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Running in costume: what's that all about?

The author running in the Cottontail Classic as an Easter chick. (c) 2016 Focal Flame Photography | Photo credit: Steve Gotter

The author running in the Cottontail Classic as an Easter chick. (c) 2016 Focal Flame Photography | Photo credit: Steve Gotter

Multi-talented Focal Flame Photography staff member Suellen Adams is a renaissance woman: she's a runner and triathlete, adjunct professor, photo editor, and writer. She holds a BA in Theater Arts from Upper Iowa University, an MA in Library and Information Studies from the University of Wisconsin, and a PhD in Information Studies from the University of Texas. One of her great joys as a scholar is - quite literally - studying joy. She has conducted interdisciplinary research and theory construction on the subject of play and how it impacts both individuals and society. Here, she shares some insights from her recent studies about the phenomenon of athletes choosing to compete in endurance events while dressed in costume.

Hopping along the Cottontail Classic route dressed as - what else? - a chocolate bunney. (c) 2016 Focal Flame Photography | Photo Credit: Don Newton

Hopping along the Cottontail Classic route dressed as - what else? - a chocolate bunney. (c) 2016 Focal Flame Photography | Photo Credit: Don Newton

So you’ve been running races for a while now, and you’ve noticed something different.  People are running races in silly t-shirts, tutus, funny hats…even full costumes. You might expect this at RunDisney races or the local Run, Santa Run 5K, but it is happening at more and more races. It may make you smile or shake your head. You may wonder why they do it. As a racer myself, and a sometime costumed runner, I wondered too. As an academic, I decided to do some research and find out. So I surveyed and interviewed costuming runners. Here is what I found out.

As you might expect the biggest reason people do costume runs is for fun, to be playful. It makes them smile, and it makes other people smile. As one interviewee said, “Let’s be honest. How often do you get to wear a tiara? It’s fun to dress up.” Not only is it fun for the runners, they liked making other people smile and laugh.  In response to the question “What is the best part about running in costume?” one costumed runner put it simply, “Making people laugh.”

Runners also find that costumes break the ice, as one runner, reflecting on the pre-race experience said, “You met new people waiting for the race because it makes you approachable.” Another remarked about the experience during the race, “…a fun way to meet people during the race other runners compliment each other…It has always been a great experience.” Friendships and social networks even develop away from the race course, “there’s a non-race aspect; just like with cosplay [a performance art involving dressing up as a character from a movie, book, or video game], while I can’t get to see everything ‘in person,’ costuming runners have also formed on-line networks…that ‘virtual’ exchange is also an important positive aspect. Earning that respect with a virtual community of people you admire can be a positive reinforcement just like interacting at the actual races.”

Of course, there is an element of attention seeking inherent in costume running, and many of the people I interviewed acknowledged that. They liked it when, “…people cheer your costume name.” Another explained, “One of my favorite things about running in costume is when spectators and fellow runners tell you they like your costume."

Some costume runners do it for the motivation. Clearly compliments and cheers are motivating, but sometimes it goes beyond that. As one long-distance costumed runner put it, “I knew that in that point in the race I would be exhausted and verging on emotional collapse. I knew that putting a clown suit on would make it hard to be serious and it made me and everyone else laugh.” Or as another pointed out, “I’ve been told that I made people smile and gave them the energy that they needed, right when they needed it. In return, I feed off of those smiles and gives me energy when I’m hitting my wall as well.”

The creative aspect of costuming is all part of the fun for many. They love checking out others’ costumes, designing their own, hunting for accessories and crafting. One runner who often runs with groups in themed costumes told me, “We picked characters and I went and hunted down pieces for everyone, because I enjoy that part as much as I enjoy wearing them.”

One assumption that is often made about costumed runners is that they are not serious runners, or at least not fast. And for some, it does serve to make the middle or back of the pack more fun. For instance this runner pointed out, “For someone who is not an elite runner it makes running fun. My friends and family look forward to what I am going to wear each time I announce a race.” But for others, like this runner, the experience is different, “And I confess it is quite a thrill to pass a guy in spandex who is being super serious in a race when you look ridiculous.  A reminder that races are fun.”  

The Luck of the Irish race brought out the leprechaun in many participants. (c) 2016 Focal Flame Photography | Photo credit: Mark Olson

The Luck of the Irish race brought out the leprechaun in many participants. (c) 2016 Focal Flame Photography | Photo credit: Mark Olson

Whether costumes are elaborate or simple, whether they run fast or slow, these playful athletes in their own words, “absolutely get enjoyment out of it, plenty of great memories.” Many runners addressed preserving the great memories through race photos, and one runner summed up the whole experience this way, “The event pics are priceless! It makes me happy. The shout-outs you get from fellow runners. It puts a smile on their faces (even if they think you’re crazy!)”

This story is based on a research presentation entitled Reclaiming the Joy: Making Play of Serious Recreational Athletics through the Use of Costume, presented in February, 2016 at conference of The Association for the Study of Play at Rutgers University.  The researcher and author, Suellen Adams, is an adjunct professor of Library and Information Studies, currently serving at University of Rhode Island, University of Southern Mississippi and the University of Alabama. She is also a writer and photo editor for Focal Flame Photography.

-by Suellen Adams