Charmaine Donaldson is a woman of many talents: originally trained as a vet, she wrangles a veritable menagerie, makes dance, skating and gymnastics costumes, bakes astonishing cakes, has raised three grown sons, has a cheeky sense of humor, and runs, of course. But it’s her activewear business, Run Amok, that’s been her focus for the past two years.
The Queensland, Australia sport costume designer made herself a few pairs of running tights, people started asking where she got them, and ta-da! Run Amok was born. Since then, Run Amok has built a modest online presence on its website and Instagram and been picked up by the Intraining running stores in Brisbane.
In this interview, Charmaine tells us how running helped her smile through some difficult life challenges and gain the confidence to do big scary things, and how she hopes a pair of bright, bold high-performance tights can help other runners do the same.
Mango: Can you tell me about your running story?
Charmaine Donaldson: I started running my first year of university. I hadn’t been much of a runner beforehand. I’d done athletics (track and field) but it was throws that I was good at. I was actually state discus champ in my last year of high school.
My switch to running was because a friend from high school had a boyfriend who was a runner and she wanted to be able to run with him. We started out running about 3k three times a week then progressed to 5k over the years. We ran together through university and until I was five months pregnant with my first son.
After that, I just walked and went to the gym until my sister and I decided that we’d set ourselves the challenge of running a half marathon. I had two sons at this stage and it was really fun to have some time away from the demands of motherhood.
We ran two half marathons that year. The first I ran in 2:01 so I trained harder for the second and put a lot of pressure on myself to break two hours — so much pressure in fact that I had a meltdown on the morning of the race, vomited until I hit the starting line and could only run 10k before I ran out of fuel. It was the worst race I ever ran but I still finished it, mostly because I didn’t want to pull out and miss out on the race t-shirt and medal. I finished it in 2:20 and vowed never to do it another. Obviously I’m not good at keeping promises to myself because I’ve run 26 half marathons now and four marathons.
(Note: Charmaine is being quite modest here. She qualified for the New York City Marathon, running a 1:40:37 half marathon at age 53, and will run it this year.)
When and why did you start Run Amok?
Starting Run Amok Tights was a culmination of lots of different events in my life. I’d run a boutique sportswear manufacturing business for years since my second son was about one and lycra was starting to become more readily available. I’d taught myself how to sew it and made myself some gym gear. People had asked me where I’d gotten it and I started taking orders. I was also working part time as a vet at this stage but lost my job in a business restructure. Once my veterinary registration became due again I didn’t bother renewing it as I was busy enough with the sewing business, which I loved and which suited being a stay-at-home mum.
The sportswear business was never a huge enterprise and I didn’t want it to be. It was doing something that I loved which helped with the family budget and allowed me to be mum to my three boys.
But in the last decade I noticed that a lot of my regular clients weren’t coming back because they were able to source their needs overseas at a fraction of the cost that I could make them. It wasn’t too much of a problem to start off with. I had enough business to keep me busy and then one of my sons became very unwell and it was all I could do to continue the business ticking over at all. I told quite a few of my clients that I couldn’t do their work which is not what a business owner should ever do and by the time that my son was well again I found myself with a very small client base and too much time on my hands.
Run Amok was a way to fill the spare time around my other orders, an adjunct to my original business. It actually started without me thinking that it would become an entity in its own right. I just made some loud, fun tights for my own runs.
And by loud, I mean really bright, bold prints that made me happy. After going through my son’s illness, anything that made me smile was a plus. People started to comment on the tights. Then I started to get friends ask if they could order them for themselves. One lady wore hers to a few races and told me she had dozens of people ask where they could buy them and that’s when I knew there was a market that I could tap into.
