For three decades, the Lorenzoni family has kept Charlottesville runners on the right track

If a picture is worth a thousand words, the walls of the Ragged Mountain Running Shop are Charlottesville running’s Library of Congress. It’s impossible to take more than a few steps into the store without examining a photo—or six. Even the ceiling, from which poster-sized images of victorious high school running teams dangle, is part of the pictorial history of both the 30-year-old Elliewood Avenue store and of running in Central Virginia.

In addition to visual shout-outs to superstar area runners, the photos that paper Ragged Mountain tout the achievements of non-elites who’ve finished their first Discovery Dash or posted a personal best in the Turkey Trot. Or maybe they just dropped by for a new pair of shoes. Like A.W. and Velma Norvelle.

Mark and Cynthia Lorenzoni opened The Ragged Mountain Running Shop on the Corner’s Elliewood Avenue during the winter of 1982. At a mere 500 square feet, the newlywed’s store had space for two customer chairs. “When both seats were occupied,” Mark said, “we were having a great day.”

On a Saturday afternoon last month, the 91-year-old Norvelles didn’t get far before receiving a hearty “how ya doing?” from Mark Lorenzoni, the infectiously friendly and indefatigable co-owner of Ragged Mountain. When Mark learned that the couple has been married 70 years, he commanded his daughter Audrey to get the camera. Write down their names, he told someone else, before announcing to anyone who would listen that the Norvelles, who met at Red Hill back when it was a high school, would be on Ragged Mountain’s Facebook page next week.

Cynthia Lorenzoni, Mark’s wife of 31 years, the store’s other owner, and the long-time volunteer race director for the Charlottesville Women’s Four Miler (which, by the way, has raised millions of dollars for the University of Virginia’s breast care program), took it all in from a slight distance. The first woman to cross the finish line of the 1981 and 1982 Marine Corp Marathon, she eventually turned from Mark’s photo-op to admire a coat modeled by a Ragged Mountain employee. On a cold evening last week, Cynthia learned that the young woman didn’t own a decent winter jacket. Today, she’s comfortably bundled up in the pea coat that Cynthia gave her from the Lorenzoni’s closet at home.

Unless somebody points it out, it’s easy to miss a black-and-white photograph that hangs behind the shop’s old-school National cash register. But that image, of a smiling, hopeful-looking couple, illustrates Chapter One of The Ragged Mountain Story. Taken during the winter of 1982, shortly after 23-year-old Cynthia and 26-year-old Mark opened a much smaller Ragged Mountain Running Shop a few doors down from its current location, the photograph is a constant reminder to Audrey Lorenzoni, 25, and a store co-manager with Alec, her 26-year-old brother, “how far my parents have come. Every time I look at it I smile. I get a happy warm feeling, and am glad I’m part of this place.”

Thirty years ago, tiny Chaminade University upset the Ralph Sampson-led University of Virginia men’s basketball team. The Vietnam War Memorial was dedicated, and Prince William—Kate’s husband and Diana’s son—came into the world. Mark and Cynthia Lorenzoni, newly married after meeting as students on a Michigan State University field trip, realized a running boom was afoot, and the university town where they’d settled was woefully underserved. So they decided to do something about it.

Cynthia, a champion college runner who worked part-time at Olympian Frank Shorter’s East Lansing store, recalled that she and Mark had surprisingly little trepidation about their iffy new business venture. “The nice thing about being young was we had nothing to lose—we didn’t own a house or have children—which made it less scary,” she said. At a minimum, she told Mark, “we’ll sell a lot of socks.”

What they didn’t sell much of that first year was running shoes. The store averaged three shoe sales a day, which required Mark to take a second job cleaning, painting, and fixing up rental units for a real estate company. Looking back, Mark said those years were “a lot of work, a lot of stress, exhausting…and fun too.”

Sales at Ragged Mountain have picked up substantially over the past three decades. But monetary success has never really driven the Lorenzonis.

“I’d like to think we had a vision,” Mark said one afternoon, leaning against a wall in the chaotic, jam-packed office he shares with Cynthia, Audrey, Alec, and the shop’s three assistant managers. “Honestly, though, we never thought beyond surviving the first year. On the surface, it seems sort of reckless and stupid, but we were happy working at something that came naturally to us: people and running. Cynthia and I wanted to fill a niche with a passion we shared.”

“Cynthia kept saying, ‘What do we have to lose?’” Mark recalled. “Everyone else said, ‘Don’t do it!’”

