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Running Gear Is Serious Business At The NYC Marathon

But for Ben Chen, a Speedo and sandals is all he needs.

By Peter Senzamici     |     Nov. 3, 2019
Ben Chen in Prospect Park after the recent Brooklyn Marathon. (Peter Senzamici/NYCity News Service)

About 50,000 runners from around the world are running through the streets of New York City on a crisp fall Sunday. Most of them, as marathon runners, are dressed nearly indistinguishably from each other — running shoes, running shorts and usually a brand-sponsored T-shirt or windbreaker. And then there is Ben Chen. He’s wearing what he wears in most races: a safari hat, Teva sandals with rust and black argyle socks and a leopard print Speedo with matching arm covers and a wedding band. That’s all.

“It’s a very intimate thing,” Chen, 37, said about running. “You show up to a course and it’s like a blank canvas. And each of us puts ourselves out there and expresses ourselves differently.”

Chen, a stocky man with long, black hair, a goatee and two tattoos, each stretching from his bicep across his shoulder to his upper chest, has 13 marathons under his belt. This year’s New York City Marathon is his sixth time running in this sporting event. His marathon and fashion journeys were not easy.


Ben Chen in leopard print Speedo, matching armbands, Teva sandals, and safari hat. (Peter Senzamici/NYCity News Service)

Chen’s story begins with a kidney.

In 2012, his close friend needed a kidney. Once Chen found out he was a match, he agreed to donate. “I didn’t spend a lot of time mulling it over,” he said. “I have this. I don’t need it, and he needs it.”

As his surgery loomed, Chen realized that removing a major organ was a good excuse to have a more active lifestyle. Chen signed up with a group of friends for a 10-mile endurance race through a muddy obstacle course taking place a few months after the procedure. A few races later, Chen signed up for the Los Angeles Marathon in March 2014. Suddenly, he was a runner.

His winter training in New York did not prepare him for the Los Angeles heat: 83 degrees on marathon day. His top came off during that race. Chen remembers thinking, “I like the way that the air feels against my skin, the sun. So I decided ‘OK, I’m gonna do this more often.’” Chen ran one more race with a top on, tying it around his waist halfway through, then gave up on tops entirely.

The shorts came off next.

There was just too much fabric hitting his knees, he said, and he kept looking for smaller options to run in. Chen joked with his friends, “The shorter the shorts, the more serious the runner.”

But going all the way down to his skivvies came when he ran a race that required a costume. He chose to wear a button-down shirt and white briefs, inspired by Walter White in a famous scene from the TV show “Breaking Bad.” After running that race in his underwear, Chen said, “I don’t need shorts!”

Men’s running wear, Chen found when shopping for gear, was all “dark blue or gray, maybe a little turquoise,” Chen said. He started looking for more bold colors and patterns as a reminder that “this [running] should be fun, and I should be enjoying this.”

Shopping online delivered the variety Chen craved. “I used to try to find different shorts with different patterns. And then I realized that if I did a different pattern for every race, they would get expensive, so I decided to pick one and just stick with it and that happened to be a leopard.” Chevon, his wife, supports his self-expression through his running. “My outfits make it easy for her to spot me on the courses,” he said.

The shoes were the last straw.

Chen always hated the way his feet felt confined while running long distances, and looked forward to the end of the race so he could take off his shoes. Chen thought, “Why don’t I just run in sandals the whole way?” He read about how an ultrarunner had just completed a 500K race across Tennessee in a pair of Tevas, velcro sandals that are popular with hikers. Chen experimented with the idea and found it worked for him, too.

Close-up of Ben Chen’s leopard print Speedo and matching armbands. (Peter Senzamici/NY City News Service)

Running marathons in leopard print Speedos always attracts attention. Occasionally someone yells a homophobic slur or insult at him. But this is rare for Chen. “Most people laugh, which is great,” Chen said.

For some races, Chen will include a topical element to his outfit. In 2016, he ran several races with Black Lives Matter written in marker on his chest. This year, he is highlighting a cause special to him as a Chinese-American. After listening to the news coming out of China, Chen would like to bring awareness to the alleged detention, torture and mistreatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang.

“I will run this year’s New York City Marathon with ‘Free the Uighurs’ written on my chest,” Chen said. “I want to do my small part to draw attention to the atrocities and shame the Chinese government.”