Shoe-in

Museum offers look at history, significance of running shoes

Posted: November 9, 2017 at 4 a.m.

NWA Democrat-Gazette/J.T. WAMPLER Vintage shoes are on display at the Rush Running shoe museum in Bentonville. Owner Mike Rush asserts the collection is one of the most well-documented in the country.

Every day you've got running shoes on, it's a good day.

-- Sean Astin, "Runners' World" interview

Rush Running Shoe Museum

What: A collection of some 250 running shoes presenting history, triumphs and even missteps in technology and achievements of athletic footwear.

When: Store hours — 10 a.m.to 7 p.m. Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, noon to 4 p.m. Sunday

Where: Rush Running Co., 1600-2 S.E. J St., Bentonville

Cost: Free

Information: (479) 464-7866, rushrunning.com, facebook.com/rushrunning

FYI: Rush Running’s next big race is the “Back 40 Trail Race” on Dec. 9. Registration is currently open. See more details at the store’s website.

NWA Democrat-Gazette/J.T. WAMPLER Mike Rush shows a running shoe with a removable sole at the Rush Running shoe museum in Bentonville. The 1985 Turnte...

NWA Democrat-Gazette/J.T. WAMPLER Sports memorabilia, in addition to shoes, is on display at the Rush Running shoe museum in Bentonville. This include...

NWA Democrat-Gazette/J.T. WAMPLER Stuart Jackson (left) and Mike Rush chat at the shoe museum at Rush's Bentonville store Rush Running Co. The museum ...

Although Mike Rush admits his average customers are walkers or those on their feet all day -- someone just looking for a comfortable pair of shoes -- the staff at the three locations of his store Rush Running Co. are at the ready to explain cushioning, stability components, gate inefficiencies and each element's effect on the foot.

"My staff is -- I will argue this 'til the day I die -- one of the most educated shops in the country," Rush asserts. "We have a month-long training process. They've learned every bit of technology from every brand. So our fitting process is an education to each customer."

But for those "sneaker heads" and "shoe geeks" interested in a more historical kind of education, Rush's Bentonville shop offers one of the most unusual and extensive collections in the country. Some 250 running shoes line the walls of the museum display, peeking out from the loft space overlooking the store showroom. Shoes from across brands and across history -- dating to the 1920s -- demonstrate not only changing fashions and trending colors, but also technological advancements and even failures. The exhibition comprises shoes from Rush's own childhood, local legendary runners, limited releases and eccentric designs.

"There's lots of history here and lots of stories to be told with individual shoes," says store employee and museum collaborator Stuart Jackson on a sunny afternoon in September as he indicates notable pieces of the collection.

There is magic in misery. Just ask any runner.

-- Dean Karnazes

Ultramarathon runner and author of "Ultramarathon Man"

What began as a dream and boxes of old shoes and memorabilia in Rush's garage found a home in 2015 when Bentonville planning commissioners approved plans for Rush's 8,000-square-foot building on S.E. J Street (3,000 square feet of which is occupied by Premiere Physical Therapy), moving the business out of its formerly leased space and into its current home.

Stuart Jackson's older brother, Ryan, who had done some of his own research into the history of the footwear during his athletic career, recalls seeing the museum mentioned in a press release.

"I showed up to [Rush's] Monday night track workout in Bentonville, and after the workout was over, I said, 'Hey, I read the press release. What's your vision for the museum?'" Ryan Jackson remembers. "And he said, 'I want a history of running through shoes.'"

With Rush's vision and beginnings of a collection, Ryan Jackson's interest since childhood in researching athletic shoes, and Stuart Jackson's equal enthusiasm and curiosity for the history of the sport they all loved, the wheels started to turn.

"We just started feeding off each other, and I became an enabler," Stuart Jackson says with a laugh, "because I would go [online] and just be looking at [tons of] stuff. But I think it really took off when we got Gary Smith."

Gary Smith, owner of Little Rock's Easy Runner (now Fleet Feet Easy Runner), donated "a ton of old shoes" to Rush when he sold his business of more than three decades. The same thing happened last year when Bob Roncker (a friend and mentor to Rush in the running store business) of Roncker's Running Spot in Cincinnati, Ohio -- Rush's wife's hometown -- gave Rush the pick of his own small shoe museum after selling his more than 30-year-old business. With the two huge donations, Rush Running's shoe museum had accumulated more sneakers than they would ever have room for.

"We were like kids in a candy store. We were sitting up here for hours just looking at them," Rush enthuses.

"When we first started, it was really more about what we could get," Ryan Jackson adds. "So we [analyzed] hundreds of shoes and ended up keeping dozens of them. It was really neat to look across all brands -- some brands don't even exist anymore -- and say, 'What is this?' and 'Is it important?'"

While the acquisitions were exciting, those hundreds of shoes also brought hundreds of hours of research -- identifying, naming and building stories around each pair that would belong to the collection. Other shoes have made their way to the museum shelves as gifts from local runners or visitors to the store, or through eBay bidding and online searches. But even those require a degree of investigation to justify their significance as an addition to the museum.

