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Triathletes, even at the pro level, are a superstitious bunch.
Three triathletes walk into an espresso bar. Which coffee roast do they choose? It depends—if the three are pro Pat Evoe and his pals, they opt for the roast from the country that yields the fastest runners (Ethiopian Harar, anyone?). You see, like many triathletes—people primarily driven by the logic of performance data, scientific training strategies and high-tech gadgets—Evoe is also superstitious.
Most triathletes, in fact, subscribe to a bit of hoodoo voodoo along with scientific fact. I know because I witness them at every race. Once they’ve racked their totally dialed top-end tri bikes designed with space-age technology and tricked out with Di2 shifters, once they’ve made sure their wind-tunnel-tested aero helmets are primely poised to put on in a hurry, and once they’ve pulled on their wetsuits with precisely plotted neoprene placement, then the calls for luck begin. I see these athletes tuck away into a corner of transition or step slightly to the side at the swim start half-meditate and half-mouth something to themselves. It might be a prayer or a personal mantra or even a magic spell—whatever the format, and whatever the belief that drives their request, they’re begging somebody—or something—somewhere to help them have a good day. You’ve been that athlete, haven’t you? I have, too, at every race—even at every hard workout—asking the fates to bend in my favor if perchance my preparations fail.
And what are these last-minute pleas, these longings for good luck, if not superstition? Luck and superstition go hand in hand, bonded siblings in the airy-fairy search for success. After all, we believe in luck, despite its intangibility. We believe in luck as a force that happens with frequency, a force sometimes stronger than stringent planning or pure talent and power. Nearly all of us put our faith in luck, and we wish it to one another with generous abandon, a final send-off to our fellow athletes: “Good luck!” That is, all of us except XTERRA pro Josiah Middaugh, who once told me, “I’m pretty much the opposite of superstitious. I don’t believe in luck.” But I’m pretty sure he’s a one-off in that way (plus talented enough to overcome the stars that might align for his rivals). As for me, I’ll bank on luck; I’d probably never reach a finish line without at least a shred of it.
But like Evoe (and unlike Middaugh) most of triathlon’s top pros—people with every training advantage at their disposal—believe in luck, too, and often blame it for results at either end of the spectrum. Sometimes it’s a factor as simple as the fluke of who else shows up to race. Most often it’s fortune cloaked in the disclaimer, “You never know what you’re going to get on the day.” Will you be “on” or “off”? Despite months of calculated training, no one seems to know until the gun goes off how they will feel and perform. No one, that is, except whatever force controls this thing called luck.
I polled some triathlete friends for their take on race day luck and superstition. Here’s a sampling of what they shared, some of which stems from logic and some of which seems certain whimsy:
“Lace up my shoes, unlace them, then lace them back up. Not sure why.” —Jandy
“Whatever the race, I look to see if my bib number ends in an odd number. If it does, I feel overall better and that the race will go great. If it doesn’t, I just have a great race anyway.” —Jerry
“No new equipment or nutrition. It’s good practice and superstition.” —Lon
“Only run on days that end in ‘y’.” —Jimi
“PB&J sandwich on race morning. Familiarity = comfort.” —Bill
“Never walk across the road where the finish line will be until race day.” —Gaylia
Personally, I subscribe to the same school of superstition as Jerry and Gaylia. Plus I have my own hocus-pocus practice that guides me in every race, training ride and run. It’s a quirky little habit, one that I believe helps protect me from accidents and adversity: a crash on the bike, a trip over my own feet (something I’m prone to) or even a bad bonk. Any time a negative thought or fear enters my mind while I’m out there, I counteract it by taking three deep breaths, then tapping my head three times. (If you’ve ever seen me knocking on my own noggin, you now know why!) Does this three-peat ritual really help me? Who knows. But I shudder to think what might befall lest I forgo the three lucky breaths and taps; thus I do it without fail. And why the number three? Again, who knows. Like Jerry, I’ve always been inexplicably drawn to odd digits. The number 13 is even more appealing than three—it’s my all-time favorite, in fact. Put me in an Ironman race on a Friday the 13th and there’s a good chance I’ll qualify for Kona.
Indeed, logic is hardly the hard and fast ruler of my world. But enough about that. It’s time to put away the laptop and train. Maybe I’ll get lucky and log a particularly good run. Maybe the fates will align in the form of fast intervals and freedom from injury. But just in case, I’ll be sure to breathe and tap: one, two, three.