It’s that time again when one tends to reflect on what has transpired over the past year. My season was over after Rio Del Lago and I’ve gotten lazy and fat living in sweatpants and a hoodie while my eating habits turned into that of an adolescent boy. Some call it recovery, others a break. I call it the Third Circle of Hell. Regarding running, along with the not-much-doing it, there is the not-much-thinking it, and the not-much-writing it. Try as I might I can’t seem to write a proper “year in review” post. Instead, I ended up here.

“Can I ask you about the shirt?” It was one of the first things my co-worker, Kate, posed to me after she read my story on Javelina not long ago. Of all the possible things to ask about the experience I get a question about the shirt.

What is the shirt?

During the 2013 Miwok 100k (or Miniwok since it was shortened to a 60k) I spent a great deal of time at the Tennessee Valley aid station while crewing for Jen. It’s a bustling hub of activity with runners and crews coming and going all day long so there’s plenty of opportunity to people watch. One thing that caught my eye were two male runners who came through wearing plaid button-up shirts. It was so unique and strange. How does that work? One person’s ridiculous is another person’s cool and I thought it looked cool.

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The two men who unknowingly showed me the Way of the Plaid. Photo: Glenn Tachiyama (2013 Miwok 100k)

“I want to wear that,” I stated to a woman I just met named Jenni who was hanging around the same area I was. I didn’t see any other women sporting a similar style. Chatting about clothes is stereotypical girl-talk but I’d wager an in-depth discussion on plaid isn’t high on the list of topics. “Why can’t I wear that?” I asked.

“Why not? You should do it,” said Jenni unequivocally. This is the same woman who two years later will plaster a fake mustache on her face and make me trim it. Thus a friendship was born.

I was on a mission. I spent the next few days on the hunt for an appropriate plaid shirt. There were no guidelines at my disposal for what to look for in a button-up shirt for running but eventually I developed my own criteria:

  • A quick-drying and wicking material for the fabric
  • No chest pockets with flap closures to interfere with a race vest
  • No extraneous material or detailing around the sleeves to cause chafing
  • No extraneous material on the front placket because that’s just goofy
  • Patterns and colors to follow the Goldilocks rule – not too much, not too little, but just right – I’d know it when I saw it

My first shirt was from Columbia Sports, primarily because I was able to find it locally. I got it only days before my race at the Quicksilver 50k so I took the shirt out for a trial run to see if any problem areas would surface and none did. To my surprise the challenge was not the shirt but my emotional response to looking so different wearing it.

Are you running in a button-down?

On a cognitive level I knew that 99.9% of the people who saw me in Golden Gate Park paid absolutely no attention yet I was certain I looked like I stole something. Of all the places for my head to go, that’s where it went. Why I would connect running in a plaid shirt with thievery is curious but it was my gut reaction nonetheless. I think psychologically it felt a bit dangerous, especially for someone who feels as uncomfortable as I do under any sort of spotlight.

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My plaid kung fu is stronger than your plaid kung fu. Photo: Allen Lucas (2013 Quicksilver 50k)

Still, I was not deterred. The real test would be Quicksilver. I would be wearing it for an extended time in very hot conditions using a hydration pack. I stowed a regular running shirt in my drop bag if things went awry. To say I felt weird in my plaid shirt as I stood at the start line would be a gross understatement. If I had stood there with no pants on I would have felt the same. Seriously. The urge to hide in my car or change into something else was overwhelming. I was sure a giant neon arrow was pointing at my head and that every glance held judgment. Why did I think this was a good idea? I was so uncomfortable and couldn’t wait for the race to start so I could focus on something other than my self-consciousness.

“Are you running in a button-down?” came the incredulous text from Jen when she saw a few photos of me from the race pop up on Facebook. The shirt, it turns out, performed really well and my psychological discomfort faded once the business of getting the race done took hold. I gave the plaid shirt the green light as my race shirt of choice three weeks later at the Bryce 100k.

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Wearing plaid will help you keep up appearances when the wheels fall off. Photo: Jennifer Zakroff (2013 Bryce 100k)

It was there that I fully embraced wearing the shirt and the uncomfortable feelings it stirred up were no longer an issue from that day forward. The shirt was now my armor and letting go of my concern about anyone’s opinion on it was liberating. The next race appearance of the plaid shirt was five weeks later at the Brazen 12 Hour.

