PEP: A gear review

It’s a pretty common and generally un-frightening event when, at the gym, you suddenly catch a whiff of a ripe scent. At the Dolphin Gym this is a much more common occurrence than elsewhere. A couple of months ago I smelled some funk and made the obvious and universal response – the furtive head bow sniff – only to find that I was the offender! Me!

At first I was terrified. Then I realized that I had only just started my run. And then I was mortified (which is worse than terrified). How could this have happened? Hadn’t I showered this morning? Had I smelled this bad all day?

Upon much internal reflection, discussion and investigation alongside Awesome Wife Kelly, we came to what should have been a pretty common sense realization that I was the victim of old shirt syndrome.

And now a reflection. I started running about 13 years ago. Which means that about 12 years ago I bought my first batch of technical running shirts. They were almost certainly whatever was on the rack at Nike Town. What transpired between now and then will probably be familiar to many of you: I bought a few more, then a few more. Then I ran some races and got a few more freebies (do you remember when races used to give non-technical shirts? The horror). Over the years a shirt here and there would develop a hole or would somehow be irrevocably damaged and would get thrown away, to be replaced by a new marathon shirt or something that I happened to find on sale as I was walking through a store. But by and large my collection was established and was mostly static.

That, my friends, is how I ended up with a bunch of 8-12 year old shirts that were ratty, ugly and kind of smelled bad. Now I don’t consider myself cheap, but neither am I the type to up and spend several hundreds of dollars on non-essential items with no good reason. But as I thought about it, I was still wearing shirts that I’d bought for $40 a pop 10 years ago. That seems like a lot of money until you do the $ / wear and realize that these are the cheapest things I’ve ever purchased. So rather than try to string out a few more wears while contributing to the overall aroma at Dolphin Gym, I gave these guys a well deserved Viking Funeral and decided to invest for the next 10 years.

My first inclination was to walk on down to Nike Town (it’s just an expression, I’d actually have to take the 6 train to 51st, then walk over to 5th Ave) and buy 10 new shirts. But then I started to think about how much technology, materials, suppliers and even fashion has changed over the past ten years. My Nike (and comparable branded) shirts had served me really well, but here’s an opportunity to do some research and surface some good new stuff.

So I did the Internets and talked to some friends who I trust and / or respect and found out some things. The first, is that the Cool Kids just do not wear synthetics anymore. Whereas wicking polyester was all the rage under W. Bush, the world has moved on both in terms of performance and philosophy. Synthetics are apparently covered in synthetic things so they don’t make you feel like your most actualized possible self. And apparently they wear out faster than non-synthetic things. And maybe they’re not good for the environment? I wasn’t so clear on all the reasons that I should be running in natural materials, but I was told that not only would I feel better about the world (and vice versa), but that the performance would be better too. So I kept investigating.

Apparently merino wool is where it’s at. It feels good, it breathes and it doesn’t smell. All of those things are pretty cool, but I remember my buddy buying an Icebreaker t-shirt for $125 because they said it would never smell. I remember making fun of him mercilessly for this purchase. Then he draped the shirt over his hand to help twist open a beer bottle and tore a little hole in his brand new $125 shirt and I remember making fun of him for the subsequent two years (I hope he’s reading this right now so I am, in essence, making fun of him as I type this). So even though merino seemed like a good idea I had my reservations.

More research.

There’s a thing called Pettet Endurance Project (PEP for short) that’s focused on producing high quality merino wool products at reasonable prices ( I’m mostly focused on quality and cost, but the fact that they seem to be good people and manufacture their products responsibly (and in trendy Oregon!) is a plus I guess. Having said that, I dipped my toe in slowly buying only one shirt as a test. If it doesn’t feel good and work well, I don’t really care how many running hipsters we’re employing in the Pacific Northwest.

So I got a Gresham ( which seemed pretty reasonable at $50. I’ve now worn the shirt ~5 times through some pretty intense runs. Here are my impressions:

Some May Care

  • These guys are very focused on using high quality natural materials and making their shirts locally. While it’s hard to make everyday shopping decisions based on global ideals, it is nice to know that you’re doing one thing in your day that doesn’t actively contribute to abusive working conditions and other awfulness.
  • These are nice people. With my first order they sent me a PEP sticker (I’m a big sticker fan) and a hand-written note saying how excited they were to have PEP worn in NYC. On my second order there was something screwy with my post office delivery tracking so I sent them an email. They were all over it, immediately called the post office and got everything sorted out. Then another hand written note thanking me for my repeat purchase. It’s small stuff, but given the choice I’d like to do business with nice people.
  • They are focused on making their products affordable. They have a direct to consumer selling model that avoids giving fat margins to middle men and translates to cheaper prices for you and all of your money going to the people who actually design and make the clothing. Sadly the sheep get little out of it other than food. But I guess that’s all sheep really want.
photo copy

PEP shirt and hat

More important

  • It’s a good looking shirt. Long cut and tapered, but not too tight. Probably not for extremely self conscious or folks on the heavier side, but I’d say overall looks comparable or better than what I’d been running in. The shirt is logo-light. There’s a small PEP logo on the back and mini red label on the bottom, but these are pretty unobtrusive so the NO LOGO set should feel pretty comfortable.
  • It feels great. I can’t get too technical here as I’m no tactologist (note: made up word), but the merino wool feels almost like silk. Honestly, I just can’t stop rubbing it between my fingers, which is kind of weird
  • It performs well. The wool is lightweight and breathable for sure. Don’t tell Awesome Wife Kelly, but I’ve worn it multiple times between washes (don’t judge) without noticeable odor. And while the wool is breathable and thin, it does feel a bit more substantial and warmer than my traditional wicking shirts. Winter running in the long sleeve model is the ideal PEP use case
  • A caveat. I’ve done my trials in the winter, where I’m obviously sweating significantly less than during warm weather runs. Even so, the shirt does feel like it retains / carries moisture differently than a synthetic shirt. This has something to do with the fact that Merino doesn’t actually “wick” but it’s clearly wet to the touch in a way that a synthetic isn’t (or is, but less so). Don’t get me wrong, to this point I haven’t identified a problem per se. The shirt doesn’t hang heavy like cotton and it doesn’t chafe. However, I’m holding off from buying more of the short sleevers until I can test their performance in the hot summer days.
  • UPDATE: On mile 3 of today’s 21 miler the drinking tube became disconnected from my running bladder. By the time I figured out what was going on and fixed it, there was about a liter of Heed running down my back and legs and 18 miles left to go. After a few minutes of mentally kicking myself, I basically totally forgot about it. Sure, when I touched it with my fingers (why did I keep doing that? I have no idea) it was wet, but it didn’t actually bother me or impact my run one bit. I think this is a pretty good simulation for some serious sweat and I feel comfortable there won’t be any issues in warm weather.

The verdict

  • Definite recommendation. The shirts look good, feel great and perform well. Especially if you’re anti-corporate might and pro local / environmental / natural, they’re a can’t miss. In the short-term I’m focusing my recommendation (and purchasing) on the long sleeves for warmth in winter running, but don’t really have any serious reservations on the short sleeves in summer either. Also bought their hat, which is pretty cool and very functional.