Cotton is out for runners, or is it?

Running Columnist

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PAUL OPPENHEIM

It's amusing to look at old running photos and note the changing fashions over the years. Running involves minimal attire?#34;shirt, shorts, shoes and socks, so what could change much? For runners aged 20 to 30-something, those pictures must look like ancient history. To the runners who were there, it wasn't all that long ago.

Pictures from the late '70s to mid-80s show cotton or nylon shorts with contrasting piping around the legs, plus high white socks, often sporting two or three nifty stripes around the top?#34;very cool in 1983 but looking pretty dated in the 21st Century. The older pictures also show longer hair on many guys. For colder weather running, cotton sweats were the general uniform (and Oak Park's leading masters runner Gary Townsend still wears his?#34;he figures if they worked in 1975, they're still okay in 2005).

I'm still impressed at how many people wore cotton shorts and t-shirts in marathons during the '70s and '80s when the running boom was young. But that's mostly all there was, and the race performances for serious runners were just as fast as today, despite their inferior attire.

Shirts have evolved significantly for the better. The old cotton t-shirts have been overtaken by new fabrics like cool-max that do a better job of wicking away perspiration, so that heavy, wet material doesn't cling to you. Strangely, most races still hand out all-cotton t-shirts even though they're lousy for running. The blends of polyester and cotton are an improvement, but still nowhere near as good as the newer synthetics.

When lycra tights first came on the scene, they looked great on the ladies. Then a few guys began wearing them too, and I remember thinking it would be a cold day in hell before anybody saw me in those things. But times change, and with more guys wearing them, plus a variety of newer materials, they turned out to be very practical in all kinds of winter weather. Once at the finish of the old Lake County Marathon I was talking to the motorcycle cop who had escorted the lead runner to the finish. He was lounging on his Harley as we watched runners cross the finish line. Cigarette in hand, he casually noted that "whoever invented those stretch pants for women should get a medal," and I couldn't disagree. By that time most men were regularly wearing tights, and they began appearing in wild colors and patterns, too. Now in the post-disco decades we're back to more conservative colors, and that's a good thing.

However, I still can't get used to those damn baggy shorts. You would think that less is better for running, but apparently street fashions have even infected the running scene. NBA, and then college and high school basketball players started wearing those baggy, floppy uniforms, and now some running shorts look the same. Thanks, but no thanks. Particularly on a warm, humid day I can't believe that large baggy pants with the crotch down to there have much appeal for anybody who is more than a casual jogger.

Shoes, however, have definitely changed for the better, and the more basic to mid-range shoes that offer good cushioning, support and durability are clearly better than ever. Not only do they hold up longer, but they breathe better, too. Some of those earlier-generation shoes could roast your feet during warmer weather. But in my opinion, many of the newer, most expensive shoes just have more bells and whistles.

I'm sure running attire, as most things, will continue to change. But I do hope that in another few years pictures of runners in baggy shorts will look just as goofy as those old high-top, striped socks seem today.

Paul Oppenheim is a member of the Oak Park Runners Club.

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