A leading advocate for Charlottesville as an active and healthy city for over three decades, Cynthia is an entrepreneur whose passion for running has informed her business and become a conduit for supporting her community. Cynthia was the first female to compete in a number of road races, and she has used running to give back, most notably for the Women’s Four-Miler which has raised over $3M for UVA’s Breast Care Program at the Cancer Center.
Thirty four years ago, Cynthia cofounded Ragged Mountain Running Shop with her husband, Mark, on the UVA Corner. Throughout the trend of internet shopping and big box stores, Ragged Mountain Running Shop has remained a Charlottesville institution, continuing to grow in both size and popularity. It’s easy to understand why. Once inside the store, fashioned as a clubhouse with photos of races and local running champions, greeted by friendly and helpful associates, it’s hard to go anywhere else.
Cynthia began her running career in high school (where she was undefeated) when it was almost entirely a male sport. Women were neither timed or awarded. To stay hidden from public view, she trained mostly in the woods. In 1981 and 82, she was the first woman to cross the finish line at the Marine Corps Marathon. Having paved the way for female runners, Cynthia now encourages women and girls to run. Along with her family and the Ragged Mountain’s staff, she has helped keep the Charlottesville community active and inspired.
I met my husband, Mark, when I was in college at Michigan State. We were on an eight day field program for parks and recreation. He was already living and working in Charlottesville. A year after we met, we were married and I moved to Virginia.
Mark and I both ran competitively and we knew there were serious (fast) runners in Charlottesville. While there were a few shoe stores in town, there wasn’t a speciality running store–a place for runners to get advice and support and get the right fit for their needs. I had worked part-time at Olympic Gold Medalist Frank Shorter’s running store during college so I had an understanding of the business and I knew there was a void to fill here in town. I remember thinking, “What the heck do we have to lose?” We lived in a little cottage and drove old cars. All we really needed was food and car insurance. I won some money running races and Mark had a full-time job. And we were very cautious. In 1982, we opened Ragged Mountain Running Shop in a 500-square foot space on Elliewood with only four brands of sneakers. From the very beginning, we set out to create a space to support runners and encourage a healthy lifestyle for the community.
Around the same time, the marathon was announced as an Olympic event for women. It was an opportunity for me to realize a goal and train with a purpose. Mark was not only my husband and co-founder, but also my coach. Back then I ran twice a day and seven days a week. I would run 4-5 miles in the morning, work at the store from 10-6 and when we closed I would go out and train again. I ran the Marine Corps Marathon (and won) two consecutive years and set my personal best record (2:38). In 1984, I finished 42nd in the first ever U.S. Women’s Olympic Trials.
We just did it. Mark’s dad helped us out a lot; he’s a cost engineer, a very smart man. He pushed us, he thought we should do it. And I had another friend in town who helped us out financially, we borrowed some money from the bank and Mark’s dad lent us some money. It was a very small store, and we thought “Ok, we’ll just see how this goes.”
Our employees are our family–quite literally. All of our kids work in the store. We have a staff of 60 part-time employees. All of them understand that Ragged Mountain is more than just a shoe store. We firmly instill the value of customer service and expertise. They know how we feel about manners and treating everyone with kindness and respect–including everyone from the delivery men to each other. The high school and college students that work with us spend months shadowing and apprenticing before going on the sales floor and I do not believe in “upselling.” We go to conferences and folks are always telling us to run deals on socks. No way. That’s not for us. We’re here to make sure our customers are in the right shoe. We have a serious responsibility. I know first hand how devastating it is to get injured. I also know how afraid our young employees are of making mistakes. It’s okay to make mistakes. Everyone does. It’s about learning from your mistakes and moving on.
The first five years was a little scary, but we persisted. We didn’t let the fear control our lives. One of the things running taught me is to take risks, and I just think that you have to try things in life. We knew we could sell some shoes, we just didn’t know how many shoes we could sell. Sometimes, you just have to go for it.
Our parents, and the way they raised us, really gave us that determination. We are very hard-working people; we never rested on our laurels. And now, we are fighting the whole Internet thing. But the experience of being in our “clubhouse”, seeing your picture on the wall, connecting with fellow runners and getting race information has kept people coming back.
I never think about success. I never thought about it as a competitive runner. Running chose me. I just had to keep doing it. I didn’t think about winning or competing. I liked to run and train with people that were faster than me. That’s how I became faster. The same goes with the business. There weren’t success metrics we were setting out to accomplish. We want to ensure that the people in our community stay healthy. We not only outfit our customers with the right shoe for their specific needs, but we support, encourage and train them to optimize a fit and active lifestyle. We are very proud of the store. It’s been a lot of work, but it’s also been very rewarding. Mark and I love when Ragged Mountain is referred to as an institution. That is so cool.
When I was 16, my high school coach encouraged me to run in the Manchester Road Race in Connecticut. It was totally clear that they didn’t want women running. They let us enter but didn’t give us race numbers or prizes. I won. But it really wasn’t a big deal. The second time I ran and won, the first place (male) winner, made a pretty big deal of it. At the award ceremony, he got up and scolded the organization for the lack of recognition for women runners and gave me his prize–a black and white TV. I never went back to run it again until 40 years later when they called me and asked me to be the honorary race chair. There was a big ceremony. It’s funny, because at the time, I was just a teenager and appeasing my coach. It wasn’t an “event” to remember, just a race to run. When I ran it, 40 of the 700 runners were women, now close to half of the 12,000 runners are women! I had no idea it was going to become a defining moment.
The driving factor in starting the store was to promote health and wellness. That remains today. I think of running as a lifestyle. You can be active every single day. To me, exercise is like brushing your teeth. It’s crazy to think, but I’ve been running for 44 years. And at 58, I’m still running 30 miles a week. With the store, we’ve had the ability to organize road races. Events give people a goal–something to train for. And it’s a win-win–not only do we get people active and energized, but we’re able to give back to the community.
A year after we opened Ragged Mountain, we started the women’s race. We were wondering why there were no races in town where the roads were closed to traffic, and you could run out in the streets. Mark went to the Board of Supervisors and got permission to hold that first women’s race at Foxfield. That really started everything. From there, we began putting on more and more races.
The races to me, especially when encouraging women, are an opportunity to say, “I can do this.” It gets you up off the couch (even if you’re scared). But you can just start with walking and eventually get to your goal. Supporting women has always been an underlying thing. I never had to fight the fight. I have a great husband; I was out in the limelight and he was behind the scenes helping to make it happen.
The biggest positive impact we’ve seen from Ragged Mountain Running Shop is the amount we’ve been able to raise for important causes in the community. I’m particularly proud of the Women’s Four Miler. We’ve raised $3 million dollars for UVA’s Breast Cancer Program. One hundred percent of the proceeds goes directly across the street! And as a direct result from the race, the Cancer Center has been able to purchase a mobile mammography unit that travels throughout Virginia. It offers 3D digital mammography and increased access to early detection screenings for rural and underserved communities in Southwest Virginia. The Center provides exceptional support and services to women. This is an incredibly special and important event and it brings together the community. I couldn’t be more proud.
The thing I love most about Charlottesville is that it’s a great place where you can make a difference. People really appreciate the customer service we provide, and the fact that we give so much back to the community. Running changed my life, and we are just trying to give back to our sport. I can’t imagine living anywhere else. We have been surrounded by supportive and loyal customers. We love what we do and are afforded the luxury of doing what we love. Our children have stayed close and continue to work in what has become our family business. Even our one-year old grandson is part of it! In a college town with the most interesting and giving people, it would be impossible to move anywhere else.