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“If I didn’t have some sort of part ownership, they’d probably fire me,” Sensenig joked.
As John’s has evolved over the years, realities of modern business have added complexity to the operation, from new marketing, to different social media platforms, to credit card chip readers and other innovative technologies. Sensenig and Marshall were both in agreement that John’s needed an owner willing to put in hundreds of hours.
“I’m an old guy; I still don’t do most of that stuff,” said Sensenig. “I’ve still got a flip phone.”
In October 2015, as this list of new responsibilities was being discussed, Marshall and Sensenig decided the next logical step was for her to buy the business.
“You find a bright person with an amazing amount of energy, and they’re so valuable to the organization,” said Sensenig.
Sensenig opened the store in 1977 under the name of an Atlanta franchise called Phidippides. In a Greek story, Phidippides ran 26.2 miles from Marathon to Athens to give news of a military victory, inspiring the modern marathon.
The original location was a couple doors down from its current spot in Chevy Chase. Over the years, it’s seen several name changes. After Phidippides, it became John’s Bluegrass Running and later, John’s Run Shop.
The final change from Run Shop to Run/Walk Shop was necessitated by the store’s customer base.
“A lot of the walkers would come in and they’d say, ‘I’m not a runner – I’m just a walker,’” said Sensenig. “I’d say, ‘No, you’re not just a walker. You’re active, you’re moving and you need a good pair of shoes.’”
Regardless of the shop’s subtitle, locals have known it simply as John’s since almost the beginning.
In addition to the original store, the company has opened two other locations. Across the street of the Ashland “flagship” location is John’s New Classic Shoes, which opened in the early 2000s, and four years ago, a second Run/Walk shop opened in Palomar Center.
While much of Sensenig’s life has revolved around running the shop, being a small-business owner wasn’t originally part of his planned career path. Born in Pennsylvania, he grew up in Texas. After receiving his PhD from Duke University in the 1960s, he moved to Lexington to teach social psychology at the University of Kentucky. He received tenure from UK and could have stayed on as a professor but decided it was time for a career change. The same year he opened up Phidippides, he finished his research and resigned from UK.
He became serious about running after competing in the first Bluegrass 10,000, a Lexington road race that just celebrated its 40th anniversary. To this day, even at 81, Sensenig runs three times a week.
Marshall began running when she was 12. Born in Baltimore, she relocated to Louisville and eventually moved to Lexington in 1983 to attend UK. She began working at John’s 14 years ago as Sensenig’s accountant and financial advisor.
Over the course of Marshall’s career at John’s, her responsibilities continued to grow into what they are now.
“Melody just evolved without either of us really planning it,” said Sensenig. “She just took on more and more of that whole new aspect of the business.”
To both Marshall and Sensenig, running and living a healthy lifestyle go hand in hand – you can’t have one without the other. Because of this, the company has shifted focus over time from simply a shoe store to an organization that promotes an all-around healthy lifestyle.
This shift is present in their health and wellness fairs, plantar fasciitis seminars, promotion of clean eating and fresh-pressed juice, a number of free Pilates classes they offer and a variety of running programs, including “couch-to-5k” training groups and a recently revamped cross-country series.
The change was partially fueled by running becoming more of a social sport – one of the reasons the store arranges group runs out of its Chevy Chase and Palomar locations.
John’s also presents a yearly race called the Iron Horse Half Marathon in Midway that was voted in Runner’s World Magazine as one of the top half marathons in the United States.
Sensenig and Marshall attribute much of the shop’s 40-year success to the fact that Lexington embraces local shopping.
“It’s a conscious decision to shop local, to not go to the big box store,” said Marshall. “It’s a conscious decision to not buy online, especially in today’s demographics.”
The store has cultivated a devoted customer base over the years, and Sensenig has been a core part of that growth, and Marshall and other members of the staff are glad he still plays a role in the shop’s day-to-day success, despite the changes.
“We want to be here, we want to keep this going,” said Marshall. “We love it; the employees love it; the community seems to love it. We’re hoping John’s still sitting here swapping old running stories when he’s 100 years old.”
In what he calls a “natural evolution” of his business, John’s Run/Walk Shop longtime owner, John Sensenig, has transferred the majority of his ownership to Melody Marshall, a 14-year employee.
“I’m ready to slow down,” said Sensenig, who is 81. “I’m old enough that I don’t need to be on the floor all the time. It’s the way small businesses grow. Melody is an integral part of the management now.”
Though owners have kept quiet about it for over a year now – Marshall became owner in January 2016 – the change may be imperceptible to customers for other reasons, as Sensenig is still at the store every day, still has part ownership and still continues to work, though in a limited capacity.