Popular running store owner gets out of the business

Longtime owner of Falls Road Running Store sells the business

Blink and you may miss the Falls Road Running Store.

Many people drive right by the squat building, hidden, with no major signage, off the street it is named for.

Yet in the 15 years since it first opened, the store became an institution in Baltimore's running community — a hub where people not only buy shoes, but share race stories and bat around strategies for getting faster.

At its core was founder Jim Adams, often seen in the store strumming a banjo and holding court with those who loved running as much as he did.

But with age Adams' body started to wear down, and running became painful and tedious. Problems with a knee and his right big toe slowed the 59-year-old down. Earlier this spring, the man who many considered the patriarch of the Baltimore running community quietly got out of the business, selling the store to Pete Mulligan, a fellow running comrade who for years helped run and manage the store.

"I can't do what I love to do physically," said Adams, who ran 20 marathons before focusing on shorter races. "So here we are."

Adams was new to town and working in financial services when he decided to open the store in 2000. No other store devoted to running existed in the Baltimore area at the time. The closest thing, a Hess Shoes with an extensive running section at Towson Town Center, met its demise when the company declared bankruptcy the year before.

A popular triathlon coach worked out of offices on Falls Road near the county-city line. Adams saw a built-in customer base, so he moved next door.

"He was literally a little hole in the wall," said Bob Hilson, who leads the Pacemakers running group. "I have seen bathrooms that were bigger than his store."

The store was tiny — six feet wide and 12 feet long. The Brooks brand was the first shipment of shoes. Adams made his first sale to a guy named Fred whom he met at a send-off party for an athlete headed to the Olympics.

Business was slow at first. Convincing top brands like Nike to provide him with inventory didn't come easily. Word that he even existed was slow to get around.

But runners steadily found him — even if it meant driving by several times. They liked how Adams looked at their stride to see what shoe might work best. He might be able to explain why their knee hurt when running in a certain shoe.

"People come to specialty stores in part because of the brands," Adams said. "Mostly they want to talk to the people who share their passion for the activity."

As running gained popularity, Adams' business grew. The creation of the Baltimore Running Festival, which brought a marathon and half-marathon to the city, changed the game. Running became less competitive and more social, creating a new client base.

"People trained to keep the weight down and stay in shape," he said. "It wasn't important to be the fastest."

Running participation has ballooned since 1990, growing from about 4.8 million mostly male runners that year to more than 19 million in 2013 and more women participating than men, according to Running USA.

Over time, Adams became ubiquitous in the running community. If he wasn't racing himself, he was in the volunteer ranks, giving out water or directing runners on the route.

"He was this white-haired guy with eyeglasses that everyone knew," said Ryan McGrath, who leads Falls Road Racing, a running group that started out of the store. "Everyone had a Jim Adams story."

He created a running community as much as a business, other runners said. The store sponsored free training runs and races, such as the Dreaded Druid Hills, a 6.25 mile trek of Druid Hill Park's rolling hills in the heat of summer. The Celtic Solstice, held in the freezing cold around the Christmas holiday, attracts nearly 4,000 runners each year.

"It was clear that what he did was not for the biggest profits, but for the love of running," said Brian Flowers, a longtime runner who once sat on the board of the Baltimore Road Runners Club, a local running group.

Other competitors have opened up, such as Charm City Run, a chain of five stores, including one in McHenry Row in Baltimore. Josh Levinson, who founded Charm City with his wife, said Adams played a "huge" role in invigorating running in Baltimore.

"We are competitors," Levinson said, "but overall I think we have a lot of mutual respect for each other."

People are starting to notice that Adams isn't around and asking questions.

After closing the deal, he traveled to the Rocky Mountains in what he called a time for goofing off. Now he is trying out a new career in rehabbing homes. His first is in Hampden.

Mulligan said he plans to build off of the foundation that Adams put in place. He has replaced the carpet and painted the walls white to make the store more inviting. He may open another store one day, but mostly wants to bring more people to the sport.

"Everybody can run," said Mulligan, known as "Pacer Pete" for helping people keep their running pace during marathons. "Not everybody has to break the five-minute mile or qualify for Boston."

Adams has faith Mulligan was the right choice. He wouldn't have left without passing the torch to the best person, he said.

And Adams won't disappear completely. He will continue to organize the Celtic Solstice and do some light running around town.

After he completed the deal with Mulligan, Adams didn't go into the store for a couple of weeks — not sure if it would make him too emotional. But he quickly realized there is indeed life after the running store.

"I have moved past that," he said. "I am looking forward, not backward."

amcdaniels@baltsun.com

Twitter.com/ankwalker

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
73°