Here comes your shirt.
You are at an expo; and after you say your size, a volunteer picks it out of a mini-mountain of them and hands it to you, after which you stuff it in your token plastic bag, or maybe you hold it out in front of you with two hands, size it up like a painting, then decide in seconds whether it’s a keeper, a rag, or ironic.
It could be short sleeve, long sleeve, cotton, “technical,” designed by a budding 10-year-old artist, or be pure retina-burning color. But that’s not the point.
The point is that some runners say you are better off crossing paths with a black cat than putting on that shirt at any time before you cross that finish line.
But, it’s just a shirt, you say? How can a shirt wipe out all those miles run, all those lung-searing intervals, all those perfect simple-carb meals?
Ask Dave Nemetz, 47.
On two occasions, Nemetz has tried on his shirt before the gun fired.
In 2009, he tried it on the night before the Philadelphia Distance Run and the next day strained his calf and dropped out.
In 2010, before a summer race in Dewey Beach, Del., he picked up the shirt on race day, walked to the start, and, since he did not have anywhere to put the shirt, wore it. This time, Nemetz strained his calf after only one tenth of a mile.
The Reston resident has been running for four years and has done about 35 races. (“I keep all of my (race) shirts,” he says, “until I can’t get the sweat smell out of them anymore.”)
Since Dewey, though, Nemetz, under no circumstance, will try on a race shirt at any point before the start. Since then, coincidentally, or maybe not, he has never pulled out of a race with a calf issue.
Could dehydration be the real culprit? Nemetz, who now has two more years of running under his belt, more or less admits as much.
But he’s not about to swear off his superstition, either.
Runners, no doubt, are a superstitious lot. We have this tendency to assign luck – both good and bad – to articles of clothing, to food, and more.
Sometimes we call them rituals. Sometime we call them quirks.
Sometimes we say running is all mental.
I suppose we’ll do anything to calm down our nerves, anything to keep those negative thoughts from creeping in.
Thank you, Dave Nemetz, for sharing with us your superstition. Thank you, as well, to the local runners – whose stories are below – for lifting up the curtain on race day, and for giving us a glimpse of that weird intangible factor the more sophisticated among us sometimes call the mind-body-spirit.
It’s all about the shoes
Brandon Hirsch rotates each racing flat clockwise – twice – before he puts them on. He counts to 30, takes each shoe off, and rotates them again – this time counterclockwise – before putting them on for real.
The technology lawyer’s singlet goes on inside-out. After his warm-up, he takes it off and flips it.
There are 20 minutes until race time. And somewhere deep inside his nervous mind, someone is pumping quarters into a jukebox and choosing Don McLean’s “American Pie” – again and again and again.
The third verse, in particular, seems to be playing on loop:
Helter skelter in a summer swelter
The birds flew off with a fallout shelter Eight miles high and falling fast.
Next comes the playing of the national anthem. After that comes the surreal scene where Hirsch, 42, of Rockville, unties and ties his shoes. And after that, the race is finally on, and Hirsch can just run.
For Hirsch, superstitions are a kind of coping mechanism to deal with high levels of pre-race nerves. In his 20s, he ran the Boston Marathon in 2:38:12. He then suffered a string of injuries, had his priorities shift towards other things, then spent the next 14 years jogging.
He returned to racing in 2009, this spring clocking 36:29 at the Pike’s Peek 10k. Meanwhile, since returning to racing, Hirsch has found that today’s scene hardly mirrors the one he remembers from his 20s. In short, today’s more festive pre-race atmosphere kind of freaks him out. And to be fair, Hirsch’s rotating of his shoes and his singing of “American Pie” – the lyrics for which he used to scribble in his notebooks in grade school when a teacher stressed him out – isn’t entirely random, either.
Hirsch grew up playing basketball, even played in college. One summer, the great UCLA basketball coach John Wooden visited his camp. And get this: Wooden’s first drill with these young basketball players addressed the proper way to put on your shoes and socks.
Hirsch recalls, “He said, ‘Hey, I showed Bill Walton how to do this.’”
The Learned Routine
Before her high school track races, Miriam Becker-Cohen always had to read a motivational letter written to her by an older teammate. It didn’t matter that the letter really wasn’t that motivational. Reading it was a superstition. And back then, Becker-Cohen, now 25, had an assortment of similar superstitions she turned to on race day.
But Becker-Cohen has since left the majority of those superstitions behind. Today, the habits the Washington, D.C. resident and DC Road Runners Club member relies on to race her best could alternatively be described as rituals or a routine.
