It was the winter of 1998. It was the beginning of the online shopping boom. I was eighteen, just days away from my nineteenth birthday, had a credit card, and had just discovered REIoutlet.com. Seriously? REI gear at way cheaper prices? Uh oh.
. . .
As long as I can remember, my father has had a sweatshirt from a well known company (who’s name transports a person to the Southern Hemisphere). It is black and zips up the front. He wore it in the winter, often when we would chop or stack wood. It had piled all over the outside, usually had little splinters of maple sticking to it, and I remember, when it would hang by our fireplace, drying after a snowstorm, I would collect those little “buttons” of fuzz, inhaling the years of carried wood and collected chainsaw exhaust, and look at the label on the left breast, picturing myself in those mountains that graced the logo. Yes, this sweatshirt has a special place in my psyche.
So it was with a certain titilating nostalgia that, as I scrolled this newly discovered virtual world at www.rei.com/outlet that I saw it: for $22.73 a “wind blocking, lightly insulated shell for all your winter adventures.” It was blue, full zip, with a left chest pocket. And, in my (nearly) nineteen-year old mind, most importantly, there was that beautiful logo above over the left breast. Immediately I sent it to my “Shopping Cart,” clicked “Check Out” and waited. Several days later, I was opening the package, figuring this jacket was, to paraphrase Macklemore, so much more than just a jacket. This jacket would give me the ability to climb the highest peaks in the world (regardless of lacking the requisite skills), would make me able to tell tales at bars that began, “As I crossed the altiplano of Bolivia . . .” (regardless of lacking the requisite charisma. I was also not a runner at this point in my life, instead merely a Walter Mitty mountaineer). These images rushed through my image-conscious, teenage mind. There was great anticipation.
Utter and complete dissappointment. This jacket, which I had come to see as a doorway to greatness, flat out sucked. It was ugly. It looked vaguely like a shiny track suit, minus the retro “cool” factor. The outside felt like a nylon tarp, and the “insulation”? It wasn’t even Polartec! In fact, it was so thin and light that I figured this jacket should only be used as a shower mat. And that would be pushing its envelope of functionality. Buyer’s remorse in full effect, the jacket got tossed into a pile of neglected gear I never saw but once a year when I added some other ridiculous purchase to it. Shit. How was going to reach the goddamn altiplano now?
. . .
It was late spring, at least a dozen years later, and I was summiting Bondcliff in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, with my great friend Sam Jurek. We had been running in a steady, cold rain and bitter wind for about 3 and half hours, as we attempted a Pemi Loop. Temperatures hung around 37 degrees, and when we had refueled at Galehead Hut, instead of warming us, as we had hoped, the inside of the hut simply reminded us of the cold – each exhale turned to mist, and we quickly began to shiver (a symptom that disappeared as soon as we started marching up the soaking “staircase” to S. Twin.). This was Sam’s introduction to the Whites, and I, being the wise veteran, had packed my once-dismissed, ugly, blue “tarp” jacket (with the cool logo), which, despite being soaked, was keeping me warm and, as we cruised the exposed ridge, kept the constant wind at bay.
You see, once I became a runner I discovered this jacket in the back of a closet. It was winter, probably around 2003, and I fancied myself a serious runner, so I needed something on a particularly cold and windy day, to keep me from freezing to death as I headed out the door. I gave this jacket, which I had held such high hopes for when clicking “Check Out,” a try. I don’t think I had worn it before that day. To this day, it is my go-to piece of gear when it gets cold. Now, like my father’s sweatshirt, the inside (which I am now convinced is lined with some unique, magic fabric, found in no other garment, ever) is slightly piled, the outside is stained with tree sap and road (and body) salt, the zipper is half-broken, the elastic around the bottom, that once helped seal out wind, is now a bit too stretchy, so the jacket wears a little bit like a zip-up poncho, the waist cuff often rolling up a bit, and it holds a very particular smell (after thousands of miles of running, not quite as nostagalic as the cut wood and chainsaw exhaust of my father’s sweatshirt, but nostalgic nonetheless). Yes, I truly love this jacket of mine. It has served me well . I have come home from “blizzard” runs several times to have it completely frozen, a thin layer of ice around it that I have to break to get it off. It hangs by the door in our house, at the ready, from October to April (although this year, it may be June). Putting it on is like going for a run with an old (and kind of smelly) friend.
