Editor’s Note: The following essay was originally featured on THE ROCK FIGHT podcast and is available to listen to in the player below.
Today I’m picking a fight with the cheap free race swag bag tech tee. Because they are both an environmental and biological disaster.
Congratulations. You’ve registered for a running race. When you signed up, among the many personal questions you were asked, one was to give your t-shirt size. You complied, paid your $25 - 150 and went about your way, training for the event.
The day before the race you go to whatever middle school, Lion’s Club, American Legion or Applebee’s is hosting the race check in. As you make your way to the table and the person running the check in for people whose last name start with S - Z you pass a few vendor tables including a footwear tech rep scrolling TikTok and pretending to work a table with two models of a shoe for which they have no samples to try on or buy but they’ll give you a sticker if you ask, the small assortment of accessories for sale by the local run shop (stuff like lip balm, squirrel’s nut butter, GU packets and salt tabs) and the race merch table that has t-shirts, socks and sweatshirts featuring the logo from the race you’re running and the leftover merch from a race that was run a month ago.
You’re on the clock to get back to your Airbnb and eat an appropriate energy producing dinner, featuring foods that are low risk to cause gastrointestinal distress, and drink approximately 72 gallons of water so you can be properly hydrated and spend the night before your big event peeing every 15 minutes; so you pass these exhibitors and rush right up to the check in.
You hand over your ID, receive a wristband and then it’s handed to you.
A nondescript white plastic bag that is held shut with an equally white drawstring.
The swag bag.
Inside are some crucial items including your race day bib and safety pins.
Also inside are some non-crucial items including promotional flyers for local establishments that you’ll never visit and Kinko’s printed ads with 10% discount codes for the brands and businesses that sponsored the race you’re running. Those flyers and this bag will live in one of the following three places for the next 2 years before you finally throw them all away:
The trunk/back of your car
The rubbermaid container that doubles as your run gear storage and race day aid station bin.
The corner of the garage next to the bladder in your pack that you’ll forget about and throw away on the same day you throw away the swag bag because it’s so crusted over with mold that it’s no longer reliable as a hydration bladder but more likely to cause the mushroom zombie pandemic from the Last of Us.
And there is one more item in the swag bag. The t-shirt that was promised by asking you for your t-shirt size all those months ago. A t-shirt with either the logo of the race or the company that put on the race (or both) printed on it.
You reach inside the bag to pull out the shirt and check it out knowing full well that one of two things is about to happen.
Either, you feel the sweet softness of a cotton t-shirt and know that you’ll be welcoming a new entry into the stable of t-shirts that you wear on a regular basis.
Or, you feel the slick plasticy sensation of cheap ass polyester. If that happens, you won’t even finish pulling the t-shirt out of the bag because you know that not only is this something you can’t wear casually, you can’t even add it to your every expanding quiver of run apparel.
The cheap race day tech tee is a scourge of epic proportions.
Firstly there’s the issue of stench. Despite what pretty much every outdoor apparel manufacturer will tell you, no one has solved the odor problem when it comes to synthetic fabrics. If greenwashing is the biggest issue surrounding outdoor and active apparel, the outright lies all outdoor and active brands tell us about how their stuff won’t smell is a close second. If not stinking is important to you, you need to wear wool. It’s your only option.
Secondly, the quality of fabric used in the type of shirts that proliferate the inside of the race day swag bag is so low to keep the cost down for a shirt that’s essentially a gift with purchase for all those racing, that if you dare try and actually run in one your armpits will immediately chafe and your nipples will be destroyed beyond the ability for any amount of neosporin to make a difference.
And lastly this is the worst of the worst when it comes to environmental impact. Just cheap petroleum based shit made in factories where the workers are forced into 37 hour shifts and live in a small shoebox in the middle of the road.
There is truly nothing redeemable by the manufacturing or use of these shirts.
So to race directors everywhere. Please, go cotton when it comes to swag shirts for your racers. And if they’re too much money, do something else. Get pint glasses or beanies or hell do nothing and just sell good t-shirts and sweatshirts.
And if you're a racer that got one of these shirts? I’m sorry. But no, there are no circumstances in which you can wear it. Either pin it on your wall as a memento from the race or even throw it, like a rock, at the race director and tell them, ‘not ok!’.
Together we can end our long national nightmare of stinky, shitty plastic shirts given away for free at running races.