Back in the 1970s and 1980s, if you ran in a race, you were lucky to walk away with a shirt and a banana for the $5 entry fee. Somewhere along the way, race directors started “marketing” their race events, and thus, the advent of SWAG.
As I sit here, I am wearing a t-shirt from a 10k race in Anchorage, Alaska from 1998. I am drinking hot tea in a mug won at the 10th Latin American 5k in Wilmington. When I reach for a pencil, they are in a finished pottery piece from the Fodderstack Classic 10k race from 1989, held in central Virginia. Oh, and my current hat is a highlighter green giveaway item from the 2013 Delaware Marathon Festival. Got SWAG?
SWAG stands for “stuff we all get.” And if you don’t get it, you don’t get it. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, if you ran in a race, you were lucky to walk away with a shirt and a banana for the $5 entry fee. Most of us hoped that a bowl of soup awaited us at the finish line (in a non-SWAG Styrofoam bowl). One of my most prized running possessions, to this day, is the t-shirt I got from running the 1979 Harrisburg Marathon. I’ve seen tissue paper that has more thickness to it than my shirt, but I do still occasionally wear it.
Somewhere along the way, race directors started “marketing” their race events. With the realization that costs were going up, runners weren’t going to pony up $10 to $15 per event without something more. And thus, the advent of the SWAG t-shirt took hold. These shirts are both “added value” to the runner and marketing strategy to the race director.
If you were to walk into my basement right now (and please knock before you just barge in), you would see a quilt hanging on my wall, with the marketing remnants of 30 previously-run races. The time period featured is 1982 through 2001. I call this the SWAG on SWAG wall. And unfortunately, it only reduced my t-shirt pile a little.
My plight of t-shirt fatigue also hit others about the same time… probably the mid-90s. Race directors heard the call and started changing it up. The Annapolis 10-miler, held in mid-August (on a hilly, ugly, humidly hot course no less) started upping the ante by upping the entry fee AND providing runners with SWAG jackets. In Harrisburg, if you ran the Kipona 10k, you got running shorts. Another of my favorite SWAG items is the hat from the 1991 Boston Marathon. Yes, we got Boston shirts too. Hey, $100 has got to score you more than just a shirt!
Overall awards and age group prizes have also gone beyond the same same. Here in Delaware, the Buffalo Stampede held in Camden-Wyoming gives away wood-carved buffaloes to its winners. I know a few folks who brag of a whole herd of buffalo awards (one buffalo, two buffali?). Two falls ago, I raced a 5k in Cincinnati, Ohio and won the overall title. The award was a really cool quartz rock with a hole carved in the middle for a candle.
Over the last 10 years, race entry fees have skyrocketed. Some of that comes with the ever-increasing cost of insurance and other services (police, roads, parade route fees, CHIP Timing, etc…) and some of it comes with better SWAG. Technical shirts, event embroidered backpacks, jackets, seat cushions, and more all adorn the arms and backs of runners at every big city race expo as they walk out loaded with tons of the stuff. One of my last marathons, I walked out with everything except my race number! I literally had to return to get the one thing that I needed more than all the other stuff. SWAG overload!
Back in the early 1990s, I worked in the city of Chester, Pa. I spent a great deal of time downtown and happened upon Team City Ministries, one of the many homeless and charity shelters there. One day I took a bag full of at least 40 racing t-shirts there for distribution. About three weeks later, driving through town I noticed someone wearing one of my old race shirts. A block later I saw another. Then two more. I think I counted five in all in one day. It was nice to see my old SWAG making the rounds.
There has been a movement lately to minimize SWAG and also minimize entry fees at some smaller races. In fact, some races are charging an additional fee if you actually want an event shirt. Some of us long for the days of that $5 to $10 race entry fee and nothing to load us (or the laundry) down when we get home. And I’d bet you’ll find a few running spouses who would concur with this movement.
Former Lock Haven University stand-out runner Andrew Shearer is the Middletown Athletic Club secretary/treasurer.