Best Feet Forward

Paul Carrozza of Austins Run-Tex is turning the state capital into the running capital of the United States.

June 1998By Comments

LAST FALL SEVERAL runners brought brand-new pairs of running shoes back to Paul Carrozza at Run-Tex and told him they couldn’t run in them. One man reported bolts of pain shooting up his shins and into his knees, as though he were running in high heels. After trying out the shoes himself (they were all the same model), still unsure what was wrong with them, Carrozza cut a pair in half and discovered that the foam support was, in his words, as “hard as a rock.” He called the company that had designed the shoes and explained what he had found. Because the shoes were samples and had not yet hit the market, the company was able to call its manufacturers in Asia, delay production, and correct the problem.

Who is Paul Carrozza and how is it that a single phone call from him could alter a huge corporation’s manufacturing operations halfway across the globe? And what was he doing with those shoes so far in advance of other stores? Paul and his wife, Shiela, own Run-Tex, one of the country’s premier running stores, which is located in Austin, not coincidentally one of the top running cities in the country. On a typical Saturday on the sales floor of their Riverside Drive store, the customers swarm in, many fresh from running on nearby Town Lake hike and bike trails; the sales staff of twenty can barely keep up, often making it necessary for Paul or Shiela (when she’s not at home with their daughter, Quinn) to help out. In the back there’s even more activity, as new shipments stream into the stockroom to supply the vast variety of shoes for which Run-Tex is known. In the office Carrozza fields phone calls, answering questions about shoe design and fit, throwing around terms like “pronation” and “medial” and “toe box.” His day is also filled with helping organize one of the sixty or so races he’s involved with, hosting a talk-radio show on KVET-AM Sunday mornings, or working through the stack of shoe evaluations that, as the footwear editor for Runner’s World since the spring of 1997, he is in charge of compiling for the magazine’s shoe-buyer’s guides. In addition Run-Tex is the official wear-test center for Runner’s World, which explains why he had those faulty shoes before they actually went on the market. And why a certain shoe company, whose new line stood to get a poor evaluation, acted so promptly on Carrozza’s report.

He also runs. Twice a day.

Carrozza, 35, is lean, short, and muscular, with strands of gray in his wavy brown hair that correspond to the calm steeliness of his eyes. The Denver native has none of the boisterous energy one might expect from a successful entrepreneur but instead moves with the easy efficiency of a long-distance runner. For the past fifteen years Carrozza’s lifework has been running. Both he and Shiela, a Californian, were All-Americans at Abilene Christian College, a school with a famed running program. They both later coached at St. Stephen’s Episcopal School in Austin, and Paul coached Shiela to a world championship in the 3,000 meters.

Paul bought Run-Tex in 1988 for “$14,000 worth of inventory, wholesale,” he says. The store, then located at Twelfth Street and Lamar Boulevard in Austin, was owned by a retired airline executive. “He was doing sixty thousand to seventy thousand dollars a year in sales, he carried only two lines, and he was getting ready to shut the store down,” remembers Carrozza, who saw a huge potential for a specialty running store in an already health-conscious community. He borrowed the money from his parents and, with vendor financing from various shoe companies, stocked the store with an additional $100,000 worth of inventory, a huge and varied selection he and Shiela hoped would translate into higher sales.

It worked. In 1989, their first full year as owners, the Carrozzas did $260,000 in business. The next year sales more than doubled, to $620,000. Encouraged by this rapid growth, the Carrozzas opened two new stores in 1990, one in North Austin and one thirty miles south of town in San Marcos. The new stores, however, didn’t live up to expectations and were soon closed. (They have since opened another North Austin location.)

A serendipitous natural disaster—the flooding of the store in December 1991—propelled Run-Tex to a new level. When a reporter asked Carrozza what he was going to do with all the damaged shoes and he quipped, “Sell ’em cheap,” he found his store on CNN Headline News, and the ensuing publicity helped Run-Tex sell 2,500 pairs of shoes in ten days, recovering $110,000 in losses. The Carrozzas moved the store across the street, where they envisioned setting up not just a shoe store like the old one, but a sort of headquarters for fostering the local running scene.

One thing the Carrozzas knew a lot about from their days of competitive running was putting on races. They had already sponsored the Congress Avenue Mile in 1990, the idea for which came to Paul as he stood on the steps of the state capitol looking down Congress Avenue. The race was an “instant hit,” he says, and the next year the couple put on the Run-Tex Half-Marathon. “What came out of that,” he remembers, “was that Motorola said, ‘Hey, we want to put on a marathon.’”

The first Motorola Marathon was staged in 1992, with Paul serving as the race director and Run-Tex providing the technical support—indispensable things like plotting the racecourse, setting up scaffolding and water stops, and arranging for street closures and official timing. The success of the marathon and Carrozza’s encouragement led other corporations to sponsor their own events, enlisting Run-Tex to help put them on. The number of annual races staged in and around Austin has grown in the past eight years from the lone, 21-year-old Capitol 10,000 to half a dozen major events, with fifty to sixty smaller races every year. Among the corporations currently sponsoring races are Austin-based deli chain Schlotzsky’s (the Bun Run), computer company Applied Materials (the Human Race), and multinational giant 3M (the half marathon).