"It's fun, but let me tell you, some of these shoes get frustrating," Rush reveals. "If you can't find any visual evidence that a shoe existed, yet you're holding it in your hand, it's like, 'Why!'"

"With so much of the history obviously coming before the internet and before the information age, there's not a lot of record-keeping out there on a lot of this stuff," Ryan Jackson affirms. "So one of the ways that's actually helped a lot is Mike also has a very extensive collection of running magazines -- Runners' World, Track and Field News, among others -- that are chock full of advertisements starting in the late 1960s and early 1970s -- a lot of them not even in color -- that have allowed us to identify a good handful of the models. So that's kind of neat because that's beyond the search pages of Google. It's hard copy."

I believe in gradual experimentation with running shoes.

-- Bill Rodgers

Runner

With their shelves full of vintage to modern Nike, Adidas, New Balance, Brooks shoes and more, the three sneaker fanatics can now afford to be selective in the pieces they add to the walls. With the hope of exhibiting interesting moments in design history, as well as celebrating the sport by highlighting both local history and internationally significant contributions, Rush contends their collection is one of the most well-documented in the country.

Visitors to the museum can see leather, spiked track shoes from the 1920s worn by University of Arkansas athletes, shoes owned by former record-holders and even a pair gifted by an Iron Man World Championships qualifier from Fayetteville. There are also firsts represented in the collection -- like the first available three-dimensional printed running shoe, Nike's first heart-rate monitor and the first ribbed out sole used on a running shoe.

"My dad talked about having a pair like this one here, and so, it's just history," Stuart Jackson muses, indicating a pair of running shoes on the wall.

"That's what I think is the coolest part," Rush adds. "We have guys in their 60s come in, and they're like, 'I ran in this shoe!' or 'This was my first pair of running shoes,' and they'll point one out, and that is awesome. You can see their face light up, and I really like that response."

Surpassing the nostalgia and local ties, pieces in the collection like the Nike roller skates from the 1970s -- four wheels bolted to a Nike waffle trainer -- or the 1985 Turntec Apex with a replaceable, Velcroed out sole, offer a compelling, if not humorous, glimpse at what companies thought consumers would respond to.

"To be able to look at all of the time and research and development and technology that's been put into developing the footwear, and then combine that with stories of great athletic performances or innovations that really caught on that nobody saw coming, it helps tell unique stories," Ryan Jackson shares. "That's where I find the enjoyment, is that there's so many stories to be told through something as simple as a shoe."

And Rush and the Jackson brothers (or any of the Rush Running staff) are all too happy to share those stories with visitors. In a time when it's easy to be considered a "runner" -- all one really needs is a good pair of shoes and some willpower -- contemporary participants in the sport might not realize the conditions and equipment in which athletes used to have to perform.

"Back then, people had to adapt to that footwear" due to the lack of technology, Stuart Jackson shares. "But I think what you have now is better cushioning, which I think can contribute to longevity because you're not beating your body up as much. So even if even if you can adapt to that less cushion, to me it would seem like you can still go farther with newer technology because you're putting less stress on your body."

"Like, if I ran a marathon in that today, I'd be crippled for the next year," Rush confesses while animatedly discussing one of the classic models.

Want a strong, solid relationship that is willing to go the distance? Get to know your running shoes.

-- Dean Karnazes

Back down in the showroom, those improvements to stability and comfort can be, at the same time, obvious and indistinct to a customer's untrained eye, which is why Rush's employees possess the knowledge to help customers find their customized fits -- an experience for which the shop has earned national attention. Between Rush's position as a figurehead in, and the contributions his business has made to the sport of running, publications and individual runners across the country are taking notice of the running culture in Northwest Arkansas and Bentonville, specifically.

Between sponsoring charity runs -- more than 50 a year -- the workouts and run groups organized through the shop, and the business's partnership with the safety campaign Travel With Care NWA, Mike Rush and Rush Running have become inextricably woven into the local running community. The shoe museum, the three men hope, only provides another way for people to connect over their shared love of running and of history.

"It is interesting to think about the local museum culture," Ryan Jackson says. "When I moved to Northwest Arkansas nine years ago, that was not really on anybody's radar. In the same way that you go to Crystal Bridges, and there's stories to be told through innovation and artwork, there's stories to be told through footwear. It adds to our local culture of storytelling through artifacts, and I think that's a lot of fun."

"To me, when I feel like the museum has reached its full potential is when people are coming in from out of town going, 'I heard about this museum,'" Rush admits. "It's awesome to have a running store and that it can support this habit I have for running memorabilia. But I want to share it. That's my goal. I want people to see it and be like, 'That is cool.'"

Jocelyn Murphy can be reached by email at jmurphy@nwadg.com or on Twitter @NWAJocelyn.

NAN Our Town on 11/09/2017