Marathon Spectating 101

Fall means only three things to me, now that I’m far removed from my high school and collegiate cross country seasons. Fall means pumpkin beers, baseball playoffs, and marathons. There’s also a constant dread of the first frost, but let’s just focus on the positives.

If you’re following my blog, chances are you know at least one person running a marathon this fall. Most marathon training plans are between 16 and 18 weeks, so, at this point, fall marathoners have completely lost their social lives, a few toenails and, soon, their minds. As runners all over the country prepare to run 26.2 miles through most of the major cities, their friends and family are gearing up to cheer.

Marathon cheering is one of my favorite things to do, and I’m lucky to be part of a large running club with as many marathon spectators as there are marathon runners. I have been supported and supported others, and I genuinely feel with only a little bias that RVRR has some of the loudest greatest and most effective marathon spectators on earth.

How we do it is simple, but it ain’t easy. Whether you know someone in an upcoming marathon, or you just decide to watch thousands of incredible people achieve something that only .5% of Americans have done, consider the tips below and cheer away!

  • Wear running shoes or ride a bike – Please don’t be the fan that packs a tailgate chair and sits in one spot for the entire marathon. Find at least two spots to see your runner during the race, and dress to move quickly. If you’re supporting more than one runner, take into account their varying wave start times and paces. Do your research! Waves in smaller marathons may only be seconds or minutes apart, a negligible difference. Waves in gigantic marathons like Boston or New York City could be hours apart.
  • Carry a course map – Don’t chance missing your runner by getting lost! Course maps can always be found on the race website. Read it, memorize it, bring it.
  • Hold a humorous and/or motivational sign – A bright sign will do two things: it will make runners laugh or smile, and it will make you stand out in the crowd. If your runner knows what your sign looks like, I guarantee they will find you well before you see them.
Yeah, we're good.

Some of our best work from the 2012 fall marathon season.

RVRR, doing it right.

RVRR, doing it right. (Philadelphia Marathon, 2011)

Rainy marathons need some laughs.

Rainy marathons need extra love! (Vermont City Marathon, 2011)

Yup, that's the RVRR cheer squad at the 2012 Philadelphia Marathon.

RVRR is so good that we made the paper! (Philadelphia Marathon, 2012)

Oops. Just be sure to double-check your grammar before holding it up.

“Almost their!” ((sigh)) Be sure to double-check your grammar before displaying your sign. (Marine Corps Marathon, 2010)

  • Ring a cowbell – Supplement your cheering with the loud, unmistakable sound of a cowbell. (And make lots of “fever” references, of course.)
Noah's ready to cheer!

Noah’s ready to cheer! (Philadelphia Marathon, 2009)

Cowbells in action! (NYC Marathon 2012)

Cowbells in action! (NYC Marathon, 2011)

Wear gloves! It is, in fact, possible to get a blister and scar after hours of ringing a cowbell.

Warning! It is, in fact, possible to blister and scar after ringing a cowbell for hours. (Awwww, I know, I know. Keep that sympathy coming.) (Philadelphia Marathon, 2012)

  • Know what color your runner is wearing – The road starts to blend into one big sea of exhaustion determined faces after a while. Picking your runner out of that neverending mass of people is much easier when you know to look for a particular color.
"I think I see her! Nope, wait... nope. Oh, there she is!! No, that's not her..."

“I think I see her! Wait… nope. Oh, there she is!! No, that’s not her, that’s a dude… I hope she isn’t wearing black….” (Philadelphia Marathon, 2009)

  • Sign up for the athlete tracker (if available) – Most marathons will have an athlete tracker so spectators can follow their runner online and/or receive text alerts when they reach certain distances throughout the race. They’re usually pretty accurate, but be on the safe side and know your runner’s A, B, and C goal times. Aim to get to each cheering spot for their A time, and be prepared to stay through their C time before moving on.
The text confirmation sent to my good friend Kelly when she non-creepily stalked me as I ran the Boston Marathon!

A non-creepy way to stalk your friends!

  • Tell your runner approximately where they can expect to see you, and what side of the road you’ll be on – You will be ready for them, so make sure your runner is ready for you. If each party is looking for the other across that two-to-four-lane sea of people, there’s a much greater chance of a hug and a high five without your marathoner running out of their way.
I knew my mom, aunt, and uncle were going to be on the same side of the street as the train station. Saw their sign and ran right to them!

I knew my mom, aunt, and uncle were going to be on the same side of the street as the train station at mile 10 in the 2012 Boston Marathon.

"I heard it's 45 and cloudy in Newton!"

Success! Saw the train station and then their sign, and ran gradually toward them.

  • Pack a couple extra energy gels for your runner – Most marathons will have plenty of gels at aid stations, but if your runner prefers a particular brand or flavor, bring a couple in case they lose them along the course or require more than they carried.
  • Carry plenty of water for yourself – You’re going to be on your feet and in the sun for hours. No need to add a dehydrated spectator to the medical tents!
  • Cheer for everyone – There’s a reason so many marathoners iron their name onto their race shirt, and why some marathons have started printing the runner’s first name on their bib: marathoners need support, and not all have a personal superfan like you at the race. While waiting for your runner, a simple acknowledgement of a stranger’s hard work, a word of encouragement, or even a complete lie quick statement about how strong they look is greatly appreciated. It’s the little things that can make a big difference during a race that long, so use their name and cheer away.
Now that's a reaction!

Now that’s a reaction! (Marine Corps Marathon, 2010)

Now you’re ready to take it to the streets! Talk to your runner well before race day to inform them of your plans, and get input on where they’d most like to see you, what they’d like you to have ready, and what type of love they need. Be the best fan you can be, so your runner can be at their very best, too.

Matt & Kim – “Block After Block”


8 thoughts on “Marathon Spectating 101

  1. Loved the post. Thanks for sharing. I can relate to this a lot now. With my recent injury developments my fall race plans have gone off the radar. Hartford marathon is off the list and my Half marathoning plan at Philly is soon gonna switch to cheering RVRR runners. I enjoyed cheering RVRR runners at Miles for music and unite half this year. So Im sure will enjoy Philly as well. Look forward to being there. Good luck with your running as well.

    • I’m sorry to hear about your injury, but you’re making the right move by playing it smart. Same thing I’ve been telling myself all this year: there are pleeeeenty more marathons to do later.
      If you end up cheering at Philly, I can promise we’ll make it a great day!

  2. I’ve seen all these signs already, and I still laugh out loud. Having run a few races (including a whole stinkin’ half!) that were very thin on spectators, I know what a difference an excited crowd makes. And I also learned recently that being on the other side (going to cheer) requires way more planning-ahead than I knew it did. Without planning I missed my runner at almost every point, and got all frantic trying to get from place to place on the course. Great post!

  3. Wow! This brought back memories of spectating at Boston last year. When I returned to work, I told people that I got blisters at the Boston Marathon, and they were like, “You ran the Boston marathon?!?!?” And I’d show them my right hand with its blisters and band-aids, and say, “Cow bell injury.” They’re real, people!

  4. Pingback: Runner’s(/s’) High in Amsterdam: Dam tot Dam 2013 | Unquiet Time

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