I have done a lot of spectating in my time. I have spectated at triathlons, duathaons, bike races and running races. Hundreds of running races. I have spent countless hours standing by the side of the road caterwauling in the general direction of friends, family members and thousands of people I have never seen before and will never see again. Don’t mess with me. I’m in the elite sideline club that you can only join after your marathoning husband tosses a sweaty pair of insoles in your general direction and expects you to catch them.
I began my spectating career cheering for my mother, who never really appreciated my efforts. She became particularly annoyed with me when I was ten, standing on the shore of a lake during a canoe race. I used my entire lung capacity to inform everyone in a 3 mile radius she really needed to pick up the pace. Some weeks later she was running a 10k and passed out due to dehydration. I didn’t see this as any excuse not to finish strong.
There is definitely a difference between the casual spectator and someone who really puts a little effort into it. Here’s 8 ways to tell the difference:
1) Those of us who know what we’re doing train an Eagle Eye. Some noobs get cocky and think they don’t have to remember what color shirt their athlete is wearing or know their approximate split times. Big mistake. There are thousands of people out there in some races. Nothing sucks more than totally blowing your chance to cheer. And if your job is more serious, like handing out goo or something, you should feel really bad if you fuck up.
2) If my father, your father or pretty much anybody says they are going to watch the marathon on a bicycle, we don’t agree to join them. You just don't want to be that guy who rides out on the course one handed trying to take action photos of your son and almost mowing down three other runners at mile 16. My hands are getting sweaty just thinking about it.
3) We come prepared with implements of spirit. Clapping will kill you after a couple of hours. Your hands will begin to become chafed and bruised about the thumb/palm area. This is important to keep of in mind if you are spectating > half marathon or over or any sort of biking race or triathlon.
I carry a cowbell, which is less injurious than clapping but not without danger. Last week at the triathlon, I was banging the cowbell against my leg because my arm got tired and I developed a cowbell shaped contusion on my thigh. I did not take a photo of it, but here you can see a cowbell blister I got on my finger last fall:
One time I saw a spectating family who had various hand percussion instruments. It was delightful.
4) We aim to catch our athletes a whole bunch of times during the race. This is easier if the course is a loop. You can zip across the middle and probably manage to see your athlete three times if you plan it well, have a scooter or you can sprint with giddy up. I was immensely pleased with myself in Boston. The marathon is a straight shot, a level 10 spectator challenge in all cases. I saw Tom four times. I memorized the commuter rail schedule and shoved my way onto that trolley like a sumo wrestler well-acquainted with the L Train.
5) We do not inform athletes they're almost done. This is always a bad idea. During the NY Triathlon, a guy told Tom he was almost done. He said this right at the beginning of the run. Meaning Tom was almost done... except for that last 6 miles in 102° heat. No one is almost done unless they can see the finish line, and then they can figure out for themselves they’re almost done.
6) If we’re going to tell anyone how much further it is, we are incredibly sure that we know exactly how much further-- unless the athlete is your nemesis and you want to break ‘em. Sometimes people who don’t run don’t understand how exactly long a tenth of a mile is when you’re totally exhausted.
7) We don’t just stand there looking all resting bitch face, or even worse, poking at our phones. I saw a woman today totally engrossed in her phone; her boyfriend climbed out of the water and ran by... and she didn't even notice. Good spectators are equal opportunity cheerleaders. We cheer for everybody. Even if we’re waiting for our dad or daughter or uncle. We give a good jolly bellow for everybody else too. You’re just standing there anyway you might as well do something. And it’s gratifying how the athletes appreciate it.
8) We do not spectate near water stops, on-course bands, drummers or DJs. We do not go where the spectator guide tells us to go, squashed between a sheep herd of uncreative spectators. We also do not stand near the finish line. There’s always a crush of revelers there anyway, plus once someone sees the finish line, they have their own personal little party going on in their head.
I like to consider where my athletes are likely to hit the wall. This is probably easier to figure out if you have some race experience or you read up on it. For example if you are watching a marathon, you need to be at around 22-24 miles. Closer to the finish, the runners can smell the end. But at 22-24, life sucks.
9) We maintain a wonderkammer filled with motivational cheers:
You’re looking strong, triathlete. Keep it up.
Looking fast, Ladies! (I always like to cheer for the girls)
You make it look easy, purple t-shirt!
come on NYPD!
You trained for this hill, runner! Show it what you got.
Nice stride, runner!
Keep up that nice easy stride, Pete’s Tavern! (I just read their t-shirts, I'm quick like this.)
Relax your shoulders, Runner.
Feel free to write these tips on a little scrap of paper for handy reference. Although I'm sure they're worth a sweatastic goldmine of karma points, consider them my gift to you, my spectatertot.