Cheering for a marathon

As you may have gleaned from previous mentions (or if you know us in real life, obviously) Tim has participated in some big running events in the past. While there are not any half or full marathons in the immediate future for him, fall brings one of my favorite times: marathon season. The Columbus marathon is this Sunday, take advantage of what is forecasted to be a lovely day, and get your cheer on!

Over the past several years, I have learned some things about cheering for races and marathons. First and foremost, I have learned that I love the heck out of it! I was basically the furthest thing from a cheerleader in high school, though I did once mix acrylic paint with hand lotion to paint my face for a giant soccer game our girls’ team was in (which the Internet is now telling me is a no-no, hmmm). Additionally, while running cross-country in high school, I distinctly remember wanting to punch people in the face who were standing on the sidelines, all “you can do it!” when I felt like I was dying a particularly slow death out on the course. (Right, I have issues, noted.) However, I was also the girl who would be trotting along at the back of the pack (I was not good at cross-country, by any means), and any time I came up on someone who was walking, I’d encourage them to start running again. My coach hated this, but I felt like we were all slogging through this insanity together, regardless of teams. I am supremely uncompetitive. I believe in everyone doing their best (not that you can’t be competitive and still want people to excell), and this comes out in me in spades when there are hundreds of runners trotting past me.

Not to brag, but I’ve been told that I’m awesome at cheering for marathons. Let me share some tips and tricks with you!

Keep en eye out for people in bonkers costumes, as well as the people you actually know! (Credit: Julie)

1) Plan out your approach ahead of time.

The very first major race I cheered for Tim at was a half-marathon in Cleveland. It was the first time I met his running partner’s girlfriend, Julie (who became one of my best friends, and is my eternal cheering partner), and we were total novices at being awesome supporters of our running dudes. We looked at a map the boys had gotten at the expo the night before the race, decided that we could walk to a point a little more than halfway through the race to cheer for them, and…did not consider how we’d get back to see them finish. To give us our due credit, we did figure out there might be a problem as we were walking out, and decided to try to catch a bus back to near the finish line, but the buses stopped running for a bit because of the race. As we were hustling back, having cheered at our chosen spot, we got nervous about missing their very first Major Race Finish, until we spotted a God-sent cab. Without hesitation, we flagged it down, leapt into it, pulled cash out of our wallets to hand off to the driver as soon as he stopped near the finish and tore away like were were Amazing Race contestants with a million dollars on the line. To our great delight, Julie and I got to see both guys finish…and vowed never to make that rookie mistake again.

Today, our race prep doesn’t involve months of constantly-increasing mileage and a variety of protein powders like the dudes. Instead, we take a gander at a map of the race course (check the race website) about a week in advance and come up with a strategy for getting to as many spots along the route as possible. Our strategy is based on our own experiences and a variety of strategies, but things you might consider are:

Find spots that are a little empty and support the runners through them. (Credit: Julie)

Can you pick a spot that allows you to see the racers more than once? Some courses make loops, or double-back just a few blocks apart. Sometimes you can park the car and see the racers pass you by, and then trot a block or two and see them just a mile further into the race. We like to rack up as many sightings as possible, and we’ve used this trick on at least half of the races.

Should you stay inside or outside of the race course? We learned this one the hard way as well. Once the frontrunners hit a stretch of the course, that road is closed. You cannot count on crossing it again until most of the runners have passed. You usually want to count on staying inside the loop of the course or outside, depending on which will be easiest to navigate. Make sure to pay attention to the routes of other courses for races also being run that day. A half-marathon that branched away from the full accidentally trapped us a few years ago by cutting off our intended path to the next viewing spot. Finding a way back out in an unfamiliar city was unbelievably tough.

Do the race-planners suggest it as a good viewing spot? This can go either way, honestly. Some race planners will be kind enough to make spectator suggestions. These might be based on ease of access or other factors, which is great. However, any other spectators tooling around on the race website will see that spot, too, so it could be super-crowded. Parking near one of these spots might be tough, and viewing along a crowded sidewalk could be compromised.

Marathons tend to be during the prettiest times of year, enjoy the scenery! (Credit: Me, during one of the few races I shot before I just started handing my camera to Julie, since I got too excited to cheer to take non-blurry pictures.)

