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This Saturday, February 2, Forest Park will host the USA Cross Country Championships for the second straight year. The event brings hundreds of athletes, including many of the country’s elite and Olympic runners, to St. Louis. In last year’s championship, former Washington University runner Dave Spandorfer came in a respectable 35th, finishing the 12k race in a time of 39:47. (That’s a pace of 5:21 per mile.) These days, Spandorfer is running (no pun intended) Janji, a charitable running-apparel company that he founded with fellow Wash. U. runner Mike Burnstein. We asked Spandorfer, a Philadelphia native who recently moved back to the East Coast but calls St. Louis his home away from home, about how his company is helping the hungry and what it’s like to run in a hurricane.
What brought you to St. Louis? College? Originally, it was for Wash. U. Then I stayed an extra year to work at Big River Running Company, which was named one of the top four running stores of the year. I really got to know the city well. I really love it.
What are your favorite St. Louis things? Well, as a runner, Forest Park is number one. I would say my favorite place to run is St. Louis. My favorite St. Louis unique food is toasted ravioli. I love toasted ravioli.
You probably can’t eat much toasted ravioli when you’re training for a race. [Laughs.] Not too much. My favorite bar is Blueberry Hill. South City is probably my favorite place to be.
What was your experience like in last year’s cross country championships? That day was very cold. It was very chilly, but it was a lot of fun. It was the coldest day of the year. I think it was like 17 degrees during race time. We were telling everyone, like, “I swear, it’s not normally this cold in St. Louis. I promise. It’s just a bad day.” I was with a person from Hawaii. He was like, “I can’t believe you live like this.”
Did you get to meet some world-class runners? I didn’t meet the winner, Bobby Mack, but I met a bunch of the other guys there. I met Desiree Davila. That was really cool. There were a bunch of people I knew who were flying in, and it was great talking to them as well. Runners I think by nature are just super nice and friendly. It really comes out in an event like that.
Part of cross country is dealing with the elements. What have been some of the most difficult conditions that you’ve had to deal with? The worst cross country race that I’ve ever had was during a hurricane. I guess by that point it was a tropical depression. But the rain was so thick that you could barely see in front of you, and the ground was so soaked that every step that you would take, you would sink in about six inches. That was Hurricane Ivan. That was really bad. This was when I was in high school actually.
Man, sinking six inches, that’s like over your ankle. Yeah. It was really tough. I would have to say, though, that the coldest that I ever raced was during the cross country championships last year. You do these 2K loops, and on one half of the loop, you’d have the wind to your back, and on the other half of the loop, you would have the wind to your face. Every time it would go into my face, my entire head would basically freeze. Then on the second half of the loop, it would thaw out, and then it would freeze again. That happened six times.
That doesn’t sound like much fun. No. Afterwards, you laugh about it. You realize that it was totally worth it. But during the time, you’re pretty excited for it to be over. I was extremely happy I did that race. I had a great time. Even though it was a very cold day, it was just a wonderful experience.
How did Janji get started? So Mike, who’s the other co-founder, and I were sitting on the bus to a track meet. It was the Division III track championship meet. We felt running has given us so much, and we wanted to find a way to give back through our sport and to make the world better through running. We thought about doing a race, but then we realized that giving would begin and end on race day. So we thought it would be cool to create a running-apparel company that let’s people give back.
How did you guys do at that meet? Well, Mike was seventh, so he was All-American. I was ninth, so I just missed All-American. I joke around that if Mike wasn’t there, I would have become an All-American. But then we wouldn’t have Janji, so it worked out well.
Your idea for the company won a competition at Washington University, right? Exactly. So we won the YouthBridge Social Enterprise and Innovation Competition, which is sponsored by Wash. U. and the YouthBridge Foundation, which is dedicated to helping children in St. Louis.
How did the competition work? It was a competition against other ideas. There were a bunch of applicants. We were fortunate enough that we had great mentors. This contest isn’t open just to Wash. U. students. It’s open to anyone in the community who has innovative ways to make a difference. We were one of the winners of that competition. We won the most amount of money ever for an undergraduate team.
How is the amount of money determined? That’s a good question. It’s king of complicated. There are several different organizations that all contribute money. Then those organizations can choose how much that they give to the organizations they support. We ended up winning $15,000 primarily from the Skandalaris Center.
Tell me more about how Janji works. So each piece of the apparel is designed after a country’s flag, and then proceeds help that country with their unique food or water need. What happens is that when someone buys, let’s say the Haiti shorts for instance, we partner with Meds & Food for Kids, which is an organization based in St. Louis that provides nutritional medicine to a malnourished child. Whenever someone buys Janji’s apparel, they give eight packets of these nutritional medicines to a malnourished Haitian child.
It’s great that you know exactly what you’re given, rather than just an abstract dollar figure. We totally agree. A lot of people just have like a percent of proceeds or a vague dollar amount. We want people to be able to know what they’re giving and how they’re giving.
How much of a customer’s money goes to charity? It ends up being around 20 to 30 percent of what stores buy it for is what we give back. We work through specialty running stores, like Big River Running Company, Fleet Feet St. Louis, Missouri Running Company, those types of stores.
What are your greatest accomplishments as a runner? Well, at Wash. U., the best accomplishment, I would say, is we finished, my sophomore year, seventh in our conference. Then my junior year, the next year, we finished seventh in the nation in cross country. So that was really cool. I would probably say post-collegiately, getting fifth place in the Go! St. Louis Marathon. It was great running through St. Louis. Then also getting second in the MO’ Cowbell. That’s out in St. Charles. That was a half-marathon. Those would probably be some of my favorite moments.
Are you still running competitively? I’ve taken this fall pretty easy. But I’ve been training. As a runner, we don’t think training 70 miles a week is a lot. But a lot of people who aren’t really intense about running are like, “Wow, that’s so much.”
What do you think about when you’re running? I always just daydream, but I wonder if thinking about my breathing or my pace would make me faster. It very much depends on the race, but the longer you go, the more you want to zone out for as long as possible. I think just being able to shut off your mind and not focus on what’s my mile split, you know, how’s my nutrition. It’s shutting off the mind, clicking it off the pace. Toward the end, you’re going to be hurting. You just need to realize that the race is almost over at that point and you don’t want to have any regrets.
That’s interesting. I’m always just like thinking about what I want for dinner. I’m a similar way. When running, I just love it because it’s so cathartic. With a lot of people who run, every day, compulsively run, like I do, it’s such a great outlet. It’s such a wonderful way to both start the day and rejuvenate, too.
Any general advice for aspiring runners, young or old? I would say just enjoy the sport and know that no one ever regrets finishing a run. They have trouble getting out the door when it’s cold out, but at the end, you’re so much happier that you did it.