Superstitions for all tastes

From using a specific condiment on anything and everything to always wearing the same boxers, a number of runners practice pre-race rituals.

High School Sports Cross Country

September 02, 2005|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,SUN STAFF

Carly Gavigan doesn't rely on a nutrient-loaded sports drink to retain energy. And she doesn't wear triple-digit-priced shoes to give her speed.

Gavigan's secret weapon of choice can be found on every table in an American diner and is a perfect topping for hot dogs and fries.

Ketchup.

While her teammates on the Westminster cross country team are loading up on pasta and garlic bread the night before a major race, Gavigan can be found spreading ketchup on any food within arm's reach.

Pasta, pickles, bologna, chocolate - practically anything edible is drowned in a sea of the thick, red condiment.

It's a ritual Gavigan has practiced before every competition involving running since she placed fifth at the Mountain Run Invitational last fall. And as disgusted as her teammates and newcomers may be with her eating habits, Gavigan has no intention of getting rid of a good thing.

"I just feel like my performance won't be as good without it," the junior said of ketchup. "It definitely helps me."

Strange and unusual rituals have long been a hallmark of athletics. Athletes and coaches have sought long and hard to find anything that can give them a psychological edge in competition.

Golfer Tiger Woods always wears a red shirt on the final day of a tournament. Hall of Fame third baseman Wade Boggs was renowned for consuming three chicken dinners before each game. Tennis great Bjorn Borg never shaved during Wimbledon's two-week run, which he won five straight years.

Scientists in England went so far as to claim - after considerable research - that teams that wore uniforms with the color red maintained a competitive advantage over their opponents. The reason? Red is linked to virility.

The line between superstition and routine is narrow, and cross country runners are not immune to picking up some peculiar habits.

Unlike sports that focus on a team aspect, cross country running is largely individual-based. Thus, it's one person vs. the rest of the field.

In that respect, rituals become avenues to security and sometimes consistency, according to Perry Hall coach Brad Jaeger.

"It's mainly runners finding their comfort zone," said Jaeger, who co-founded Mdrunning.net, a Web site devoted to cross country and track and field in the state. "They'll have a good race or a great workout, and they'll remember everything that happened around them that day - what they had for breakfast, what socks they wore, how they stretched, how long they warmed up, who they stood next to on the starting line. Running is 90 percent mental, and runners relive those great feelings and races over and over in their minds and want to re-create those feelings."

Reliving the experience is what influenced Liberty senior Jimmy Ridder to don the same pair of blue boxers with green four-leaf clovers on them when he goes to bed before each race.

Ridder said he wore the boxers the night before the Carroll County junior varsity track and field championships when he was a freshman. The next day, he won the 1,600-meter run.

He wears the same USA Hockey T-shirt that he has worn for the past two years under his uniform and always ties his right shoe first. But Ridder insists that he's not superstitious.

"It's something that puts my mind at ease," he said. "The night before, I won't feel comfortable without my boxers on, I feel weird if I'm not wearing the shirt, and my feet feel funny if I don't tie the right shoe first."

Teams are not immune to a little pre-race ceremony.

The runners at Digital Harbor pray together. Westminster girls co-coach Ron Waranowski introduced the team to yoga. And members of the Centennial girls team take 20 minutes to lie on their backs and prop their legs against a wall or tree to drain the lactic acid from their legs and help their legs feel lighter.

Some habits die hard. Catonsville coach Sandra Gallagher, who continues to run competitively, wears what she called a "lucky sports bra" and eats a breakfast of fruit and oatmeal even though she's not particularly fond of the latter.

Hereford coach Russ Drylie wore the same pair of socks during four years of running at Paint Branch High School in Montgomery County. "By the time I was a senior, it was just toes and heel with nothing on the bottom," Drylie recalled with a laugh. "I felt comfortable in them. They were a security blanket."

Which brings us back to Gavigan, who said she once forgot to eat something with ketchup the night before the Class 4A North regional championships last spring.

"I felt sluggish, and before the race, I felt anxious and nervous," she said. "I stressed out to where I couldn't think properly."

Since then, Gavigan said she always tops off her pre-race meal with ketchup and now her teammates hardly think twice at her strange request.

"They think I'm a little weird, but it's become a habit," she said. "It just relaxes me."

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