Before 2008, Matthew Abitbol never imagined himself as a runner. After struggling with his weight during high school and college, Abitbol decided to make a commitment to himself to take control of his health.

After one year of careful eating and exercise, he lost 100 pounds. But keeping weight off would prove to be just as difficult as losing it, so in 2008 running became part of Abitbol’s daily routine.

Owner Matthew Abitbol outside Commonwealth Running store on Sherman Avenue. Credit: Ethan Ravi

Eighty-five marathons later, he is the founder and owner of Commonwealth Running Company, a running-gear store at 1631 Sherman Ave.

Abitbol’s beginnings as a runner are not the most common among the running community. Born and raised in Chicago, he played a lot of pick-up basketball, but never thought of running as something he might enjoy.

While many devoted runners start the sport at a very young age, Abitbol took it up much later in life, but fell in love with running nonetheless.

“In running, everybody has their own goal. And you can get into a race and you can kind of use someone else to push you, but it’s not really you against them,” said Abitbol.

He went on to add, “I liked it because there’s camaraderie amongst runners where you’re rooting for each other.”

While he started running as a way to maintain his health, his inspiration to run soon blossomed into a long and decorated running career. Among his 85 marathons, 13 are in the prestigious and competitive Boston Marathon.

In 2013, when bombs went off in the last legs of the Boston Marathon, killing three people and wounding hundreds more, Abitbol was two blocks away. He had just finished his race and was at a hotel preparing for his departure.

Learning what happened while at the airport, he was shocked. “Really everything that ensued the following weeks after that really kind of spoke to me, and the idea that that could have been me. I could have easily been there.”

That experience drove Abitbol to work toward a new personal record (PR) during the next year’s Boston Marathon.

“And training for the next year, I decided that I wanted to PR at Boston that following year. And I trained harder than I ever had and really focused on that and thought about the people that died and went back and PR-ed. It’s probably the race I remember the most vividly. Even though I ran it the fastest and I was very focused on what I was doing.”

Although Abitbol is an experienced runner, during his running career he felt a lack of connection to the people at the running stores where he shopped. He felt that getting into running could be very intimidating for the burgeoning runner, since that was his experience at the start of his running career.

“I didn’t have this identity with the people that I would see at these [running] shops or the people that worked at the shops,” explained Abitbol. “They never really spoke to me as someone who had been heavy most of their life and started running,” he added.

But even though running could be a very exclusive sport, Abitbol saw a way to make it more accepting of people like him, who might not have run all their lives and might not call themselves a “runner”. That is how the idea of making his own, less intimidating, running store came into the picture. 

Abitbol works on creating a less intimidating environment in his store so inexperienced runners feel a sense of inclusivity. Credit: Ethan Ravi

“I saw a way to work in something that I loved and do something that I loved, and also communicate with people who might be coming from somewhere very similar to where I was coming from, versus someone who kind of grew up and started running from a very young age,” said Abitbol.

“I liked that.”

Abitbol started to build toward the idea of his dream running store very simply, with a separate bank account. But it soon became a much bigger time commitment than that, and Abitbol was ready for the challenge. In order to achieve his dream, he realized that he would need to start learning all he could about the running industry, in addition to all the other factors that go into starting a store. All those necessary skills take time to learn, and Abitbol had to find that time if he wanted to see out his dream.

“It really starts with the investment. Just as much as it is a financial investment, it’s an investment of your own time,” he said. During all the long hours spent turning his dream into a reality, Abitbol realized the importance of having a passion for what he wanted to create.

“You have to ask yourself why you’re really doing it. If you’re doing it for the right reasons, I think it’ll go really well. Some things you can do for money and some things are designed for that, but this isn’t one of them,” he said.

Now that his idea has come to fruition, Abitbol said he tries to incorporate his main mission for the store into its everyday operation. This driving ideal of inclusivity for all runners even reaches into the name and logo of the store. 

After polling 250 runners on the attributes of different store names, Commonwealth was voted the name that felt the most welcoming. That aspect of the name was very important to Abitbol, and he wanted to reflect that inclusivity in the logo as well.

“I didn’t make a logo where it had a man or a woman running because if you look, most running store logos are like a man or woman. And I just didn’t want that,” he said. “I wanted someone to feel comfortable who thinks ‘Well, I’m not a runner, so that’s not for me.’ I wanted something neutral.”

As his neutral logo, Abitbol chose a red, orange and yellow tiger, pictured mid-stride while running.

The other part of building a running community for all comes from events organized by the store. Over the past few years, Abitbol and his team have strived to host gathering events for runners, such as yoga sessions and weekly runs. 

In the future, Abitbol hopes to host weekly brunch runs as another option for runners to be able to convene and bond together. Another goal of his at Commonwealth Running Company is to continue to sponsor community events, even if they are not running-related.

“We want to help the Evanston area and the Evanston community as much as we can,” said Abitbol.

In addition to his store-related goals, Abitbol wants to continue to push himself to run marathons and hopes to reach 100 completed marathons in the coming years.

Matthew Abitbol may not have originally thought of himself as a runner, but after turning his dream into the reality of Commonwealth Running Company, he is still running strong.

Ethan Ravi is a summer intern at the Evanston RoundTable.