had its benefits. In my first marathon I ran 3:20. A year later I was in the low 2:50s. With one more year of training I recorded a 2:38. Thinking back I’m sure my time dropped so fast because I was rarely distracted from the task.

I lived in a room in the Victorian flat above Hoy’s, a bare existence, with a futon and a small television and a tattered copy of John L. Parker Jr.’s “Once a Runner,” the cult classic novel. I couldn’t afford a car and didn’t own a bike. I ate $3 monster burritos every day.

A running friend from England once dropped into town, and when I told him about how I lived and worked at a running shoe store making maybe $8 an hour, trained all the time and lived on rice, beef and beans, he looked at me with earnest jealousy and said: “You’re living the dream life.”

Only another running geek would have said something like that, and I agreed with him. I was embracing the secret every distance runner uncovers—that having a level of discipline and sacrifice is infinitely more enjoyable than suffocating in pure comfort.

Mike Fanelli, Jose Lizarraga, Jim Tracy, Mike McManus, John Murtagh, Frank Noto, Kevin Cruikshank, Mary Gleason—these were my fellow co-workers, running partners and friends. McManus, Lizarraga, Noto and I joined up on Sunday mornings for three-hour-plus runs that went across a fogged Golden Gate Bridge and into the sweeping landscape of the Marin Headlands.

We also shared in the surreal experience of selling running shoes in “the Haight,” the otherworldly neighborhood of Haight Street, the spiritual epicenter of the 1967 Summer of Love, the Grateful Dead, hippies, punks, red necks and drug addicts. While Fanelli was determined to shape Hoy’s into a high-performance running and track and field store, we “paid the rent,” as he used to put it, by selling truckloads of Converse hi- and low-tops. Literally truckloads. Whenever the Converse truck pulled up, those of us on the sales floor groaned with self-pity because the dozens of large cardboard boxes, containing hundreds, seemingly thousands of pairs of canvas shoes, all required organizing, stacking, moving and shelving and that didn’t set us up well for a 10-mile after-work run. More than twice I developed a case of sciatica from being on my hands and knees and dealing with Converse. German tourists would come in and buy a dozen boxes alone, and once every month or so a teenage Deadhead would dig into a satchel and out came the gold credit card bestowed upon him by a presumably wealthy parent, and he would buy Converse for all of his friends.

We sold shoes in the spiritual epicenter of the 1967 Summer of Love, the Grateful Dead, hippies, punks, red necks and drug addicts.

We had no shortage of fascinating running shoe customers. Once a year the angriest woman I ever met would come in to buy a new pair of javelin spikes. Forget trying to get a smile out of her—it was all about trying to keep her calm, as she appeared to want to drive a car over me if she got the chance. We who served her kept our distance and obeyed her requests, bringing out the various models of javelin shoes we had in her size. I’d lace them and hand them over. She’d slip them on, spike-less and on the carpet, and with teeth clenched, she’d start simulating a javelin throw in the store, ripping back and forth with explosive strides, perhaps imagining she was throwing the spear through my head. When she finally decided on a pair, she wrote a check. On the check was something about San Quentin—she was a prison guard I assumed. I didn’t ask to confirm.

Another incident with a javelin shoe occurred during one of the common lulls of a weekday morning. I was alone on the sales floor, sipping coffee, when in walked one of San Francisco’s MIAs, one of the many mad street people that frequented the Haight. He had long, wizard-like hair and eyes that spun like pinwheels. He stepped into the store with grave uncertainty, and the storm of color from the shoe wall seemed to suck him in. Then he zeroed in on the top shelf, near where I stood, on a blue Diadora javelin shoe. The shoe perched on one-inch long spikes that looked like fangs. He took three long, shaky steps, bloodshot eyes growing wider. He shot a look at me, sheer panic, and then went for the shoe, picking it off the shelf and turning it upside down as he moved in. With the metal spikes shooting upward he held the shoe close to my face and asked desperately, “What are these for?” My javelin answer must have satisfied him as he put the shoe back, turned around and lurched out to the street.

We had several characters from the distance running world who also kept us entertained. Two that stood out were a pair of 20-somethings famous for cheating in the local Dolphin-South End races. Like the javelin spike wizard, they had pinwheeling eyes and were accurately dubbed, “Team Cannabis.” DSE races have long been the ultimate grassroots race series, resembling low-key club runs, and back then cost a dollar or two to enter. Whatever glory one might obtain after cutting a course to try to beat a bunch of happy joggers, some in their 70s, was a big story for those of us at Hoy’s. In addition to being caught cheating, one of the members of Team Cannabis, Allen I think his name was, dropped out of a Golden Gate Park DSE race when the course veered seductively too close to a concession stand near Stow Lake. Rather than stay in the race and fight his way to a win—or cheat his way to a win—Allen stopped running and went and got a hot dog.

