Toni Reese considers herself “the luckiest gal in the world” to have found her passion career as the store manager at Running Lab in Brighton, MI, six years ago. Prior to that she was working as a traveling corporate trainer and running on hotel treadmills, so when she got home from those travels she would gather every runner she could find to enjoy running with others. “It was surreal when the job opportunity at Running Lab came my way,” she recalls, adding that she has been driven to continue to create a culture for its local community to invite others to enjoy an active, positive lifestyle through the store. 

We are indeed all lucky to be in such a special industry, although it certainly has had its challenges for the past two years. How have you and Running Lab adapted?  

Personally and professionally you can’t live on autopilot. Being nimble is key. Running Lab made quick changes early in the pandemic that helped us grow the business.

What were some of those changes?
We were finding solutions early in the pandemic to ensure that we could continue to operate when it seemed that everything was shut down. We also knew that our people were hurting, races were getting cancelled, people were getting sick and our community was trying to understand the new anxiety that came with the stay-at-home orders.

How did you respond to that challenge?
We used our social platforms to reach out. Instead of meeting for our group run in person, we conducted virtual group runs where we welcomed Team Running Lab to Zoom together. Sometimes we would Zoom while we were cooking meals and chatting how we all were doing. It was important for Running Lab to check in with our people to make sure that we were all okay.

How about as we enter 2022? What are the unique challenges?
The greatest challenge of the pandemic, now, is retail’s competition with the convenience of the internet. Brick-and-mortar has to rise up against this challenge and shine with high standards of customer service.

How does Running Lab approach that?

What a customer cannot buy from the internet is a trained expert that truly cares for their needs. A customer can’t put honest running or training advice in their cart on Amazon and a customer’s dollar spent on the internet will never be valued and reinvested back in the local community like it will at your local run shop. 

Many other retailers would certainly agree with you. That said, what is your “typical” day like these days?

A day in the life of Toni at Running Lab consists of energizing the community through our expert staff, meeting with vendors and making big plans for our future. Working with our loyal customers is literally the best. I love gushing about the products we sell and how they would be a great match for our customer’s needs.  

What is your favorite part of your job? 

Cultivating a community of wellness, inspiring others to move and celebrating every step along the way has got to be my favorite part of my job.

How do you accomplish that?
It isn’t just Running Lab that makes that happen. It is our vendors, community partners and most importantly our amazing staff. Every day is different. Every day I get to listen to someone’s story and the future they want to have through their driven goals. The way I see it, I get to be a small part of them achieving their goals and being their absolute best. That is an insanely fulfilling feeling.

Changing gears a little bit, how do you view yourself at Running Lab: As a woman in the run specialty business or simply a professional in the run specialty business?  

I don’t see myself as a woman in run specialty. I see myself as a leading professional in run specialty. There is nothing “simple” about being a leader. 

Do you agree that run specialty is actually more equal in gender participation than many other businesses?

It is amazing to see the large number of women in the industry. The ratio has got to be greater than other industries. I believe much of this has to do with the sport we all admire — running. Many races, we line up at the same starting line and cross the same finish line. We mutually respect one another and the efforts we put out. I feel the run specialty industry has a similar collaboration as the mutual respect we have in the sport with all enjoy.  

What makes your local running community unique?  

Livingston County has the greatest public spaces in southeast Michigan — from technical trails to well-groomed paved paths. With all of the incredible places to run, we have a very dedicated community of runners, walkers and hikers. Running Lab is a haven for our dedicated fitness community to invite everyone to our twice-a-week group runs, creative events and running clinics. 

What do you think you bring to your business with a woman’s perspective as compared to your male colleagues?  

My personal perspective brings an energetic level of personalized attention and authenticity through every different interaction. I’d also say women, ”get the job done.” Give a woman clear direction and a job to get done and it will be finished promptly, accurately and the best quality.

Any examples of that?
On Saturday mornings, there is a group of runners that meet early to get their miles. The meet-up is open to all genders. But every Saturday at 6 a.m. it is women that show up to accomplish their training goals in the wee early morning hours. 

Do you think having a woman as store manager has helped reach more female customers?  

Of course, having female representation working at the store will make women feel comfortable and they will shop here more frequently. To have a successful shop we have to have a good balance in the staff that reflects our community. Whether it is age, race or gender, we want to make sure we are always representing our community. Everyone needs to feel valued and invested in the great work Running Lab is putting out in the community. 

So what advice would you give to other run specialty retailers about reaching out and merchandising to female runners?  

Listen! If you ask, women will tell you what they want.

That sounds simple. How have you accomplished that at Running Lab?

Many years ago we surveyed our customers — we asked them questions about how Running Lab made them feel, what they want us to do more and less of. We took that valuable feedback to heart and made some decisions that helped us model our business. Posting a bra event on Facebook is not going to get the job done. It is paying attention to the details, valuing the time of a women while listening to their needs and celebrating their accomplishments.

What advice would you give to any women considering following a similar career path in the run business?  

Follow your passion. Run specialty retail is an incredible place to build your career. I luckily found this out earlier in my professional career. You will never ever work a day in your life as long as you are surrounded by like-minded people that are driven to take a business so special and watch it evolve the lives of your community. Dang, I am pretty darn fortunate! 

Finally, what are you expecting for you and your store as 2022 takes shape and what is it going to take to achieve that?

Last year, Running Lab relocated to a larger location in downtown Brighton so I am looking forward to enjoying a full year in the new space and the impact we will make to our awesome community.

So 2022 is looking good?

Running Lab’s energy is turned up. This year will, without a doubt, be our best year yet.