Fleet Feet races to help

Runners’ store is noted for its charitable run/walk events

Susan Zepernick and Alan Rice, as owners of Fleet Feet Sports, have made a commitment to giving back to local nonprofits like the Jesus Center.

Susan Zepernick and Alan Rice, as owners of Fleet Feet Sports, have made a commitment to giving back to local nonprofits like the Jesus Center.

Photo By Meredith J. Graham

When Alan Rice and Susan Zepernick retired from the Bay Area’s tech industry in the early 2000s, they embarked on a search for a college-town atmosphere with an active community that appreciated the great outdoors.

Soon after arriving in Chico in 2002, Rice, 50, and Zepernick, 51, discovered early retirement didn’t suit them. So they seized an opportunity in March 2005 and purchased Fleet Feet Sports, a running store located on Second Street in downtown Chico (it’s since moved to Main Street between Second and Third streets).

Running wasn’t foreign to either of them. The effervescent, gregarious Zepernick has been a runner most of her life. Rice, whose quiet nature punctuates a cunning wit, played soccer and squash in England before taking up running as a sport a decade ago.

The couple’s immediate vision for their new venture was to create a sense of community and belonging for Chico runners of all ages, sizes and abilities.

“We wanted Fleet Feet to be the hub of that and to encourage people to get serious about their health and fitness,” said Rice.

As Rice and Zepernick developed that hub, they became connected to the Chico community in general and its passionate running devotees in particular.

That’s when they sensed the shift.

“We really felt like we were going from a little hardcore-runners’ store into something more of an all-encompassing, welcoming kind of movement that was open to all,” Rice said.

And the more Fleet Feet became a support system for runners, walkers and everyone in between, Chico’s fitness community looked to the store for support in fundraising efforts.

Fleet Feet began organizing more annual races, with each one supporting a cause. The store held five of its own races last year, benefiting such organizations as the North Valley Animal Disaster Group, Livestrong, and the Chico State Cross Country Scholarship Fund.

And Fleet Feet typically holds a charity giveback week leading up to race day. For example, in the week before last Saturday’s Habitat Home Run 5k run/walk (benefiting Habitat for Humanity), whenever anyone made an in-store purchase and mentioned the charity, Fleet Feet donated 10 percent of the purchase amount to the organization’s Butte County chapter.

“We realized quickly how important it is in a town like Chico to provide what you can,” Rice said. “If the local community supports us by forgoing chain stores and shopping with us rather than online, then you bet we’re going to support them back.”

Arguably the most popular running event Fleet Feet sponsors is the annual Run for Food 5k run/walk—last year’s fifth annual edition attracted nearly 4,000 people. The event takes place Thanksgiving morning and benefits the Jesus Center, a nonprofit that provides food, showers, supplies and other services to the local needy.

Rice estimates that, over the last five years, Fleet Feet has raised around $7,000 for Run for Food through its charity giveback week.

And Fleet Feet seems to be just warming up. “Chico is special. It’s special because of the sense of community and how everyone pulls together and supports each other,” Rice said. “We want it to stay special.”