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November 11, 2005

Bad Juju

Karen’s post about race shirt rules reminded me of an article I wrote for our running club about how marathon runners should avoid bad juju on race day.

Juju is a term that is adopted from African culture and has various meanings.

It is not exactly superstition. It can be a charm or object with magical powers, or any ritual act that influences the forces of nature for better or worse.

As it relates to running, juju is a specific behavior that really shouldn’t have any affect on race performance, but inevitably does.

Acts that directly affect physical performance, such as inadequate training, improper race preparation or foolish strategy, do not count. For example, wearing a new pair of shoes on race day or eating something unfamiliar before the race isn’t bad juju, it’s just stupidity.

Experienced marathon runners are careful to avoid bad juju before and during their event. The following are the most common examples:

Rule #1: predicting your own race time is bad juju. This is the “pride goeth before the fall” postulate of juju. On race day, there are too many variables that can conspire against you, to assume that they will all come down in your favor.

Nevertheless, runners of all speeds frequently break this rule. As soon as you state “I will run in x amount of time”, you are almost guaranteeing yourself a finish time that is much slower.

Try this experiment: ask a veteran marathoner how fast they are going to run an upcoming race. If they know anything about juju, they will hem and haw and be more evasive than Mark McGwire in giving you a specific answer.

To avoid bad juju, never forecast a specific time. It’s much safer to say, “I’m hoping to run x time,” or “My goal is to run it in x time”; statements that don’t tempt fate nearly as much.

Rule #2: wearing the shirt of the exact race you are running is bad juju. This falls under the “don’t count your chickens before they hatch” category of juju. It’s never acceptable to wear the t-shirt for the race until after you have actually completed it.

Just because you show up at the marathon expo and pick up your packet doesn’t guarantee that you’ll finish the race the next morning. Unforeseen injuries, stomach cramps, blisters, or a myriad of other problems can quickly lead to a DNF, and there you’ll be at the side of the road, advertising the event that just kicked your butt.

It would be like the losing team deciding to go ahead and wear those “Super Bowl Champs” hats that are printed in advance for each team, but only given to the winners. How ridiculous would that look? That’s the risk you run by wearing the race shirt during the actual event.

(By the way, what happens to all of those unusable hats and t-shirts? Hopefully they are sent to impoverished villages that don’t have TV or Internet access. There must be a whole society somewhere in a remote corner of the world that thinks the Buffalo Bills won four Super Bowls).

Rule #3: wearing the shirt from one race while racing in another is bad juju. The worst mistake a runner can make is underestimating or disrespecting any given course.

In order to race well, you have to focus all of your energy on the challenge at hand, and not look ahead to the next race, or dwell excessively on a past event.

Wearing the shirt from another marathon demonstrates conflicting interests and loyalties.

It’s the equivalent of going out to a special dinner with your girlfriend, while wearing a sweater that was an anniversary gift from a previous lover, and having your current girlfriend recognize it. This is the “how can you be committed to me when you’re thinking of another girl?” tenet of juju.

The only exception to this rule that may be considered is if the race distance of the shirt you are wearing is longer than the distance you are currently racing. Some people do this to psych themselves up during rough stretches, saying, “If I finished that race, I can finish this one.”

However, this is a pretty unreliable argument, as I have passed many people wearing Ironman singlets or Western States 100-mile race shirts who looked desperately exhausted while racing at the Big Sur Marathon.

Rule #4: Telling your finish line posse that you’ll be done at a certain time is bad juju. This is a more severe variant of Rule #1. It could be called contagious juju because it affects not just you, but everyone who is awaiting your arrival at the finish line as well.

Imagine the worry and embarrassment inflicted on your spouse and friends when they are looking for you, but you are nowhere to be found. Progressively bad thoughts cross their minds for every minute you are over your predicted arrival time.

When you finally arrive, instead of finding people who are sympathetic to your bad day, you’ll be facing an angry or stressed-out mob. Instead of being a hero, you are merely late, and a bearer of bad juju.

To avoid this plight, give your loved ones an “approximate window” of arrival times.

These are the most obvious cases of bad juju in action, but I’m really just scratching the surface with these examples. While there is no rational explanation for these phenomena, I have had enough experiences and observations to believe in the power of juju.

As race day approaches, don’t ruin all of your hard training with foolhardy behaviors that can tip the scales of karma against you. After all, running a marathon is hard enough on its own.


robtherunner 11/11/05, 1:21 PM  

Thanks for the excellent advice on "juju." I am most definately of the opinion that you should not wear a race shirt until you finish the race, but I had never thought about how wearing a shirt from another race might affect my performance. Perhaps that was my problem at the White River 50 when I was wearing my Capital Peak 50 shirt. Of course I did horrible at Capital Peak as well, but I figure if I can survive that 50 I can survive any 50. I guess I will have to re-think my wardrobe the next time I am running a race.

Anne 11/14/05, 2:59 PM  

This sure explains a lot about my dismal race performances. Thanks for deconstructing where I might have gone wrong, beginning with bragging about my predicted time while donning my last marathon's T-shirt and yelling at my crew to ook for me at the finish 20 minutes earlier than I ever hoped to actually appear.

By the way, I recently discovered your blog and really enjoy your ramblings. I also envy your location. Keep it up, fellow Californian.

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