For twenty-five years Ann Arbor had two running stores within a block of each other downtown. Running Fit, which traces its origins to 1984, now has a half dozen other locations, including a megastore that opened last year on Jackson Road. Tortoise and Hare, born on Liberty in 1978, opened a second, larger store in Traver Village twelve years ago and a small shop in the Health and Fitness Center at WCC two years ago. At the end of January it closed its original store.

“We didn’t want to stay too long at the fair,” says co-owner Karen Holappa. Now in her seventies, with gray hair pulled back in a bun, she is an eminence grise in Ann Arbor’s running community and still runs marathons. Her son Matt, a teenager when his mom bought the business and now an impossibly young-looking forty-two, has long been a partner in the business.

Ann Arbor got into running in a big way in the 1970s when Elmo Morales–“the godfather of Ann Arbor running,” as Matt calls him–founded the Ann Arbor Track Club. “I remember when he wanted to print that T-shirt that said ‘Get the Masses Off Their Asses,'” Karen smiles. The AATC led to the Dexter-Ann Arbor Run. Bruce Dyer, a track coach at Greenhills, started the Tortoise and Hare on Liberty, and Charlie Blanchard, another runner, opened a store around the block on Washington called Total Runner.

“I began running in ’78, just trying to run a mile,” says Karen. By the early 1980s she was training for marathons, and Blanchard, who “knew me because of the running community, asked me if I wanted to work at Total Runner part time. Then he wanted me to buy it, but I didn’t want to go into competition with Tortoise and Hare. Bruce was a family friend. He’d been Matt’s track coach.”

Holappa bought Tortoise and Hare from Dyer in 1985. Randy Step bought Total Runner the same year and changed the name to Running Fit; eventually it, too, moved to Liberty.

Holappa confesses that a lot of memories of Ann Arbor running history have been shaken loose in the last few months as she’s moved her personal library of running books and vintage posters out of the old store. These days, she says, running is less competitive: “a lot more women, a lot more running groups.” In fact, she worries that it’s been made to look like too much fun: “We need to try to make people more fit to do these events. It’s much more of a slow process than people realize.” Matt agrees: “Running is like the martial arts. You don’t just show up and get your black belt.” They regularly host running clinics at the Traver Village store featuring physical therapist Pete Kitto and orthopedic surgeon John Anderson, both runners.

Sometimes the Holappas sound more like community organizers than store owners. A conversation with them never seems to get around to their retail offerings. (For the record, they sell shoes from $85 to $140, with a lot of attention devoted to fit, and gear that they describe as having proven technical merits rather than just a cool look.) Instead, it turns to events, clubs, people, philosophies, methods, and books. The Holappas like to refer beginning runners–especially the overweight or those who have never exercised–to local celebrity (and Matt’s good friend) Pete Thomas, one of the original contestants on NBC’s Biggest Loser. “He was at fifty percent body fat and now he’s at six,” says Matt. “He’s one of the fittest human beings I know. He has dedicated his life to getting people fit.”

Tortoise and Hare, 2631 Plymouth Rd. (Traver Village). 623-9640. Mon.-Fri. 10 a.m.-8 p.m., Sat. 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Sun. noon-5 p.m.

Health and Fitness Center at Washtenaw Community College, 4833 East Huron River Dr. 477-8745. Mon., Wed., Fri. 8 a.m.-noon (plus 1st & 3rd Wed. 4-8 p.m.), Tues. & Thurs. 8 a.m.-noon & 2-7 p.m., Sat. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Closed Sun.

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While the Tortoise and Hare inventory was taking bounding strides out to Plymouth Road, Sole Sisters’ inventory of girl shoes was taking smaller steps just around the corner into the old Tortoise and Hare space. Sole Sisters is a loose confederation of Detroit area shoe stores. The Ann Arbor outpost is owned by Tamar Fowler, and her idea when she came to town in the summer of 2008 was to bring a younger, hipper, more urban vibe to town.

Fowler says she’ll open on Liberty “probably around the end of February, as soon as I do some painting and remodeling.” A nervous neophyte when she opened Sole Sisters on South Fourth, Fowler is now such a self-assured retailer that in early February she hadn’t even signed the lease for the Tortoise and Hare space yet. “Oh, we’re still working out a few details,” she says carelessly. The new store will be slightly larger–1,100 square feet compared to 800. “We’ll be able to have a little more women’s apparel–more scarves, hats, gloves–but no big changes. And we’re keeping our yellow, black, and white color scheme.”

Sole Sisters sells stylish but price-conscious women’s shoes–no Manolo Blahniks or Jimmy Choos here. Fowler, who pays a licensing fee to use the Sole Sisters name but is an independent owner, says she does all her own buying. She’s had to do a little course correction since opening: “We had to make a few adjustments. Ann Arbor women definitely like their comfort shoes,” she laughs. “We now have more flats, but we still carry heels. My best-selling brands are probably Born, Privo, and Nicole.”

Sole Sisters, 209 E. Liberty. 369-4697. Mon.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-6 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Closed Sun.

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