Alumni Spotlight: Sean Rivers

August 13, 2014

B.A. Journalism and Public Communications ’03
Hometown: Sandy, Ore.
Fun Fact: Sean and his wife, Emily, have talked about launching a goat farm.

Sean Rivers captured a host of accolades in his UAA running career before becoming co-owner of a chain of Portland, Ore., running stores. (Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage)

Sean Rivers captured a host of accolades in his UAA running career before becoming co-owner of a chain of Portland, Ore., running stores. (Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage)

Sean Rivers made history for UAA when he became the first Seawolves runner to claim an individual conference title in the men’s 10,000-meter race at the Great Northwest Athletic Conference championships, finishing in 31 minutes, 28.37 seconds. And that was slower than his personal-best time—Rivers ran the race just a few days after a bout with bronchitis.

That same year, Rivers became the first UAA athlete to participate in the national outdoor track and field championships—he finished 10th in the 10,000 meters—and helped the men’s cross-country team qualify for nationals for the first time in program history.

Twelve years later, Rivers’ life still orbits around running, though in a vastly different way. Now, the co-owner of Foot Traffic, a chain of specialty stores in Portland, Ore., helps others discover and grow their passion for running.

“I love the sport, but I get way more joy seeing people enjoy running for intrinsic reasons versus competitive reasons—the ability to get outside, the psychology of it, where they can just shed some stress, get away from things for a little while,” he said. “I like that. I like to see people get involved with it and say ‘Wow.’ For many people, running was a punishment for a sport—you have to run laps if you’re out of line—but now they’re coming to enjoy it because it’s so convenient. It’s a really efficient way for anyone to get a workout for a fairly cheap price.”

Transcending trends

People who want to be happy runners need appropriate shoes and socks. While it’s certainly possible to run barefoot or in a pair of bargain kicks from a discount or big-box store, the likelihood is higher that if you buy the wrong footwear, you’ll experience blisters or a host of other painful foot, knee and hip mishaps.

Specialty-running stores (akin to Anchorage’s Skinny Raven) employ experienced runners and use treadmills and videocameras to evaluate a customer’s gait before guiding the customer to the most suitable shoe options.

Rivers says the three stores he co-owns with real estate consultant David Pietka provide that kind of guidance, as well as offering shoes, clothes and accessories runners want, including GPS watches, runners’ belts, toe socks, chafe protection, nutrition gels and self-defense spray.

Trends sweep in and out, he said, with one example being the barefoot- and minimalist-shoe running trend Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run sparked in 2009.

Rivers said he prefers to inform people rather than lecture them about trends like barefoot running.

“Did we have Vibram Five Fingers [shoes] in our store? Yes. Do we have them all liquidated now? Yes,” he laughed. “Are there a lot of minimally inspired shoes that have a lower drop, that are lighter and have more room in the toe? Yeah, because that was the best part of the trend. We didn’t need to be barefoot, though. If you’re running on cement and asphalt, does that sound like what our ancestors did? Even in Anchorage, where you have access to some of the most beautiful natural environment in the world, you’re still hitting asphalt and cement everywhere to get to your trails, unless you drive there every time.”

Rivers’ stores do more than simply equip runners. They train them as well, with “Foot Traffic University” and running skills clinics, and instill a sense of community through scavenger hunts and races: 5Ks (3.1 miles), half marathons (13.1 miles) and marathons (26.2 miles). The popular “Foot Traffic Flat” lures racers every Fourth of July to bucolic Sauvie Island, a nearby place known for its farms, beaches, bald eagles and songbirds and its fresh strawberry shortcake. The event raises money for the Sauvie Island Fire Department, Rivers said.

Growing that community requires communication skills Rivers honed while earning his bachelor’s degree in journalism at UAA. He writes press releases, newsletters and conjures events that generate buzz for Foot Traffic and its races and other events.

“It’s a creative outlet,” he said. “You can really have fun. Case in point, we’re building a custom rickshaw for our store, a true running rickshaw that’s Roman chariot-themed. Two people can sit in it. You can give rides for free or to raise money for charity—connect with people that way. It has a graphic wrap with our logo mixed with Roman elements, and has a speaker system built in. We’ll take it around to events and have it as a sag wagon if someone rolls their ankle—there are little pouches in there for ice, gels and other things.”

Other things?

“Well, I mean, beer,” Rivers laughed. “It has a keg built into it with a tap, and two Roman columns with water spigots built into them.”

Foot Traffic has also featured a chainsaw-carved Sasquatch weighing a ton and a half—“the original barefoot runner,” Rivers joked, which he acquired from a local carver and installed in one of the stores.

