In 2016 I completed an eight-race series on the trails at various Georgia parks. In 2014 and 2015, I cherry-picked races of interest from a training and work standpoint, but I decided to go all-in last year and play in the dirt at every single venue. As I look back at these races, I’m struck by a constant presence at each one: socks. More specifically – Swiftwick ASPIRE TWO Quarter Crew Socks. I donned the same black pair at each event, which now has me wondering whether they became, in effect, a superstition of sorts. This decision to reach for the same yarn every month further reminds me of a truly memorable song from 1972.
“Superstition,” composed and produced by the legendary Motown singer Stevie Wonder, remarks on “a belief or notion, not based on reason or knowledge, in or of the ominous significance of a particular thing.” In the actual song, Wonder highlights writings on the wall, ladders, breaking glass, face and hand washing, and the numbers seven and thirteen. In light of my sock preference for the aforementioned trail races, I’m curious about what superstitions might exist in the running community as they pertain to training or racing. I suspect that there are a few, and they are likely to raise some eyebrows.
“11 Hilarious Runner Superstitions,” authored by Ashleigh Teeter, outlines ten plus one quirks that people complete before setting out. Here’s a smattering of responses, beginning with Ethan. “I put my right sock on first and then my right shoe before I put on the left. If everything is on properly on the right side, then I know I am going to have a good day.” Here’s a ritual from someone who wished to stay anonymous. “I must make one positive association with at least one number in my bib no matter how challenging.” And finally, Ivana. She never eats the last bite of a Clif bar before a race; I, on the other hand, would finish it all and proceed to lick my fingers once or twice for good measure. Every Clif bar is eaten.
What is it about superstitions, the idea that we shouldn’t walk under a ladder or allow a black cat to cross our path? To do so is to risk the possibility of bad luck, of being on the receiving end of a series of unfortunate events. I believe that superstitions are a farce though, that luck is wishful thinking and not grounded in reality. Moreover, continuously adhering to superstitions may increase mental stress as certain behaviors are repeated or avoided, e.g. Jack Nicholson as Melvin Udall in As Good as It Gets (1997).
Running superstitions are dispelled by a phrase that my friend Meaghan Neuberger reminded me of recently. “Trust the training.” Training – not superstition. Dr. Stuart Vyse, in an article for Web MD, confirms this. “Superstitions provide people with the sense that they’ve done one more thing to try to ensure the outcome they are looking for.” For runners, this might translate into putting the right shoe on first, foregoing the final bite of a Clif bar, or strapping on a Batman cape at every race (though a Superman cape seems more appropriate from a speed perspective).
In the chorus of “Superstition,” Stevie Wonder points out the danger of the unknown. “When you believe in things that you don’t understand, then you suffer. Superstition ain’t the way.” Will buying into running superstitions lead to suffering? Yes, if it’s at the expense of solid training. In a Salty Running blog roundtable discussion on superstitions and their impact on performance, Liz had this to say in the comments section. “Race socks. They are worn only and always for races. They appear to be a null factor. Similarly, race gaiters must be the ones with purple flames. Again, these don’t seem to have helped much – I still manage all manner of failures in them.”
For me, superstitions are null and void; training is where the breakthroughs happen, where new distances are reached and personal records fall by a few seconds or a few minutes. Trust the training. Or in the words of Juma Ikangaa, “The will to win means nothing without the will to prepare.”
Oddly enough, “Superstition” is a song that’s consistently included in my race playlist. Some might chalk this too up to superstition, but I call it good music that subsequently leads to limber limbs ready to dance down the road in a smooth manner. Other songs by Wonder are present in the playlist too, including “My Cherie Amour” (1969) and “Higher Ground” (1973). I’m running to reach new heights. Or, as Wonder, puts it: “I’m so glad that I know more than I knew then; gonna keep on tryin’ till I reach my highest ground.”