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More than a few of the 30,000 athletes in this year?s Tokyo Marathon decided not to wear traditional running gear.

None of the runners in the 2008 Toronto Marathon anticipated that when their spirits were lagging or their energy levels were getting low, Captain America would come to their rescue. But, thanks to Richard Pencer, the Marvel Comics superhero came jogging up, determined to help save the day.

"It gets people going," Mr. Pencer says

In the lead-up to the half-marathon portion of the event, the 39-year-old, who works in real estate and lives in Toronto, was recovering from a case of bronchitis. Since he figured he wasn't going to match any personal best, he reached into his closet and pulled out his Halloween costume, a head-to-toe, red, white and blue outfit complete with red gloves, mask and padded muscle chest.

"Runners just as a general rule, I guess, we're a little strange to begin with," Mr. Pencer says.

Most runners show up on race day with a serious game face on, but a handful will arrive in clown wigs or Halloween masks. Or banana outfits. They aren't going to win any races, to be sure. But they certainly help to elevate an event's atmosphere, whether it's by pumping up the crowd or providing other runners with a much-needed moment of levity.

"Running, a marathon especially, can get pretty serious," says Michal Kapral, editor of Canadian Running magazine. "But when it comes down to it, there are certain people out there who just want to have fun with it and also to entertain the people spectating."

Mr. Kapral just ran the Boston Marathon. "There was a guy running next to me wearing a skirt and a fake mustache," he says. At the same race in 2006, Mr. Kapral, who is a joggler (meaning he juggles while he runs), found himself lined up at the start of the race with another joggler and two people dressed as Elvis.

"It's actually amazing if you are running next to someone who is wearing a costume because you can hear the crowd cheering the whole time," he says.

Joanne Gunning started wearing costumes to support friends in 2005. The 57-year-old, who works in the investment industry and lives in Kingston, promised two friends that she would come out and support them at a triathlon and promised she couldn't be missed in the crowd. She arrived at the race wearing a grass skirt, sequined bra and a lei. She has also paced runners wearing an orange tutu, bunny ears and a wand. Last year, she did the Fat Ass Trail Run in Batawa, Ont., dressed as a character she calls "Woodland Faerie," which consists of pink wings, a sparkly sequined bra, an orange tutu and a lime-green wig.

"It's all about making other athletes feel happy," Ms. Gunning says.

The number of runners in costume at most races is extremely small, says Alan Brookes, director of the Canadian Running Series. "However, in some of our races, especially the ones with [a]strong charity component … it is really starting to catch on," he said in an e-mail. "Our charities are starting to figure out that if they dress up they'll not only get a lot more cheers, but they'll get attention, awareness, photos and media coverage."

Mr. Brookes has seen plenty of memorable outfits at runs over the years, including runners dressed as bananas at the Harry's Spring Run-Off in Toronto earlier this year and Wonder Woman at the Scotia Bank Toronto Waterfront Marathon in 2009.

To play on a theme, Andrew Crerar created a "half-priced suit" costume for the Harry's Spring Run-Off this year (the race is sponsored by the men's-wear retailer Harry Rosen). The right side of his outfit consisted of traditional running gear, while the left half consisted of a dark business suit, necktie and all. It was held together by safety pins.

"It seemed like a natural thing to add some festiveness to the event and a little bit of mirth," the 44-year-old says. "When people are stressed out about the run or they're worried about the heat, they see a guy in half a suit trot past and then hopefully a spring returns to their step."

Tom Keogh, event director of the BMO Vancouver Marathon, says runners in costumes help to create a sense of goodwill among runners. "You will be surprised what a goofy hat and a brightly coloured pair of shorts does to people running with someone that dresses up. They chat, laugh and wish each other an extra 'good luck,' " Mr. Keogh said in an e-mail.

Of course, from a practical standpoint, some outfits are better than others. At an 8K run in Vancouver last year, Perry Boeker arrived in a plastic red rocket with wheels. "I had a structural failure partway through the race where the front wheel fell off," he says.

It was something of an advertising ploy. Mr. Boeker's agency, Red Rocket Creative Strategies, does marketing work for the Vancouver Marathon.

However, most runners who dress up in costumes do it simply for fun and to support their fellow runners.

Jogging along as Captain America, Mr. Pencer found himself surrounded by other runners who wanted to feed off the cheers and excitement of the spectators. "My philosophy for it is, I may not be as fast as these Kenyan guys out there, I may not be able to run 100 miles per week or want to run 100 miles per week, and my parents certainly didn't give me the genetic blessings required to do it either, but I can go out there and I can have a lot more fun than they can."

Dressing for success

Every costume will have crowds doing a double take, but not all costumes are created equal. Runners who want to ditch the usual gear for something a little more eye-catching need to follow a few rules:

Do: Make it original

Elvis has left the building. And do you know where he went? To races across North America. You don't want to be just another big wig with sideburns. Take a DIY approach and create your own character.

Do: Go for comfort

Running in loafers because you're in the costume of a businessman is authentic and all, but your feet are going to kill you and you may not even finish. The same goes with a mask. It may look awesome, but can you see out of it? Can you breathe in it?

Don't: Ignore practicalities

If you're going as a Canadian battleship that you've fashioned out of wood in your garage, ask yourself if you can corner in that thing. Will the weight of it drag you down? You want to pay attention to the run. You don't want to be constantly worrying that your costume is going to be the end of you.

Don't: Create a sweatbox

You're going to generate enough body heat already by running. And chances are the summer sun is going to be shining. Don't push the mercury higher by going as Parka Woman. The aim is to both look and feel as cool as possible.