She lays out all of her clothes the night before the race, pins her bib to her shirt.
Race mornings she has two slices of toast, some Gatorade, and about two liters of water. And lately, right before the race, she downs a Powerbar Gel Blast – 10 measly strawberry-banana calories that let her brain and legs know the time is now.
“It has a lot to do with the fact that running is so mental, and having some sort of routine can mentally prepare you in a way that puts you at ease,” she says.
One of the more frustrating parts of the marathon, for example, is that months of great training have the potential to be unraveled by an alarm clock that fails to go off or by eating the wrong breakfast – by race day logistics, essentially.
So part of the reason that Becker-Cohen is so serious about doing things the same way over and over is that, ultimately, this is what makes her feel more prepared and less rushed on race day.
She likes to be at the start earlier than a lot of people.
Why? Before the Philadelphia Marathon one year she had to sprint to the starting line to be there before the gun went off. She got flustered, went out too hard, had a “terrible” race.
She would rather have things go down the way they did in October at the Steamtown Marathon, where, in her fourth attempt to do so, she qualified for the Boston Marathon.
“There is only so much training you can do, and there are good days and bad days,” she says. “But if you have things that work for you in the past, it does become sort of like a superstition.”
Something to Chew on
Shortly before the 2012 Disney World Marathon, Matthew Lofton realized that his gum had fallen out of his pocket.
No big deal, right?
Actually, for Lofton, it was a huge deal.
Oh my gosh. This is off to a bad start, he thought.
Panicking, the 33-year-old Winchester, Va. resident started asking race volunteers if they could spare some. (Lofton, lucky for him, doesn’t need a lot of gum: One piece can last him three or four hours, he says, and he doesn’t even necessarily need to chew on it the whole time.)
After scrounging up that stick of gum, the photographer and running coach went on to run 2:46, roughly an hour faster than his debut couch-to- marathon effort just four years prior.
Lofton will make sure to pack his gum when he heads to Boston this fall. In the meantime, while he trains for it, he will make sure to have a stick in his car, a stick in his running bag, and plenty of extra packs at home – anything to prevent having to run gum-free.
Lofton describes himself as “slightly OCD.”
For example, he has eaten at Burger King – ordering the same meal – every Saturday going on six years. But many of his habits – or streaks, if you will – like wearing the same socks for races, do in time fade away (the socks, for instance, wore out).
“I don’t see myself ever running without gum,” he says. “That seems really weird to me to run without it.”
Kim Kruse, 48, of Arlington had a habit of swearing off alcohol for two months before a marathon.
How disciplined and smart.
But one night before a triathlon several years ago, Kruse was at a restaurant and got into a conversation about the effect alcohol had on racing.
Her friend was pretty sure beer drinking was no good. Kruse, in turn, was pretty sure having a beer couldn’t possibly hurt.
So, a bet was placed, and Kruse ordered a beer. The next day she had a great race, and won the bet: a six-pack of her choice.
Kruse now has a beer before every race.
“It’s important to me because I have travelled to some very cool places for racing and I like to drink local beers,” she says.
In fact, Kruse, a member of DC Road Runners Club, placed third in her age group at the National Long Course Championship triathlon, qualifying her to represent Team USA at the 2013 Long Course World Championship in France.
If she were a pro athlete, she figures, and racing was her true “bread and butter,” she might second-guess this pre- race ritual.
“But I am not a pro,” she says, “and my beer goes well with bread and butter.”
A Kiss for Good Luck
In 2007, Glenn Sewell of Arlington watched from the sidelines as his wife, Jenny Goransson, ran the Marine Corps Marathon. He was joined that day by Goransson’s mother, who made sure they saw Goransson at as many mile markers as they could.
Afterward, Sewell was exhausted, and he joked to his wife that perhaps running it would be easier. So, he took up running. And two years later, he really did finish MCM, the first of his three marathons.
Sewell has yet to catch up to his wife, who last year finished the Shamrock Sportsfest Marathon in 3:19. But they generally run the same races, from 5K to marathons.
So what does Sewell always need right before the race starts? A kiss, of course.
“She’s much faster than I am, so I always hope it will give me a boost of her speed,” he says.
As Sewell has improved, the meaning of the kiss has shifted. At first, it was a kiss meaning, “good luck getting to the finish.” These days, it means, “good lucking trying to snag a PR.”
Regardless, without that pre-race smooch from Jenny, Sewell, 47, says he struggles to bring his A game.
“I am not sure if I miss it I think I am inviting bad luck. But I do know that it affects me mentally.”