Dressing like today’s hip, fashion-forward runner is easy. First, a few questions: Are you a circus clown? Are you a school crossing guard or a highway construction worker? Do you dress in the dark? Basically, you know that you are properly dressed for a run when you step outside your door and your neighbors glance your way and start screaming, “It’s too bright! I’m blind! Blind, I say!” Good job, you!
When I first got into running, practically everybody wore plain cotton clothes. Cotton tees, cotton shorts, cotton sweats. If you were really hip, you layered cotton shorts over your cotton sweats; don’t ask me why it was hip because it was like wearing underpants over your jeans. This was about a decade after the so-called “running boom.” (We were so unhip that we still called running “jogging.”) On my high school track and cross-country teams, other than the school-issue blue and gold sweats, you were considered flashy if you wore red. We mostly stuck to shades of gray and navy.
And running shoes were not yet the technicolor wonders you see today: my first pair was dark gray. My second pair was dark gray with white piping. My last few pairs of running shoes are so bright and multicolored that it looks like one of my kids vomited up a confetti cake on our laundry room floor. (Sure, blame it on the kids.)
I can almost pinpoint the moment that really bright clothes started becoming the norm for runners: I have a cotton T-shirt from a hometown 5K in 1988 that is light gray with block letters that are black. Classic and classy. Three years later, same race, different design, this time the shirt is polyester and the letters are cursive and in neon green. Welcome to the future, runners!
Nowadays, I have trouble getting dressed for a run because it’s difficult to match neon yellow shirts with electric blue shorts with purple and green shoes and pink hats. Send out the clowns.
When I was in college, I ran cross-country for one (injury-riddled) season. I used to show up to practice wearing my favorite Air Jordan shorts, baggy, knee-length, and double layered. I’m not saying the other runners were faster than me solely because of my baggy pants (there may have been a talent gap), but I spent a lot of time on 90-degree August days lost in cornfields with the other freshman runner about 3 miles behind the rest of the team, ruing my fashion choices.
I get it, though. There are good and valuable reasons for loud running clothes. First and foremost, for those of us who run on city streets, it’s all about visibility. Taking a page from bicyclists, we runners want to be seen by drivers. Bright clothing could literally save our lives.
From a race director’s standpoint, I can see why a bright shirt would be beneficial. No one wants to open the goody bag just before a race and say, “This shirt is ugly!” (I have been known to do that. I’m pretty sure I even posted a derogatory comment about the gunmetal-gray shirt I received from the 2014 Chicago Marathon in one of my blog posts. The joke’s on me: my lovely wife Jen likes the way I look in it. Thank you, Nike!)
If you’ve ever been to a marathon, you know that the starting area looks like the crowd on Day 1 of the Electric Daisy Carnival. (And the finish area looks like the crowd on Day 3, after having ingested whatever was being offered by random strangers in the parking lot.) There’s a reason for that: I don’t know how many times (one, actually) that I’ve showed up to a big race and told my wife, kids, or whoever came out to cheer for me, “I’ll be the guy wearing the blue shirt.” Good luck with that. Now I try to differentiate myself: “I’ll be the guy wearing the neon blue shirt with the pink sleeves, the shiny white capri-length tights, and the purple hat. You can’t miss me.” And I’m right: they won’t be able to miss me as I run by and wave, although they might want to deny that they are related to me in any way.
I am learning to accept that, as a middle-aged runner who is okay with change, I might have to look like George Michael (or, more likely, Andrew Ridgeley) in the video for the Wham! song “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.” Specifically at the 1:10 and 2:35 marks.
Besides, fashion comes and goes. My middle child’s school recently had an ’80s Day, where kids were encouraged to dress like—get this—people who lived through the 1980s. Conveniently, I still have a closet full of polos and button-down shirts similar to what I had back then (old habits die hard), so she raided my closet and wore a polo with a popped collar layered under a button-down; she was going for the “rich guy who is always the villain in John Hughes movies” look. Anyway, my point is that the pendulum sometimes swings back my way. The last race T-shirt I got was a gray polyester shirt made to look and feel like a soft cotton shirt with letters so light blue and faded that one can only assume this is a throwback look. I loved it, but alas, it was too tight on me. It’s been a perfect addition to Jen’s stable of running shirts, though. I’ll stick to dressing like a clown.