Not long ago this summer, I found myself in the final throes of a race. My organs were treading a fine line with failure, my lungs seemed to be bleeding, my legs filled with nails. The finish remained maddeningly out of sight.
It was not going well — and I needed something to pull me back from the brink. Every runner has a trump card: a final squeeze of energy gel, a gaze fixated on the finish, an imaginary escape from a killer. This day I discovered mine, just ahead of me: another girl, completely benign, except for one flagrant transgression — she was running the race in a skirt.
There are no shortcuts in running. Nothing will make you faster — not appearance, not clothing, not footwear (if you even choose such indulgences at all in this era of barefoot running apostles). It’s all about how you train, augmented by a healthy dose of old-fashioned genetic advantage. This can turn out to be either fortunate or just sad, depending on where you fall. Born with the appendages of an impala? You have so much potential.
I was not. So I find running apparel can verge on running voyeurism — paying for the athletic profile you want, as opposed to actually running longer, or faster. You may not have the height of an Olympian, or the weight for that matter, but an Under Armour top can be very intimidating.
The flip side is also true. Stick a girl in a skirt during a race and put her anywhere within my sight and presto: running apparel takes on motivational properties a Nike marketer can only dream about.
As a rule, I don’t care much about what I wear. It’s hard to care what your shorts look like when you’re distracted by impending self-inflicted asphyxiation. My running shirt of choice is a threadbare green number with the words “Alaska 79” blocked out in blue across the front, which commemorate the fact that my mother bought it when she went to Alaska in 1979. The holes keep me remarkably cool in the heat. The breeze flows through them easily, like air conditioning. Clothes like these feel elegant to me in their sparseness. They do not distract from the task at hand.
So I’m generally suspicious of those who feel more confident when their shorts are Puma’s latest take on the color red, or more protected from the rain in a dry-fit sweat-wicking dual-zippered cocoon of a jacket that implies that $220 is enough to defy the drenching properties of rain. It seems like the equivalent of a short guy in a monster truck. It’s compensating. None of those things actually contribute to the reason why you’re running in the first place.
I could stand to invest a little more in clothes. The ones I do wear have hems with an uncanny ability to dig into my skin in the exact same spots and leave behind very conspicuous cuts and welts. They are tiered like shiny bleachers in beveled rows across my chest. They are shockingly gruesome. It is not unusual for me to come home from a run to discover etched into my side the shape of a giraffe, which is also the shape of my key chain.
This is to say that running apparel can serve a purpose — and when a runner decides that running like a girl means running in a skirt, that purpose is to ignite otherwise unattainable speed.
In a race, I’m really only competing against half the field. If you are both a woman and competitive, you have a distinct advantage. Most of the people around you are men. That means they essentially serve to push your pace, and if you pass them, all the better for your time. If they keep ahead, fine. As men, they’re naturally supposed to be faster. The only real issues in your race are other women, and they deserve the bulk of your focus. Still, unless you’re going to win, you’re going to get passed. So where do you draw the line?
For me, as I learned in that summer race, I know a race is only over for me if two things happen, in tandem: A girl passes me, and she is wearing a skirt.
Lately, there has been a deluge of skirted women in every race I’ve participated in. The ensembles come in a rainbow of colors: from basic black to a more patriotic red, white, and blue pleat. Blame resurgent feminist backlash, blame Lululemon. All are excessive and unacceptable.
One recent weekend, with marathon training well underway, I turned up for a crack–of-dawn “long training run” in Central Park, with hundreds of other people who feel that running 16 miles at trying paces is a far better way to spend a summer Sunday morning than sleeping. I showed up just in time to miss my intended pacing group, so I spent most of the run in solitary cadence with a pleasant middle-aged Irish man named Clifton from a place called Dingle. We discussed all manner of commonalities, from the city of Prague (we liked it) to the semi-toxic energy gels available at races there (we didn’t) until we realized that we had both run the marathon in that city just months before.
And then she arrived. Her approach was gradual, but her pace steady and even-keeled. She was wearing a skirt, the length similar to a peppy cheerleader’s, with a tight spandex tank top to augment the ensemble. She passed us.
It was intolerable. A race was underway, and she was choosing to constrain herself by the same fashions that women spent years fighting for the right to free themselves from, for the sake of some notion of fashion. The skirt is fine for other sports, where uniforms are simply that. It’s also fine for the rest of the day, when the wearer may have other priorities aside from performing in a race. But to reinsert them in the purest form of athleticism, to add another layer of clothing that so clearly obscures the function, and worse, that feminizes it in a meaningless and distracting way — it is nothing short of shocking.
Clifton was distracted by the runner in front of us. Though there were other women in the pack, wearing shorts of similar length, something about the skirt drew his eye. I was already exhausted, but I told him I needed to go. I needed to leave the skirted runner behind.
My sudden nemesis probably had no idea what was happening as I hied myself past her, with far too much commitment. But as far as I was concerned, our one-sided showdown was not quite a victory for me — in fact, that day’s sorry stagger was far from that — as much as it was a victory for the dignity of the sport and its participants. I found my ace. Victory would not come in a skirt.
Photo by Jeff Moriarty