Ahead of Nashville's marathon, get to know who fuels the city's running culture (2024)

Raya Mufti doesn’t really think of herself as a runner.

Sure, she’s completed two half marathons and she’s training for a full marathon. But a serious runner? Nope.

"I never personally was able to identify as a runner," Mufti said. "I thought running had to look a certain way. I was never told I was good enough."

That’s why she started her own running group in Nashville and called it “We’re Not Really Runners.” She wanted a non-judgmental gathering place for all paces including sprinters, joggers, walkers and everything in-between. She quickly found she wasn’t alone.

Now, WNRR (pronounced like winner) hosts dozens of runners and walkers of all paces at weekly events in various Nashville neighborhoods. It joins a robust and growing roster of run clubs in the city, including some that have been around for more than a decade.

Early on April 27, Mufti and thousands of other participants in shorts and caps will converge at the Lower Broadway start line of the Rock 'N' Roll Nashville marathon.

Over the course of several hours, many of them will run a full 26.2 miles, winding through downtown, 12 South, Capitol View, East Nashville and Shelby Park. Or, if they’re only “half crazy,” they’ll complete the half marathon distance – 13.1 miles. Either way, the runners have been training for months, many of them supported along the way by Nashville’s local running stores and groups.

Ahead of Nashville's marathon, get to know who fuels the city's running culture (1)

Running industry is booming

Today, Nashville is home to half a dozen run clubs in neighborhoods like The Nations, 12 South and Donelson. Nolensville Running Club has been hosting runs for almost 15 years.

Since the pandemic, which forced people out of gyms and into nature to get exercise, running has made a comeback. For many, running and walking became a new habit that stuck. The global running apparel industry is growing to an estimated $16 billion by 2028, and North America is the world’s biggest market.

Independent stores serving Nashville runners include Team Nashville on West End Avenue, The Nashville Running Company in East Nashville and newcomer The Exchange Running Collective.

One local running store owner found her way to the business in an unexpected way. More than 15 years later, she's still pinching herself.

The winding track to business ownership

Christi Beth Adams never thought she would own a business.

She ran cross country and track at Belmont University and was studying to become a teacher like her mother before her. But business and marketing classes started to pique her interest.

She took a job as store manager of Fleet Feet in Brentwood after graduating college. She didn’t quite know what she wanted to do with her life. But, when the store’s owner told he he wanted to sell the business, a lightbulb went off.

“I was 26 years old. Own a running store?” she said. “What a dream that would be. But I didn’t have the money.”

“There’s no way I can do this,” she remembers thinking.

Fleet Feet’s answer: “We think you can.” Fleet Feet created an employee-to-ownership pipeline and gave her a chance.

Adams acted as store owner for a three-year trial period, built equity in the business and eventually decided to take out a small business loan to purchase the store. She opened another Fleet Feet store in Green Hills a couple years later, and one in Hendersonville after that. Fifteen years after buying that first store, Adams has expanded the Fleet Feet Nashville footprint to six stores in Middle Tennessee.

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Lee Wilson's path to running-store owner involved a dramatic career change.

Wilson left his career in corporate sales and took a leap of faith toward his dream of creating a community around his passion for running.

A dozen years later, he's built a major touchstone for the city's fast-growing running community at Nashville Running Company in East Nashville.

The store hosts several community trail races throughout the city and regularly collaborates with the East Nasty Running Club, which has been hosting weekly group runs for nearly 20 years.

Wilson said it’s common for a strong sense of belonging to surround local running stores like his. Runners come to the store to get connected with resources, running buddies, coaches and races, and they often walk away with information that empowers them to complete their goals.

"It’s been nice to see the growth in East Nashville and still be around 12 years later," Wilson said. "Being active in the community and trying to get out there as much as we can. Partnering with the right groups. It’s been exciting."

How the pandemic gave the running industry a boost

Cory Howell needed to get moving.

At 51 years old, his heart wasn't quite as healthy as it could be. He remembers his doctor's words: "It's not terrible. But it's not great."

He joined a gym and started walking around the indoor track. But in 2020, pandemic quarantines shut everything down. Everyone was forced outdoors if they wanted to exercise. Howell tried running. He hasn't looked back.

His doctor said his heart is stronger and his cholesterol levels are healthier after adding regular distance running to his routine. He is running the half marathon distance during the Rock 'N' Roll event in Nashville, like he has for the past couple years.

Training with a Fleet Feet running group has given him a newfound confidence in himself.

"I had no idea what I was capable of," he said.

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He's not the only one. Stores like Fleet Feet and The Nashville Running Company got a boost in business after the pandemic because people were looking for running shoes and apparel.

Wilson said the increase in business has continued even after pandemic precautions have relaxed over the years. Adams said the same about the growth in her Fleet Feet stores.

It seems many people have reevaluated their priorities after the pandemic, the business owners said.

Increasing diversity in the running community

As running grows in popularity, businesses and social groups in Nashville have focused more on increasing diversity and representation in the sport.

It's a big part of the mission at The Exchange Running Collective, a new running store in East Nashville.

The Exchange founders Lauren and James Osborne designed the store to welcome shoppers to hang out, explore the products and chat with staff, which has fostered a close-knit sub-community of runners who frequent the store. They also carry smaller, niche running brands that are more difficult to find at other stores.

Lauren Osborne said diversity and inclusion are baked into the store's mission.

"We see ourselves as a progressive business with a mission to increase diversity in the running community," she said. "We want all people to genuinely want to buy cool gear and have fun running."

Mufti of We're Not Really Runners said one of the founding principles of the run club is about creating a welcoming and inclusive space in the running community. That means all paces and people are welcome and no runner gets left behind.

"I didn't see myself represented in the running world," she said. "I don't look like the LuluLemon ambassador on my Instagram feed."

That idea has caught on. Runners in Dallas, New York, Washington, D.C. and Charleston have started chapters of WNRR based off the model Mufti created.

The irony of the group's name is not lost on Mufti. By reclaiming and widening the slim definition of what makes a "runner," she has effectively created a group of supportive, welcoming athletes who view running as more approachable and open to everyone — no matter what they look like. They feel more comfortable calling themselves runners because they've taken the pressure off the label.

After all, the vast majority of race participants lining up on April 27 won't be running seven-minute miles. They'll walk portions, take bathroom breaks and pause to take a drink of water. But they'll be runners all the same.

Tips for runners on race day

Christi Beth Adams won't be running in any races on April 27. But she has plenty of tips for those who are.

Ahead of Nashville's marathon, get to know who fuels the city's running culture (4)

"I'm not gonna lie – the Nashville race isn't a fast, flat one!" she said. "While some folks will still be shooting for a goal time or personal best, I tell most folks to soak in the experience! Smile for the cameras, give high fives to spectators and be thankful for each step you take toward the finish line."

  • Nothing new on race day – nutrition, clothes, etc. You spot a cute new sports bra at Fleet Feet Friday night? Cool! Just don't wear it Saturday morning.

  • Don't go out too fast. The start line is so full of excitement, it's easy to get carried away so watch yourself in those early miles or you'll pay for it later.

  • Body Glide. Don't know what I'm talking about? You should.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Ahead of Nashville marathon, here's who's fueling a local running boom

Ahead of Nashville's marathon, get to know who fuels the city's running culture (2024)


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