Once, when Allen was in the store buying a pair of shoes, I asked him what he did for a living and he told me he was in law school at the University of San Francisco. How the heck, I considered with alarm, did this guy get into law school? When I rang up the sale he told me not to forget the 10 percent discount his membership in a local running club provided him.

“So how much are the shoes again?” he asked me.

“They’re $100, Allen,” I said.

“So how much off with my 10 percent discount?”

I paused to answer because I thought maybe, just maybe, he was joking, but from the glazed look in his eyes I realized he wasn’t.

“That would be $10 off, Allen.”

“Oh!” he said with cheer.

At least Allen paid for the shoes. One day Jose Lizarraga was working alone at Hoy’s and dealing with several customers at once, ducking in and out of the stock area to fetch different models and sizes for customers to try. Hoy’s was not in a mall but on a street with a lot of foot traffic, tempting shoplifters. And on this day a teenage boy decided to make off with a pair of Nikes, sprinting west on Haight Street toward an entry to Golden Gate Park. While he might not have known exactly what mix of speed and stamina a 31-minute 10K runner possessed, he found out in about three blocks. Lizarraga, after doing a couple of toe touches in the doorway, got in a nice jolt of interval training, caught up with a panting kid and said, “Hand them over.”

Not that the good guys didn’t get in trouble as well. Kezar Stadium was located at the southeast corner of Golden Gate Park and at the time was locked up—the original stadium, built in 1922, was formerly the home of the San Francisco 49ers and was used in the Clint Eastwood film “Dirty Harry.” In my first year working at Hoy’s, the stadium had been demolished so they could rebuild it into the new Kezar Stadium, a much smaller-capacity venue with a rubberized track surface that is open for public use. For San Francisco track, triathlon and running clubs, it’s a home for year-round, weekly team interval workouts. When it was being built, we were an excited lot, but one of us, Sean Scott, a running shoe tech rep, got impatient and jumped the fence to go and check out the freshly laid track surface. After some wind sprints he ran upstairs to use a bathroom. While in the bathroom, he heard a rather unfortunate sound of a key turning the tumblers of the door bolt. He was locked in the stadium bathroom that had only a small window, not unlike a high-security prison cell. Scott had no alternative but to begin repeating cries for help until he was eventually discovered and saved.

The collision between a running shoe store and Haight Street was rarely boring.

A good running shoe sales guy knows not to overstep boundaries, particularly when a customer asks questions they should be asking someone who attended medical school. It was surprising to get questions like, “My knee is screaming. What is it?” or “Do you think I have a stress fracture?” or “My arches feel like they have knives stuck in them. Sell me a shoe that will fix me.” I would usually remind them what should have been apparent: A guy making eight bucks an hour is likely not qualified to answer such a question. I recall trying to learn from Fanelli how to look at a foot strike and gauge biomechanics, pronation, supination and such, but this is how I usually sold running shoes: I would insist the customer try out a variety of brands and models and wait for a love connection—a pair of shoes that brought them joy because of how they felt. Over the years I was aware that for one runner a Saucony felt sublime, but the next runner would only light up with a New Balance, a Mizuno or an Avia. People would form bonds with their favorite shoes, be it Asics or Nike or Brooks, and throw tantrums when the shoe companies altered or discontinued a model. One thing Hoy’s had was just about every shoe you could find, so it was rare when we didn’t find the magic pair for someone. But to be honest, despite having studied the shoes, I probably couldn’t have told you why you liked a certain shoe and hated another. What I was good at was bringing out lots and lots of shoes and essentially just wearing you down until lightning struck.

The best part of the job was working with people new to running and seeing their enthusiasm at the idea of entering a race. They reminded me of myself the first time Fanelli sold me shoes. It was almost a religious act—the day I first put them on I went on the first run of a six-month marathon plan. I started my run on the sidewalk that enters the Panhandle, near the intersection of Cole and Oak streets. The sidewalk curls westward toward the park, and I recall running a simple four miles, a half-hour run that re-launched my life.

In late March this year, I went to San Francisco and took a few moments to visit the spot from which I started my first training run in 1989. That was the day I went from thinking of myself as an occasional jogger to becoming a competitive runner. A chill went through my spine. I found it startling to look at the area of blacktop and consider how much time had gone by, and how I’m still mad for it all as much today as I was then. I walked up Cole Street to Haight Street, turned left and stopped in front of what used to be Hoy’s—it closed about five years ago and now it’s a snowboard shop. The sign said it was open, but a woman came to the door and told me they’d be closed for another hour. Through the window I could see where the shoes used to be—not to mention the weapon-like Diadora javelin shoes. Now, it was a rack of snowboards. To me it was a great loss, but I am glad to know that in the age of Web stores and Wal-Mart, true running shoe stores continue to flourish around the country, with shoe geeks like me living the dream life and creating new generations of endurance junkies.

This story first appeared in the May 2011 issue of Competitor magazine.