‘Dude, I’m In’: Healdsburg Running Co. Doubles as Social Hub for Runners

From wine runs to trail races, the small store has forged a wide footprint in the local running community, where it acts as a social hub for newbies and veterans alike.

Healdsburg Running Co. calls itself “America’s Wineiest Running Store.”

Through group runs and events, the shop for running shoes and all sorts of striding gear has become, for veteran and newbie runners alike, a social hub where a community built around health and fitness comes together, often over adventure, wine, beer and food.

Store founder Skip Brand, a self-proclaimed “computer nerd” and “running nerd” opened the store in 2015.

The move came after years of working and living in Silicon Valley, including stints at Yahoo and as CEO of Martini Media, a San Francisco digital marketing company. His doctoral degree from Arizona State University is in technology policy.

But after a couple decades in the field he’d decided it was time for a change. He’d bought an 800-square-foot home in Healdsburg in 2005. His store on Center Street came 10 years later.

“What happens, at least in my family, is when you turn roughly 50, you take your day job and stop. And you do your passion,” said Brand, 57.

Running has always been an outlet for him. But he’s never been much of a “solitary runner,” he said. Instead, he enjoys running with others, chatting along the way.

“The great thing about running with someone is that they’ll tell you a lot,” Brand said. “Or, if you’re running, you’ll listen a lot, even if you’re not a great listener.”

The store allowed him to mesh that approach to people with a new business, and with his digital marketing experience, seek to forge a community in Healdsburg centered around running.

“I just set a really simple goal in saying, ‘I want Healdsburg to be ‘Healthsburg,’’” Brand said.

‘The four Cs’

Healdsburg Running Co. is organized around four verticals, or what Brand calls “four Cs”: community, charity, camps and commerce.

The first is about bringing more people into the sport, which can be intimidating for non-runners and first-timers.

Healdsburg Running Co. seeks to ease any anxiety through a diverse, inclusive sense of community. Its runs are described as “beginner-friendly.” Most are based out of single point, be it a tasting room or trailhead. Everyone ends up at the same place, which alleviates the stress of the meetup, Brand said.

Another way to motivate people to run, Brand explained, is with a good cause.

“The store and our runs started with kind of creating a community somewhere that everyone was welcome,” said Brand. “And then when we would do runs, or do a race, it was all based on raising money for a charity,” he said.

The majority of the store’s races partner with the nonprofit foundation Live Like Drew, which helps support the children of vineyard workers who are in need of college scholarships.

Much of the fun at HRC, though, stems from its camplike-approach to runs, treating them as adventure-filled outings.

That can mean pairing up a miles-long workout with a post-run gathering at a local brewery or a meal at a restaurant. The Tuesday ladies-only runs are a hit, often featuring a wine or beer tasting and gear demo. A spinoff Facebook group with more than 470 members includes women lighting out for running events around the world.

Runs for kids and trail-based weekend runs fill out a busy weekly schedule for Healdsburg Running Co.

Brand said a recent run drew about 60 people, who piled into Sprinter vans on their way to Crooked Goat Brewery in Petaluma for a post-run celebration. Petaluma’s Acme Burger was the base for another run, because who doesn’t love a juicy burger and some tater-tots — carb loading — after a workout with friends?

As for commerce, Brand, a former marketing executive, has harnessed social media and enlisted an enthusiastic group of store ambassadors to promote the club and business through its runs, races and product demos.

“The last thing you want to do in retail in today’s world is try to sell something, if that makes sense,” he said. “Especially for (younger people), (they’re) like ‘I don’t want to be sold something — I’ll demo something and see if I like it, or educate me.’ Everything is indirect.”

Case in point: Professional runner David Laney joined a recent Saturday run. He brought along Swedish running shoes by Craft Sportswear for runners to test.

The range and repetition of run options also is part of the magic. They are promoted across the store’s site and social media. If you can’t make one, try for the next. Most runs happen rain or shine.

The youthful energy of Brand’s 15-member staff — large for an independent running store — and their social media fluency keeps it all running smoothly, he said.

Be social, get dirty

Two trends have fueled Healdsburg Running Co.’s success.

One is the appeal of group runs, a major shift in a sport where the solo outing has long held sway in marketing if not personal preference. That’s no longer so, Brand said.

“The running community said, ‘Hey, I’d rather run with somebody if it’s going to be raining out for the month, I can go to the Ladies’ Night when it’s raining because I could suffer with a bunch of other ladies,’” he said. “And they’ll laugh about it, it’s kind of fun.”

