John Sensenig came to Lexington with a Ph.D. from Duke to teach social psychology at the University of Kentucky. But after participating in the first Bluegrass 10,000 race in 1977, he realized what he really wanted to do was run.
Millions of Americans were taking up running and jogging then, and Sensenig had an edge: he ran cross country in high school and was a track team walk-on at the University of Texas.
“I just loved distance running,” he said. “And I was pretty good at it.”
But when Sensenig went looking for good running shoes, he had to drive to Cincinnati to find them. That’s when he saw a new career opportunity.
Sensenig resigned his UK professorship and opened Phidippides, a franchise of an Atlanta-based running shop, on South Ashland Avenue in Chevy Chase.
“With no experience other than talking to some running shop owners in other places, I decided to try it, figuring I could always end up getting a job doing something else,” he said. “People thought I was stupid. I had tenure!”
Sensenig’s four decades of service to the local running community will be honored May 13 with a race, the John’s Run Local 8K at the Kentucky Horse Park.
Sensenig, who turns 82 on Monday, is in the process of selling his business to Melody Marshall, a fellow runner who was his accountant for more than a decade. Over the next five years, she will buy John’s Run/Walk Shop, John’s Classic Shoes across the street and John’s Run/Walk Shop at Palomar Center at the corner of Harrodsburg Road and Man o’ War Boulevard.
He will retain ownership of the two Chevy Chase buildings and spend more time traveling with his wife, Diane Skoll. But he also plans to continue hanging around the stores to help and advise customers, which is the part of the business he has always enjoyed most.
“I’m getting old enough that I’m slowing down, both physically and mentally,” he said. “Plus the fact is that I just don’t want to work that hard anymore.”
The owners of many shops launched during the 1970s running boom are retiring and selling out, often to large shoe chains. None of Sensenig’s three children were interested in taking over the business, so selling to Marshall seemed like a great option.
“She’s just a bundle of energy; really bright,” he said. “She’s doing a lot of things I would have done at her age, which I just don’t have the energy to do. I’m ready to retire, but I still like hanging around.”
Sensenig’s love of running and his outgoing personality have helped make John’s Run/Walk Shop a success over the years. But he gives “90 percent” of the credit to having a good staff, both longtime employees such as running buddy Dick Burchett and young people who have come and gone over the years.
“The business has changed so much with the Internet and social media,” he said.
The only way for independent shops to survive is by providing a good selection, expert advice and excellent customer service. In addition to selling shoes and other running gear, John’s does a big business in orthotic shoe inserts for people with plantar fasciitis and other foot problems.
“If you match the person with the right shoe, it takes the hassle out of it for them,” he said. “We’ve gotten to be very good at that.”
Another important role for the shop has been supporting the local running community. The store keeps a race calendar and sponsors a variety of events, from Thirsty Thursday social runs and the Iron Horse Half Marathon in Midway.
Sensenig says he is slowing down, but few 82-year-olds could match his fitness. He exercises six days a week, either by running or taking a spin class at the Beaumont YMCA.
“I’m a good athlete, not great,” he said. “But I do like to compete. I’ll continue to run as long as I’m healthy.”