Jeff Tarbert (left) and John O’Neill (right) at The Colorado Running Company office. The pair has been working to put shoes on the feet of everyone, not just runners, and build community in Colorado Springs for 18 years.

Achilles Pikes Peak just turned four years old. That means we’ve offered roughly 208 free weekly workouts where people of all ages, abilities, and disabilities are invited to walk, run, or cycle. That also means that The Colorado Running Company has graciously played the role of host more times perhaps than your most generous friends and family members. From keeping their doors open late on Mondays, to allowing us to use their space for things like Yoga For All, guest speaker talks, and birthday celebrations, to providing expert recommendations on shoes and providing merchandise discounts for our members, it’s no exaggeration to say that Achilles Pikes Peak would not be where we are today without the kindness of the folks at The Colorado Running Company.

Because of this, we’ve decided to deviate slightly from the traditional Summit Spotlight format. Rather than highlighting an individual, this month we’re shining the light on The Colorado Running Company, a veteran-owned organization that has played a vital role in the growth and success of Achilles Pikes Peak. We sat down with owner, Jeff Tarbert, and manager, John O’Neill, to get the scoop on how their business came to be and what motivates their compassion and love for community. Enjoy the words from Jeff and John and be sure to help them celebrate the store’s 18th Anniversary this Saturday, June 9th from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm at their University Village location. 

 

The Start Of Something Good

John: “So, my background is that when I started road running out in California, there was a little store called “The Runners” in Pacific Grove. I was building spec homes at the time so I worked really hard building homes for nine months out of the year. My fun job for the other three months would be to go work in this little running store. There were eight shoes on the wall from three different vendors.”

Jeff: “Sounds like the start of our store!”

John. “Pretty much.”

“That was the start of my road running career. I moved to Texas to help take care of my mom and my dad who had kidney cancer. I started working in a running store there. I didn’t want to build houses anymore cause I still had all of my digits. Then we [he and is wife Cindy] vacationed out in Colorado and said, “What the hell are we doing in Texas?!”

“Cindy and I moved out here. I started working at Blitz Sporting Goods and left there to work at Eagle’s Nest which was a wannabe REI type of thing. Jeff was a customer there and we both kind of disliked what we were doing and disliked what was happening in the running community. We decided to change things.

Jeff: “That was 1999 but it seems like a century ago. I was a cross country runner in Idaho and ended up in the military. I ran in the military to keep my sanity. It was a good way to handle my “A type” personality, to keep me focused on staying healthy, and to work with some of the demons I carried from Vietnam. That type of thing.”

“I came down here for the cable TV company in the late 1970’s. I built it and ran it for 30 years and that was a very stressful job. Running helped me get through that. I went through a divorce and got custody of my kids. The first time I did the Pikes Peak Marathon, I trained on the stairs at Colorado College. I hardly had any time on the mountain but probably ran a couple thousand miles on those stairs because my kids were still young.” 

“I was looking for something else to do but was still involved with the cable system. I tried to purchase one of the other running stores but those negotiations fell through. Dr. Larry Cohen knew John and knew me and kind of hooked us up together. The rest is history.”

 

The List

Jeff: “We came up with a vision for The Colorado Running Company by holding focus groups in town. We made a list of 20 to 30 things that folks told us they had bad experiences with in running stores. We said we weren’t going to do any of that and that’s been our focus for the last 18 years. Just to try to give people in the community a better experience in a running specialty store. Knock on wood, it’s worked to this point.”

John: “My philosophy in life is to try not to screw up too bad!”

Jeff: “The community was very divided and somewhat is still divided. Some of the physical stuff we saw is people would walk into a running specialty store and not be able to identify who was working there. Nobody wore uniforms, no nametags. They all just looked like they got out of track practice or wore baggy shorts and flip flops. ‘Who’s working here?’ So one of the things we did was have our employees wear our gear. I don’t think you’ve ever walked in the store and not been able to identify who our employees are. Nametags, gear that we provide, we only wear the shoes that we sell. That type of thing just creates an atmosphere where the customers feel comfortable coming in.”

“Then, engaging with the customers. The running stores back in the day somewhat catered to the elite runners. I went to the bank to borrow the money to start the company and they said, ‘What’s your business plan?’ At that time I said, ‘There’s 500,000 people in El Paso County. That’s 1 million feet that need shoes.’ They said, ‘OK!’ That focus on the entire community being our base versus just a small segment has paid dividends. Probably 40% of our business is non-runners like some Achilles athletes. People that have had foot surgery, hip surgery, knee surgery, military, you know. That broad spectrum of inviting people into the store, rather than a small niche, has been a big focus.”

John: “As Jeff said, being very inclusive. One of the things that I tell every prospective employee is that if we have someone walk into the store who does not look like a runner and we have Steve Prefontaine who rises from the grave and walks in the store after her or him, you wave at Steve and you help that person that really needs our help.”

