Athletes are a superstitious lot by nature, but runners are probably the worst at pre-race rituals.
“Where’s Scott? We just got final call to the starting line.”
“Again? That’s his fourth trip in!”
“He needed a fourth visit. He only runs well with four visits.”
And that was my introduction to racing with Scott. Before EVERY race, Scott hit the bathroom four times. Not three. Not five. He’d visit it exactly four times. It was his pre-race ritual, superstition and need. I never raced with Scott when he went less or more than four but I understand it never went well if it wasn’t four.
Athletes are a superstitious lot by nature. What works is what works. Ever watch a pitcher leave the mound and leap over the third base chalk line? Some pitchers refuse to step ON it. How about the swimmer who flings her arms back and forth prior to getting on the starting pad? It almost looks like self-flogging! Doesn’t that hurt? And then, there are the runners. Runners are probably the worst at pre-race rituals.
My very first non-cross country race was a marathon (yeah, I know… over-achiever). It was the Harrisburg Marathon in 1979. Now, over the years, race t-shirts have come and gone, but I still have that race shirt, ole ‘79. And for at least 15 years, I wore it during the warm-up of every race, no matter the distance, until it became thinner than tissue paper. It’s been relegated to only marathons, but since I no longer race marathons, it stays in its special place. And it hasn’t been washed in probably 15 years.
In 1988, I traveled to Baltimore for the former version of the Baltimore Marathon, which used to finish in Memorial Stadium. What a great finish line! Anyway, the night prior, as I unpacked, I realized than ole ’79 wasn’t in my bag. “Fretting” is an understatement. I was in sub 2:40 shape, the weather was slated to be perfect, but no ole ’79. “I am doomed,” was my only thought. And I was doomed. DNF at about mile 18. I felt like Scott, not getting in my fourth bathroom visit.
We all have those beliefs that ring true to us, even though they may be far-flung or viewed skeptically by others or even border on the inane and insane. But they are ours and we own them. A PT and good friend of mine once told me that “if you believe it works, it probably does.” And he was right (thanks, Pat).
Marathoners pre-load on pasta (I prefer pancakes, by the way). Sprinters sit behind their starting blocks, starring down the lane and visualizing the next 10 seconds. Cross country runners touch a hand-print painted on a column after every workout. It is the ritualistic side of the sport. It might be a pair of socks. It might be a food. It might be a song. It might even be the way you drive out of your neighborhood on race day (yeah, I know a guy…).
There is a rhythm to running successfully. And a good race, however you define that, is a series of puzzle pieces that magically fit together and complete the right picture. Those pre-race pieces are just as important to you, and perhaps you alone, as the training leading up to the race and race-day execution. And don’t let anyone tell you differently. I used to have all sorts of other pre-race puzzle piece rituals like the cup of hot water and honey, the 4 a.m. shake-out run, the specific series of pre-race active stretches and more. But over time, those things have evolved. I’m less rigid about pre-race prep. But the pre-race prep I still do, I believe in very strongly. And it’s mine. Judge me not as I judge not you.
I may break out ole ’79 one of these days for a pre-race warm-up jog, for just the right race. I still believe in its magical powers and positive reinforcement of my abilities. As for you, I pray you are never in a porta-john line behind Scott. You may miss the start.
Former standout Lock Haven University runner Andy Shearer is a member of the Middletown Athletic Club, the Greater Philadelphia Track Club and USA Track and Field.