To run, all you really need is a pair of shoes. And these days, some runners even skip the shoes.
But, with the possible exception of the Bay to Breakers race in California where nudity and/or body paint sometimes suffice, it is traditional to cover certain essential body parts, with well, something.
Runners are on their own to purchase pants, but the T-shirts they wear are another story. Since the early days of the running boom, T-shirts have been the souvenir almost always included in the price of a race entry fee. And runners love them.
In a recent scientific survey conducted among a group of seasoned runners, I learned: Runners favor “tech” or synthetic lightweight fabric T-shirts over cotton, the fabric of choice for so many years. Runners say they fit better, don’t get smelly, “breathe,” have a nicer texture and stretch enough to “cover a car” according to one respondent. The few who favor cotton complain that tech shirts smell funny and don’t fit well.
Runner-people own anywhere from a couple dozen to 200 shirts, and admit that T-shirts have a habit of accumulating in dresser drawers making them collectors by default. Some rotate through their shirts as they train and race, others have old favorites they prefer to wear over and over. Favorites become loved because of color, logo, fit, fabric, and “how I look in it.” Favorites recall an especially difficult race, a memorable travel experience, or provide the owner with a subtle way to brag about having completed a status race such as the Boston Marathon.
Fit is an on-going issue. “Unisex sizing means men’s sizes,” one runner says. “Even a small men’s shirt becomes a nightgown for me. If race organizers want me to wear their shirt to advertise their race, then I need to have one that fits.” Women runners appreciate women’s sizing and tapered shirts that fit them better. Several runners mentioned liking a “no shirt” option and paying a lower entry fee.
T-shirts can create a bond between strangers who strike up a conversation based on a shirt. It’s fun to learn when and where a race took place, and whether or not the experience was good. “When I race in my ‘Alaska, Land of the Midnight Run’ shirt I often hear ‘go Alaska,’” one runner shared.
What happens when T-shirt storage capacity is maxed out? Shirts get thrown away, given away, cut up for rags, transformed into quilts, or find new life halfway around the world. They arrive in huge bundles and get sold on the street for pennies in third world countries. I once saw a young man in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, proudly displaying a shirt that read, “Detroit Dance Marathon, 1995.” Who would have thought?
Occasionally races offer hats, socks, a bag, jacket or sweatshirt instead of a T-shirt as a race souvenir. And sometimes runners appreciate a change. But in the end, it’s the T-shirt most race participants covet and that can even become a factor in deciding whether or not to participate in a race.
A blessing or a curse, T-shirts are here to stay.