When Forerunners founders Peter and Karen Butler organized their first running clinic in November of 1986, about 25 people – and only one female – attended.
Today, clinic sessions routinely attract up to 125 enthusiastic participants, across a wide range of abilities. Some 80 per cent of these runners are women.
That’s just one aspect of how the sport of running has evolved since the Butlers opened Forerunners on West 4th Avenue in Vancouver 30 years ago.
“People have also become a lot smarter about training and technique, and the retail aspect has evolved to the point where if you sell sports equipment, you have to really know what you are talking about or you will not last very long,” Peter says.
“However, there are still misconceptions about running, and therefore demand for our services is as strong as ever.”
To many health-obsessed Vancouverites, it may seem that Forerunners and its concept of professionals selling knowledge as well as product has always been a part of the city’s retail scene; but in 1986 when the Butlers first opened their doors, they were taking a sizeable business risk.
Even though runners were just as evident on the Seawall and other Vancouver venues then as now, retail stores were pretty generic, and if you weren’t wearing one particular brand, you simply weren’t a serious athlete.
Peter recalls,” Specialty was in its infancy, but a colleague of mine (John Forzani) opened a series of specialty stores in Alberta with considerable success – which made me think that a specialized store in Vancouver devoted to running could flourish.”
Peter Butler couldn’t have been better qualified to spearhead the venture: he had discovered running as an active 14-year old living in New Canaan, Connecticut. Having tried out for Cross Country between hockey seasons and after becoming the first freshman to win the Fairfield County Junior Varsity title, he retired from hockey and made running his overriding passion.
Peter finished 7th in the 1977 IAAF World Junior Cross Country Championship in West Germany. A month later set a Canadian Junior 10,000 meters record of 29:10 that stood until 2010.
Peter Butler was a member of the 1980 Canadian Olympic Team, and in 1985 he won the California International Marathon, setting a course record of 2:10:56 – the second-fastest time ever clocked by a Canadian.
Not surprisingly, the idea of Forerunners took root while Peter worked as an accountant in Calgary, crunching numbers during office hours and escaping at lunch to train for the 1986 Commonwealth Games. “With everything I had achieved and learned about running, I knew I couldn’t spend the rest of my life behind a desk – so we took the plunge,” he recalls.
Karen, who he married in 1984, was of similar mind, being an accomplished athlete in her own right (athletic scholarship at SFU and a 3:03 marathoner).
Forerunners began with just 880 square feet. “But from the outset we earned the reputation of taking time to understand what each customer wanted to achieve and help them reach their goals, so we grew steadily,” says Peter.
“We stock a variety of specialty brands – like New Balance – a privately owned manufacturer whose shoes are made in up to 5 different widths allowing us to fit many types of feet that the bigger brands ignored. When someone comes in to get fitted in size 14 2A – they remember you”, says Peter who buys all the footwear.
Today, Forerunners has a second location in North Vancouver, and the 4th Avenue venue routinely sells about 10,000 pairs of shoes annually, carefully chosen with input from customers, industry experts and staff.
Forerunners currently sponsors world class Masters runner Catherine Watkins (who competed at the 2015 Pan Am Games) and Olympian Dylan Wykes who broke Peter’s Forerunners store record in running 2:10:47 for qualification to the 2012 London Olympic Marathon.
“Having these athletes connected to the store gives us great feedback on product innovation and overall trends”, says Karen who buys the apparel.
One of the most satisfying aspects of the sport’s evolution for Karen and Peter is how women have shattered long-held assumptions about their competitive abilities. “It may be hard to believe today, but the Women’s Marathon was first introduced to the Olympics in 1984, and prior to those Games the longest race was only 1500 meters – thought to be the absolute limit women were capable of,” Karen recalls.
The myth was proven wrong as more and more female runners run long distances. Karen adds, “I like to think that Forerunners played a small part in encouraging female athletes to break barriers and change mindsets. We were thrilled to see the steady increase of women at our clinics over the years.”
If there’s a barrier that remains to be broken today, it belongs to another demographic: older athletes and seniors; and on that score, Forerunners is on hand to ensure that running can be as fulfilling to people in their 50s, 60s and older as it is to those in their prime.
Peter Butler, 58, remarks, “It’s critical to continue exercising and stay fit as you get older, and as long as you know how to train correctly and use the right equipment, there’s no reason you can’t run for your entire life.”