"At mile 85 of a 100-mile race, at 3 a.m., you become a zombie runner," said co-founder, co-owner and ultra-marathon runner Gillian Robinson, 43.
Occupying 4,500 sq. ft. of the former theater, the inventory of running-related products at by ZombieRunner still has room to grow. The small staff and balance of neat displays and open space give the impression that the business is still settling in. It's fitting, as the business only expanded from online-only to storefront last October.
Despite opening in one of the worst financial months in recent U.S. history, sales have grown substantially for the store, according to co-founder and -owner Don Lundell, 47. "It was just the right place, right time," Lundell said. Lundell and partner Robinson began ZombieRunner as a website with a handful of products in 2003, and by their third year in business were sharing their living space with boxes of inventory.
Sparked by Lundell and Robinson's passion for and experience running ultra-marathons, ZombieRunner is a marketplace of running and hiking supplies.
"The basic concept was, it's really hard to find all the supplies you need, especially for 100-milers, where you run at night," Robinson said.
The store stocks ultra-running gear, including clothes, trail maps, nutritional gel packs and chews, hydration packs, the latest footwear and coffee.
A low-lying coffee table, surrounded by plush seating, displays books such as "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" and "The Zombie Survival Guide," and hints at the tongue-in-cheek humor common among ultra-runners.
The table and seating area is perhaps better attached to Café Zombie, an in-house coffee shop and the result of Lundell's interest in espresso. Even before the café opened, the ZombieRunner website featured freshly micro-roasted coffee beans alongside blister kits and gel packs.
"It was a natural choice," Lundell said of the café. He acts as the barista, often preparing coffee in running shoes and shorts. "When you find something you really love, you share it with other people."
Both Lundell and Robinson have shifted careers completely since starting ZombieRunner.
Robinson, a technical writer for software companies, grew jaded after working for eight start-ups.
"I just saw them making the same mistakes and I got that feeling of 'I want to do my own thing,'" Robinson said. "The year I ran the most is the year I had the job I hated the most."
Lundell and Robinson began running recreationally. Lundell tackled a marathon in 1998, followed by longer trail runs such as the 28.4-mile Quad Dipsea in Mill Valley.
"I thought 'I could never do that,'" Robinson said. Yet in 1999, Robinson took on the San Francisco marathon, using the Stinson Beach 50k trail marathon as training. The couple then began running longer distances together and made it a goal to run Western States 100.
"We were hooked," Robinson said.
Together Lundell and Robinson have run some of the most challenging ultra-races in the U.S., including Western States 100 and Badwater numerous times. The couple has also designed and run their own challenging courses, such as navigating the Western States 100 course in reverse and covering the entire 500-mile Bay Area Ridge Trail in 13 days.
Lundell and Robinson both praise the ultra-running community for the camaraderie and support they've found. They have tried to duplicate the feeling with ZombieRunner.
"There's a respect among ultra-runners: Back of the pack runners respect the elite runners for their skill, and fast runners have the same amount of respect for slower runners because of their endurance," Robinson said. In addition to providing a space for local runners to convene and stock up for races, Lundell and Robinson offer one-hour coaching sessions before races.
The task of operating a business has taken a toll on Lundell's and Robinson's time for races.
"We still have a ways to go to be running as much as we want," Lundell said.
Sacrifice and compromise are certainly not foreign concepts to Lundell and Robinson, however. The store hours (closed Sunday and Monday) are structured such that the couple has time to run on Sundays and still have time to take care of inventory and other maintenance on Monday.
"Ultramarathons prepare you for being a small business owner because there's so much to do," Robinson said. "You have to keep digging down to find the energy to do it."
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