The night before the 2017 MO’ Cowbell Half Marathon in St. Charles, in a floaty ceremony acted out with liturgical gravitas, Mark Spewak shuttled his left shoe into one room and his right shoe into another. The next morning, having put asunder what Saucony — his racing flat of choice — had joined together, he reunited the shoes, which had presumably pined for each other all night.
“The idea is that they miss each other so much that they just want to run away together on race day,” Spewak told me, not without a laugh.
Spewak won the half marathon in a time of 1:14:15, a personal best and a full minute ahead of second place.
For Jake Goldsborough, superstition is less punitive. Goldsborough, a marathoner who ran track and cross country in high school, had a collection of shamanistic drills that refashioned themselves from year to year with slapdash significance: a lucky bucket hat, pre-race head-shaving, undefeated magic shoes and a single four-leaf clover.
Concerning the last item, Goldsborough said to kill time during track meets, he and his teammates would search for four-leaf clovers in the infield.
“If you found one, it was good luck,” he said. “You’d take athletic tape and tape it to the inside of your singlet or uniform.”
The key, he explained, was to wear the same four-leaf clover all season, which required meticulous taping and un-taping before and after meets.
Foibles and Fervor
Whether they serve as amulets to ward off curses or charms to bring good luck, superstitions permeate the routines and psyches of endurance athletes. Such foibles seem incongruous in a subculture that itemizes everything from heart rate variability to vertical oscillation. Even cyclists, known for their ecclesiastical fervor for gadgets and data, aren’t immune to the mystical — from the curse of the rainbow jersey to the admonition that a bike should never be flipped upside down.
Spewak, a personal running coach and owner of Spewak Training, is the first to admit that his ritual, while delightfully matrimonial, makes “absolutely zero logical sense and a person with science background could dominate me in an argument.” Still, he says it’s a mental stronghold he doesn’t see himself abandoning.
“I’ve always believed I can do well from working hard, and I’ll have a good performance because I put the work in. But I also believe in the curse. My superstition is that if I don’t do these things, I’m going to be penalized for it and not be able to go out and give my best effort.”
One reason athletes hang their hopes on whimsy is that superstitions provide a semblance of control over the uncontrollable. Despite months of training and unwavering fidelity to the minutiae of nutrition, hydration, effort and recovery, endurance sport abounds with wayward variables: weather, course conditions, illness, injury and gastrointestinal distress, just to name a few. In fact, perhaps it is training’s inability to erase uncertainties that flings athletes towards superstitions. No amount of training can safeguard against unforeseen mishap. A pair of lucky shorts, however, just might have a shot.
Superstitions also serve as handy stopgaps for confidence—or lack thereof. Superstition can pinch-hit for weak links. This is perhaps why many athletes abandon zany rituals with age: as they build and diversify their mental toolkits, their need for ersatz assurances wanes.
Both Spewak and Goldsborough acknowledge that they had more superstitions — and took those superstitions more seriously — when they were younger. Nowadays, Spewak reserves his liturgies for big races only, while Goldsborough prefers to think in terms of mojo and practicality. The “lucky” shorts he wore when he ran a personal best in the New York City Marathon, for instance, also happened to be his most comfortable.
Competence Builds Confidence
But while any athlete and coach will agree that pre-race routines reduce unknown factors and help focus the mind, the line demarcating physiological preparation and pixie dust ritual becomes blurred when athletes begin to make illusory correlations between arbitrary events and positive outcomes.
“You create this belief for yourself that if you don’t wear your lucky shorts, you’re not going to perform well in the race,” explained Kelly Locker, a professional counselor and certified hypnotherapist. “It runs like a hardwired program in your subconscious mind.”
She noted that the narrative operates 24/7, whether we realize it or not.
“If you don’t forget your lucky shorts, then perhaps that superstition serves you. But if you don’t have them, it can be crippling because you’ve given yourself this idea that you won’t perform well if you don’t have them.”
Locker said negative beliefs and crippling superstitions can be replaced using positive self-reinforcement, such as visualization, noting that visualization in the 30 minutes before sleep is especially effective.
“You can’t just pluck an old belief, because then you’ve got a vacuum or void in the subconscious mind. You’ve got to put something in its place. So, why don’t you put something that’s going to serve you?“
Tim Cary, head coach of Lindenwood-Belleville Track and Field, suggests focusing on the weeks and months of training leading up to the race and harvesting confidence from the miles and the work invested along the way.
“All that stacking of training allows you to be successful — not superstition. Superstition is us grasping at something to try to feel calm and relaxed. Competence builds confidence.”
As for Spewak, the month after he won the MO’ Cowbell Half Marathon, he ran another personal best, this time in a 5K on Thanksgiving. There was no shoe ceremony the night before.
“My goal race was Cowbell. Turkey day had zero pressure,” Spewak said before adding, “I know it debunks my theory.”
“The mind and the body work in conjunction, together,” Locker said. “We don’t get what we want out of life. We get what we believe.”
Author: Amy L. Marxkors is the author of two books on endurance sports and a frequent contributor to running blogs and magazines. She has run a mess of half marathons, marathons and 50Ks, even though she swore she would never be a distance runner. Yet here she is, and she couldn’t be more thrilled.