Most of the time, I run alone. On Thursday nights, however, I meet up with a local group for a tempo session in Central Park. I do this less because I’m desperate for companionship and more because maintaining an aggressive pace for seven or eight miles is relatively easier when you have others to draft off. Tempos are always tough. By the end, I’m usually supine on the grass, panting at the sky as though I’m about to go into cardiac arrest. Bewildered tourists tend to keep their distance.
These workouts inspire an amplified version of the pre-run dread/post-run bliss pendulum that all runners are familiar with. Indeed, the period immediately following my Thursday night session is one of the psychological high points of my week. There’s only one downside: Afterward, sweat-soaked and staggering like someone coming off a two-day gin binge, I’ve got a 50-minute subway ride home. It’s only then, rattling through the night and surrounded by my fellow New Yorkers, that I’m forced to ask myself the question that recently came my way from a curious toddler on the train:
“What are you wearing?”
What am I wearing? The answer will depend on the time of year, but when it comes to running clothes, a certain degree of inappropriateness is guaranteed, no matter the season. Is there a category of athletic attire that’s more emphatically uncool? With the exception of golf, I would have to say no.
It’s easy enough to forget when I’m chasing my runner brethren around the park, but under the glare of the MTA subway lights, the truth comes out: Yes, two-inch split shorts really are too short for polite company. Sometimes my T-shirt or rain jacket will be long enough to obscure the hem, which has the unfortunate effect of making it look like I’m not wearing anything on the lower half of my body.
I don’t have this problem in winter, because I wear tights, which pose a dilemma of their own. I’m aware that leggings have long been commonplace for women and confidently oblivious men, but I have yet to see the light. Walking around in full-length spandex just feels bizarre to me, like I’m on my way to audition for an athleisure-themed Hamlet. As for the shorts-over-tights look, a topic of contention among male runners, that’s just pouring gasoline on the fire.
Meanwhile, the palette from running apparel manufacturers has been questionable of late, to put it delicately. It seems we are only just at the point where major brands are starting phase out the neon-heavy colorways that have dominated the market in recent years. For this, we should all be grateful. Yes, there are practical, safety-related reasons for making runners more conspicuous, but it’s still possible to overdo it. Running may be an unostentatious activity, but there’s no need to overcompensate by making everyone dress like they’re at a rave. How about a moratorium on tennis ball yellow?
So grim is the running fashion scene that there’s even been a major aesthetic violation on the sock front, an area where you’d think it would be pretty hard to go astray. These are dark times: We are living in a moment when knee-high compression socks have gained mainstream acceptance, among both amateurs and world-class professionals. It’s one thing if these tubular monstrosities are prescribed by your doctor in the wake of a thrombosis scare, but otherwise I think this is one article of running gear where the rule holds: If you don’t need it, leave it.
In fairness, in the world of sport fashion, running hardly has a monopoly on ridiculousness. Skiing has its gapers. Figure skating exists in its own special, sequined bubble. Only time will tell, but I think the accessory craze of the current NBA will be embarrassing in retrospect. (Some players look like they’ve been wrapped in gauze.) And let’s not forget the cyclists in their $600 kits and special riding cleats, gingerly clip-clopping around the coffee shop.
But a bicyclist in his full spandex-clad glory will never be too far from his bicycle. Like the skier in his 1980s throwback onesie, any sartorial silliness is offset by an element of functionality. With running, it’s less clear-cut; there’s no convenient prop to justify the aggressive sportiness of one’s attire. The woman sitting across from me on the subway won’t necessarily know that I’m wearing tiny shorts because I want minimal resistance to my stride.
You probably think I’m being overly self-conscious about all this. And you’re almost certainly right. Be that as it may, I’ve taken to wearing sweatpants over my running shorts when traveling to and from my Thursday night run. I stash them in the bushes for the duration of the workout. Retrieving them afterward, I’m always a little apprehensive that I’ll rouse a slumbering raccoon and end up in the New York Post. For now, it’s a risk I’m willing to take.