Race Shirt Blues

If you’re a runner who enters a lot of races, sooner or later you’ll get a case of the race shirt blues.

It’s standard practice for every race to provide entrants with shirts for doing nothing more than paying the entry fee. Once you accumulate enough shirts to overflow your dresser drawers, some kind of selection hierarchy is implemented, where the oldest or least attractive shirts are cleared out and given to relatives or to Goodwill. Only the best and most memorable shirts are saved.

While we don’t hesitate to unload such unwanted clothing, the shirts from our favorite races often foster an emotional attachment for us. For many runners, they may provide an identity or sense of pride. Wearing a race shirt is often a statement declaring that we enjoy healthy activities and participating in challenging events.

The more difficult the event, the greater “prestige” factor of the shirt - for example, among locals, wearing a Big Sur Marathon shirt is something like a badge of courage and accomplishment. That’s why we sometimes feel a bit protective about who should rightfully wear shirts from certain races.

In previous articles we’ve mentioned a few rules of etiquette about wearing race shirts. You should never wear a shirt from a race you haven’t run. It’s bad juju to wear a shirt prior to the race (for instance, if you pick it up at the expo the day before), and even worse juju to wear the shirt in the actual race. These rules have all been scientifically proven to bring disaster upon the naïve runner (OK, not really – but just trust us on these).

This cardinal rule for runners - that you have to participate in an event before you wear the shirt - is why we’re somewhat discouraged and mystified by people who wear event shirts from other sports which merely advertise their attendance as spectators. This peculiarity seems especially prevalent among the golf community.

Someday, if you want to stir up some trouble, try this: the next time you’re in an elevator with someone wearing a U.S. Open golf shirt, ask them how they played. When they look at you like an idiot and answer, “Oh, I didn’t play, I watched the Open at Pebble Beach”, you can say, “Wow … that must have been a lot of work. You should be proud of yourself.” (On second thought, maybe you should wait until you’re out of the elevator to say this – then you can run away. Don’t worry – there’s no way that duffer will be able to catch you.)

Here’s another game you can play sometime: go to Del Monte Center or Costco, and start looking around for race shirts. On an average day you’ll probably see several people wearing the shirt of one race or another. Your task is to guess whether the person wearing the shirt is actually the one who ran the race, or a relative of a runner, or just somebody who shops at thrift stores. This game is harder than you think; many fit-looking people may in fact be imposters, and many with “non-athletic” appearances might be the real deal. Of course, since you’ll never actually ask them (we hope), there’s no way of keeping an accurate score - but it’s a fun diversion nevertheless.

In larger cities, the misuse of race shirts has reached epidemic proportions – as we’ve each discovered while running in San Francisco during and after the city’s marathon.

The San Francisco Marathon starts at the Ferry Building and heads out the Embarcadero toward the Golden Gate Bridge. Typically, runners wear their least favorite old race shirt at the start line to keep warm in the early morning chill. They then jettison the extra top somewhere along the Embarcadero as their bodies get warmed up.

It only takes a matter of minutes before the discarded shirts are claimed by spectators – the majority of whom are the homeless population. It’s a bonanza morning for people who sleep on the streets, as shirts rain down like manna from heaven. The week after the marathon, it’s common to see vagabonds pushing shopping carts and wearing layers of Napa Marathon and Bay to Breakers shirts to keep warm.

This chain of events causes potentially confusing sights for untrained tourists walking along the Embarcadero or Fisherman’s Wharf. Someone might look around the sidewalks and storefronts and conclude that a lot of local runners have somehow fallen on very hard times. A worse scenario would be if an actual runner collapses on the ground, and no one stops to help because he seemingly fits right in with the other nearby derelicts all wearing race shirts.

Incidentally, the same wardrobe tossing ritual happens along beautiful Highway 1 during the Big Sur Marathon - but to their credit, the race organization makes sure that all the clothing is picked up by volunteers immediately afterwards. Each year, about 15 to 20 large trash bags filled with discarded shirts are brought to a warehouse, and shortly thereafter given to local charities.

As we consider this, maybe the misuse of old race shirts isn’t such a bad thing after all. Our discarded clothing provides benefit to other people, whether for basic comforts like warmth, or for bargain hunters who might feel some sense of participation by wearing someone else’s marathon shirt.

In an ideal world, some of those folks would then be motivated to start a running or exercise program of their own. Later on, they’ll enter races and receive their own shirts – and once they’ve done a lot of races and have to weed out the old ones, they’ll pay it forward by tossing those old shirts onto some new owners. While such a scenario might be unlikely, just knowing that it’s possible helps to relieve the race shirt blues a little bit.

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