What is the character of the area? One of the reasons the boys seem to like running big races is that they get to see some really interesting neighborhoods and beautiful vistas in different cities. Some parts of a route are more boring than that, though, and those are ideal spots to target for cheering. People who live in neighborhoods where a course passes often get out and cheer, but the race can get lonely in industrial areas, deserted parts of downtown, and even highways (though in general, it’s difficult for spectators to get to highway/bridge viewing). Trust that the more active neighborhoods will have people out cheering and pick what is likely going to be an emptier spot to support your racer!

Will you be smack next to a band or water stop? This is not always something you can prepare for, but most marathon courses mark where water stops occur, and some even have where any bands are scheduled to be. While both of these features are clearly awesome for the runners (and the water is, you know, necessary), they really suck to cheer near. The runners are really focused at a water stop, because it involves a lot of maneuvering, and often they slow down and shuffle a lot while they drink the water. Plus, I have been hit with a half-drunk cup of water flung to the side enough to know to avoid being near these spots. If a marathon features live music, that is super for the runners, but it’s almost impossible to cheer above the noise. Spare your voice and move down the course. Your runner will appreciate the enthusiasm being more spread out anyway!

Starts tend to be chaotic and there are big packs of runners. (Credit: Julie)

Do you really need to be at the start and finish? Here’s a hard truth for most spectators: It is really fun for us to see our runners starting and finishing a race, but it actually doesn’t help the runner a whole lot. These tend to be the loudest areas along any course, so there’s plenty of noise-support for all of the runners. The chances that your runner will actually see you in either spot tends to be a lot lower, because there can be crazy crowds. It can also be stressful for your runner to try to look for you, when there’s a lot of weaving happening. Tim has asked me to stop cheering right at the very beginning of a race, so often we drop the dudes off and make our way a mile or so into the course. I find it really delightfully emotional to watch him finish and will try it, but if it comes down to being able to cheer at a spot a few miles from the end, or having to skip it to get to the finish, we’ll usually give them late support. That’s where they need it, where they’re struggling to finish and knowing the end of the race is still a few miles off is hard. If I can give a boost that helps them through the end, that’s better than being able to scream loud enough along the crowded sidewalks at the end and hoping Tim spots me. But again, we’ve still managed to make most of the end spots. If you’re going to the finish line, factor in the fact that parking near it is almost always tough and plan for that. Julie and I have run blocks from the car to the finish area on more than one occasion.

What time will the runner hit each spot? Once you’ve picked some good spots and figured out your strategy, try to determine an approximate time that your runners should hit each point in the course. Generally a runner will have a projected overall finish time or a per-mile goal. Use that to gauge what time you need to get to each spot throughout the morning, and remember to check that against the actual time you see your runner and adjust accordingly. We’ve skipped stops that we figured would be close due to some unforeseen delay, because we knew the projected time. Be flexible the day of the race and you should be able to give your runner lots of support throughout the course. (It should be noted that all races we’ve attended, with the exception of the Marine Corps Marathon in DC, have been in car-friendly cities. I think these rules would need to be vastly adjusted for cities like Boston, NYC, or Chicago, but they will apply to most urban marathons.)

2) Prepare yourself on race day.

When we travel for a race, the guys have a whole morning routine. (I keep referring to “the guys/boys/dudes” in this, just because Tim’s running partners are male. However, our friend’s wife also runs half and full marathons and we’ve cheered our faces off for her as well. Clearly, ladies run races, too.) They want to be adequately awake, fed, stretched, warmed-up, etc. This usually starts at a godawful time in the morning and while I do try to sleep in a little later, I also want to be up not much after them. I want to have a solid breakfast (and throw a few granola bars in my bag), make sure I’ve had plenty of time to wake up (for driving/navigating purposes), and use the bathroom. Once we leave the hotel, I know it’s going to be several solid hours of moving and cheering before things wind down and I can go find a snack or a restroom. I fill my water bottle, double-check my lists of stops and times, make sure I have the maps I need, and generally prepare for the day.

