Chris Farley readily admits he didn’t know what he didn’t know.
When a 27-year-old Farley secured the help of his parents to purchase Pacers Running back in 2003, he had but four years of run specialty retail experience under his belt. His grand vision at the time? Transforming Pacers into a two-store operation. That, he confesses, seemed bold and daring enough.
“I thought I could maybe open a second store and be the ever-present guy bouncing back and forth between the two stores,” Farley says.
Pacers Running has flourished far beyond Farley’s two-store ambitions. Today, it boasts five retail locations (three in DC and two in northern Virginia), multiple road races, an omnichannel retail business and a lively podcast (“Pace the Nation”) that has elevated its notoriety and brand. Pacers Running is a widely respected independent running store and a regular on the Best Running Stores in America list.
“It’s just humbling to have grown from a single door into a regional running brand with our hands beyond brick-and-mortar,” Farley tells Running Insight.
As 2023 marks Farley’s 20th anniversary of Pacers Running’s ownership, the veteran running retailer thought it a fitting time to reflect on his journey into run specialty retail’s ranks. In February, Farley shared the story of how he and his family came to own Pacers Running on various social channels, including Instagram and LinkedIn. Throughout the year, he plans to post additional stories, anecdotes and photos around his 20-year run with Pacers Running.
“I want to give context to people who are fans of Pacers about who we are and where we have been as a local, family-owned business,” Farley says. “And if it inspires others who want to do something on their own to take that chance, well, that’s all the better.”
Laying the foundation
As the 20th century closed, Farley was working as a junior computer programmer for the Department of Justice, a stable, though ultimately an unfulfilling job for the recent college graduate.
On his way to lunch one afternoon, Farley passed a sign in the window at Pacers Running, a neighborhood running store in Old Town Alexandria opened by Steve Fryxell in 1991. The sign simply read: “Runners wanted for part-time work.”
Farley walked into the store, applied and a week later completed his first shift. Almost instantly, Farley found himself looking forward to his turns at the store. He later quit his government job to manage the store, a move that shocked his friends and disrupted the cadence of his twentysomething social life.
Not that Farley complained. At Pacers Running, he felt satisfied and he found purpose. In fact, Farley began entertaining thoughts about opening his own running store, often sharing his ambitious with his parents and close friends, including Fryxell.
“I knew this is what I wanted to do,” Farley says.
Entering the ownership ranks
By the end of 2002, Farley began discussing a potential franchising arrangement with Fryxell and the two even explored potential locations together. That is until the founder shifted gears and posed a different question to Farley in February 2003.
“What do you think about buying this store?” Fryxell asked.
While Farley had the interest, he did not have the funds. Admittedly naïve, he assumed he could use the store’s sales as collateral to secure a bank loan. Bank after bank quickly dismissed that idea, which led Farley to explore alternatives, including starting his own running shop for less money. Ultimately, though, he viewed Pacers’ strong following and brand recognition as his best path forward.
Fortunately, Farley’s parents, a pair of entrepreneurial souls themselves, agreed. Yet more, they held a steadfast belief in their son. They mortgaged their house to fund the purchase of Pacers Running.
On June 23, 2003, the Farley family became the official owners of the Pacers Running store at 1301 King St. in Alexandria.
20 years later at Pacers
Under Farley’s ownership, Pacers Running did open that second store – in Arlington, VA, in December 2004. But the run specialty retailer sprouted beyond that Arlington location with additional storefronts, races and outreach efforts. In the process, Pacers Running has gained legions of fans, which remains the most rewarding part of the journey for Farley.
“It all works because we believe in the power of running to positively impact lives. That’s why we do it and what gets us out of bed in the morning,” says Farley, who bought out his parents in 2013 and now counts long-time colleague Kathy Dalby as a partner.
And it’s been an unquestionably uplifting adventure for Farley, who is also a founding partner in Relay, an upstart, sustainability-minded company under the Pacers Running umbrella that refurbishes and resells running shoes.
“This has evolved into something way bigger than me and my family,” Farley says. “I look back on it and just feel fortunate to be a part of it.”