“Hey, I know you!” said a woman as I ran past her. I turned to look but I didn’t recognize her. “I was crewing for my sister at Bryce. I saw you cross the finish line and at some of the aid stations.”

How on earth could this woman possibly remember me? Then she pointed to my shirt. “I remember the plaid.”

Oh wow. We ran together and chatted for a bit. I learned something else about the shirt that day. While my physical appearance isn’t particularly memorable, the shirt apparently is. It’s been a conversation starter in the middle of races and an ice breaker of sorts for people to introduce themselves to me.

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The 2013 Reese in Plum Rose with the usual suspects and a wonderful chance meeting with Margaret and Claude at the end of a long run. Photo: Margaret Gagnon (Tennessee Valley trailhead)

I have a closet full of plaid now. I’ve settled on a particular one made by Marmot. Every year they refresh the line with a name change and produce three shirts using a new pattern and color scheme. So far it’s been Reese (2013), Jess (2014), and Logan (2015).  Obtaining the new shirts is a much-anticipated event. This year it happened to coincide with pacing Jen at the Tahoe Rim Trail 50. It gave me stupid amounts of nerdtastic joy to let her choose which color of Logan I’d début. She chose Dark Raspberry. Yes, this is unmitigated silliness but it’s my unmitigated silliness.

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The 2014 Jess in Atomic Blue with Jessica and my enabler, Jenni, one year after she started me down the Colorful Plaid Road. Photo: Belinda Agamaite (2014 Miwok 100k, Tennessee Valley aid station)

It’s rare now for me to show up at a race not wearing the shirt but it occurred more often this year because I joined Pamakids. I’d been asked at various times if I’d be interested in being on the team but I would always politely decline. Why? Because I didn’t want to race in something other than my shirt. I relented because several of my friends were members, Jenni being one of them, and the team support was really appealing. Not wearing the shirt has made me realize how much it’s become a part of me and I don’t feel like myself without it. I don’t think I can convince the team that a button-up technical shirt in plaid is a viable alternative so I’ll just have to cope with swapping out my uniform for theirs every once in a while.

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The 2015 Logan in Ocean with Alina during our double Mt. Diablo summit run. Photo: A Random Dude who I really wanted to ask for a ride back to the car

This summer I received a link to an article called “9 Trail-Running Fashion Trends We Hate to Love” because #4 on the list, of all things, was plaid. I didn’t realize it had become popular enough for satire. How cutting edge of me! However, plaid made the list as après-run attire to one’s favorite brew pub, not something to actually wear while running, so I think I escaped being a trend setter/follower based on a technicality.

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Karen, the only woman I know to make occasional guest appearances in Button-Up Shirt World. Photo: Michael Li (2015 Skyline 50k)

When I was young I was an avid comic book reader and collector. My mother didn’t understand where I picked up this hobby since I had no role model to emulate and none of my friends or siblings shared my enthusiasm. I’m still not sure why I latched on to the plaid shirt with the same sort of fervor as I did with the comic books. Or why I chose to push through my initial discomfort to stay the course. There was nothing to gain or lose either way. If there was some lofty goal to challenge the residual effects of growing up different or to create an identity for myself it wasn’t a conscious choice. I just happened to see two guys at a race one day and received unconditional encouragement from a total stranger name Jenni.

So why the shirt? Why not?

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When you run in plaid you can sweat hearts. Photo: Sam Hsu (2013 Reservoir Dogs 35k)

2 thoughts on “A Rumination on Plaid

  1. I so remember that Quicksilver race and you wearing that shirt, but I don’t think I knew that was the first time you had run a race with one – you looked so natural in it! And it does freak me out a bit when you are wearing something else since it makes me doubt a bit that I know who you are.

    And I get the bit about people recognizing you just because of the shirt – that happens to me with my dumb hat, and it often leaves me at a disadvantage when others recognize me and I’m struggling to put a name on them (although that might just be me being old).

    This is a great post – thanks for the history!

    1. I’m still trying to figure out what I was doing when you took that photo of me at Quicksilver!

      When I mentioned to Jen and Alina that I was writing this and wondered who, other than the two of them, would remotely want to read this post your name was mentioned. Turns out more than two people did want to read it so that was surprisingly awesome.

      Thank you for reading and being such a great commenter. I wish I could easily transfer over all the comments I get on Facebook to here but alas.

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