The isolation imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic is a contributing factor. People spent much of their days alone, so leisure time is more about connecting with others when possible.

The second factor? Nature, specifically running on trails — which Sonoma County has aplenty — has appealed to a wider cross-section of runners.

“Even if you do half your runs on the road, but you do a Saturday Trail Run, you call yourself a trail runner,” Brand said.

It comes back to the pressure of time and pace, he said.

“The reason trail running is growing literally 35% year after year, is mostly because nobody has to tell what their 5K time or their marathon time is,” Brand said. “They only ask when you trail run, ‘Did you finish?’”

HRC hosts trail runs every Saturday. These outings, which tend to be longer — sometimes over 20 miles — explore trails across the North Bay, from Mount Tamalpais to Lake Sonoma.

“That’s why they’re willing to travel a little bit further because it’s like, ‘Hey, even if I walk 10 miles, I’m still in the beautiful sun at Stinson Beach,” he said.

The community

Women make up a growing share of runners in the U.S., so Healdsburg Running Co.’s Ladies Night runs serve a dominant demographic.

The Tuesday runs are guided by Dominique Chevalier, the store’s co-manager, who ran track in high school and college.

“A group of ladies who are now still in the company and still work with us had said, ‘Hey, on Tuesdays we want to do runs, Ladies’ Night — and we don’t want any men. we don’t want any kids. we just want to do our own thing. Can you support us?’” Brand said. “And we were like, ‘Of course.’”

The regulars now form a foundation of the community that’s arisen around the business, Brand said.

Another demographic that’s specifically given a space to run is children, especially after clocks spring forward next month and Day Light Saving Time kicks in.

Kids can participate in Friday runs that are a bit shorter, about a mile or more, while parents hang around the store, which is set up to allow for some lounging.

Until those longer days kick in, though, many of HRC’s group runners are people with day jobs looking for some company as they squeeze in their workouts in the dark.

“It’s a lot about camaraderie at the end,” Brand said.

The crew

HRC wouldn’t be able to host the events and runs it does if it weren’t for the crew behind the store.

Chevalier, the co-manager, began working for the company five years ago, at first part time and hosting the Ladies’ Night runs. Today, she puts in up to 35 hours a week, and participates in all of the weekly runs.

Chevalier, 37, a mother of two young children, says she still runs plenty outside of the store events, too. In November, she ran the Rio Del Lago 100-mile race, an ultramarathon on trails in the Sierra Nevada foothills that took her over 29 hours to complete.

It took far more training time to prepare, she said.

Chevalier said the main difference between trail running and road-running is the concept of time.

“It doesn’t matter if you have a 7-minute mile, or an 18-minute mile, because it depends on what your terrain is, you know?” Chevalier said. “You’re just out there enjoying the camaraderie of everyone else that’s out there.”

One of Chevalier’s favorite memories with the HRC took place in 2022 and involved the annual Lake Sonoma 50, Sonoma County’s premier off-road ultramarathon.

“It kept getting pushed off and pushed off during COVID, and we finally had it in September which was ridiculous and not smart, which we would find out later,” Chevalier said. “It ended up being 98 degrees, and you know, it was tough out there.”

Though the heat and lack of shade created a challenge, Chevalier said, the packs of hearty runners and race volunteers persevered.

“All of our community was out there at each aid station, and it was so cool to see that like, they were hot, too, right? But they were just volunteering their time and supporting all of us, even though it wasn’t comfortable for them, and that’s pretty cool,” Chevalier said.

The long Saturday trail runs she and others use to train for such races are her favorite part of the Healdsburg Running Co.’s community, she said.

“It’s just this beautiful morning of just pure joy because it’s like, we’re out there in this gorgeous nature on a gorgeous trail, exercising and endorphins are up,” Chevalier said. “I smile to myself sometimes when I’m on the trail because I’m like, ‘I love this community and life and being out here every Saturday.”

Her advice to anyone interested in running or joining with HRC runs, which are free: Just come try it. You won’t be left behind.

“Passion is priceless,” Brand said. “So as long as our runners and our staff and people who show up are just as passionate about having fun and running and enjoying good food and good company, then even someone who’s not as passionate is like, ‘Dude, I’m in.’”

You can reach intern Lonnie Hayes at lonnie.hayes@pressdemocrat.com.