The couple started with 500 square feet, eight shoe models, and two seats for customers. “That’s all we needed,” Mark said. “When both seats were occupied, we were having a great day.”

Bill Guerrant, a retired Western Albemarle English teacher who’s been buying shoes at Ragged Mountain since it opened, never doubted that the Lorenzonis would make a go of their business. “They arrived at the right time,” he said. “There was nowhere in Charlottesville to buy running shoes, and Mark and Cynthia were so knowledgeable because they’re runners.” Then and now, “they take what they know, their own unique, personalized experience, and use it to help their customers. They value friendships and their customers, and they feel obliged to put you in the right shoe. They take it personally and feel responsible if you’re not happy, if you’re uncomfortable or dissatisfied.”

Shoe in
Purchasing running shoes used to be a straightforward activity for a sporadic, my- ass-is-getting-too-big-so-I-better-do-something-about-it runner like me. I’d walk into a store, find two or three visually appealing pairs of shoes, flag down a salesperson, try on the shoes he’d fetched, walk over to a mirror to check them out, and pay for the most comfortable pair. Then I moved to Charlottesville, where I decided to train for the Women’s Four Miler. Which explains why my eldest daughter and I found ourselves surrounded by shoe boxes, and sharing a bench at the Ragged Mountain Running Shop.

Alec Lorenzoni looks up a customer’s shoe-buying history in Ragged Mountain’s antique library card catalog cabinet, which came from his mother’s home kitchen. (Photo by Nick Strocchia)

“See that kid with all the hair over there?” Mark Lorenzoni asked my daughter nearly a decade ago, pointing to one of his teenage employees across the room. “He was the homecoming king at Albemarle last year. He’s smart, and a really good guy.” That’s the kind of boy you want to date, he told her. Leave the handsome hot-shots to the other girls; they’re not worth the trouble. That was the message she left Ragged Mountain with that June morning. Plus a new pair of shoes. And a pink t-shirt emblazoned with the store’s logo: a silhouette of a younger, pony-tailed Cynthia Lorenzoni crossing the finish line, victorious in the Charlottesville Ten Miler.

I overhead the dating lecture while lacing up my tenth pair of shoes. After I turned 40, my left knee began to bother me, a minor irritant I assumed I’d have to put up with. Nonsense, I was told at Ragged Mountain. Seems my pronation (inward motion of my foot and ankle) was to blame, something a proper pair of shoes and inserts would solve. Finding the shoes took a while—and entailed a lot of lacing and many laps around the store, until my (non-homecoming king) salesperson was satisfied.

The ability to visually assess a runner’s gait and foot type isn’t a skill that Ragged Mountain employees are born with. It’s what they learn after months—an entire semester, to be precise—spent shadowing seasoned employees, as well as writing up sales, greeting customers, restocking shelves, and retrieving shoes from the back room. By training period’s end, they can confidently and competently find the right shoe for runners with high arches (probably something well-cushioned and soft), flat feet (they tend to over-pronate and do well in sturdy “stability” shoes with firm midsoles), and every foot or gait in between.
Working at Ragged Mountain is a good gig, but it’s not an easy one. Mark and Cynthia can be tough taskmasters, because it’s their job, Mark said, to teach young staffers “life stuff. People will call me for job references and I need to tell them that my employees were motivated, self-driven, self-directed.” Hats and gum are no-nos, as are cell phones. It’s important to “look people in the eye, and give our customers the best, most positive shopping experience. I want our employees to be the very, very best they can be.” And that includes “facing the music when you make a mistake.”

“Kids don’t like to make mistakes,” Cynthia said. “There’s nothing wrong with mistakes, I make them every day, but sometimes it’s hard for people to admit they’ve done something wrong.”

There are no computers at Ragged Mountain. Sales are written up by hand, and the extensive inventory is tracked with pen and paper. A customer’s shoe-buying history lives on an index card filed alphabetically by last name in an antique library card catalog cabinet that came from Cynthia’s kitchen. (Periodically, Audrey and Cynthia conduct mandatory employee alphabetization refresher sessions.) Once a sale is concluded, Ragged Mountain employees always walk around the counter and hand customers their bags. (“It’s a people thing,” Mark explained.) And they must never—ever, ever—leave for the day without saying goodbye to Mark, which, said Cynthia, “is a family thing.”

All in the family
Frequent reprimands aside, the genuine affection the couple has for their dozens of part-time workers is obvious from the photos of the staff parties the Lorenzonis throw every year: homemade lasagna in December; competitive games in the spring; and a summer pool party. Plus a graduation get-together for those—most of whom have been at Ragged Mountain for four or five years—who’ve completed college and are about to leave for jobs in the real world.

