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No offense, runners, but the endurance this company is recognizing isn’t yours

Shannon Connolly's entrepreneurial mission is summed up in her company Spectator Sports' tagline, "Swag for the sport of racing support."

Shannon Connolly shows off the medals her wife won in races. Connolly's job was cheering, which has inspired her to start an apparel business catering to race spectators.
Shannon Connolly shows off the medals her wife won in races. Connolly's job was cheering, which has inspired her to start an apparel business catering to race spectators.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA

In the running world, race day is, simply put, punishing.

There's the weather — cold, like what is expected for this weekend's Philadelphia half and full marathons; hot and humid in the summer months.

There are morale challenges, like hills, unrelenting headwinds, and more hills.

And there's the fatigue, especially in legs that hurt and feel heavy by the end.

The day is also tough for the runners.

But Shannon Connolly's focus as founder and chief executive of Spectator Sports is all the selfless souls lining courses to cheer on those wearing the race bibs. She's part of that community as the wife of Ruth Dickinson, a tennis pro who has run multiple marathons, including Berlin's, which she tackled on their honeymoon in 2016.

"When the race is over, I'm a little spent from it," Connolly, 31, said in her home office in Manayunk, wearing one of her creations — a T-shirt imprinted with #serialspectator.

Her entrepreneurial mission is summed up in her company's tagline, "Swag for the sport of racing support." But she was quick to point out much of Spectator Sports' offerings could just as easily work on the sidelines of kids' soccer games, or, one might add, from a shady spot on the porch while your significant other mows the lawn.

Here to cheer and Hurry up we're missing brunch have broad application.

Since the company's launch in June, sales (adult shirts sell for $28 to $30; kids' $22 to $25) grew to $5,000 by the end of October, Connolly said, due in large part to social media micro-influencers with valuable followings, such as Amy Jay (@gofastmommy on Instagram), a runner and mother of two in Arizona.

"As runners, we rely so much on our 'support systems,' aka our families, and it's so fun for them to have special race day attire, too," Jay wrote in a direct Instagram message Tuesday. At her races, her kids now wear Spectator Sports' Here to Cheer shirts and her husband, Adam, one that says First Cheer then Beer. "I just love the company and what they stand for!"

Sixty percent of Spectator Sports' orders are for children's wear; among the popular offerings is a hot-pink onesie with the stroller reference Just Rollin' With It. Connolly projects revenue to reach $25,000 within the first year of business, with her goal to have the website be the main driver of sales. Currently, race expos are driving sales (Spectator Sports will be represented at the Philadelphia Marathon expo), which Connolly expects will grow 50 percent a year, in part because of plans to expand beyond apparel.

Acknowledging that any type of T-shirt business, no matter how original the niche, is "easily replicated," Connolly said her plan is to be a one-stop shop of sorts for running spectators, featuring, for instance, an app to help them meet along race routes, learn about a host city's subway system, find lodging, and even know where to buy a runner a mid-marathon Coke. (Yes, Connolly had to do that for Dickinson in Paris.)

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Where did the Villanova native and French major at the University of Southern California, who for the last six years was working in the insurance industry specializing in international employee benefits, get the idea for a specialty apparel business? At a race, naturally — the Paris Marathon in April. Specifically, at the prerace expo, where runners pick up their bib amid a sea of vendors.

"I found myself doing what I've done at more expos than I can count, which is looking for a souvenir for me," Connolly said. "And it's hard to find. There were amazing shirts with the course map on them, which I could never wear with any integrity. I didn't run that course."

Then she noticed something else.

"There are more people here like me than there are runners," Connolly recalled, noting the same would be true on race day, "… and yet when it comes to these events, the runners are really the only ones being marketed to."

The seed was planted, with a website built that same month. Connolly had just quit her job in the insurance industry before that trip to Paris. She recently started a job as a management consultant in the health-care industry.

Spectator Sports has a charitable bent. Every month, $1 from each online sale is donated to a designated charity. For November, it's the American Diabetes Association.