“Running is imperative to a life with energy,” says Nick Capra, co-owner of Running Free. “It takes energy to run but it gives a lot more back. You can do more when you run.”
It’s a philosophy that keeps Running Free tightly knit to the run-community-and-beyond in southern Ontario, and has grown the almost 40-year-old business into so much more than a business.
One need only look so far as Team Running Free, a collection of around 150 athletes assembled and supported by the run shop, with a concept that sets it apart from other sponsorship programs in the country. “We don’t care about podiums,” Nick says. “It’s a great accomplishment, and we’ll certainly celebrate that – but it’s not a requirement.”
What is required, is that athletes maintain an ambassadorship that promotes an active lifestyle in their communities. Team members accumulate points throughout the year that are tallied up to determine if they qualify for next year’s squad. Volunteering at races, leading clinics, and raising money for one of many associated charities are just some of the ways that athletes earn continued support for their individual goals. “We encourage them to be a mentor as much as possible to anyone that’s interested in running,” Nick explains. “Basically, trying to empower others to achieve what they’ve already achieved.”
One of the crown jewels in the Team Running Free calendar is the annual Start2Finish Running and Reading Club, an afterschool program helping underprivileged students realize the dream of graduation. “It’s amazing to see what they can accomplish and the confidence they build just running and training,” Nick says of the weekly sessions that combine physical activity and literacy lessons and games. “These kids get a 60% greater chance of attending post-secondary going through the program than not.”
Running Free has been behind the program since its inception 14 years ago, and hosts the 5K Running and Reading Challenge at York Lions Stadium: a year-end finale put on for 650 deserving kids, most of whom have never had the opportunity to travel beyond their own neighbourhood. “It’s a big deal,” says Nick. “So we try to put on a real show for them. We feed them well, and in the end, they all get a pair of shoes. We want to equip them to be successful.”
Because those of us lucky enough to occasionally walk around in a new pair of shoes know how they can put a spring in our step, Nick wants to share that spark with everyone. “We want to give the respect we feel our community deserves.” It’s the very heart of Running Free’s giving for over 20 years, centred around the Re-Use Shoe program that sees 8,000+ pairs of shoes diverted from landfills every year, and on to feet that truly need them.
“I’ve always been pretty ecologically-minded,” Nick says. “So I was thinking to myself: how can I be more responsible with the products I’m selling?” A chance meeting with someone working with the Toronto homeless community in 1997 quickly answered that. “They asked me for a pair of shoes. And I said yeah, I actually have several pairs in the back I could give you!”
What started as a project between Nick and some running buddies has since expanded to see collection bins in all three stores, at the University of Toronto and the Toronto Rehab Institute. While most of the shoes stay at home, including donations to the annual Homeless Connect event in Toronto, containers have been shipped off to nine other countries on three continents, including Haiti in particular, where Running Free has made a significant impact.
In 2008, Running Free teamed up with the Runner’s Den in Hamilton, once again eschewing competition for goodwill, to inaugurate the Courier de Soliderite in Cap Haitian, a 10K race to celebrate the Haitian people and raise funds to improve living standards there. While the realities of international aide have hampered recent efforts, Nick is planning a trip at the end of the year to make new contacts and carry on the charge of “Mission Haiti.”
Whether at home or abroad, Running Free embodies the spirit of a community run shop. “How we live is ultimately how we treat each other,” Nick says. “We’re all stakeholders and if we want our community to thrive, we have to be a part of that. We’ve done so well over the years and we couldn’t have done any of it without a strong community.”
What does your Run Shop mean to your community? Share how your shop has helped you reach your running goals, or why you keep going back again and again, to enter to win a complete shoe kit worth $500, including a pair of the brand-new Ride ISO 2! Enter on Instagram tagging @sauconycanada with the hashtag #MyRunShop for your chance to win!