I didn’t want to invest a lot of money into it because I’m not brave enough, so I built my own website, used my nieces as models, a family friend as photographer, got another friend who’s a graphic designer to do my logo and got about building a new arm to my old business. It was such a steep learning curve. The website was probably the biggest challenge to someone who’d grown up before computers were in every house. I was an over-50 mother who could sew and castrate a cat, but I was delving into things that I’d had absolutely no experience with. And I loved it! The best day was when I finally pressed publish and it actually worked.
The next best day was getting my first order. And that never gets old — I just love when women want what I’m creating. It’s like I’m meeting a kindred spirit, someone who wears their heart on their sleeve or, more correctly, their butt.
Here in the US and elsewhere, colorful active-wear bottoms are a little bit of a radical statement — many women would love the confidence to wear printed tights. Did that factor into why you started Run Amok?
Colorful active-wear bottoms are a bit radical globally I think. Here in Australia the majority of women still wear the traditional black. I think that’s because we’ve been indoctrinated with the mind-set that black makes us look thinner and our value as a woman is linked to our body fat percentage. But the problem with that thinking is that tights are made out of body-hugging material that really doesn’t hide what it’s covering. So if black doesn’t disguise our lumps and bumps why restrict ourselves to it?
The other question I would ask comes from the viewpoint that exercise is a gift that we give ourselves of physical and mental health and well-being. So if we’re doing it for ourselves then why shouldn’t we wear clothes that also make us feel good and to hell with what anyone else might think?! Personally I’ve never had any negative comments when I’ve worn my tights. No one’s ever said that I’m too old or they’re too short or I’ve got too much cellulite or they’re too colorful. But I have had lots of people tell me they love them and that makes me feel even better about wearing them.
My aim was to make fun, comfortable tights that women love to wear because they make them smile, and that’s still my goal. I want my tights to be the pair that they go to on the day that they just don’t want to exercise because the splash of color or quirky print is just the incentive they need to lace up and get it done. I want my tights to make them feel fearless — because really you have to have cast some of your inhibitions aside to don a pair.
It’s not about making lots of money, although I do want to make enough to make ends meet. It’s more about empowering women … and men, if they’re brave enough. I know that might sound a little ridiculous when we’re talking about exercise tights but for me it was putting aside the fear of being judged and wearing what I wanted just because it made me feel happy.
How has the business shifted since you started it, and how has it affected your running?
The business hasn’t changed a lot since I first started. I have tweaked the range. I’ve added larger sizes (note: she is happy to make sizes beyond the website range on request), kid sizes and kid crop tops, and my aim is to build up a big enough client base to print my own designs.
My business hasn’t affected my running at all, except that it’s harder now to choose my outfit every morning because I have so many pairs of tights to choose from. The two really go hand in hand. My runs are now not just runs but opportunities to advertise and test out new fabrics before adding them to the range. My running group have become crash test dummies for the different sizes and inadvertent Instagram models.
I do think that embarking on this new venture at my age has made me a bit braver to try new things. I never would have attempted a headstand except that I thought it might be a great Instagram photo. And I thought I’d never be able to do a handstand (which is still a work in progress) if I hadn’t started with that first headstand. So really, Run Amok has allowed me to break down some self-imposed barriers and do things that I never thought I was capable of. It’s made me realize that the number you put down as your age doesn’t have to dictate what you do, and certainly that being over 50 doesn’t mean that you have to stop trying new things.
What are your future goals for Run Amok and for your running?
At the moment it’s just to keep building up the business. To reach more women and convert them to my way of thinking about exercise and fun and worrying less about what people think. This will require me to keep getting out of my comfort zone and marketing myself — something that I’m not very good at but which will make me develop more as a person.
Future running goals? Immediately, it’s training for the NYC Marathon in November. After that I haven’t done much planning apart from continuing to run until I can’t run any more.
My aim is to be that old lady still running the streets well into retirement, so people can shake their head and assume there’s something eccentric about me.
Many thanks to Charmaine for taking the time to tell us about Run Amok!
How has running helped YOU through life challenges? What running gear do you wear that makes you happy, and why?