Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Fri, 13 Jun 2003 18:25:40 -0400

What to Wear Where

RUNNING COMMENTARY 470

(Rerun from June 1997 RW)

The San Diego Marathon handed me a T-shirt I'll never wear. It's a perfectly fine shirt -- nice colors and fabric, good fit -- from a quality event.

But the shirt carries the label "finisher," which I wasn't. The unwritten laws of T-shirt wear proclaim, "You shall not pretend to be what you're not." Neither is it allowed to tape over the offending word, or write "non" in front of it, or circle it in red and draw a diagonal line through "Finisher."

No, I'll never be able to wear the San Diego Marathon shirt from 1997. But I'll keep it, unused, as a reminder that this type of shirt must be earned.

I'm asked by people who know how often I travel to races, "How many T-shirts do you have?" If I kept them all, we'd have to rent a storage unit to hold them.

But I'm not much of a saver. With a few exceptions I keep only the shirts worn regularly, and then only until they start showing their age. These never number more than 10 and never overflow a single drawer.

The other "keepers" are marathon FINISHER shirts. And I wear them only on special, usually public, occasions. This prolongs their life, and my memories of what it took to earn them.

My hardest decision before a marathon is what to wear. I don't have muscles or skin that can stand the exposure of a singlet, so my general choice is a T-shirt. But which one, specifically?

In San Diego I watched the leaders pass by at the end. They wore plain white wrappers that said nothing about who they were, where they came from or what they stood for.

Sponsored runners must, of course, repay their sponsor. No one supports mid-pack marathoners, so I'm free to choose my own label.

But not just any shirt will do. It can't, of course, be from the current race even if the shirt doesn't say "finisher."

I saw a few runners wearing San Diego's shirt in that marathon. They had to be newcomers who hadn't yet learned that the code of the road deems this practice uncool. (These same people usually had their numbers pinned on their back.)

My shirt has to make some kind of statement. But it isn't like some I saw in San Diego.

These were the tough-talking statements that some shirt-makers, notably No Fear, favor. One read: "Four runners, three trophies. Done your speedwork?"

For most of us, running a marathon isn't about beating anyone, winning any prize or maybe even about speed. It's about dealing with the distance as best we can, where the only competition is with ourselves.

So the best T-shirt statement doesn't express bravado. Instead it recognizes the need for all the help we can get and all the sharing we can do.

In every marathon I see dedications to a parent, a spouse, a child or a friend. I've worn one honoring George Sheehan. I've worn another, in the Portland Marathon, that showed solidarity with the training group I'd spoken to before the race.

My current statement isn't that dramatic or obvious. I simply wear the shirt from the last completed marathon, hoping that what earned it will be there to spend again this time.


UPDATE. In the six years since this column appeared, I've run a handful of marathons and many shorter races -- none in a cotton T-shirts. I've traded those for Dri-Fit.

In other runs, and between runs, I still won't wear a "finisher" label unless qualified to do so. But otherwise I've relaxed the T-shirt rules.

I'll wear one from a marathon if I ran a shorter distance there, the latest being the Prince of Wales Marathon (relay). I'll wear a new shirt from a race run in earlier years, such as the Royal Victoria Marathon (seven years ago). Or I'll wear one when my role was a non-running one, as at the Yakima River Canyon Marathon (announcer).

One way or another, I still must earn the right to wear the shirt.

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