When our SparkPeople team ran the Flying Pig half marathon in May, we were blown away by the energy and enthusiasm of the spectators along the course. At 6 a.m. on a rainy, windy Sunday morning, hundreds of people came out in droves—garbage bag ponchos and all—to show their support. It didn’t seem to matter that each spectator was there to see a specific friend or family member—their cheers were universal, and the cumulative effect was motivating. From the woman ringing the cowbell to the high-school cheerleading squad to the Elvis impersonator, each fan played his or her part in propelling us to the finish line.
After the race, as we swapped stories about our favorite people along the course, we wondered if there might be some unwritten rules of the road—spectator etiquette, if you will. We talked to a couple of our running experts to get their take—and it turns out, there are some roadie rules. Below are some of our curbside takeaways.
Unwritten Rule #1: Don't make false promises.
Around mile eight of the half-marathon course, a well-meaning man called out, "You're almost there!" At first, I perked up—For real? Almost?—until I spotted the mile marker and realized there were still five very long miles to go.
Beth Weinstein, an NYC-based ultramarathoner and owner of Only Atoms, advises spectators to avoid calling out the "almost there" claim unless there's less than a mile to go. "It may seem 'close' to someone who's not running, but one mile is far when you've already run 12.1 or 25.2," she says.
And if you’re going to tell a runner how much distance is left, make sure you’re accurate. “There's nothing worse than than being told you're a quarter mile from the finish when you're actually a half mile from the finish,” says running coach Kyle Kranz. Instead of focusing on distance, opt for one of the always appropriate, "looking good" or "great job."
Unwritten Rule #2: Come bearing (useful) gifts.
I'll never forget that moment during last year's half-marathon, when severely painful chafing had me literally about to call it quits at mile 11—and then I spotted her, my guardian angel. She was standing at the curb holding out wooden sticks with big, beautiful globs of Vaseline on them. Without her just-in-time remedy, I most likely would have ended that race with a DNF status.
If you're planning to watch a race, consider bringing along some helpful handouts. "One of my favorite things at races is [when] spectators hand out things like tissues, paper towels, bananas, orange slices, Swedish Fish and sometimes even beer," says Weinstein. "New York Marathon, Cincinnati Flying Pig and Vermont City Marathon are all great races with spectators handing you stuff you want."
Unwritten Rule #3: Keep strollers to the side.
While a race can be a great source of family fun, make sure to keep strollers clear of competitors. Weinstein points out the potential danger of walking, biking or pushing a stroller across or through a race course. "It's not only annoying for racers, but it's also dangerous for both them and you—and especially the baby in the stroller."
Unwritten Rule #4: Don't cross a (busy) course.
I saw this happen during the half marathon: An overly optimistic spectator thought he had plenty of time to dash across the course to the other side of the street, only to realize he'd misjudged and collided with a female racer who ended up landing on her butt. As a general rule of thumb, if runners are in sight, you should probably avoid intersecting.
Unwritten Rule #5: Don't silently wait for "your" runner.
Naturally, you're on the lookout for the spouse, kid or friend you came to see—but that doesn't mean you have to stand around with your hands in your pockets until he or she comes along. Cheers are free and you won't run out, so go ahead and bestow them on strangers. They'll appreciate the unsolicited bolster, and you'll get in some good practice for the moment when your racer passes.
Unwritten Rule #6: Make a sign.
Okay, so this isn't a hard-and-fast requirement, but if you're going to make the effort to get up early, fight traffic and walk to the race course, you might as well take a few extra minutes and make a morale-boosting poster. Seeing all the creative signs—ranging from funny puns to words of encouragement to song lyrics—helped me along the half-marathon course. Use your imagination and keep it light: A little dose of humor goes a long way.
Unwritten Rule #7: Keep 'em cool.
Kranz recalls a fun part of the Fargo Half Marathon, when residents along the course used their sprinklers and hoses to cool off hot runners. “Runners love having the option to jump in a sprinkler,” he says. “People were having fun with it: Kids had squirt guns, and people were very willing to turn their hose or sprinkler on a runner to cool them off.”
Unwritten Rule #8: Keep it positive.
During our race, I was shocked when I heard someone call out to a woman who was walking part of the course: "Hey, you're supposed to be running!" For all he knew, she was injured or had intended to walk it all along. The old lesson about not having anything nice to say holds true here.
Unwritten Rule #9: Don't light up.
This seems like it should be obvious to everyone, but there are still people who think it's okay to smoke along a race course. Runners are already working very hard to fill their lungs with air, and breathing in tobacco fumes isn't exactly conducive to their goals. (Better yet, make a resolution to quit altogether.)
Unwritten Rule #10: Cheer by name.
If you're spectating at a race where the bibs have names on them, go ahead and personalize your cheering. Hearing their name called out will give the runners a huge morale boost.
Unwritten Rule #11: Bring your own supplies.
The water stops and food stations are for the racers—as are the post-race goodies—so be sure to come prepared with drinks and snacks to fuel a potentially long wait. You might also want to bring a camera and/or cell phone, sunscreen, cash and a map of the race course. If rain is expected, pack an umbrella or poncho.
Have you ever cheered on runners or walkers at a race? How did you help boost morale and create a positive racing environment?
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