To get an idea of how this translates into an actual increase in the amount of people running in Austin, consider that, in 1992, there were 300 entrants in the inaugural Motorola Marathon; in 1998 there were more than 6,000, including both the full marathon and the two-person and five-person relays. “It has been one of the fastest-growing marathons in the country,” says David Doolittle, the chairman of the race committee at Motorola. The Capitol 10,000 also keeps chugging along—it had more than 15,000 entries this year. “Austin and Boulder, Colorado, probably have the most runners per capita in the U.S.,” says Bob Wischnia of Runner’s World. “Austin is just a fantastic running town—they’ve got some really great races.”

Not satisfied with merely organizing races, Carrozza has also devoted himself to training people to run in them: “The training side—we really started getting involved about three years ago, what we call Run-Tex University, which is teaching people how to run.” This may sound presumptuous; part of running’s allure is that it seems so straightforward. Not so, says Carrozza. “People go from not running to wanting to run every day, but they’re applying too much stress, the body can’t adapt quickly enough, and it turns into an injury.” According to Carrozza, runners spend up to a third of their potential training time either injured or recovering from an injury. Sitting in his office, he explains pronation—normal foot movement—and the way the muscles work while running. Soon he takes out a plastic model of a foot and slaps it up and down on his desk to demonstrate a typical foot-strike motion. He talks about how he’d “like to see people be able to run a decent mile first” before going on to more ambitious distances—“and that might take a year. I’m talking about being able to run a mile, not in pain, but at a fast pace.”

This systematic approach seems to be the trend in running, as the focus has shifted from long, slow distance runs to interval training—running various distances to build up speed and endurance. Jeff Galloway, a 1972 Olympian and the author of popular books on distance training, says that although running fanatics of the seventies might have competed in 18 races a year, today that average is 1.8. USA Track and Field reports that today’s race runners are likely to be about four years older than those of a decade ago and that four times as many women run marathon races now as in 1980. There are more runners than ever before: 6.2 million people finished a race in 1996, according to USA Track and Field, more than four times the number in the late seventies and early eighties.

“People are getting away from just logging miles and more into quality workouts,” says Scott Hippensteel, who coaches track at Lockhart High School south of Austin and says he works at Run-Tex instead of teaching summer school.

That kind of thinking has led Carrozza to offer free Run-Tex classes, which meet every Monday through Thursday at five forty-five in the evening at the Riverside Drive store. Carrozza puts his students—both beginning and intermediate runners—through a variety of strength and speed exercises, including backward running, lateral crossovers, intermittent sprinting, and hill repeats. Also offered at the store are sports massages from the Body Therapy Center, which occupies a room upstairs at Run-Tex on workout days, and a free injury-evaluation clinic every Friday, run by an orthopedic surgeon and a physical therapist.

Classes, massages, clinics…it’s not that Carrozza isn’t interested in selling shoes, although he has admitted, “To me, retail is a necessary evil of our business.” Like everything else he does, his approach to selling shoes is straightforward and practical, with an eye on long-term business instead of short-term sales. Carrozza aims to increase the national average—one new pair of shoes bought every two years—not with fancy sales gimmicks, but as part of his simple philosophy of trying to get folks to run more, period: “If you’re only going to buy a shoe every two years, it better be the right one. Productwise, it’s really important to us to get people in the right shoes.” If a person finds the right pair in today’s high-tech shoe market, he can expect to get five hundred or maybe a thousand miles out of them. But in the wrong pair, Carrozza says with a laugh, “You might get fifty miles.”

To understand what’s unique about this philosophy, you have to visit the Run-Tex sales floor. I went to the Riverside Drive store—the Lamar Run-Tex was moved here in October 1996—one Saturday this spring. The old store typically generated an impressive $1,000 to $1,500 per hour in Saturday sales; the new one often reaches $1,875 to $2,000 per hour. The first thing you notice upon entering the spacious sales area is the enormous, almost altarlike two-sided display case of shoes in the center of the store. “I basically buy eight choices for every customer, which requires us to carry a huge inventory,” says Carrozza. (Run-Tex also sells a lot of running apparel; Shiela is the chief clothing buyer.) Indeed, as vast as the front of the store is, two thirds of its 12,000 square feet is devoted to stock space.

Carrozza expects his staff to be familiar not only with the latest brands but also with the types of runners’ feet and the ways people run. Most of his employees are marathoners or college-level runners themselves, and beyond merely pinching your toe to see if the shoes fit, they’re likely to take you outside to the custom-built track circling the store to watch you run in them. This is what Carrozza hopes will bring customers back. “We don’t have to sell the most expensive shoes to make money,” says Robert Espinoza, who has worked at Run-Tex for five years. “We have to sell the right shoes. Knowledge is the number one thing. Also, we take time with the customers.”

This holistic approach to business—teaching people how to run, organizing races, and selling shoes—has paid off nicely. Run-Tex’s sales surpassed the $2 million mark in 1995 and leapt to $2.9 million in 1996 and $3.5 million in 1997. All while Carrozza has become something of a running sage. “He’s so knowledgeable about footwear,” says Fritz Taylor of Nike. “I think a lot of people at Nike feel we can learn from him.” Carrozza sees the evaluations in Runner’s World as an opportunity to spread the Run-Tex gospel even further: “It’s like offering the Run-Tex service nationwide,” he says.

“I think what we’ve done,” says Espinoza, “is take a store that was for hard-core runners and still is for hard-core runners and make it a store for regular runners too—the people who run twenty miles a week, walkers, fitness buffs. That’s the greatest thing that Paul has done. He includes everyone, helps everyone, and most stores don’t do that.”

David Cook is a freelance writer living in San Francisco.

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