They’re getting advice from national championship runners – one of whom is also a world-renown physical therapist – and men who came from a very different life in South Africa.
But they “ran” into each other and later stumbled upon the American dream in a Colorado mountain town called Boulder.
Though Mark Plaatjes and Johnny Halberstadt come from different backgrounds, their common interests – running, obtaining an education from an American university and finding an exhilarating way of life – brought them to the United States.
Johnny, the older of the two, first came to America on a long-distance running scholarship, attending Oklahoma State University. He became a six-time Big 8 Conference champion in track and cross-country, the 1972 NCAA 10,000 meter champion and placed third in the Boston Marathon on his third attempt at the distance.
When asked about other South African runners who might also perform well on a university track team in America, he thought of the young Mark, who was only 16 when they ran their first race together.
"I told them, ‘This guy would be great,’” Johnny says
"It was an amazing opportunity,” Mark says of earning his education by doing something he loved – running. “It was something I didn’t even think was available. … I’ve had many opportunities like that in my life; I’ve been very blessed."
Mark ended up at the University of Georgia, where he earned his pre-med degree. But when his father fell ill, he returned to South Africa and earned his master’s degree in physical therapy from the University of Witwatersran.
When he got “caught up” in apartheid in South Africa, he began considering returning to the U.S.
"The country was under martial law, so apartheid was at its strongest,” he says. “My daughter was 3 and I didn’t want her growing up in South Africa."
Mark was offered a position as a physical therapist working with disabled children in 1987, while on vacation in America with his family. He successfully won asylum and emigrated, making his home in Chicago, Illinois. When he had fulfilled his commitment to that practice, he moved his family to Boulder in 1989.
"Everyone raved about it (Boulder),” he says, noting he and his family loved the town when they visited it. “It had almost same altitude as where I was born; it felt very much like home to us."
As he worked as physical therapist, Mark continued to run, finishing sixth in the Boston Marathon in 1993 and winning the marathon event at the World Championships the same year. He has run the Bolder Boulder every year since coming to Boulder, as well.
Meanwhile, Johnny had completed his undergraduate degree in business and earned a MBA before returning to South Africa, where he combined his running career with footwear innovation and product development, as well as founding and operating three running stores. He became a prolific winner of high profile road races and held South African national titles in the marathon, the half marathon and cross-country events.
He came with his family to the U.S. in 1994 to pursue the American dream. “Mark was in Boulder and I had patents on footwear and I really wanted to come back,” he says. “If you’re in the footwear industry, America’s where it’s at. Boulder is the running mecca of the world."
While he was wary about getting back into retail again, it was Mark who convinced him that they could offer U.S. runners something different in a shoe store.
"I was doing gait analysis in my practice,” Mark says. “I was sending patients to local running stores to get shoes and they often came back with the wrong thing. They weren’t fitted properly."
Johnny knew if they were going to enter the retail running business again, it would need to offer expertise, pizzazz and excitement – especially if it was in the “mecca” of running.
Mark suggested their business offer in-store gait analysis, limiting the mistakes made when choosing shoes for customers. The two men opened the store in early 1996, and Mark moved his physical therapy practice to a space above the store in 1999.
"Both are things that I love and they’re offshoots of running,” he says. “It’s symbiotic between the practice and the store."
Today the Boulder Running Company now has locations in Littleton, Colorado Springs and Greenwood Village. They have built an enviable reputation for not only being the go-to stores for anything to do with running or walking, but also for their huge range of comfortable, attractive “Boulder lifestyle” footwear and apparel.
"It’s turned out to be a lot of fun despite all the work,” Johnny says "There probably easier ways to make a living, but you if love what you do, it doesn’t feel like work. … It’s been a wonderful ride."
Mark and his wife of 28 years, Shirley, have three daughters: Gene’, 27; Luz, 22; and Camille, 18. Johnny and his wife, Shona, have been married for 31 years. Their children, Jason, 29, and Caitlin, 26, are both married.
"Boulder has been really good to us, and the people of Boulder have really embraced us and supported us,” Mark says. “The community supports us and we support the community. We have been so blessed in Boulder, and it has been great to be able to give back in a small way."
Johnny adds: “We are proud and grateful to be citizens of this amazing country. Americans are incredibly friendly, especially here in Colorado. On the other hand, a part of us will always be South African, because Americans talk funny."
For more information about Boulder Running Store, call 1-800-807-6179 or 303-RUN-WALK or visit http://www.boulderrunningcompany.com/ .