I first met Ray Pugsley shortly after he and his wife Cathy – along with Cathy’s sister and husband – opened one of their two first Potomac River Running Stores in Ashburn, Virginia in 2003. At the time, I was coaching marathoners for Worldgate Sport & Health and approached Ray and Cathy to see if they’d be interested in holding a shoe clinic for my runners. Even though they were in the process of beginning their own very successful coaching program as part of their new running store, they agreed, and a great relationship was born.
Not only does Potomac River Running put on running clinics for area high school cross country teams, but they help community organizations and local running groups, too. A few years ago, they held a biomechanics of running clinic for our MRTT chapter, part of their continuing outreach to the community.
Local runners, if you haven’t visited a Potomac River Running Store, stop by your nearest location and check them out. Their customer service is fantastic and if they don’t have what you need, they’ll call around to their other locations to see if they can find it. It’s that kind of customer service that makes their stores a pleasure to visit.
Thank you, Ray, for taking the time to answer my questions so thoroughly. As you read through Ray’s answers, I’m sure you’ll get a sense that’s he’s a really nice guy. Let me assure you, he’s every bit as wonderful in person as he appears in the interview.
Without further ado, here’s my interview with Ray Pugsley.
Deb – Were your parents runners, or did someone else close to you get interested in running?
Ray – My parents were not runners. In hindsight, my dad says that he must have had some unknown running talent because in the army he was able able to withstand long marches and runs at boot camp and other training programs better than most. I first noticed that I had some talent in running during 3rd grade when my teacher in California would have us run around the school property to burn off energy and I would always win.
Deb – What was your first race, how old were you, and how did you feel when you finished?
Ray – My first race was during field day in elementary school after moving to NJ in 4th grade. It was 2 laps around the outside of the soccer field. I finished 4th in the race because I didn’t try my hardest. I was afraid that if I beat those other 3 kids in front of me, who were “the cool kids”, people wouldn’t like me. I always regretted that decision and said that I would never purposely let someone beat me ever again. The next year (5th grade) I won convincingly.
High School And College Success
Deb – Did you run high school or college track or cross country, and if so what are some of your best memories from those experiences?
Ray – I ran high school (Mendham HS), college (Dartmouth College), and post collegiately (for Nike and Reebok). My proudest memory in high school was the Morris County 1600 championship my senior year. I was seeded 2nd by a lot to a cross town rival. I decided I needed to do something extraordinary to win so I went for it. I went out very fast (59 second first lap) to try to break him and get away. I held the lead until the last 20 meters and ended up 2nd by less than a second…but ran my best time at 4:21. While it didn’t work, I was close, ran my best time, and gave the crowd a great show. In my senior year in college, I had not been able to run a 5K during outdoor track due to injury and running other races going into the league championship. However, it was clear that I was not only fit enough to be in the top heat but that I was a favorite. The other coaches in the league chose to stick to the seeding rules and not make an exception for me to be in the top heat. Apparently my coach, Vin Lananna, told the other coaches in the seeding meeting that “Ray would just have to win out of the slow heat and you won’t be able to do anything about it”, which is what I did!
Deb – What distances did you run when you were younger and what distances do you prefer today?
Ray – Besides cross country, on the track in college I ran the mile, 3000 Meter Steeplechase, and the 5K. My love was the steeplechase. I qualified for the NCAA champs, USATF champs, and ran the Olympic Trials in 1992, making it to the semi finals. Between 1993 and 1995 I had season compromising injuries every year due to hurdling and decided in 1996 to switch to the 5K. It was a good decision as I finished 6th in the finals at the 1996 Olympic Trials. My best times are 3:47 1500, 4:03 mile, 8:38 3K Steeple, 13:42 5K, 29:04 10K. Today, my preferred distance is 5K on the roads.
Deb – Do you train alone or with other people? From where do you draw your running motivation?
Ray – I almost always train alone these days. Oddly, I don’t really “like to run”, I like to challenge myself and race but putting in all those base miles are necessary to compete well. My motivation is internally generated by my desire to challenge myself to push my limits.
