This is a story about a hat. A black woolly hat, to be precise.
As woolly hats go, it is as basic as they come. It doesn’t have a fancy patterned design. It doesn’t have a fancy brand label on it. It doesn’t any fancy thermal lining. It doesn’t have any design flairs, or floppy ear covers, or a strap to hold it in place. And it certainly isn’t topped with a brazen, bouncy bobble. It is a black woolly hat; nothing more, nothing less. As woolly hats go, it is utterly unremarkable.
I can’t tell you much about the hat. It doesn’t have a notable origin story: I found it at the bottom of a box in my house a few years back. It must have come from somewhere before it found its way into that box, but I certainly can’t remember buying it. I couldn’t even tell you which shop it might have come from: it is such a simple, basic woolly hat it doesn’t even have a care label.
In summary, it is a black woolly hat. Nothing more, nothing less. So how come it is a hat I can’t throw away?
For clarity, when I say it’s a hat I can’t throw away, that isn’t due to some sentimental attachment or particular fondness for it. What I mean is that it’s a hat I can’t throw away. Believe me, I’ve tried.
As best I can remember, the hat I can’t throw away made it’s competition debut pretty much exactly two years ago this weekend, on the Chilly 10k, held at Castle Combe Circuit in Wiltshire. The forecast for the day of the event was pretty typical for the time of year in Britain: a cold start with a fairly brisk wind, warming up a bit through the day. The sort of forecast that makes picking the right kit difficult.
The challenge was to wear enough warm clothes so that I wasn’t too cold at the start and in the early stages, but not over-dress so much that I became too hot late in the race when I was fully warmed up. I settled on a long-sleeved technical running top beneath a short-sleeved running T-shirt. But I was concerned about my head getting too hold. It seemed sensible to wear a hat for the cold, early part of the race – but I feared I wouldn’t need it later in the race when I warmed up.
I looked at my range of woolly hats, and none of them seemed to fit. I had some reasonably expensive ones with nice patterns and super-warm thermal lining. But they might prove too warm. And what would I do with it if I over-heated during the race? Pull it off my head and carry it? Didn’t seem like a good idea.
If I was going to start the race wearing a hat, I didn’t want to be burdened by it if I warmed up too much. Rather than carry it for most of the race, I’d rather just throw it away. But it seemed a real waste to pick a ‘nice’ hat and end up getting rid of it through overheating.
I found the answer at the bottom of a random box – and it was woolly, black, and utterly unremarkable. It was the perfect solution to my dilemma: the hat’s basic, simple construction meant I was less likely to get too hot in it quickly – and I could hardly have a sentimental attachment to a hat I couldn’t remember owning until I found it in a box.
The absolutely unremarkable nature of the hat made it the perfect solution. I’d wear it for the start of the race. If I overheated, I’d just pull it off my head and toss it in a bin whenever the opportunity arose.
Funny story: the hat kept me warm at the start, yet the weather never actually warmed up enough for me to throw the hat away. I finished the race with the hat very much still on my head.
Which meant I was able to wear it for the same reason again on the Kingston 10k the following weekend. And on many other subsequent races and long training runs since.
Essentially, if it’s cold enough to start the race or long run with a woolly hat on, the unremarkable black hat is my headgear of choice. A few times the hat has come off my head. Once, the wind suddenly picked up, I got cold again and I put it back on again a few hundred metres later; in most others case it was so close to the finish that it didn’t make sense to throw it away.
But I have actually thrown the hat away in two races. And yet still I own it. Eh?
The first was this year’s Hampton Court Palace Half Marathon. It was definitely woolly hat weather at the start, but after about five miles I’d warmed up so much the hat I whipped the hat from my head. Was it finally time to throw it away?
Not on this occasion. My Mum was visiting to cheer me on for the event. She’d come with me to the start at Hampton Court Palace, and we’d worked out that she was going to spectate near the palace gates when the race went back past there just after half-distance. So I decided to wait until then before throwing away the hat. As I reached the corner nearest the palace gates I spotted my mum, exactly where she said she’d be. Without breaking stride, I slung the hat in her direction. I wasn’t quite on target, but it was close enough for her to pick it up and return it to me at the finish.
That meant I still had the hat for this year’s London Marathon. Again, it was a cold start, but seemed likely to warm up. Perfect unremarkable woolly hat conditions. And, sure enough, about six miles in, I’d warmed up enough to take the hat off.
My brother came to the marathon to cheer me on, and we’d looked ahead to work out where he was going to try and spectate. His first spot was about seven miles in, in Greenwich just after the Cutty Sark. I knew which side of the road he’d be on, but he could have been anywhere within a half-mile or so stretch. Which the crowds at least three-deep in most places, it seemed unlikely I’d spot him.
Still, given when I’d removed the hat, it seemed silly not to leave it a bit before throwing it away, just in case. So I ran along, hat in hand, scanning the faces in the crowd, until – there he was. I spied my brother and, as I closed in and shouted some form of vaguely coherent greeting, I tossed the hat in his direction.
It wasn’t exactly an ideal situation for a hat hand-off. I was focused on running, the crowd left little room for a target window, and my brother had no idea I was about to throw him a hat, and was busy cheering me on and trying to take a photo.
As I ran on, I had no idea whether he’d even seen the hat being thrown in his direction, let alone grabbed it.
By the finish of the marathon, I was too exhausted to even remember the hat. After staggering through the finish area, finding my mum and brother and trying not to be overcome with emotion and/or exhaustion while celebrating, we limped on to a Pret near Trafalgar Square. After picking up a coffee, we couldn’t find anywhere to sit, so we headed over to a bench in Trafalgar Square.
By that point the heat I’d built up doing the marathon was rapidly fading, so I was quickly adding layers to try and keep warm. What I needed was something to stick on my head… and then, from his pocket, my brother produced the perfect solution: a black, woolly hat. An utterly unremarkable black woolly hat.
Of course, there is a weird twist to proceedings. The hat was pressed into service precisely because I had absolutely no emotional attachment to it. But not this hat has now served me so well on so many runs – and survived my repeated attempts to dispose on it – I’ve become quite attached to it.
So haven’t started as a hat that I can’t throw away, it’s now become a hat that I can’t throw away. Which, as the mid-November temperatures drop and I start to contemplate a season of cold weather running – starting with my third outing on the Castle Combe Chilly 10k tomorrow – I’m left with a dilemma. I’ve got a hat that’s ideal to wear for the conditions: warm and comfortable, but cheap enough to throw away if the weather warms up. But, if the time came, could I actually throw away a hat that’s served me so well? Hmmm…