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Very Superstitious: The Race-Day Rituals, Lucky Charms and Mantras of NYC Marathon Runners

From Swedish fish to engraved sneakers, these are the rituals of some New York City Marathon runners. 

By Frankie Krempa    |     Nov. 3, 2019
Swedish fish, Lululemon shorts, blueberry yogurt, and mantras, these are the rituals of a marathon runner. (Animation by Natalia Rodríguez Medina/NYCity News Service)

Forget lucky rabbits’ feet and four-leaf clovers. Forty-seven-year-old Derron Palmer, who is running his 10th New York City Marathon this year, has his race-day routine down to a science.

Since 2009, Palmer has spent each race day with what he describes as a series of “funny rituals.”

First, Palmer wakes up in his hometown of Rahway, New Jersey, before venturing out downtown to meet his buddies, a group of fellow marathon runners, on the corner of Irving Street and Cherry Street.

“You could set a watch to us,” Palmer said. “Seven o’clock marathon morning. We’re going to be at that corner, everybody meets there.”

From there, Palmer’s rituals become more and more precise. Shortly after his arrival at the actual race, he’ll eat four Dannon blueberry yogurts (he thinks blueberry is the best flavor). Then, as he approaches his corral, he takes out an extra pair of socks, a bottle of baby powder and paper towels he’s packed in his bag.  

“Just before I start running, I’ll put on fresh socks and dry my feet off with baby powder,” he said. “It decreases the possibility of my feet blistering from sweat.”

His last rite is perhaps his most remarkable: Palmer packs his pockets with Swedish Fish. Specifically, the miniature candies, which are small enough for him to safely chew mid-run.

“That’s my secret weapon,” he explained. “I’ll fill up my pockets with them and eat as I need them, that helps get me through.”

The New York City Marathon, which has more participants than any other marathon, attracts more than 50,000 runners from all over the globe. From first-time runners to seasoned veterans like Palmer, many participants rely on personal protocols, good luck charms and superstitions to get them through the race.

Some charms come from a place of nostalgia or in remembrance of loved ones. Tucker James, a 24-year-old sales development representative for a technology company, lost his brother, Griffin, unexpectedly in February 2018. To honor him, Tucker will wear a Saint Christopher medal with his brother’s initials, G.W.J., engraved on it and plans to write the same letters on his running sneakers.

“That’s definitely something that I think is going to help throughout the race, in just keeping me positive and keeping me grounded,” said James. He continued to say that wearing these reminders will allow him “to just make sure that he’s always watching over me.”

Other traditions are habits that have held strong in past races. Many runners know what works well for them and want to avoid jinxing their performance.

New York native Katie Jane Crowley, 30, swears by wearing the same outfit every time she runs in a race. Although Crowley hasn’t run the New York City Marathon yet, she’s been a runner since high school and has competed in multiple long-distance races, including including the Brooklyn and New York City Half Marathons in 2018.

“I wear [the same] Lululemon Fast and Free shorts. The 10-inch, because I’m pretty tall,” she said. “I wear the same exact thing every single time. I don’t even have two pairs of them.”

She’s also particular about what she eats, both the night before and the day of the race.

“The night before I’ll eat a Sweet Green salad with everything in it, like every healthy carb. And then the morning of, I need to have almond butter and a banana or a rice cake. If I don’t have the almond butter it won’t be a good morning,” she laughed.

Not all good luck charms and rituals are physical, though. Many are mental. Given the grueling 26.2 miles runners push their bodies through, psychological strength and tenacity are essential to finishing strong. To propel the “mind over matter” mentality, many marathon runners use mindfulness apps or guided meditations along the course, like Headspace and Pacifica. 

Eric Villanueva, who is running in Nike’s Project Moonshot training program, says that although the coaching he’s received is almost entirely physical, he and his teammates are consistently reminded of the mental fitness that’s needed to get through the race. To help him overcome the physical weariness the 26.2 miles promise, the 23-year-old intends to recite this mantra along the course: Think about what it really means.

“When I say ‘think about what it really means,’ it’s kind of just making me look at what it really means to accomplish [something]. Like, finish this run, finish the day. Do this. Do that,” he explained. “It’s actually really amazing, your mental overcoming physical.”

While good luck charms and superstitions might differ amongst the runners, most share one similar belief: The excitement of race day is intoxicating.

“Just being a part of this experience — it’s something that I can hold on to the rest of my life,” said James. “Getting to tell people that you ran the New York City Marathon is, I think, pretty special.”