Moving Past A Back Injury
Deb – You once told me that you had a serious back injury when you were quite a bit younger, yet you made an amazing comeback and have had a very successful running career. How did you injure yourself, what did you have to have done to repair your injury, and how long did it take to recover?
Ray – I have had 3 back surgeries (1996, 2003, and 2014). None of them came from any particular accident or injury…..my back has been giving me trouble since I was 15 before I even started running seriously. In all 3 cases, I was back running within 3 months of surgery. Being fit before surgery was very helpful to my recovery, but also following “doctor’s orders” played a big part. I didn’t want to mess around with my back, so doing a proper rehab was important to me. I ran all my track PR’s after surgery in 1996 and ran a 2:34 marathon in 2013 ten years after my second surgery (spinal fusion!). Currently, my back is doing very well.
Deb – Were you told you shouldn’t run after your back injury?
Ray – Only by my parents! My doctor, Dr. Thomas Schuler of Virginia Spine Institute told me that I would be able to do anything I wanted to do (from a sporting perspective) after each surgery and he has been right so far!
Deb – What would you recommend to people who have had similar injuries – for both younger and older runners?
Ray – I would encourage all athletes to work on having a strong core and to avoid inaction if suffering from a chronic injury. I am on the Spinal Research Foundation (SRF), a non-profit aimed at educating people on spinal health, where I see that technology has come so far that no one should consider a spinal issue to be the end of athletics in his/her life.
Looking Ahead, What’s Next For Ray Pugsley
Deb – What races are on your 2018 calendar?
Ray – I don’t have any major goal races in 2018, other than the annual family 5K in the Outer Banks in July (Brindley Beach Lighthouse 5K). I usually jump in our PRR 5Ks on weekends when I am not committed to driving our kids to soccer or helping with something in one of our stores.
Deb – What races are on your bucket list – either distances or specific races?
Ray – I have not run any of the major marathons, so I would like to run NYC/Chicago/or Boston as a casual runner at some point. Also, I would like to run the Carlsbad 5K in California some day.
A Family Of Runners?
Deb – Your wife Cathy is also a very accomplished runner. Did you meet through running?Do your children run?
Ray – Yes, Cathy was All-American at William and Mary and we met when we both ran for Reebok back in the 90s. Our children (Lia 13 and Jenna 10) have the “running genes” but we have kept them away thus far because they are surrounded by running all the time and I don’t want them to get tired of it and push running away. When they decide to try, I am confident they will also be successful.
Running A Successful Running Store And Racing Company
Deb – What made you decide to open Potomac River Running Store? Who are your partners, and how many stores do you and your partners own today?
Ray – We decided to open PRR in 2003 after my wife Cathy and my brother-in-law Brendan Shapiro (currently on the 36th season of Survivor…..everyone watch!!!) wanted to get out of the consulting world. We all wanted to turn our passion into our job. Cathy and I, along with Margie and Brendan Shapiro, were the original owners. Margie and Brendan went back to teaching in 2015. Cathy and I own 8 stores, 7 in NOVA and 1 in DC.
Deb – How are Potomac River Running Store and PRR Races connected?
Ray – Potomac River Running owns 25 races of various lengths (as seen on prraces.com). Our race management company, Commonwealth Race Management, is a stand-alone company which times these 25 races along with about 90 other contracted races.
Final Words Of Wisdom
Deb – Do you have anything additional you would like to add?
Ray – My two parting comments: 1) as you get older as a runner, rest is so very important! Scheduling rest is as important as scheduling your runs/workouts. 2) Retail is extremely tough these days. If people like having physical stores to visit and like the community involvement provided by local small businesses, runners and walkers should make every effort to “shop local” or else local shopping will go away.
- What additional questions would you like to ask Ray Pugsley?
- Have you had a serious injury, and if so, how did you move past it?
- What is your favorite distance to race, and did you run in high school or college?
Happy Running! ~ Deb