Note: This begins a projected series of musings on that interesting process through which one changes from 'someone who runs with a shirt on' to 'someone who runs without'. Thoughts on this quite complex topic would be very welcome, whether you are a shirtless runner, an adamant opponent or no partisan of either side.
Let me start with an inspiring tale from PHIL, straight from our Comments archives:
I met up with a buddy of mine for his first 5k race last weekend.
He had been running on his own for the past few months so knew little
about what to do at a race. After picking up our bib numbers, my buddy
asked what to do next. I told him the race number goes on your shorts
and to run without a shirt. I could tell he was uncomfortable since he
paced around a bit, but once my shirt came off he did the same. Most of
the shirtless runners were in the lead pack so I thought he might be
peeved at me for telling him to run shirtless since we were far from the
lead pack, but it went well. We met up the other night for a quick
trail run and to my surprise he showed up shirtless, and he thanked me
for showing him a better way to run...
Many's the time I've heard it reported that the journey to 'dispensing with the shirt' starts with the example of a friend or acquaintance. But if we converts actually consider their own experience, exactly how does an example 'act' on us?
One possibility posits a 'neutral' exerciser who has never considered the possibility of going shirtless or in jogbra. Then, along comes someone doing just that: A mental bomb goes in your brain and you think: 'Heck, that looks comfortable. It makes a lot of sense. Maybe I should try it...'
To my mind, however, it is unlikely that most of our conversion stories begin this way. Had our minds been really in this neutral state, we would probably 'think practically nothing of' the appearance of a shirtless would-be-exemplar; we would simply immediately ignore or forget it, beyond perhaps a momentary bemusement or amusement.
I propose instead this scenario: By the time someone's example can jog us decisively in favour of stripping down, we would likely have been already engaged in an internal conflict. We would have experienced a certain constriction or discomfort in the course of physical exertion; the thought of removing the upper-body garment would already have been stirring as a pleasurable prospect. However, and this is critical, a contrary notion would have been trying to snuff it out. This 'opposing' notion might take the form of doubts regarding whether one's body is in decent shape for 'exposure', or whether one's friends or neighbours might be amused or scandalised.
It is only when such a tug-of-war has already begun, perhaps in some mild way, that stumbling across an 'example' or 'inspiration' can make a difference. At some level, the forces within us that have been urging shirtlessness would receive vindication or reinforcing. Opposed arguments suddenly seem weaker: The more the exemplar is an otherwise trusted or respected one, the more of an effect he or she is likely to have. To use this blog as an example (it is, after all, a 'friend' to all who would run sans shirt), I have received numerous notes from folks to say the writings therein have strengthened their impulse, or wish, to join the shirtless cause. I have yet to receive a communication from anyone claiming that said writings felt like some 'bolt from the blue', so that they had gone from 'never giving shirtless exercise a moment's thought' to now holding it a pleasing possibility.
If I am right, the importance of setting an example is not diminished in any way. Indeed, it becomes even more important. After all, we really need not concern ourselves with the 'doubt-free' of the world: Those to whom the very notion of going shirtless is a dead option, worth only a moment's disparagement, or indeed those to whom stripping down so is so utterly natural that they have been doing so forever. Perhaps most people fall into this 'doubt-free' camp: We need wish them only happy lives. Yet if we agree that there are many out there who are caught in a upper-body no-man's-land, both wishing-to yet fearful-to, then surely the value of 'showing the way' becomes undeniable.
To take Phil's story, we now see that it is likely that his running buddy was already gripped with a prior degree of internal conflict. The seed of shirtlessness must have already been planted, yet contrary conditions were keeping it from germinating. Note Phil's observation: "I could tell he was uncomfortable since he
paced around a bit". He does not say that his friend instantly whipped off his top. No, battle had been joined, if not for long, and 'take off the shirt' had to see off a rival conviction. Yet if not for Phil's example, his buddy might have spent years wracked with internal dissension; his preference swinging now this way, then the next. Instead, as Phil reports, a new convert was born, confident and sure, so much so that he soon shows up for a run shirtless, and specifically thanks Phil "for showing him a better way to run".