The anatomy of a road race t-shirt

Moses Powe shows off the notorious 2018 Marine Corps Marathon shirt. Photo: Courtesy of the Marine Corps Marathon.

When designing the 2018 Marine Corps Marathon’s participant t-shirt, graphic designer Corbin Stewart was excited to try a new technique, one that would illustrate the enormity of the race known as the People’s Marathon. 

Using full-dye sublimation, a design style where the artwork covers the entire piece of clothing, Stewart created a shirt with images of previous marathon participants all over the front and back. An image of the start line is on the front of the shirt, which is a long-sleeved mock turtleneck. The American flag and the Marine Corps flag are on the back. It’s a colorful shirt, to say the least.  

“It turned out a little brighter than expected,” Stewart said. “And then it took off on social media.” 

Runners didn’t hold back, flocking to Twitter to share their opinions on what is probably the race’s most memorable shirt ever. 

  • “This is the race shirt from the Marine Corps Marathon 2018,” one runner tweeted. “It’s so hilariously ugly. I can’t wait for the looks on the plane tomorrow.” 
  • “Maybe I should try flipping this shirt inside out. Ugh. No better that way. Worth a try, though.”
  • “Looks like a Marine ate a bag of Skittles and puked on your shirt!” 

Marc Goldman, the marathon’s sponsorship and marketing manager, said race officials were so amused by the response that they decided to have some fun with it. A few days after the race, they compiled a video of marathon staffers, including Stewart, reading mean tweets about the shirt

“It wound up being a pretty entertaining conversation,” Goldman said. 

They also produced a holiday video featuring the shirt as an ugly Christmas sweater.

Stewart said he took it all in stride. 

“I design all kinds of things, and not everybody is going to love them,” he said.

Participant t-shirts have become something of a given in races, and many runners say their favorite race shirts hold special memories– even if they’re not quite as eye-catching as the MCM shirt. 

Runner Lyda Astrove said she was obese when she began running in 2006. Her first race shirt was from the Pikes Peek 10K.  

“With every race and shirt it was a tangible reminder of how far I had come,” said Astrove, who added she chooses her races by how good the shirts look. It makes me happy to wear the race shirts. I never thought I would be running races at almost 60, but here we are.”

Tim Lemke, an Anne Arundel County runner, said he’s at the point where his comfort is more important than design, and appreciates shirts with softer fabric. 

Still, he said, it’s always obvious when the shirt is really meant to be a benefit for the race sponsors, rather than a premium for runners. 

“If it’s meant to be a place for sponsors to get visibility, that shows in the form of excessive logos that detract from the design and comfort of the shirt,” he said. 

Elise Gebauer, the creative director for Potomac River Running, said sponsor logos can be one of her biggest challenges as a designer. 

 “For example, one of our title sponsors has strict rules on how to use their logo because of branding. It can only be their pantone color, reverse white, or black… so that can limit our creativity,” she said. 

While coming up with fresh designs year after year for annual races can be tricky, she said she’s particularly proud of last year’s shirt for the Leesburg 20K. It was the race’s 30th anniversary, so she used a throwback graphic featuring an image of a barn. She said holiday-themed races, such as the Lucky Leprechaun 5K, are always fun to design, too. 

Gebauer said she always gets excited when she sees someone wearing a shirt she’s designed. 

“If I’m driving and see a runner wearing one of our shirts, I always want to yell out the window at them,” she said with a laugh. “I don’t do it, but I do have the urge.” 


Elise Gebauer’s Leesburg 20k design. Photo: Courtesy of Potomac River Running.

Race t-shirts remain popular even among seasoned runners with dozens of them in their drawers, says Phil Stewart, director of the Credit Union Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run and the editor and publisher of Road Race Management.  

Cherry Blossom offers a “no shirt” option when people sign up, but fewer than 250 out of nearly 28,000 lottery applicants choose it. (At registration, runners may also choose to buy a performance shirt if they don’t want the non-technical race shirt, Stewart said.)  

Stewart –no relation to MCM’s Corbin Stewart — said the popularity of race t-shirts correlated with the rise of recreational running in the 1970s. 

“Back in the days when runners were still oddities, the t-shirt told the world about your inclusion in this offbeat group,” he said. “As the sport exploded in the late ’70s, they were expected and became an excellent vehicle for sponsor and event publicity. Today, no race wants to be the first to take a step back from this juggernaut.”

And even runners with drawers full of t-shirts, he said, have some that are special. It’s also always fun for runners to wear their brand new shirts out to celebrate after the race. 

“That’s all part of the ritual as well,” he said.

Each year, Cherry Blossom organizers hold a competition to come up with the shirt’s design. A committee selects the winning design, and the artist who created it wins $1,000.

Then, at the fall kick-off party for the race, organizers reveal the design in two different colors. Those in attendance then vote on the shirt’s color. 

“You get some very different designs, which keeps it interesting,” Stewart said.

While this year’s Marine Corps Marathon shirt won’t be unveiled for several months, Corbin Stewart said he’s continuing with the theme of making the shirt itself the artwork. 

Like Gebauer, he said he gets a kick out of seeing runners wearing shirts he designed. 

“That’s a big goal of mine, to have them continue to wear the shirts,” he said.

The 2017 Credit Union Cherry Blossom Ten Mile shirt is reveled to great ceremony. Photo: Courtesy of the Credit Union Cherry Blossom Ten Mile.

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