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

Thu, 21 Aug 2014 05:46:55 -0400

What to Wear Where

(This piece is for my book-in-progress titled See How We Run: Best Writings from 25 Years of Running Commentary. I am posting an excerpt here each week, this one from June 1997.)

The San Diego Marathon handed me a T-shirt that 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 are we 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?

Sponsored runners must, of course, repay their sponsor by sporting its logo. 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. 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.


In the 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 tech fabrics.

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’ve worn one labeled “marathon” if I ran a shorter distance there. I’ve worn a newer shirt from a race run in earlier years. Or I’ve worn one when my role was non-running, such as speaking or announcing.

In my current role as coach, I wear the same team shirt as the runners to support what they’re doing in training and on race day. The shirt is a symbol of participation, no matter how small a part played.

[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in three different formats: (1) in print from; (2) as e-books from and; (3) as PDFs for e-reader devices and apps, from Latest released was Learning to Walk. Other titles: Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Joe’s Team, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Marathon Training, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log (not an e-book), and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe (e-book only). The middle book of the memoir series, Going Far, is being serialized in Marathon & Beyond magazine.]

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