The Boston Marathon’s Essential Jacket: A History

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Eric Narcisi’s official 2011 Boston Marathon jacket hangs in a closet in his home office, next to his suits. “I never wear it,” he says laughing. “For some reason, it just doesn’t feel right.”

Narcisi, of North Andover, Massachusetts, works as a wear-test analyst for Puma, so he knows running apparel. But it’s not because of a bad fit that the passionate marathoner never wears his Boston jacket. “It’s too new,” he tries to explain. He pauses, then says, “Assuming the jacket still fits me in 20 years, I think I would wear it a lot more often.”

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“I’ve run a lot of different marathons, but that one is prime time,” says John Hill, of Pleasant Hill, California. Hill has bought official jackets from five of the six Bostons he’s run and claims he’ll buy another his next time he runs it. “Whether it goes good or bad, it’s a memorable event, and I like to have something to remember it.”

If running is a cult, then the Boston Marathon, which holds its 121st edition on Monday, April 17, is its temple, and the race’s official jacket, its priestly robes. Each year at the pre-event expo, a line of participants snakes around the convention center, killing time until they’re afforded the opportunity to pay $110 for its quintessential memorabilia. Jackets, worn on the backs of limping marathoners, then return to hometowns across the word, becoming a kind of secret handshake with others already indoctrinated through Boston’s crucible.

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While the race itself goes back to 1897, Boston’s official race jacket is a relatively recent addition. Adidas, which became the race’s apparel and footwear sponsor in 1988, made a small batch of exclusive jackets for finish line volunteers in 1989. Runners, passing by after finishing, began clamoring for a jacket for themselves, so Adidas experimented with a test run of 1,500 for runners in 1991. The jackets sold out on the first day of the two-day expo.

“It was one of those things where the timing was right, [and] it created demand,” says Jack Fleming, the Marketing & Communications Director for the Boston Athletic Association, the marathon’s parent organization. Fleming was an intern in ‘91 — he’d be hired full-time later that year — and has witnessed the frenzy for jackets throughout his career with the race.

“At Boston, other races, too, you get the medal, you walk around the streets, you go eat at a restaurant, you wear it on the plane. But when you get back into your hometown, I’m not sure that you’re able to walk comfortably with a medal hanging around your neck for several days,” Fleming says. “The jacket is just a little bit more of a call-out to yourself, a little bit more of a reward that you’re giving yourself.”

Adidas declined a request for the number of jackets it made for this year’s marathon, but the specs on its 2017 edition, announced in December, are decidedly tame. While it utilizes a waterproof, windproof, and breathable fabric and applies reflective hits to the shoulders, the Celebration Jacket is essentially a middle-of-the-pack blue running shell. Are there jackets that offer ten times the performance of the official edition? I’ll write you a list. But that has nothing to do with how well the Adidas offering will sell. In fact, the only thing most Boston marathoners care about are the colors.

While the Boston Marathon has its official hues — blue and yellow — the jackets themselves vary from year to year. Blue and yellow were used on the centennial in 1996 and in 2013, the year of the bombing. But other years, jackets have been candy-apple red, teal, neon green, or fluorescent orange. In fact, each year’s reveal is an event in itself, with debate across the running world.

“[It] appears that Adidas just assumes with the captive audience, the Boston runners (especially the first-timers) will buy the jacket no matter what it looks like,” said one poster on the message boards of the 2015 jacket, a particularly, uh, interesting combination of purple and orange.

Another said it more bluntly: “That looks like shit.”

But colors, even with the missteps, still serve the function of a visible representation of a specific 26.2 miles of pain, suffering, and glory. For Narcisi, he thinks of his as a memento from “The Year of the Unbelievable Tailwind,” when conditions aligned for a solid breeze that wafted runners into Boston and Narcisi to a 2:31. Fleming remembers the green-and-white of ’91 as the year Ibrahim Hussein of Kenya took the win. And for Hill, the teal of 2016 marks the day where he finished tenth in his age group.

“The jacket is the symbol of the race,” says Hill. “It seems like an OK price to pay for me.”

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