This is lovingly referred to as “the time Kate accidentally dressed as a deer for a trail run in the middle of hunting season.” That race started EARLY. (Credit: Julie)

Dress in layers for the start of the race. Most full marathons start very early, so the entire race can be finished before the day gets too hot. (It’s also a lot easier to shut down several streets at 7 AM on a Sunday morning in a city than, say, 2 PM on a Saturday.) Layers are good, because you can peel down as the day goes on, without worrying about freezing for the first few stops. Wear shoes that are super comfortable. You might be running to a viewing spot or just on your feet for 20 minute stretches at each spot. At the finish line, you will almost definitely be waiting and walking for a long time (finish areas can be huge). I often carry a backpack or something; Tim sometimes asks me to bring additional fuel for him, or dry socks if it’s raining, and he sometimes wears a long-sleeved shirt for the start that he’ll hand off to me at the first viewing spot.

3) Make a sign.

Okay, this is in no way required. Julie and I did it at first and it was a lot of fun, but we haven’t had time to for more recent races. It can be really helpful for your runner, especially if you choose a posterboard color that is bright or unusual. We did a sign one year where it was an encouraging message on one side, and then the other side said “You Did It!” to display near the finish. We also made green shirts for the Marine Corps Marathon, and a family friend decorated blue shirts with puff paint for another race. Wearing a brightly colored hat or something else to help your runner spot you is also helpful. It’s a marathon, have fun with it!

4) Cheer. Cheer a lot. Cheer for lots of people.

This is my favorite part, dude. Just thinking about telling you about it has me all excited, heh. So, you’ve found tons of spots to cheer from, and you’re all hydrated and layered and maybe have something about you and your cheering party that stands out. Now it is time to make some noise. Everyone has a different cheering style, and I respect that, but mine is a little different than most and I think it gets people really pumped, so I continue to do it every time. Feel free to adopt it, the thought of more people getting cheered for in more marathons makes me deeply happy…

So, as I mentioned, when I ran cross-country, I encouraged people I didn’t even know. I knew what it felt like to be struggling to run. For me, running was really hard, but I stayed with the team because it was rewarding and I actually liked it, despite the fact that it kind of destroyed my knees. So I feel a kinship with those people on the course. They may not be awesome at it (though I cheer for the frontrunners when they pass the first spot), but I believe everyone who passes me can DO it, and that’s amazing. On the second race we cheered for (since we spent most of the first race walking to the one spot, and then freaking out and cabbing back), Julie and I would arrive at a spot and wait for the guys. Meanwhile, all of these people passing us were pouring such deep effort into their personal race days. After awhile, I got uncomfortable not acknowledging that. I think it’s a pretty standard approach to cheering for an individual runner: getting to your viewing spot, clapping along at intervals, and then starting to yell when you see your person. There’s nothing wrong with that. But I saw hundreds of people passing me, digging down and working hard for their goals, and thought “I can give to them my voice. If it makes their race easier, that makes all of the difference to me.”

This is perhaps my favorite picture ever. My face looks like this through most marathons. (Credit: Julie)

So I started cheering. For everyone. At first it was clapping and occasionally tossing out a generic “go runners!” Then I thought back to those people who were walking on my high school cross-country courses. I said something specific to a specific individual. Sometimes it gave that individual the push to actually keep up with the race. (Sometimes it also resulted in that individual then beating me, which is mostly what my coach didn’t like, heh.) So I started picking people out of the stream. I’d read their numbers really fast and then yell things like “Great job, 1447, looking good!” “Oh, 2098, this is your RACE today!” “You are DOING THIS, 3164! You have this covered!” Runners started to look at their numbers and react with surprise if I’d singled them out. Some of them smiled and arm-pumped. I was so encouraged, I kept it up and got faster at it. Big packs of people are hard (people running with a pacing group generally get a generic “yeeeeeeeah, pacing group!” cheer), but now I can cheer for at least 40-50% of people who go by me. Sometimes I spot when people look like they need the encouragement, but mostly I just read off numbers as fast as I can and tell them that they CAN do this. I have actually gotten so caught up doing this, looking for more numbers to cheer for, that Julie has had to nudge me when our runners came into view, or I’d potentially miss them. Tim has told me he can tell sometimes when he’s coming up on our spot, because he’ll hear me cheering for people long before he can see me.

