As career changes go, Danny Dreyer’s was a doozy. He had been making custom furniture for 15 years in Boulder, Colo. He loved it. “It was like being paid to be an artist,” he said.
Then his wife, Katherine, got an offer she couldn’t refuse, to run a start-up tech company in San Francisco. And starting in 1999, an entrepreneurial powerhouse was born.
Not the tech company, which did fine, too. The new venture that Danny launched with Katherine when they moved, inspired by their interest in tai chi, Danny’s love of running, and his view that too many fellow runners were hurting themselves by running with poor technique.
“There was no one teaching people how to run safely,” Danny said.
Danny found a Bay Area tai chi master to talk about the fluid movement that tai chi promotes and how that might be applied to running. Tai chi principles like cotton and steel (easy, relaxed movements from the outer limbs built around a strong, solid core) made sense to Danny as the basis for efficient, low-impact running.
Danny called the result Chi Running. In Danny’s eyes, it fixed the main evils of the dominant running style at the time. Young children tend to run leaning forward, in sort of a controlled, continuous fall. They don’t push off with their feet as much as move each foot ahead of the other to keep their upper body from smacking into the ground. Gravity pulls them forward.
As adults, we “learn” to run badly, thanks to stiffening and sitting and stress, and even some factors that don’t begin with the letter s. We tend to run more upright, so gravity can’t pull us forward. Instead, we push off with legs, inviting a host of leg injuries. America’s initial response to this trend was to create and promote running shoes with built-up heels to cushion the effects of this bad running style.
Danny had another idea: fix the running style. “We’ve taken the load off the legs,” he said.
For a taste of how Danny teaches the Chi Running technique, click here.
Many successful entrepreneurs start by doing something they’re passionate about and discover only after a few years that they can turn their passion into a business. Danny saw the business potential of Chi Running right off the bat. Nearly two-thirds of runners were reporting injuries of some kind every year. While there were plenty of running coaches out there by the end of the 20th century, there weren’t many emphasizing low-impact technique to avoid injury.
“When we started this whole business 15 years ago, we could see ourselves as pretty unique,” Danny said.
Danny began coaching Bay Area runners, and word spread quickly. In 2002, a friend convinced him to write a book.
The book was a critical step in launching the Chi Running business, but perhaps not in the way you think. “The book has never made us much money,” Danny said, even though he and Katherine were able to land a major publisher, Simon & Schuster. “A book is a foot in the door. We had to do that.”
More important, Danny saw that if the book became popular, other running coaches around the country would start teaching the techniques, and he’d lose control of Chi Running. “By the time the book comes out,” he decided, “we want to have an instructor training program in place.”
That’s exactly what he did, transitioning from running coach to primarily a coach of running coaches. Soon, there was a nationwide network of certified Chi Running instructors, and Danny was on his way to building a community that extended beyond running. We’ll tell that story in Part II.
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