When Ragged Mountain Running Shop opened in 1982, its customers were nearly all men, had an average age of 25, and all were runners. As it celebrates 40 years in business this month, more than half of the customers are women, have an average age of 50, and about half are walkers.
Mark and Cynthia Lorenzoni have seen many more changes in the business they started at the end of Elliewood Avenue — the physical location (though always and still on Elliewood), their community involvement and the shop becoming even more of a true family business.
“It’s been a joy; it’s been a surprising ride,” Mark Lorenzoni said. “Cynthia and I had this passion for the sport and a passion for having Charlottesville embrace the sport, and to do things right. I would’ve never known the countless relationships, the friendships, so many people I’ve gotten to know so well.”
Small businesses are often called the backbone of the economy; about 99 percent of U.S. businesses are small businesses, employing about half the U.S. workforce. Many small businesses are gone in a blink, but for the Lorenzoni family, it’s been a marathon of helping community members find comfort in running — and in their shoes.
Cynthia, who was an NCAA Division I runner at Michigan State University, had experience working at a running shop in East Lansing while she was injured. She enjoyed helping customers.
“When we moved here, there was nothing, there were just sporting goods-type stores and downtown athletic-type, which is great, but it’s not specialized,” he said. “So we nervously opened in January of 1982.”
Since then, as the business grew, they’ve moved the store down Elliewood Avenue, slightly closer to the University of Virginia, settling in their current location on the first floor of 3 Elliewood Avenue in 2006.
“We just love it here,” Mark Lorenzoni said. “I mean, it sounds cliche, but we love the energy. We love the uniqueness. We love that feeling of Charlottesville that you get from being next to the university.”
He said they’ve enjoyed mentoring the young adults that have worked in their shop, but he didn’t expect how much they would help him learn.
“They teach me so much, it’s unreal,” he said. “I’m constantly learning, and it isn’t just the TikTok and the Twitter and all this lingo. It’s helping me really adjust as an older person in an ever changing world.”
With customers coming from all over the state, people have asked the Lorenzonis if they’ve considered opening more locations or franchising the business, Cynthia said.
“We never felt tempted to open more because you can’t really do the same thing in bulk, and you’re only going to be as good as your employees,” she said. “That’s been our concept, and it’s worked.”
But in 40 years, Mark and Cynthia Lorenzoni have given much more than a running shop to the community. They and their family have directed hundreds of local races and helped serve as volunteer coaches to thousands of runners through local training programs.
“It’s kind of immeasurable,” said Joan Bienvenue, who has served as program assistant for the Charlottesville Track Club’s Marathon and Half Marathon Training Program since 2006. “They have created a community that is welcoming of people who have been running for years and years down to people who have never taken a step before.”
Bienvenue, a native of New Hampshire who’s been running her whole life, said Mark and Cynthia have helped create a unique running community by helping with training programs and local races.
“I think it extends into some of the newer groups that we’ve seen come into town running-wise,” she said, pointing to run clubs at many of the city’s breweries and elsewhere. “I think that it stems from the fertile ground that Mark and Cynthia have created to encourage people to participate.”
When Nicole Brimer moved to Charlottesville, she had never run. Many of the people she met were involved in the Women’s Four Miler, so she got involved too.
“The Women’s Four Miler training program was huge,” she said. “You show up there and you’re like, ‘Is there any woman in Charlottesville still in bed? Because I think they’re all here.’ But it just gives you that sense that you’re not alone. The training programs are an easy gateway into running without feeling isolated, especially if you’re first starting off and you’re not familiar with fitness.”
Now Brimer, who briefly worked at the shop, is the race director for the Charlottesville Ten Miler.
“Their philosophy in the store isn’t, ‘Let’s make as much money as we possibly can from people,’ it’s about providing them with the best service that we can,” she said.
Charlottesville native Charlie Hurt, who competed in the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, said that he achieved a goal that he had been searching for forever under Mark’s tutelage.
“Qualifying for the trials was a huge goal of mine, and I don’t really know if I would have been able to do it or to continue to run this long in my career and get to the points where I wanted to be in my career without him,” he said. “From the nitty gritty of the data and the mileage, to race planning, to just providing insights on being an adult, he’s made a huge impact.”
Mark Lorenzoni said he gets a thrill from coaching new runners and elite runners alike.
“When somebody tells me in October, ‘I don’t think I can do this,’ and I high five them when they come across the finish line, to me that is such a rush,” he said.
In January 2020, two of Mark and Cynthia’s adult children, Audrey Sackson and Alec Lorenzoni, who have both worked at the store since they were 14 years old, became co-owners of the store.
Sackson, a Charlottesville native, left for college but she transferred back after her first year. She realized how special the area is to her and how much she missed it.
“I’ve never been tempted to leave Charlottesville again,” Sackson said.
Audrey and Alec were the force behind closing the doors to the shop in early March 2020, ahead of the first detected case of COVID-19 in Charlottesville. As small businesses all over the country fought for their financial lives, Ragged Mountain also struggled in knowing the best course of action.
According to one academic study, the number of active business owners in the United States plunged from 15.0 million to 11.7 million over the two‐month window from February to April 2020. No other 1‐, 2‐, or even 12‐month window experienced such a change in business activity, according to the study’s authors.
Mark Lorenzoni said at first he had disagreed with Audrey and Alec about closing, but “at that defining moment I have never been prouder of my two oldest kids.”
“Alec said, ‘Dad, all our lives you’ve always taught us to do the right thing and you said don’t let money rule your decision making. Dad, I don’t know you right now,’” Mark Lorenzoni said. “That was the defining moment for Cynthia and I. At that moment, I felt like that’s when the baton had been handed, because he was now treating me like a kid, not in a disrespectful way, but he was giving me a lecture.”
Even after closing starting March 13, 2020, the Lorenzonis kept doing free local deliveries and free shipping through their online store and over the phone and eventually began helping customers try on shoes outside the shop. They saw an outpouring of support from customers.
“It’s been really cool to see people that haven’t shopped here in 15 or 20 years come out and support us, and continue to support us online,” Sackson said. “So far, we figured out during COVID that we’ve shipped to almost all 50 states.”
“It sustained itself. Because we came back inside on Memorial Day  and we’ve had our best year we’ve ever had,” Mark Lorenzoni said.
As Audrey and Alec continue to take over more and more work at the shop, Mark and Cynthia said they think that they’ll step back from the shop sometime in the next few years and help fill in as needed.
“I will love that, because it’s like riding a bike,” Mark Lorenzoni said.
And as for Alec and Audrey, they feel like like they’ve stepped into the perfect fit.
“It’s fun helping people and it’s very satisfying to me that you’re making a little difference in someone’s life, especially if they come in with pain and they leave without,” Audrey said. “It’s amazing what shoes and inserts can do for someone.”