“When we started the store, one of the reasons that I wanted to work with Jeff and start the store is Cindy had gone to another store in town to register for the St. Patrick’s Day race. This is after she had already won the Pikes Peak Ascent twice. They just kind of laughed at her saying ‘Oh you’re coming down off the mountain to run a 5k? You’re going to get your ass handed to you.’  She’s the first local woman to win Pikes Peak Ascent in a long time and they treated her like shit. I said we would never set foot in that store again. She won the race by a minute because they pissed her off but you don’t treat anyone like that.  That’s one of the reasons we knew this would work.”

 

Cultivating Community

John: “We had the first social run in town. Our Wednesday night run has been going since, well since we opened around May 25th in 2000. That next Wednesday night we had a social run and it’s been going every since. Actually the guys who started the Jack Quinn’s social run used to run our run. They were like, ‘Hey let’s do something on Tuesday nights at Jack Quinn’s.’ They said, ‘We saw you guys did this and it worked, lets do a bigger one!’. We always thought quality over quantity, plus we didn’t want to give beer to that many people!”

“Don calls it Buds n Brews now but I used to call it Surf-n-Turf. We’d have beer and I’d go to King Soopers to get Goldfish and Animal Crackers so you’d have your surf and your turf.”

Jeff: “We used to have one bottle of wine and it was always in a bag so nobody knew what it was. We’d give 5 bucks to whoever could guess what the wine was. Those kinds of things, having fun. It’s always stressful to start a business but those kinds of things lead to a better community.”

John: “Buds n Brews meets on Wednesdays and gets between 15 and 50 people. We also have a Thursday 9:00 am Women’s Run (Sole Sisters Social Run-Ladies Only). You see a Facebook picture on that and two women are leading the group pushing strollers. One of my big goals is women’s fitness, particularly mom’s fitness. My mother died young and I thought, ‘If you just get out.’ The biggest gift that any kid can get from their mom is to be around. You don’t realize how important it is to your kids. Your kid may be President of the United States but you’re not going to see them. The women’s group is really, really important to the store.”

“That’s one of the reasons that I wanted to take over the Women’s Distance Festival for the three to four years that I did. I thought it would be really cool to put on an all women’s race and have a woman cross the finish line first. That’s why we have the shirts that say “I Love Fast Women.” All the men were volunteering, helping the women out. A trail race like that might be coming up real soon.”

Jeff: “We’re always looking for ideas. Our mantra over the last couple of years is to reinvent the store every three to four months. Keep it fresh, keep it looking nice. John and I do a lot of research to find out what other people are doing. Jumping ahead, we’re looking to add another location for a store up north.”

John: “Running has given us so much. It’s our lifestyle. It’s allowed me to make a living. It’s given Jeff a lot of headaches! We just want to continue to give back because its fun to be able to give back. There’s a need and we just want to continue to grow so that we can do more for the community. Achilles is such an inspiring group and we see that.”

Jeff: “As you can see, our spectrum is very broad. We enjoy the hell out of the Colorado community. We have people in the store that come out a couple times a year to buy shoes from us from Kansas. They specifically see us to buy shoes. We have people from Pueblo and the small mountain towns like Buena Vista and Gunnison. It’s fun to hear that we have a far reaching effect.”

John: “One of the cool things is people come into the store and we’ve been running for so long. They’ll say, ‘Well I have this foot problem.’ And I’ll say ‘Yep, see this scar on my right foot, that’s why I wear Birkenstocks.” My right foot was cut in half lengthwise and I still am able to run. I can really relate to your foot problems and how it hurts. Same with Jeff’s back. Luckily our knees are good! I’ve been running for 52 years and my knees are fine!”

 

Behind The Shelves

Jeff: “One of the other things that is really important in small business is inventory control. To be a successful business but still gearing your product to what the community needs. People used to call Hokas old people shoes but they’ve kept me on my feet since my back surgery. Having the right product mix is very important. Not overstocking so you’re taking away from the product that’s selling well and not just bringing in something that’s fashionable.”

John: “Between Jeff, Peter, and myself, we probably have over 140 years of running experience. Jeff is our newbie in the retail world and he’s only been in it for 18 years. I’ve been in the buying-shoes world since 1986. Peter was a sales rep for Adidas. We know the process. You won’t find as many trail shoes in many running stores around country, but we’re a trail community. Also roads, but we listen to what the community wants and we’re a road and trail community.”

“We have 144 different styles of shoes, that’s split between men and women but we have 144 different styles of shoes on the wall right now.”

Jeff: “We started with three!

 

Grow The Pie

John: “That’s community. Of course I want a bigger piece of the pie. But I’m fine with our section of the pie as long as we grow the pie. I think if everyone works together and builds the pie to be bigger, we all win. If we had to count on the 5,000 runners in Colorado Springs to keep us in business, we would’ve lasted two weeks. That’s why we focus on the whole community. The 500,000 sets of feet in town, not just the 5,000.”

“My favorite quote on a thunder and lightning night at Achilles…’Oh, you guys are going out to run?’ Somebody turned around and said ‘Well you know I’ve already died three times, lightning doesn’t scare me!’ I’m sitting around going ‘Well I’m not going out!’ The challenges that the Achilles people have had are unbelievable. They are really inspiring to us and we want to be able to give back more to the community. To do that, we have to grow.”