Joanne Merrett 2011 05 28-Tiger & Bunny

Tiger & Bunny
Tiger & Bunny

Joanne Merrett 2011 05 28
Marathon runner Joanne Merrett says running in a bright coloured shirt gives her a boost. She has a collection of special ‘good luck’ race shirts, and gets a new one for each race.

Photograph by: Chris Mikula, The Ottawa Citizen, Ottawa Citizen

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(see the Ottawa Citizen article)

Charmed, I’m sure: Runners Tell Us About the Charms and Rituals That Take Them to the Finish Line

By Joanne Laucius, Ottawa Citizen May 28, 2011

Joanne Merrett has run 11 marathons and bought a new shirt for each of them, except the first.

"As soon as I see it, I know it’s the one," she says.

Most runners won’t wear a new shirt to run a marathon. Merrett, who is also a marathon instructor, is the opposite. The ritual started after she ran her first marathon in a tired old shirt and felt terrible.

"Running in a bright colour gives me a psychological boost," she says. "I believe everyone has their own ritual or idiosyncrasy, no matter how it looks to other people."

In her everyday life working in a chiropractic office, Merrett tends to wear neutrals, but when it comes to a good-luck race shirt, the brighter the colour, the better. She finds it gives her a lift.

Even her favourite selection, a pink tank top, was retired from marathon use after its first wearing, although she still wears it for other occasions.

Merrett knows of a fellow runner who has to crumple his race number before he pins it on. Others carry a coin or medal, wear a certain pair of socks, or eat something specific for breakfast.

"It can get very anal. But for them, it’s their routine. And it has to be done in sequence."

Mark Wigmore, a veteran marathon runner with 23 marathons to his credit, is also a pace bunny organizer at Ottawa Race Weekend and will be wearing the bunny ears himself in the marathon, along with knee-high compression socks.

Wigmore never wears compression socks for training. Race day, though, is another matter.

"I do it only because race day is different from training days," he says. "For me, it’s part of mental preparation."

For Hazel Ullyatt, her race rituals include planning her day in meticulous detail, right down to preparing a number of mantras, which might range from "It’s up to me to make it be" to "I’m faster than all those people who didn’t sign up!"

The mantra helps Ullyatt put a clearer perspective on what the race is about.

"My coach has me running prescribed interval training to help increase my speed, and since my heart rate report looks a lot like Bart Simpson’s spiky haircut, I find that thinking of this training gets me smiling and boosts my confidence, which helps with the mental game," she says.

"Mantras form part of my race plan, especially for those moments when I ask myself ‘What am I doing here?’ "

Ask any group of runners about race-day charms and rituals, and you’re likely to get a lot of stories. About other runners, anyway.

Wigmore says there are a few superstitions that are generally accepted by marathoners. One is that you should never wear the race shirt to the race or even try it on before.

"Or you’ll jinx yourself," he says. "You don’t get to wear the shirt until you’ve earned it."

Some races hold "friendship runs" the day before a race. For some runners it’s important not to step on the finish line, or even cross it. Again, it might jinx the chances of crossing that line when it really matters.

Psychologists believe that the idea of good luck plays a role in boosting confidence, which plays a role in boosting performance, even for elite athletes.

In an article published last July in Psychological Science, German researchers concluded that having a good-luck charm can give an athlete the performance edge. The researchers from the University of Cologne noted that Tiger Woods wears a red shirt on tournament Sundays, for example.

In one experiment, the researchers asked participants to bring along a lucky charm, which ranged from wedding rings to stuffed animals. The talismans were photographed. Half the participants got their charms back while the other half were told they would get them back later. Those who kept their charms did better on a computerized memory test.

In another experiment, 28 participants practised putting, some with golf balls they were told we’re "lucky" and others with balls that had no mention of luck. Those with the "lucky" balls performed better.

Ullyatt, a construction project manager, ran her first race, a marathon, in 2004 at Race Weekend. Since then, she has run four marathons, eight half-marathons and three full Ironman triathlons and will be running 10K today. She considers herself to be a "slow" competitor.

"Being slow means that in addition to the physical training I work on mental strategies to ensure that I can get through the event. My ritual, if you want to call it that, is to have a race plan written out, which includes a number of mantras that I’ll think of during the race."

Her plan can be as simple as deciding what time to wake up, what to wear, what to eat, how to get to the race site, what to drink while she’s racing and how she will pick up her pace by focusing on a runner in front to shadow.

"But because I’m slow, my race plan will also include allowing that at some point in the race I’ll feel discouraged about my lack of speed and when that thought hits I’ll remind myself how the thought was expected, how it’s OK to allow the thought for a few minutes and how the event is all about having fun."

Wigmore says many runners plan to repeat exactly what they did in training.

"It’s not superstition, it’s just good race practice."

Ullyatt adds that what some people might call superstitions are more like rules of etiquette that extend beyond the race. Wearing a race shirt or race medal after you get back to your vehicle is not unlucky. It’s just, well, tacky, and it marks the difference between the initiated and newbies.

As for laying out race day meticulously ahead of time, as long as preparation includes training, it’s a good thing, she says. "Coaches try to promote thinking ahead."

Rick Helland, an avid runner and coach who is the founder of Ottawa’s Zone3sports, says what some people see as rituals, such as wearing only one kind of sock, or eating oatmeal two hours before the race, aren’t rain dances, just routines. And that’s a good thing.

"I preach this. They know what they’re doing works, so they don’t want to have an issue on the day it matters," he says. "If they have confidence in the socks, it can be a goodluck charm, or it can be that the socks work. If they had oatmeal for breakfast and they had their best race ever, then it works."

Tiger & Bunny
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