The Utilitarian Runner
By Austin Bonds
When you consider the title of this article, do your thoughts turn to strength and intensity and might? I think about the rugged outdoors and man and his ability to contend with the elements, i.e. Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant (2015). Incidentally, the word “utility” speaks to the usefulness of an object, and Webster’s dictionary affirms this: “made to be useful rather than to be decorative or comfortable.”
Since I’m on the subject of survival like that found in The Revenant, I’m reminded of the hatchet and the numerous uses it has for staying alive in any environment. A hatchet splits wood and snaps small branches; a hatchet aids in the process of building a shelter; and a hatchet is a formidable weapon against big predators (like a ferocious bear perhaps). A hatchet has great utility and is a most handy tool for lengthy hikes and overnight campouts.
Distance running is a far cry from survival though some runs feel like an exercise in staying alive. Moreover, multi-day hikes require the right tools to stay safe and secure and sheltered – like the trusted hatchet. Utility, as it turns out, is continuing to gain a major foothold in running gear today. In short, function trumps fashion. Take your basic running shorts and consider how they have evolved from a utilitarian (useful or functional) standpoint. Once upon a time, shorts were shorts. They provided coverage for the lower half of the body and offered a splash of color for the sake of matching a basic shirt. I have a few pairs of shorts that fit this basic, boring description.
The running shorts of 2016 are remarkably different from those of yesteryear, though. Fabrics are lighter and softer, and solid colors have given way to patterns and polka dots and stripes and lines. To illustrate this point further, I recently purchased a pair of Sherpa shorts by Brooks. They are soft to the skin and have an appealing striped pattern, and yet this only scratches the surface as other features abound upon closer inspection.
The focal point of the Sherpa shorts, which is seemingly a mainstay on all running shorts now, is a zippered pocket. Pockets are a glorious feature for storing gear, but the addition of a zipper increases the utility factor many times over so your gear doesn’t bounce out during a run on the roads or the trails or the track.
Along with a sizable zippered pocket across the back for a key or credit card or chap stick or cash, the Sherpa shorts have two – not one but two – side pockets that are ideal for nutritional products (e.g. a gel, bar, chew, or sport beans). The icing on the cake is a fourth pocket inside the shorts, should three just not be enough. This is utility, in a running short, at its finest.
Along with a sharp design and four pockets for storage, the Sherpa shorts include a few reflective strips to increase visibility for morning or evening runs. I should note that reflective strips are a staple on almost all running shorts and shirts today. Zippered pockets are actually becoming more present on shirts too, so between the shirt and short pairing, runners are now becoming physical storage closets by way of their clothing.
If you recall the definition of utility that I noted in the first paragraph, this word highlights usefulness over attractiveness, though the design of both running shoes and running apparel suggests otherwise. Companies are bringing both elements together to create both functional and fashionable gear for runners who desire both. There’s no shortage of products available to carry stuff for a run, but utilitarian apparel (meaning shirts and shorts) is what I now gravitate towards as a distance runner. I store what I can on my person.
With this in mind, I’m intrigued to see the evolution (or revolution?) of running gear in the coming years – notably in the apparel category. What’s next? Who’s doing what? Will a shirt or jacket or pair of shorts or pants be designed to accommodate a water bottle of some kind so the hydration belt can be used less? Will shirts have zippered pockets that are heavily reinforced so as to eliminate armbands for those who run with smartphones? The possibilities abound, and they are coming, sooner than we realize. Function and fashion are colliding in running gear.
I think this tendency to favor functional gear may ultimately be based on the “less is more” concept. I like a simple approach to running, and this translates into carrying only necessary gear. I like gear that is made to be useful; made to keep me visible; made to carry my stuff on my person; made to be functional. I’m quickly becoming a utilitarian runner, ready to brave all of the elements – minus the menacing bear.
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