A while ago I went on a few dates with a retired professional baseball player. I met him while I was soaking my legs in an icy river after a long run. There were a couple of young guys near me, fishing in a half-hearted way, and we started chatting. Turns out they were rookie-league players, in town for some games. Who’s the old dude, I asked, nodding at the middle-aged fit guy casting a line downriver. He’s our coach, they said. He’s a legend, they said. He won a Cy Young award.
When he came over to say hello, I asked him what position he played. He did not hold my ignorance against me, and we spent some time hanging out.
It was fun to hear about life on the road, to ask who was dirty (everyone but him), and to catch dropped names that even I recognized. I asked him to teach me how to throw, but he wanted to show me how to pitch, the whole knee-to-chin dance. I didn’t need to know how to pitch; I just wanted to learn how not to throw like a girl.
He had been called up to the bigs in his early twenties and seemed to have avoided learning the rules of the grownup world. He went into grocery stores in his bare feet, always ordered off the menu, and refused to allow hotel maids into his room to clean or make the bed. I learned a lesson about standpoint epistemology—how we know what we know based on what we’ve experienced—when he said “everyone” has a World Series ring. In his world, everyone did.
He was full of stereotypical tics, the things you don’t believe when you hear about the nuttiness of pitchers. I had thought Bull Durham was fiction; I was wrong. At first his peculiarities were charming and quirky. Then they were annoying and neurotic.
So, with a data point of one, I concluded that baseball players were weird and ticcy and thank god I was a runner. We, after all, are the smart, sane athletes.
Then I started thinking about my running friends. I remembered pre-race meals that had to include foods of particular colors. I thought about the times I’d been with someone who needed a “lucky” drink, and elaborate bedtime rituals that included laying out marathon clothes in a particular way, and then on race morning, putting them on in a particular order. About the guy who told me he had to wear his “red racer” underpants. I never saw the red racers, and don’t know if they were more or less embarrassing than how I imagined them. About the guy whose running shorts threatened obscenity on each outing but were the only ones he’d wear.
And about the fact that I have fast clothes and slow clothes.
There are a number of published photographs of me in races. I am wearing a sleeveless purple shirt in many of them. The same shirt, over a period of many years. That’s because it’s a fast shirt.
My baggy yellow Boston Marathon shorts from 2001 are slow. My black ripped tights are slow, but my black shiny tights are fast. The shirt from the Black Mountain marathon in 2002 is fast, but the one from the Highlands Sky 40 miler is slow—they were both made by Patagonia. Even though they seem to be identical in every way but color, the Coeur d’Alene marathon shirt from 2009 is fast but the one from 2010 is slow. The running skirt I wore for the Phuket Marathon in Thailand is slow, while the running skirt I wore at the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim-to-rim adventure (that was not a race) is fast. My Missoula Marathon pacer shirt is fast, though I can’t wear it in races that are not the Missoula Marathon. And if I wear if, I have to be pacing. Tights tend to be fast, looses are slower. Short shorts are for runs, long baggies are for jogs.
And I thought the baseball player was nutty.
The truth is, I dress only for how I think I will feel on my runs, not how I will look. In fact, when I do my regular runs around town, I believe I am invisible. I didn’t discover that I thought this way until people started telling me that they’d seen me running. That means that on the hottest summer days, when I decide to go without shirt and prance around only in shorts and a running bra, my students and colleagues could be driving past me. Holy crap! Unless you understand the narcissism and self-absorption of the serious runner, this won’t make any sense to you, but it just doesn’t occur to me that I will be seen when I made my decisions about what to wear. Or how much to wear.
And, yes, I have some rituals around racing. I drink diet A & W root beer to hydrate and eat even more Wheat Thins than usual, wear certain socks only for marathons, don’t wear underwear under my shorts on race days (though I do wear them when I’m training), and while I will spare you the details of this, have some definite ideas about pre-race pooping.
No one wants to think of herself as neurotic, or superstitious or weird. And we certainly don’t want others to slap those labels on us. I have never said aloud many of the things you just read, because I know how they make me sound kind of nutty, and I didn’t realize I even had many of those bizarro thoughts until I sat down to write. But there you have it.
If a pitcher thinks that facing north while he takes his morning pee will help him hurl that little ball, pee away, big guy. I’m not going to be getting rid of that purple sleeveless shirt, and if you see me wearing it at a race, you will know that I’m planning to run fast.