So you can imagine the great internal struggle, when, just a couple of weeks ago, I received a brand new, super-light weight (and sweet-smelling!), Race Elite 260 Thermoshell from Inov-8 (even the fact that this new jacket has a specific, technical name impressed me. My jacket is called, I don’t even know what it’s called. I guess just “running jacket”). (FULL DISCLOSURE: I am sponsored by Inov-8, who, despite my being laid up with an injury for the past 12 weeks, has continued to show a great deal of support and encouragement to me). When I first heard about the Thermoshell last year I was, to say the least, excited. It is a very sharp looking piece, like a runner’s version of a puffy jacket (and I prefer to be warm and sweat a little (or a lot) on a run, than to be on the border of warm and freezing my privies off). It packs down to about the size of a large orange (or, perhaps, grapefruit, if you are particular about the size of your citrus), and is designed for pure, athletic function: half-zip, with one chest pocket, single hand cinches around the waste. It feels like air holding it. The real kicker? The inside is made of a wind-blocking material, and the jacket is reversible, so if you flip it inside-out, for some reason, it’s actually warmer! If my running jacket is a Chevy Nova, the Thermoshell is a friggin’ Ferrari. On steroids. (And yes, the whole flipping it inside-out to make it warmer thing is legit. We’ve had plenty of days to test that here in New England this winter).
The day I got it, I didn’t try the Thermoshell on until after my boys were asleep. I think I didn’t want them to see me “cheating” on it. And when I did finally pull it on, I felt guilty about how good it felt. If you have ever changed into a puffy coat on a cold night to go sit by a campfire, you know what it felt like slipping the Thermoshell over my head. “CURSES!” I thought. The thing felt like Mithril from the mines of Moria, light, flowy, comforting. (Yes, I know, I’m sponsored by Inov-8. Yes, these thoughts did actually go through my mind when I put this jacket on). I decided to give the jacket a real test the next morning, biking to school. The temperature was forecasted to 1 degree by the time I would be biking. After thirty five minutes pedalling through those temps, my core was totally comfortable (my hands however were not. My hands were numb after about eight minutes). The jacket works: it will keep you warm. When I wore it on one of my “attempted” runs, (“attempted” because my injury allows me to run about 2 miles at a go), again, on a bitter morning, I actually had to use the small second zipper to let some air out (a nice feature – the half zip actually has a top and bottom zipper. Once you zip the top zipper, you can pull the bottom zip to create a window of ventilation. The jacket stays comfortable around your neck (I despise getting drafts down my back), but a lot of extra heat can escape out the front). And, to top it all off, on the first day I wore it, I went to the grocery store. Now, I am not one to get compliments on my style or fashion choices (see above description of my running jacket). I kid you not, two people, approached me and commented on the Thermoshell. One to say, “Man, that jacket looks really warm” and one to say, “That’s a really nice lookin’ jacket.” I felt like an absolute rock star.
Which is where I will end this tale. A tale of a boy and his jacket. A love story. To be honest, I feel guilty: Since I got it, I have only worn the Thermoshell. My running jacket still hangs by our door, but now it seems like one of those old dogs that can’t quite keep up with the new puppy and just sort curls itself up in the corner, looking annoyed by the young whippersnapper’s playful antics. It’s more than a little sad. I have honestly felt a bit of guilt in my move to the Thermoshell as well. My running jacket was working just fine - I had yet to freeze to death on a single run. Is this new choice of jacket (and willingness to simply toss aside such a faithful companion) not a simple choice of functionality, but more of a window into my soul and character? Does it show a shallowness, only wearing this new jacket because I was complimented by those two people when I wore it to the store? Does it reveal a hellbent consumer, fueled by the hungry ghost of materialism, creating an unethical demand on the world’s resources? Gosh, I hope not, because if that’s the case, I’m gonna have a hell of a hard time saying goodbye to the Thermoshell! And if it does, is there anyone out there who can provide a happy home to a 16-year old, blue, running jacket, with a partially broken zipper and unique smell?