One of the benefits of this style is that instead of running past a silently-clapping wall of spectators, there is noise for the runners. Even if I’m not cheering for a specific person, I’m raising the level of the atmosphere. Sometimes it rubs off on people around me, too. Spots that were quiet when we got there are more often than not pretty encouraging by the time we see our guys and need to leave to get to our next spot.

Support, support, support! (Credit: Julie)

The best part about this particular approach to cheering, though, is the long-picture. Since we move from spot to spot, we start to see the same runners over and over. People start to recognize us back. By halfway through the race, people are waving AT us, which is fun (I really love waving, I am the worst at parades). But the most amazing thing is that I’ve had people at the finish line thank me for supporting their race that day. Making a difference in the experience total strangers’ mornings is an incredible feeling, and kind of addicting. I know that as long as I have the voice to do it, this is how I’ll cheer at marathons.

But even if yelling your face off isn’t your thing (and it is not Julie’s at all, she almost always works the camera, because I am too distracted with cheering AND I get super-excited when we spot the dudes and turn my voice up to 11 and jump and clap), just do whatever you can to make noise and encourage the people on the course that have been preparing for this day for a long time. High fives are totally awesome. My boss (one of Tim’s running partners, actually) suggested a promotion once for our office where we got our logos printed on cowbells and the agents could hand them out during the upcoming marathon. That was the best, because I took a backpack-ful myself and distributed them at every stop. I still have my company bell to make noise, and this past Christmas I got a serious cowbell from one of Tim’s other running partners. Make noise, y’all.

A quick note on trail runs, however. The boys have done a few of these and they seem to be a totally different atmosphere. There are people cheering, but for the most part, if I make a whole-ton of noise, runners kind of look at me funny. It’s possible that there’s a tranquility to running a trail that is disturbed by lots of shouting. I’m okay with respecting that, but I do feel a little awkward watching everyone go by without acknowledging it with noise. It’s just a different atmosphere, so keep in mind that while boisterous encouragement seems to almost always go down well, there are specific places where it may not, heh.

5) Make a plan for after the race, too.

Finish areas are bonkers. Expect that there’s going to be something insane happening at the finish line and figure out how you’ll hook up with your runner after the race.  Even if you make it to the finish line to see your person cross, the runners often get funneled through an area (where you are not allowed) full of food, water etc, and you cannot always walk along the edge and keep them in view. We got into a total argument once with a security guy who wouldn’t let us down the sidewalk, even though it was fenced off from the runners’-only area, and had to loop a few blocks around. The last thing that your runner is excited for after having accomplished a totally kick-ass race is staggering around, looking for you. Look at the finish area map ahead of time (again, check out the marathon website, or find this info in the expo packet) and choose a spot that you both can make it to, outside of any runners’-only areas. Often marathons will have designated meet-up spots, organized by last name. Take advantage of those, or pick a specific corner of an intersection and know that if you get separated, you can rendezvous there. Also, make sure you remember where you park the car! (Again, this has totally happened to us.)

Since Tim has started running, I have only done a few 5Ks a year and walked a half-marathon in Cinci last year. I decided it was fun, but I’d rather cheer! (Credit: Megan)

So that’s it. Marathons are such a fun opportunity to cheer for a specific runner. Hopefully you got something from this post if you’re new to being a race supporter. If there’s a big race happening in your city and you don’t know anyone running it, go ahead and pick a spot and make some noise for all of those people accomplishing an awesome physical feat. Cheering for people you’ve never met is really fun and you can consider it your good deed for, like, the rest of the week, easily!

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4 comments on “Cheering for a marathon

  1. 75yearplan says:

    Wow! What a great post. I didn’t even realize how much we’ve learned about “the art of marathon spectating.” This was perfect timing too, because I needed a refresher for Chris’ NYC marathon coming up. Especially because you won’t be there to help :( I’ll have to make my parents read this so they can learn how to cheer while I snap the pics. Thanks partner!

    • Kate says:

      I am so eager to find out what you learn about densely urban marathons! We really have learned a lot, though so much of it was by making mistakes!

  2. Beth says:

    I cheered today! :)

  3. […] I am nursing some cowbell-related blisters I developed while cheering for the Columbus marathon yesterday, and I am about to dive into baking for an upcoming family […]

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