In June 1998, Mike Toolen founded Toolen’s Running Start in a quiet strip mall in Fairview Heights, Illinois. Now, 20 years later, he’s grateful that his second career worked out like it did.
“I had retired from the government, worked for them 32 years, and knew I wanted to get a job at a running store, a golf course or fitness place,” Toolen said. “I decided to open my own shop because there was nothing like that in Fairview Heights.”
A former racer who competed in about 60 events a year, from 5ks to marathons, Toolen credits his many running friends for the store’s success. “Our running friends supported us immensely, a lot of them coming all the way from St. Louis,” he said. “The biggest highlight of our 20 years, for me, is our dedicated customers.”
Toolen’s Running Start moved to a larger store in Shiloh, Illinois 13 years ago and over the years added race management and timing to its services. The shop now has a hand in about 100 events each year, including the annual Top of the Morning 5K in March and the Belleview Main Street Marathon in September.
“When we first opened, you had to run in St. Louis, so we started races over here,” Toolen said. “Now, you can run all over the place, in Carlyle, Valmeyer, Waterloo. It’s really changed.”
The store also offers marathon training and weekly speed work sessions. Toolen’s sons, Andrew and Sean, work side-by-side with their dad in a store filled with the family’s old trophies, medals and race bibs. While his best racing days may be behind him — “there’s nothing fast in these legs anymore,” he said — Toolen’s wit is still quick.
“The boys will probably kick me out of here someday, but I hope to be useful until I’m at least 80,” he joked. “I think we’ve been really lucky. I couldn’t have accomplished any of this without my family and friends and the support of the running community. It’s amazing, it sure doesn’t feel like 20 years.”