I Don’t Need More Ultra Swag!

While hanging out after a pleasant trail run in DC last week, discussion turned to schwag given away at ultramarathons. […]

By on November 1, 2007 | Comments

While hanging out after a pleasant trail run in DC last week, discussion turned to schwag given away at ultramarathons. The discussion focused on whether a club should have input into schwag when it sponsors a race or if the schwag should entirely be the RD’s call. The two strongest arguments made in favor of club input were:

  1. Providing a check/sounding board for an RD who’s taste might be a little, how do you say, “different”; and
  2. Coordinating swag between various races and over the years

The first point is valid to some degree. Certainly anyone who’s run many ultras has gotten at least one doozy of a shirt, sweatshirt, bag, etc. Maybe if the RD had run the item by a committee before ordering it, a different design would have been chosen. On the other hand, one of the great thing about ultras are it’s characters. If I were ever crazy enough to run the Barkley Marathon, I’d certainly want the tee shirt to reflect the race and its RD.

On the second point, David Horton’s race series was given as an example of great swag coordination. It’s my understanding that in a given year the main giveaways at his four races will consist of one short sleeve shirt, one long sleeve shirt, one half-zip shirt, and a pair of shorts. That way if you run his Lynchburg Ultra Series and his Hellgate 100k, you end up getting one of each rather than four short sleeve shirts.

The topic of how best to coordinate the gear given out at races brought up what is, at least for me, a more important topic – how best to avoid getting gear at races. If I run ten ultras in a given year, I could end up with a dozen shirts, three or four running hats (both caps and knit hats), a few pairs of running shorts, a couple backpacks and/or dufflebags, and likely a jacket or two. You can see that aside from shoes one could accumulate all the running gear they need in a single ultra season. Having run ultras for half a decade, I have far more swag than I need. I would have an even greater over abundance if I was one of those not uncommon ultrarunners who runs 15, 20, or more events in a given year.

What’s worse is that I rarely end up using the swag I get at races. It’s not that RDs don’t do a great job of picking gear to give away; rather, over time I’ve found equipment that I like and I stick to it. For instance, of the four pairs of shorts I’ve gotten at races, I’ve probably not worn the lot of them more than half a dozen times put together … and those times were probably when I ran out of clean shorts. As for short sleeve tee shirts, does anyone need more than 5 or 6? Maybe 10 at most? I long ago met that mark.

Although, for the most part, I don’t need any more race gear, let’s take a look at which race swag I use while running:

  • HAT Run hats
    • Mesh style cap
    • Knit hat
  • Bull Run Run windbreaker vest
  • Bull Run Run bandannas (I often bring them to longer races or warm training runs)
  • Bull Run Run technical tee shirt (a plain white, barely decorated shirt that I love on hot sunny days)

That’s it as far as race gear that I use in my running. I use race swag a bit more away from running. Here’s what I use often enough not to get rid of:

  • Bull Run Run and Western States backpacks
  • Leadville 100 small duffelbag
  • Western States jackets
  • Western States long sleeve tee shirts
    • One for wearing in public
    • One for housework – I ruined it by running it through the dryer with shoe polish – doh!
  • Wasatch 100 long sleeve tee shirt (rarely)
  • Western States short sleeve tee shirt (both of mine are really tight, but the larger one occasionally makes it out of the drawer when it’s really hot)
  • Leadville sweatshirt
  • Buckles – yes, I do wear them…. even if the huge Leadville one gets worn a bit less often

Given all the races I’ve run – both ultra and non-ultra, what do I do with my other swag? I give it away. If I have a crew or pacer, I’ll sometimes offer them the swag from the race (though I tend to keep more swag from 100s, which is normally the only time I have a crew). Sometimes nice swag becomes a gift for family members or close friends. However, most of it gets donated to charity. For instance, I’ve donated most of my shirts, all of the shorts I’ve been given at races, and even a nice fleece jacket… and it’s not just run of the mill clothing of which I have more than I need. as proof, I’ve given away two Western States age group award jackets and a sweet North Face backpack I got at States, too.

So what do I suggest? Well, I can immediately think of three options.

One, give runners the option of opting out of swag on the entry form. While I’m sure its advantageous for established races that routinely fill to capacity to be able to order a set number of shirts based on the entrants limit well ahead of time, after a year an RD would be able to make an educated guess as to the number of folks who would decline the gear. If you give people the option to opt out, what do you do about the race fee for those folks who opt out? Well, you could either give them a slight price break or you can state that a sum equal to the cost of that person’s swag will go to a designated charity or club.

A second, closely related option would be an opt in option. If your goal is to reduce the number of people getting swag, this would likely be more effective that the opt out option.

The other obvious option would be to not give away anything to race entrants. Instead, RDs could lower entry fees, get some gear made, and sell it at the race or online.

In raising the issue of not wanting more race swag, I was told that others care much more about this stuff than I do. No doubt, but my suggestion is that races let those races who don’t want or need more gear the option not to get any. (I’m not going to argue against finishers medals even if I personally find them unnecessary, because I know that they are a motivator and source of pride for some – ain’t nothing wrong with that. However, I would prefer buckles or “finisher” labeled gear to the literally useless metal.)

Why do I care about this at all when I can simply give my unwanted swag away? In a word – resources. Or perhaps better put, scant resources. Without going into a lengthy explanation, diatribe, or digression, it takes materials and energy to produce and ship the swag. It might not be much in some cases, but I firmly believe in embracing change on the individual level, even if through a series of small changes. I want to have the option to opt out of having another “thing” created on my behalf. That’s not to say that I never indulge myself with new gear, but there is a much higher chance that I will like and use the gear I choose for myself.

Am I over thinking this? Does anyone else feel this way? Us ultrarunners enjoy our nature surroundings more than just about any other group I know, so why hasn’t minimalism or at least environmental consciousness become a bigger aspect of our sport? Thoughts?

Bryon Powell

Bryon Powell is the Founding Editor of iRunFar. He’s been writing about trail running, ultrarunning, and running gear for more than 15 years. Aside from iRunFar, he’s authored the books Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons and Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running, been a contributing editor at Trail Runner magazine, written for publications including Outside, Sierra, and Running Times, and coached ultrarunners of all abilities. Based in Silverton, Colorado, Bryon is an avid trail runner and ultrarunner who competes in events from the Hardrock 100 Mile just out his front door to races long and short around the world, that is, when he’s not fly fishing or tending to his garden.