Though Angel Whitley is young, at 33, to head a business, she got there step by step. A lifelong interest in fitness, getting in on the ground floor of a runners’ specialty store, earning a business degree and marriage to a supportive spouse all helped prepare her to take over Fleet Feet Sports last year when the previous owner decided to retire.

At Alamo Heights High School, Whitley was a multisport athlete, participating in basketball, cross-country and track; she made the cross-country team as a student at the University of the Incarnate Word. “I’ve been running half my life, and I love it,” she says. Just a few months after Fleet Feet opened in 1997, Whitley got a part-time job there. Located in the Sunset Ridge Shopping Center, the store wasn’t far from the university where she was working toward a bachelor’s in business management, after switching from biology. Given flexible hours and her own passion for running, Whitley soon found herself working almost full time. “I didn’t know I’d still be here, 14 years later,” she says, smiling. Whitley even met her husband, Jeremy, now a manager at USAA, at the store. One of her cross-country teammates was a mutual friend; when her future husband learned where she worked, she says, “He came in to get shoes just to meet me.” Married for 11 years, the couple has two children, Emily, 9, and Mason, 7. After her children were born, Whitley became a stay-at-home mother, but continued to work at Fleet Feet on an occasional basis.

Given her years of experience, former store owner Carroll Voss “was great about letting me come in and out whenever I wanted to,” she says. When her younger child started kindergarten two years ago, she started working a regular part-time schedule, three days a week. “When the opportunity to buy came up last year, Carroll asked me if I was ready,” she says. “We had talked about it for years, and it seemed like the right time for both of us.” Owning the store has been “a dream come true” for the whole family. Her husband Jeremy is a co-owner and contributes additional business expertise. Some Saturdays — the store’s busiest day — are “family workdays,” when all the Whitleys spend at least part of the day at Fleet Feet, with the parents dividing their time between the sales floor and back rooms, where the children play or do homework. As owner of a store that offers training programs for runners at all levels, from beginning walkers through competitive runners, Whitley also is in the business of helping other people’s dreams come true. Especially close to her heart is the beginners’ program, No Boundaries, which helps people with little or no previous fitness experience train to walk or run a 5K race. The group meets twice weekly at the store for practice and instruction.

“When you put somebody who hasn’t been doing anything for fitness in a group with other people who are going through the same thing they’re going through, it builds community,” says Whitley. “They come to the group, find coaching and encouragement and want to stay with it.” One current New Boundaries member drives all the way from Victoria and back for meetings, she says, and the group has nearly doubled in size since last fall. The program is coed, but most of the participants are women — a good thing, says Whitley, because they’re likely to influence their husbands and children to get fit, too. The beginners’ program starts three times a year, with mentors — usually coaches and personal trainers — who help participants in achieving their goals. “We surround people with support and experience,” says Whitley. “We also believe in accountability. If someone doesn’t show up, we’ll call them and ask, ‘Are you OK?’” Other programs take more advanced runners to the next level — a 10K race, half-marathon and marathon — and all are intended to help people improve speed, strength and endurance. While Whitley advocates healthy movement of all kinds — she and her husband are avid cyclists as well as runners — she points out the relative ease of walking or running for individuals who are just starting or renewing a fitness program. “If you start with walking, all you need to do is go out your front door,” she says. “You don’t have to join a gym, and you don’t need to buy any equipment other than a good pair of shoes.” Also, she says, “Walking lends itself to easily measurable goals. You can walk to that first stop sign one day and try for the second one the next, increase your time from 10 minutes on up.”

By “good shoes,” Whitley means shoes that fit well. “People may want to buy (sports shoes) based on color and style, but foot shape and biomechanics are much more important.” Even size may be an issue: “Nine out of 10 people pick the wrong size,” she says. “They think that if they wear a size 7 in regular shoes, they need a 7 in a running shoe. Fit is everything, and not just whether it’s too short or too long. If your foot is riding that flex groove wrong, you’re going to feel it.” Proper fit of the proper shoe is key to success, says Whitley. “Your running shoes should not make you want to stop running.” If ignored, badly fitting shoes could even lead to injuries, including joint damage. Though walking is not a team sport, Whitley recommends finding a partner or small group. “If you see a neighbor out walking, ask if you can join them,” she says. “A lot of us want to make changes, but we’re afraid to seek someone out to encourage us. If you walk with someone else, you can encourage each other.” Beginning walkers and runners, fueled by enthusiasm for their new activity, also need to remember not to overdo it. “Don’t bite off more than you can chew,” advises Whitley. “Walk five days a week, not every day. Start slowly — like from walking to the end of the block to walking around the block. You want to get up the next morning feeling good, ready to do it again, instead of being so sore you can’t walk that day.”

Whitley takes her own advice when it comes to balancing work and family life. As a small-business owner, she says, “It can get overwhelming. I went from being a stay-at-home mom with a part-time job that didn’t go home with me, to having to be reachable seven days a week.” As she reminds her staff, “You have to turn it off and go home and enjoy your family. We’re not running an emergency room here. We’re growing a small business and doing some neat things in the community, but if we can’t get something done today, we’ll do it tomorrow.” Luckily, she says, “I have a great staff. There’s no way I could do it all myself. I know I can go home and not worry, the store goes on without me.” Her store is part of a national chain of 91 running specialty franchises. “I’m in touch with every other owner,” says Whitley, “and I’m particularly close with those who came in at the same time as me. We exchange e-mails all the time, and we meet a couple of times a year.” National leadership also is supportive and clear about corporate culture.

Building community is one of those values, and Whitley hopes someday to extend her runners’ groups and training programs into other parts of the city. “My BHAG — big, hairy, audacious goal — is to get San Antonio off the nation’s 10 fattest cities list,” she says. “I’d like to help create movement in all parts of the city.”

ANGEL WHITLEY

Age: 33

Occupation: Owner, Fleet Feet Sports store

Why she’s a role model: Owns her own business, passionate about encouraging fitness throughout the community

Personal: Married 11 years to Jeremy Whitley, a manager at USAA; two children, Emily, age 9, and Mason, 7

Goals: “Professionally, to create movement in the city by having training programs for all levels and to bring these programs to other neighborhoods. Personally, we’d like to travel more, related to fitness.”

If I weren’t doing this, I’d be … ”Home with my kids. I was very blessed to be able to stay home with my kids, and now I’m thankful to have this additional opportunity to do what I love.”

People would be surprised that I …“Eat pumpkin pie for breakfast; my kids do, too. I’ll make one at night, and we’ll eat it the next morning.”

Favorite relaxation strategy: “We like running as a family, but we also enjoy sitting outside and hanging out, having friends over.”

What she’s reading: Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, by Peter Scazzero, a book that recommends “living out your spirituality in a way that involves emotional health — working through your emotions instead of ignoring them.”