Garrett John, who, like every store employee, shadowed seasoned workers for several months before being allowed to wait on customers, assesses gaits and feet before recommending running shoes. (Photo by Nick Strocchia)

In his world, Mark is pleased today with one of his workers because she noticed an approaching Fed Ex deliveryman and held the door open for him. “See how Rachel greets him right away,” he said. “She treats him with respect. That guy has a job to do, and he’s double-parked outside, so he’s in a hurry.” Maddie, another employee, has just arrived—on crutches. A competitive college runner, like many Ragged Mountain employees, she’s on the verge of tears as she tells Mark she’s been diagnosed with a stress fracture. Mark hugged her, and said, “You’ve hit bottom. You don’t know this now, but this will serve you well. It will make you a better athlete and a stronger person. Plus, as a bonus, guys always want to help girls with crutches.”

Crutches, tears, and deliveries successfully dealt with, Mark, a long-time Virginia Institute of Autism board member, turned his focus to one of three intellectually-disabled Ragged Mountain employees who has recently discovered the shop’s bathroom pump soap dispenser. “He spends hours in there with the door locked, running the hot water and watching the soap level go down,” Mark said, shaking his head. “The rest of us can’t get in there when we need to use the bathroom.”

His mood brightened, however, when he noticed high school senior Adam Visokay, the 2011 Central Virginia male runner of the year. An All-state member of the Albemarle track team that Alec Lorenzoni has helped coach for the past four seasons, Visokay stopped by to say hello during a tour of Grounds with his parents and one of the UVA track coaches. He’s greeted by the Lorenzonis like a long-lost family member. His mother, Alison, tells an observer, “Whenever I need a boost, I just stop by the running shop and listen to them say nice things about my son.”

Part clubhouse, part support group, part town square, the Ragged Mountain Running Shop is “a place to gather,” said Peter Lorenzoni, Mark’s architect brother, at the store’s 30th anniversary party in January. With Facebook and texting and Twitter and Skype, “these days our culture is devoid of community,” he said. “Being part of a community is important. Mark and Cynthia’s store is very human, and they care so much. Their business is a reflection of that. They’re good business people, but, more importantly, they’re good citizens.”

Mark Lorenzoni says it’s his responsibility to give customers the “best, most positive shopping experience” possible. (Photo by Nick Strocchia)

Eliza O’Connell, two-time women’s winner of the Montalto Challenge, said one of the best places to find evidence of the Lorenzoni commitment to community is the University of Virginia track at 5:30 a.m. every Wednesday. “Rain, shine, snow, or earthquake,” O’Connell said, that’s where you’ll encounter about 50 runners of varying abilities, training for everything from a 5K to a marathon, literally being put through their paces by Mark Lorenzoni. In 2004, when O’Connell first showed up, “there were about six of us,” all elite runners. Nowadays, participants at every pace, distance and ability can find a group—“your zip code,” as Mark refers to it—to train with. When asked about cost, O’Connell laughed.
“Mark and Cynthia give every ounce of their being to the sport of running,” she said, adding that the couple has voluntarily organized northwards of 500 races over the years. “They don’t ever take compensation. Back before there were so many of us, Mark would stay up until midnight hand-writing our individual running programs. There are still people in this town who couldn’t function if Mark didn’t tell them what to do.”

“No athlete should have an incomplete scrapbook,” Mark said, which is why, in addition to working with all-comers at the UVA track, he, Cynthia, and several other members of Charlottesville’s running community started the Ragged Mountain Racing Team in 2008. “We wanted to provide post-collegiate runners an environment and community in which they can develop both professionally and personally, with the ultimate goal of achieving success on a national and even international level. No runner should leave the sport with should’ves, could’ves, or would’ves. Or any regrets.” Thanks to the Ragged Mountain Racing Team, those runners who qualify now have their equipment and travel costs covered and even receive a small stipend. One of them, Donnie Cowart, is an All-American graduate of the Virginia Military Institute and a nationally-ranked steeplechaser who hopes to compete in this summer’s London Olympics.

“Listen,” Mark said when asked how he and Cynthia find enough hours in the day, “we sell shoes. We work hard at it, but we’ve been blessed to make a good living doing what we enjoy doing. And how lucky am I that I get to come to work every day with my best friend and my children? Cynthia and I started talking more than 30 years ago on that Michigan State bus, and we haven’t stopped since.”

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