Hopefully you’re not the kind of sicko who stalks elite runners on Instagram. But if you are (and I happen to know someone with this twisted habit) you might have noticed a common theme: the pre-race gear pic. The backdrop is often a bedspread or the generic pattern of a hotel room carpet. (Probably a budget hotel–this is pro running, after all.) Some combination of shoes, singlet, shorts, fuel, race bib, or GPS watch has been artfully arranged. Hashtags abound in the margin. Within the esoteric world of endurance sports, the aesthetic is established enough that Ben Bruce, an elite runner for the Northern Arizona Elite, started parodying it by posting pics of himself, supine, wearing all his gear. (The #flatbruce has itself been coopted, sometimes with questionable results.) Before the advent of social media, this all might have seemed a little obsessive. No longer. These days, snapping a pic of your running stuff feels fairly unremarkable. The pre-race gear shot is just something a lot of runners do.
But why do they do it?
The obvious answer is to promote sponsors. The elite marathoner shares a pic of his racing kit for the same reason the handsome #vanlife couple tags itself doing tandem pigeon poses on brand-name yoga mats in some Edenic national park. Instagram, you might have heard, is big business. Given the limited visibility of their sport, it behooves runners to make the most of their “influencer” status, such as it is. The scuzzy confines of a Super 8 might not be Yosemite Valley, but runners have to work with what they’ve got.
Is there anything going on here beyond product endorsement? When I (by which I mean the dodgy Instagram voyeur that I happen to know) peruse the social media pages of runners, it’s obvious that certain athletes are more meticulous than others in displaying their gear. Occasionally, there’s a hint of ritual. Could arranging your singlet and track spikes be conducive to achieving a zen-like, pre-race calm?
“Before we engage in any task, we think about it. The mind projects forward, anticipates, and creates expectations. From a competitive standpoint, when you’re getting ready, even something as simple as laying out your outfit, if it can help you get your mind focused on the run and what you need to do, actually helps you,” performance psychologist and author Dr. Stan Beecham recently told me over the phone.
I asked Beecham if laying out one’s clothes might instill a sense of control before the chaos of the race.
“You’re actually fooling yourself into believing that you have control over something that you don’t,” he said. “That’s the whole concept of making a plan. For a competitive athlete, it’s really important that when you think about a future event, you think about it in positive terms.”
Competitive athletes don’t necessarily have to be professionals. Raul Arcos is a Nike+ Run Club L.A. coach and gung-ho ‘grammer who ran 2:29 at the Chicago Marathon last month. For him, the act of laying out his race gear on the eve of competition was just as much about looking back as anticipating the challenge ahead.
As he explained it to me, “I struggled a lot during my last training cycle. Laying that uniform out the night before just brought back a lot of memories of what I went through and how far I’ve come. It was like: it’s finally here. I’m here. I’m committed. I got this tomorrow.”
Of course, dwelling too much on the psychological significance of the rituals of race preparation can obscure a more obvious reason why some athletes are so meticulous about cataloging their gear: sometimes you just want to make sure you have all your shit together.
“Road races usually occur early in the morning and I think people have been laying their gear out to get ready for them before they started taking pictures of it… you just don’t want to forget anything,” says three-time defending NYC-Half Marathon champion Molly Huddle. “I think somewhere along the line someone just shot a pic to get encouragement from their family or friends or whatever and it kind of took off.”
Indeed, as Huddle points out, arranging gear for your own peace of mind is a different thing than taking a picture of that gear, posting that picture to social media and hashtagging the hell out of it. The latter seems like pure product endorsement. (Or unhinged materialism, if you’re not sponsored.)
There might, however, be a sense in which even the act of posting a pre-race gear pic provides a psychological boost—particularly for amateur (i.e. non-sponsored) runners. Before the New York City Marathon earlier this month, several of my Facebook friends shared photos of their race kits with bibs attached so their progress could be tracked online. Arcos does this, too; after a late-race cramp cost him the win at the Eugene Marathon last April, he was amazed at how many people reached out to him from all over the world. He always includes his bib number in pre-race posts because, as he puts it, “people want to know what’s going down.”
As someone who prefers to keep mum about an upcoming race–hence retaining the option of bragging about it if it goes well and pretending like it never happened if it does not–I admire the boldness of those who put themselves out there. Seen in this light, publicizing your race number in advance represents an extra level of commitment.
Now the world is watching. Game on.