After the coveted yellow jersey, the most prestigious prize in the Tour de France is the shirt worn by the rider who wins the mountain stages — whoever dons those snazzy red polka dots is truly “king of the hill.” But while Princeton is not known for Pyrenees-like topography, what bumps it has are hotly contested by a group of runners who have been meeting every Thursday since 1999. And like the cyclists in the Tour, the reward for reaching the top first, albeit on foot, is the very same polka-dot jersey.

The man who started this locomotive homage to the Tour is Jon Luff, a Princeton cross-country runner now finishing a Ph.D. in engineering at his alma mater. “My friend went over to see the Tour de France a few years ago,” Luff says, “and he brought me a polka-dot jersey as a souvenir. So one Thursday, when I knew we were running a hilly course, I thought I’d wear it and throw down a little wager: whoever comes back first gets to wear the jersey the following week.”

These rambling races begin every Thursday at 6 p.m. at the Princeton Running Company, located across from the university’s front gate on Nassau Street. The store has served as a mecca for the area’s runners and joggers since it opened in 1999.

Creating such havens was the idea of Running Company founders Gene and Amanda Mitchell, highly accomplished runners whose business vision has blossomed into a chain of six locations in New Jersey, Manhattan, and Georgetown. In addition to running shoes and related gear from virtually every major manufacturer, the staff dispenses great service and advice. That’s because everyone who works in the store runs, part of the Running Company’s “for runners, by runners” sales philosophy. Rob Chew, now in his sixth year as Princeton store manager, says, “The shop began as a grassroots type of thing. Every store has a dedicated runner as manager. And it’s all about proper fit. We’re not about fashion, which is probably why we have so many repeat customers.”

But the Princeton Running Company goes even further. On Thursdays, Chew extends store hours to 8 p.m. and allows men and women to use the stockroom as a makeshift locker room. There is even a shower (an amenity that has inspired a few personal bests on cold winter runs).

The dozen or so regulars who convene at the shop reflect Princeton’s eclectic demographics: students and professors, mathematicians and poets, engineers, financiers, consultants, and a carpenter. What binds them is a love of running — not jogging to keep trim or training for a local 5K, but the kind of all-out efforts of endurance that leave you heaving in the grass and hobbling around the office for days. Their collective resume boasts dozens of major marathons and triathlons, including Boston, New York, and the grandaddy of all multi-sport races, the Ironman in Kona.

The classic run for the polka-dots is an arduous 11-mile course the runners call “over the top.” Within minutes of leaving the store at the center of town, the scenery changes by turns from small shops and milling pedestrians to quiet, tree-lined residential streets to country roads. A mile-long climb up Herrontown Road takes the huffing harriers to Princeton’s highest elevation before they get to reap the rewards of gravity in a swift drop back into town. But for nearly a half-hour, the prelude to this long uphill slog is a flat, fast four-mile stretch on the towpaths along the Delaware and Raritan Canal.

In one of the first of these contests, Dan Feder, a formidable masters runner who moonlights as managing director of Princeton University Investment Company, launched a daring one-man breakaway at the very start of the towpaths. More than nine miles stretched between him and possible victory. Explaining his strategy, Feder says, “we all know how strong Jon (Luff) is, especially on the hills. I figured by going out fast really early in the run, I could take some of the sting out of his legs.”

The tactic nearly worked. Feder receded further and further into the tunnel-like distance of the towpath. By the time Luff, myself, and a few others decided that Feder’s move was no feint, the wily veteran had opened up a sizable gap. It took nearly the rest of the run — imagine a typical weekend 10K race — to reel him in. By that point it was already dark. To passing motorists, the pack appeared as nothing more than a string of disembodied reflective vests. But the ghostly pack worked together, methodically gaining, until it overtook the flyer.

Defending the polka-dot jersey is not only a matter of superior tactics. “The jersey itself is hot as hell,” Luff attests. “I have to unzip it just like the real tour rides and then zip it back up on the descent into town.”

What motivates someone to come out week after week and run this hard, often in winter dark and cold from start to finish? “For most of us, work and other concerns mean that the bulk of our training gets done solo,” says Jesse Smith, CEO of Tay River Homesmiths Inc., a fine carpentry and homebuilding company based in Princeton. “But training in a vacuum has drawbacks. No matter how disciplined you are, you never push yourself as hard when you’re alone. Thursday night, you know you’re going to get a quality run — maybe even more.” Smith knows about extra efforts. He covered the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and 26.2-mile run of the 2003 Ironman in Kona in just a little over ten hours.

For me, with the Boston Marathon as my training focus every year, a winter of Thursday night runs means that I’m one mentally as well as physically tough runner come April.

For Luff, it’s personal. While he occasionally toes the line in major marathons (he recently ran 2:45:08 at New York, good for 170th place out of over 37,000), he has grown to dislike the anonymity of roadracing. In what is now a legendary quip among the group, Luff once said, “What’s the point of beating people you don’t know at some race, when you can beat your friends on Thursday night?”

But it’s not always Armageddon in running shoes. The competitiveness is tempered by camaraderie. Thursday evening is more than a solid workout, it’s a social occasion. After the battles for fleet(ing) glory, the group always adjourns to a nearby restaurant for dinner. “The runs are a highlight to the week,” says Justin Feil, the assistant sports editor of the Princeton Packet, who has finished the Boston Marathon every year since 1997. “I find the benefits of the Thursday night group runs to be an important part of my training, and the people an even bigger part.”

Whether suiting up in Yankee pinstripes or pulling on the yellow leader’s jersey, a uniform can confer great power in sports and inspire spirited rivalries, even if it looks like something that might debut in spring on a Paris runway. But if you still doubt the motivational strength of a polka-dot shirt, come on out to the Princeton Running Company some Thursday night.

Or just ask Jon Luff: “It always carries me over the top.”

The Princeton Running Company, 108 Nassau Street. 609-252-9110.

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