The symbiotic success of Omar Abdi and Running Niche stems from a match made in the closest thing to heaven for St. Louis’ young urban professionals: The Grove. Since Abdi strolled into the neighborhood’s newest running store last fall, both have taken off.

Though he played soccer briefly at Parkway South, Abdi, 27, started running just two years ago, when his brother asked him to go for a jog in Forest Park. Two weeks later, he entered the GO! ST. Louis 5K and finished in 19 minutes.

“I liked it right away, then it got to be a habit. And my time started to improve,” said Abdi. Six months later, he clocked 16:43 in winning the 2017 Great GO! Halloween 5K. Hoping to get even faster, Abdi trained by running six-minute miles — with modest improvement. When he needed a new pair of shoes, he walked to Running Niche, just a few blocks from his home. Bob Dyer and his wife, Jennifer Henderson, opened the shop a few months earlier in a storefront on Manchester that resembles an annex more than a niche.

“We started talking about training because I didn’t know what else to do,” Abdi said. When Dyer heard Abdi’s story, “I told him about our training system. I knew he could improve.”

Certified in the Lydiard Training Method, Dyer and Henderson quickly became mentors. Developed by New Zealander Arthur Lydiard in the 1960s, the system features training blocks as long as 24 weeks, built on a foundation of slow miles. The philosophy runs contrary to the methods of many high school and college coaches, who rely more heavily on speed work and intervals.

“This isn’t ‘Survive a 10K in 10 weeks,’” Dyer said. “This is for the long haul.”

Though he lacked an aerobic base and racing savvy, Abdi also didn’t have the wear and tear that a decade of intense training can put on a body. “He’s a blank slate with no baggage,” Dyer said. Some of the other elite runners who have signed up for Lydiard at Running Niche “have to learn to slow down. They are so interval-oriented.”

Abdi completed his first cycle this spring. He targeted the Alton Half Marathon, which he won in 1:15:51. He followed with a victory in the CDM Mind & Body 5K and podium finishes at the Ferguson Twilight 10K and GO! St. Louis All-American 5K. His overnight success has made him an effective ambassador for Running Niche and Lydiard. The store’s roster of athletes using the Lydiard method, which includes free coaching, increased from 18 in the spring to more than 40 training for fall races.

Abdi’s next goal is the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon in early November. He’s shooting for 2:20, one minute faster than Dyer’s PR.

An All-American at Saginaw Valley State in the early ’80s, Dyer worked his way through grad school as an employee at the Tortoise and Hare, a boutique running store in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he met Henderson. After earning a master’s degree in exercise physiology, he worked for Etonic, Puma, Brown, and MBT, traveling the world and learning every phase of product development.

With decades of insights and contacts, he decided to set up shop with Henderson in May 2018. Running Niche carries Brooks, Mizuno, and Hoka One One, as well as 361 Degrees, Altra, Newton, and On. Dyer’s knowledge of how the sausage is made, “gave me insight into options, shoes with something that set them apart, and allowed us to offer something for everybody. It’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle.”

The shoe wall at Running Niche in the Grove neighborhood of St. Louis.

The shoe wall at Running Niche in the Grove neighborhood of St. Louis.

The Grove was ideal for its proximity to Cortex and the flourishing residential neighborhood.

“We’re in a part of the city that isn’t served by the other running stores,” Henderson said. “What makes us unique is we fashioned out a neighborhood store to be like Tortoise and Hare, a geeky running store. But we’re not just for the elite, skinny runner. We were banking on a young, active consumer looking for a place to gather to run and to talk about running.”

In addition to the 40 or so who train with Lydiard, Running Niche also offers social group runs, so the owners are fast becoming surrogate running parents for the neighborhood. Combined with the one-on-one coaching and daily grind of running the business, Mom and Pop have all they can handle.

“We believe the owner has to be in the store,” Henderson said. “Besides, you can’t take two old people and spread them too thin. But we love every minute of it. It’s a good exhaustion.”

Author: Kathleen Nelson is a regular contributor to Terrain Magazine.
Featured Image: Running Niche owners Bob Dyer and Jennifer Henderson with ambassador Omar Abdi. (Kathleen Nelson)