“That’s the fun part of business right there,” he said. “It was a front-page story in The Oregonian [newspaper]. It was a good newsworthy piece just coming out of the recession. The same guy who carved it carved a [Steve] Prefontaine out of the same tree.”

Steve “Pre” Prefontaine, a charismatic, moustached, long-locked runner from Coos Bay, Ore., is a running icon. He competed in the 1972 Olympics, helped spark the running boom of the 1970s and perished at the age of 24 when his orange 1973 MGB convertible swerved into a rock wall and flipped, trapping him underneath. Prefontaine had just competed at the May 29, 1975 NCAA Prep Meet in Eugene.

“When we moved our downtown store one block over to a bigger location,” Rivers said, “we put in this Prefontaine, called Prefontaine’s sister, got a couple of news stations to do coverage of it.”

Journeying into a new life

Rivers, like Pre, grew up in a small town, Sandy, Ore. He was one of six children—five of whom were runners— and ran in high school, well enough to attract the attention of a coach at Portland State University.

Sean Rivers runs in an Anchorage race during his time at UAA. (Photo courtesy of UAA Athletics)

Sean Rivers runs in an Anchorage race during his time at UAA. (Photo courtesy of UAA Athletics)

Alaska had always fascinated him, though.

“I always wanted to go to Alaska since I was a little kid,” Rivers told an Anchorage Daily News reporter, not long after his arrival in Anchorage. “My grandparents gave me a subscription to Alaska magazine years ago. It’s a very unique place.”

He told his PSU coaches he wanted out, that article said, and they connected him with UAA coach Michael Friess.

Rivers drove his 1973 Toyota Tercel up the Alaska Highway, alone, in October 1998. He reached Anchorage six frigid days later and launched his career as a student-athlete with a journalism major.

He earned numerous honors in 5,000, 8,000 and 10,000 meters races at UAA, suffered an Achilles tendon injury that required surgery and a long period of rehabilitation and then emerged to compete at the national level in cross country and track and field competitions.

Along the way, Rivers managed to have fun during his career at UAA. Once he healed, Rivers traveled to the NCAA West Regionals in 2001. On the eve of the event, he and the other Seawolves men decided to fashion their hair into Mohawks. Friess told them to shave off the strip of upright hair but promised they could shave his head as well if they qualified for the national championships the next day. They made school history by finishing third and becoming the first Seawolf running team to advance to the national meet.

Rivers also rode a mountain bike in a horse-runner-biker triathlon in 2002. “You know how I knew I was lost? No more horse poop,” Rivers told an ADN reporter at the time.

The fun didn’t deflect Rivers from his studies, however—he was one of four cross country runners who consistently earned a spot on the GNAC’s all-academic team.

Rivers earned his journalism degree, with an emphasis in print media, in 2003, and planned to use his newfound knowledge on the road, writing freelance articles about environmental issues on a laptop while traveling around the country in an RV.

Rivers decided first to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. Nine hundred miles later, he ran out of money, returned to Portland and found a job at Foot Traffic.

“A trip to the dentist determined my fate, and the $2,000 bill didn’t leave any cash left over for the RV and the computer,” he said, in a 2007 story in UAA’s Accolades magazine.

Finding new niches

Five months later, he received the opportunity to buy the Foot Traffic stores. Co-owner Pietka came from the business and real estate world—a much different place, Rivers said, than his world.

“I came from the background of being an employee, being the guy that’s making nine bucks an hour, saving all the money I can to buy my first house,” Rivers said.

In the past four years, Rivers married his wife, Emily, and the couple had two children.

“My family’s inspiring, they’re fun,” Rivers said. “My wife is totally open to ideas. She’s an enabler. I like to bounce ideas off of her. All the things I’ve done the last four years, you’d think that when you have too many things going on, the time for creativity would fall off, but when you start going down that path it starts to generate new creative ideas.”

Back in college, Rivers said Skinny Raven offered him a job, “and I said ‘No, I don’t want to work in a running store. I don’t know what it was. Maybe I was just being difficult. Who knows why you made decisions when you were 21.”

Now, Rivers loves his stores, loves running, loves helping people and seeing them get fit and especially loves using the stores as a way to reach out to help Portland’s fire departments, schools, nonprofits and kids’ sports organizations.

“Running is accessible, it’s social and you don’t have to have any special skill,” Rivers said. “You don’t have to be fast to do it and you don’t have to be coordinated to do it. How else would I have been able to raise half a million dollars for the community without being a shopowner, unless I was some kind of tycoon or wealthy person? You can’t just do that. It is kind of a nice platform to be involved with your community.”


Written by Tracy Kalytiak, UAA Office of University Advancement

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