Rookie’s (and enthusiastic cheerleader’s) Guide to Race Spectating

Outside of the huge mega-marathons it’s not uncommon for runners to complain about the lack of crowd support along the 42.2k route.  The is filled with race reviews lamenting the sparse “crowds”.  I think it is the civic duty of every runner to go out and cheer at least once a year, if only to acknowledge that encouraging you and your tired legs to the finish line is damn hard – but make no mistake, rewarding – work.  Mostly though we drag/guilt our friends and family to the race course, position them at a kilometer marker and instruct them to yell as we go by and collect any gear we decide to toss their way.  In other words, we don’t make the most of the fan experience.

This handy guide will make the time on the sidelines more fun for the clappers and the speedsters.  Watching a race can be just as exciting as running one (just ask those hockey fans who have never put their feet in a pair of skates), with the right preparation.

What to do:

  • Cheer for everyone. Yes, we know you only came out to cheer on your beloved running their first marathon, but don’t just stand their staring vacantly at the other runners until you see that one familiar face blow by.  Spur along the magnificent elites and the inspiring commoners who follow.  Cheer for all the runners, but roar extra loudly for your peeps.
  • Play the name game.  If someone has a name on their shirt it’s there for a reason.  Call to them by name and watch their step get a bit springier.
  • Sign up for text updates.  Most races offer this service for a small fee – sign up and everytime your #1 runner crosses a timing map a little text will be sent to your phone telling you when and where.  This will help you figure out when to expect your friend/parent/sibling/spouse/kid/crush/neighbour/boss/nemesis to whiz by.  Warning, this isn’t a perfect service and sometimes text messages arrive late or not at all.  Don’t panic if an expected update fails to arrive, that doesn’t necessarily mean something has gone horribly wrong.  It might have, but not for sure.
  • Think location, location, location.  If you really want to make an impact find a quieter area to cheer.  The finish line always has lots of supporters, but that stretch from 32-36K can be lonely.  Position yourself by the metaphorical wall and your cheers will not be unappreciated.  Don’t follow the crowd, find your own little section of road.
  • Be conspicuous.  Tell your runner where you will be standing.  With a blur of thousands rushing by it can be tough to spot one lone face in the crowd.  It’s often easer for the runner to find the fan.  It does help if you have a missing person’s description of your runner (she was wearing a deep purple top, white hat, and black shorts).
  • Selectively inform.  If we are in the lead tell us, but a “you are 2576th” doesn’t help.  Telling me I’m the eleventh woman gets my competitive juices flowing.  If we are close to a time-cutoff tell us.  An encouraging ‘you’re gonna qualify’ or ‘sub-4 is yours’ won’t slow people down.   If you dare mention time or distance be specific.  1 mile to go is specific (but you better be accurate), just around the corner is not.  Omit the word “just” entirely.  Nothing is “just” in a distance race. 
  • Find child labour.  They are, hands down, the best at cheering.  Give them some pom poms and sugar-filled cola and let them do the hard work. 
  • Lie.  Tell us we look good.  Tell us we look strong.  Tell us we look Kenyan.  We know we don’t, but say it anyway.


What NOT to do:

  • Underestimate.  Never say “you’re almost there”.  Unless you can see, and by see I mean reach out and touch, the finish line.  4k, for the record, is not almost there. 4k at the end of a marathon is so far from almost there that you might just start sobbing at the side of the road.
  • Be boring.  Don’t stand around aimlessly gawking at the runners like we are some sort of zoo exhibit.  See cheering above.  Lackluster cheering is energy zapping.  If you are too tired to clap imagine how we feel.  We absorb that listlessness.  It’s like a floppy dead fish handshake – you need to put some effort in it.  A half-hearted cheer is almost worse than no cheer at all. 
  • Heckle.  Do not ask us what/who we are running from.  Do not boo, smack talk, insult, or utter the words “run forrest run”.  We can catch you.


What to bring:

  • Race info.  A course map and a pace band for anyone you are tracking.  This helps you guestimate where they will be and when.  Do not ask the runners how far to location X – and moan when you don’t like the answer.  Most races hand out spectator guides.  Get one.  And read it.
  • Hand clappers and cowbells.  Seriously.  Clap for four hours straight and your poor swollen palms will be burning.  Yell for four hours and your vocal cords will be shredded like you just left a headbanging concert.  Bring something to make the noise for you.
  • Signs. Yes, make a personalized sign for your special someone, but bring a few generic signs for the rest of the field.  Write inspiring quotes in chalk on the race course.  Funny and clever gets top marks in my book, but I enjoy pretty much any sign that reminds me of my awesomeness.   
  • Music.  If you still have a ghetto blaster bring it and play it loud, even if it means looping the Rocky Theme.  If you don’t know what a ghetto blaster is bring a boom box.  If you are still confused keep it to yourself.  I don’t need reminders of my advancing age. 
  • A camera.  One that can easily take action shots.  If it takes 5 seconds to focus you are likely to end up with 27 pictures of the runner right behind your runner, right Husband?  Take a few general race shots – it’s like your wedding day, everything is such a whirlwind that you need the photographs to remember what actually happened.  Take before and after pics.  Take pics of them with their medal.  They might not have the presence of mind to ask for it, but take as many cheesy shots as they can tolerate (especially if this is their first race). 
  • Supplies.  A camping chair, blankets, an umbrella, sunglasses & sunscreen, a hat, and layers of clothes.  The runners are sweating buckets but you might be shivering in the cool spring/autumn weather.   Don’t let the weather dampen, melt, or blow away your spirits.  Think tailgate party or homecoming game and pack accordingly. 
  • Fuel.  The runners are weighed down with Gatorade and gels packs and you need to be similarly prepared.  You won’t be out of place with a cooler and a thermos.  The moment you dash from the course for a Starbuck’s fix your runner will zip by.  Murphey’s Law.  Bring what you need for a four-hour tour.
  • Treats (for the runners).  This is optional, but wonderful, and there will be a gold chair in heaven saved just for you.  Many races operate on a shoestring budget.  Fruit slices (orange, watermelon and banana work best), pretzels, licorice, or freezies and even wet naps (gels are ooey gooey), are a blessed surprise when handed out by a generous fan. 
  • A cell phone.  The finish line area can be hectic.  Your runner may not be able to navigate stairs.  It’s best if they can call you and say pick me up (warning, this may be a literal statement) by the flag pole.

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