On the Sidelines: How to be a Rockin’ Race Spectator

When not racing herself, Pepper doesn’t just watch, she SPECTATES! Photo by Nils Nilsen/N2Photo Services

To the uninitiated, watching a running race doesn’t sound very exciting. And really, just watching – standing there with your coffee as people run by – isn’t fun. But spectating, well, that’s a whole ‘nother ball game!

Spectating involves cheering for everyone you see, traveling from point to point to watch your runners and generally acting like a fool. Can you have a marathon without spectators? Sure, and plenty of smaller races do. The spectators really help make the experience, though, in this spice girl’s opinion. So whether you’re injured (we hope not!) or feeling supportive, or whether you’re the one racing and want to share this with your crew, check out our Salty guide to spectating like a rockstar!

Cheer for everyone. We’ve all seen those people at races that quietly stand there until “their” runner approaches. Or at best, they may say, “I think that’s her!” about every female runner in a white shirt. C’mon now, people. If you’re going to wake up early to cheer, spread the love! Give those vocal chords a workout and don’t be a cheer-discriminator. Bonus points if you stick around until the last runner crosses the line.

Get personal. Sure, you may only know a couple of people running in the race, but that doesn’t mean you can’t put a personal spin on your cheers. Many races these days feature runners’ names on their bibs. Even if a race doesn’t offer this, many runners write their name on their shirt. Shout those out like you mean it! No names? No problem! Get creative and yell out things that are specific to that runner, such as “Go green socks!” “Go pigtails!” or “Go Girls on the Run!”. Even their bib number works in a pinch. You may not know their name, but you’re almost guaranteed to boost those runners’ spirits by giving them some personalized love.

Vuvuzela Day
These guys would bring a smile to any marathoner’s face! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bring in ‘da noise, bring in ‘da funk. You’re going to get tired yelling and clapping, so bring some noisemakers with you! Cowbells are a perennial marathon classic, but feel free to branch out here: vuvuzelas and Thundersticks are just two alternatives. Signs are another great way to spruce up your cheering, whether you go for sweet, funny or oddball. My favorite marathon sign of all time remains, “Suck It Up, Princess!”… partially because a 5 year old girl was holding it. Or bring in ‘da funk with your ensemble in the form of feather boas, crazy hats or even Elvis costumes.

Get your tech on. When it comes to navigating race day, technology is your friend. This can be as simple as a course map or as involved as an official race app. If you’re on site to cheer for a specific runner, check to see if the race offers tracking via text messaging. Getting their splits in real-time will help you judge when to expect them, or how much time you have to get to your next cheer zone.

Communication is key.  If you’re there to cheer on someone special, ask them about the best places to cheer or where they may need the biggest boost. Know what their race day outfit looks like, and tell them what you’ll be wearing. (Tip: something funky – or at least colorful – is much easier to spot than a black fleece. Another idea is to hold a balloon so they can spot you from farther off.) Find out their projected times. Ask if they need you to hold an extra water bottle or grab their jacket if they get too hot (just make sure you’re not violating race rules with this kind of assistance). In short, just do what you can to improve your running bud’s race day experience!

Finally, one surefire way to fail as a spectator? Yelling “You’re almost there” when they’re so not. In fact, don’t tell runners that they “only have ___  miles to go!” unless you are 101% sure of that distance.

What are some of the best race signs you’ve seen? What spectator tips do you have to add?

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Southern-transplant lass who loves 90s boy bands, outdoor adventures and college basketball, although not necessarily in that order. After cracking the 4 hour marathon mark, I'm hoping to run a Boston Qualifying time!

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13 comments

  1. We went out this past weekend to cheer at the Frankenthon (http://www.frankenthon.com/). It’s at a park where I do most of my long runs and was an 8.77 mile course with 150 runners (although we saw bib #159 so I’m thinking they let in some extras). We had limited time due to the rest of our schedule for the day but we were there for about 45 minutes. I think we were at about mile 7 and 15 and We got there about 1:45 past the start and stayed an hour.

    We didn’t take any signs or anything but we were the only spectators cheering for at least half a mile except a dad with a baby in a stroller and a “Go MOM!” poster and the racers were mixed in with all the other folks at the park. Still, you could tell that the runners were really grateful to have any support and most of them smiled or waved or said hi to the kids or even commented on our puppies. My son loves numbers so he cheered every runner by bib number and we commented on great colored socks or shorts or hair or whatever.

    The past 2 years that I’ve run the Livestrong in Austin (about 28,000) runners I’ve had my sister’s family, brother’s family, and my family out to cheer. They’ve told me in advance where they would be and each year also showed up at one surprise location. On the “big 15th street hill” my nephews ran it with me last year. The first year my brother brought a soup pot and wooden spoon. I only hope that I’ve made clear just how incredibly important their support has been.

    1. Debra, that’s awesome! Spectators and crowd support are so much more valued at small races like that, at least in my opinion.

      A pot and a wooden spoon, genius! It sounds like you have a great group of cheerleaders. I especially love the touch of the surprise location – I’m sure that gave you a boost!

  2. In every Fargo Marathon Half I’ve done, Scheels (Sports store if you’re not familiar) sponsors the GU station and they have a bunch of signs up. My favorite that makes me laugh everytime, just when I need it is “Did you know an giraffe can lick its own eyeballs?” This is a great post! Thanks!! There is nothing like seeing a familiar supportive face right when you need it… Like mile 10, where I tell my friends to be! :)

  3. These are great.

    I’ll add another – tell your runner where you’ll be and what side of the road you’ll be on. At behemoth races with tons of spectators, it is often easier for YOU to spot your spectator before he or she spots you. If you are both looking for each other, you are much more likely to see each other.

    Favorite race signs:
    That is not sweat, that is liquid awesome. RAWR!
    Your feet hurt because you’re kicking so much @ss!
    Someday you will not be able to do this. Today is not that day!
    Pain is temporary. Internet race results are forever.