When it comes to running, a lot has changed for Amy Frey over the last several years. Not that long ago, her son signed her up for No Boundaries – a program offered at the Fleet Feet store on West Hartford to help runners build up to a 5K race.
Now she's the one leading group runs – and grooming new runners for the Eversource Hartford Marathon and Half Marathon, which takes place Saturday.
"As I progressed through the program and got faster and better, they asked if I wanted to coach and I looked at them like they were crazy and said, 'I don't know anything about coaching,' but it's really about giving back what I got out of it myself," Frey said.
Fleet Feet has worked hard to nurture a strong sense of community among local runners like Frey. It has cultivated that camaraderie and built a strong group of runners who rely on the store for more than a new pair of shoes.
"You do think it's a solitary sport, but for most people, you need a community around them to keep them motivated and keep them going," said store owner Stephanie Blozy, who has spent nearly 10 years helping local runners build a running habit.
"Fleet Feet is more about that community hub for the runners that do like to have people around. You're still doing it yourself, it still takes 100 percent your effort, but it's nice to have a system."
"We started doing fun runs and track workouts and slowly but ... there wasn't a running community out there. There's the Hartford Track Club and the (Manchester-based) Silk City Striders, but there wasn't, like, one in West Hartford that was for the everyman," Blozy said. "So that's what we became."
"What we do is the mom who is trying to get back in shape after having two kids, or the father that wants to do half marathon because it's on his bucket list, or the new college graduate who is new to town and they want to meet people, and so we've kind of become that hub."
Fleet Feet, and stores like it, have filled a growing need. According to the non-profit Running USA, 16,957,100 runners crossed a finish line in 2016. In 1990, that figure was just 5 million. The number of events also increased in 2016, totaling 30,400 across the U.S.
In Connecticut, arguably the biggest race of the year is the one slated for Saturday, when thousands of harriers will hit the street in the marathon, half marathon or 5K.
Every Wednesday at Fleet Feet on Farmington Avenue, dozens of runners meet up to weave their way through the West Hartford streets for the weekly fun run. But it's not the only group Fleet Feet serves.
Small groups of friends – often not affiliated with the store in any way – simply use it as a meet up point before they start their runs. Meanwhile, as many as 200 people are in training groups from distances ranging from 5K races up through marathon.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Blozy's favorite part of running the business extends well past the retail aspect of the store.
"My motto is that we're not just a running store, we're a starting place," she said. "Obviously, to sell shoes, you have to get people into your door to buy shoes."
For Frey, it's been 5 years since she made the transition from group member to coach. Along the way, she's used the 10K and half marathon training groups offered by the store to reach her goals.
"Those are really hard and I'm not a natural runner, I have to work at it," Frey said. "Being there with some folks around me, running my pace, it got me to the finish line. If I hadn't had that, I probably would have thrown in the towel."