What should I wear to run a half-marathon?

When training for my first half-marathon—my first race, actually—earlier this year, I obsessed about clothes. I normally train in HEAD crops and a T-shirt, which are comfy, all black, and borderline acceptable for wearing to preschool pick-up. But HEAD’s a tennis brand. Was it okay to wear tennis clothes to a running event? Were the side cutout vents inappropriate? Would most people be wearing shorts? And what about the cheap knit New Balances that screamed “newbie”? Should I buy new gear before race day?

I had the answer to my question long before I started clicking through the third page of search results. There were plenty of running clothes in my closet that neither chafed nor overheated. I should wear whatever I trained in, with adjustments for race day temperature.

Question answered. So why are we still here?

I’ve recently been styling my snackdinner posts after Google searches. How do I get my kid to smile for photographs? How do I get melted crayon out of my car? Should I throw away my lettuce? My goal is to reach readers who have a question and give them a new question. I’ll offer you surefire smile-snapping techniques, but I’ll also ask where “Say Cheese!” comes from. I’ll teach you how to get that melted crayon out of your backseat, but I’ll also ask how to find the right expert. I’ll tell you whether it’s safe to eat your lettuce, but also ask how and why the U.S. traces food outbreaks.

 Perfectly acceptable running clothes on a perfectly acceptable novice runner.

Perfectly acceptable running clothes on a perfectly acceptable novice runner.

I turned this same approach on my own running gear question. I had the answer to the original question—wear what I trained in—so I started in on a new question: what I was really asking about in the first place.

What I was missing was the question behind my question. “What should I wear to run a half-marathon” wasn’t a question about attire. It was really a question about whether I was good enough or serious enough to run a half-marathon.

I’d already covered the distance in a half-dozen training runs, but despite the training I wasn’t sure I was a “real” runner. Did a novice like me belong on the course? Could I get lost? Could I get injured? Could I unintentionally mess up a serious racer’s experience? Would I slow down my sister? Would we have to walk? Would our cheering squad get bored waiting for us?

Once I realized what I was really asking, I could stop stressing over wardrobe and remind myself why I was running in the first place: to try something new, to get healthier, and to show my son and myself that I can do hard things. Most importantly, I was there to spend time with the sister who talked me into the race (and who I did slow down a little bit). All of those potential gains were much bigger than the questions I was worried about.

The big takeaway here isn’t what to wear to a race. It’s not even about running. Instead, it’s to look for the questions behind your questions. If you’re asking what you should wear to run a half-marathon, or on the walk to the bus stop, or to a wedding, or to meet your significant other’s family, you might also be asking about your fears. Will I reach my goal? Will I make other mom friends? Will I be embarrassed? Will they like me?

A should question is often much more existential than it looks. New and expecting parents ask these kinds of questions all the time. Should I breastfeed? Should I co-sleep? Should I go back to work? These are not simple questions about nutrition, sleeping arrangements, or family finances. They’re huge questions about the kind of parent you hope to be…and how you think the rest of the world might be judging your parenting.

You might not be training for a race or figuring out your wardrobe, or even making any huge life decisions, but you’ve probably googled a few of your own should questions today. Try asking yourself why you asked them and see what happens.