Under cover of the narrow eaves at Fleet Feet Sports in Ridgeland, all shapes and sizes of runners and walkers huddled together to stay out of the rain. Excited chatter rose above marathon trainers and leisurely walkers alike as they stood waiting for the signal from Fleet Feet's head coach Avery Ainsworth to start this month's Poker Run.
No earsplitting gunshot sounded at the start, just a simple "go ahead and enjoy." And, in spite of the rain, a surprising amount of eager exercisers took off.
Fleet Feet's monthly Poker Run is a 3-mile fun run or walk on the scenic Ridgeland Multipurpose Trail. Participants receive five playing cards on the 1.5-mile out and back run. At the finish, Fleet Feet staffers evaluate each individual's hand to determine the winner.
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Mizuno, the corporate sponsor of Poker Run, provides prizes for first and second place. The first-place winner receives a free pair of Mizuno shoes, and the company awards the second-place winner with a $50 apparel gift card (some pretty snazzy gifts for a game of luck).
"One of the greatest things about the Poker Run is it's not the fastest person that wins. It's not a race. We say it's the luckiest person that wins," Fleet Feet Marketing Director Allison Wood said. Not all runners and walkers can win traditional races based on speed and tactics, so giving racers another way to win motivates them to get outside and exercise.
Motivation is key for Fleet Feet employees. They work with customers offering advice, support and training programs from 5Ks to marathons. Store managers encourage staff to get to know their customers, to understand their goals and to provide constant encouragement.
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Nothing can compare to the cathartic release provided by running.
"What we always say is that we want to be more than a shoe store. If we were just shoe salesmen, that would be very boring," Wood said, laughing.
The running community has responded well to Fleet Feet's outreach. At last month's Pub Run, 135 runners came out for a 2- to 4-mile run and the post-run drinks at Soulshine Pizza Factory (1111 Highland Colony Parkway, Ridgeland, 601-856-8646).
The running store also reaches out to young runners with their half- to 1-mile Kids Run. The Kids Run is fun, but can also shape a child's future health and fitness. "Mississippi is the number one state for obesity, and I believe that it starts at a young age, so teaching kids that (running) can be fun—and they do have a lot of fun," Wood said.
"They don't look at it as something like work, they look at it as something fun."