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What I Learned from Spectating

by Meghann on May 20, 2011

I have a saying…

“During a race – if you’re lucky – you’ll see your family only a few seconds at a time. It doesn’t seem much, but those few seconds are the best part of the race. Those few seconds make the race worth it.”

It sounds silly, but race spectators are just as important to the runners as the race itself. Spectators have the power to pump a runner up, give them a reason to push through, and even take their mind off of the race. Not only that, they have the important job of finding their runners as many times on the course as possible – NOT an easy task.

When I ran my first marathon in 2009 Derek and I had only been dating a couple of months. The marathon was in San Diego and even though I had been training with Team in Training, I was basically flying across the country to run a race all on my own.

A few weeks before I was set to run, Derek surprised me. He bought a ticket to San Diego and was there as I started, pushed, and finished my first marathon.


After that race, Derek became my rock. He stuck with me and race after race, he continued to rise before the sun, brave freezing temps, brave blazing temps, and was there as I crossed every single finish line.


(even when I was in pain crossing that finish line! πŸ˜‰ )

This past December I PRed in Palm Beach and completed my first sub-4:00 marathon.


Derek wasn’t there that time, but my Sister and Dad were.


It was a tough race, I pushed myself harder than I had ever been pushed and before the race I warned my sister to not give me any crap. When she saw me struggling her goal was not to tell me it was ok to give up, but to remind me that I could do this, that I had worked hard for that moment.


She didn’t let me down. At mile 20 Kelly ran a quarter of a mile with me. She fed me oranges, made me laugh, and reminded me I could do this. Because of her I was able to power through and achieve my goal. Her extra push was just what I needed.


My Turn

Last month the roles switched. It was my turn to be the spectator. I wanted to push, encourage, and bring a smile to as many runners’ faces as possible.

It was my turn to make the race fun.


Here’s a few tips I’ve picked up from bring a runner myself and spectating on a big race

Have a plan:

From the minute we arrived in Nashville that Friday my goal was to plot out the most efficient spectator route as possible.


The night before the race we consulted a local (Heather) who gave us tons of advice on which roads would be closed, which would be safe roads to take, when would be good times to get around, and overall what to expect for the course (areas with lots of spectators/ areas with little to no spectators/etc).

That advice was invaluable and really guided us for the day.

We were lucky that the course looped back on itself several times and created a flower. This provided more opportunities for seeing our runners at different parts, opposed to a big circle or out and back with little opportunities.


Be Flexible:

Our runners knew ahead of time where to look for us. This gave them something to look forward to along the way. Of course, plans change. When I ran Palm Beach Kelly and my Dad parked on a different street and ended up missing two of the pre-planned spots. Luckily they made up for it when I saw them at 20.

The same thing happened to us, we missed them at pre-planned mile 15, but were able to think quickly on our feet and found them at 17 instead.


Make a Sign:

Any runner will tell you how important race signs are come race day! Running can get a little boring and any sort of distraction is always welcomed on the course. I can tell you that I personally read 80% of signs on any given course. The best ones are the funny ones that relate to the task at hand.


Of course, personalized ones are fun too.


The best part about our signs were even though they were targeted specifically to Kelly and Ben, lots of people could relate. We had a few shirtless runners give a thumbs up and got a lot of ‘that’s so true!’ regarding the thesis sign. Our goal was to make everyone smile and I think we achieved that.

Signs on brightly colored paper help too. Especially in large crowds when your runner is specifically looking for those signs. The more obnoxious the color, the more they stand out and the stronger chance your runner has at spotting you.   


Also, don’t be afraid to improvise. We had fun with the free Publix sign makers we picked up at the expo.


Don’t just cheer for your runner:

Your runner isn’t the only person that needs support out there! Ashley and I parked ourselves in the middle of a hill on mile 17 about an hour before Kelly and Ben were suppose to come through. We could tell the runners were in pain at this point and needed any encouragement they could get.


Instead of standing idily by, we got loud, annoying, and cheered our little hearts out. Sure, we got a few weird looks, but I know deep down inside they were happy to have the push.


Stay away from phrases like ‘you’re almost there’ :

Especially if you are at mile 20 of a marathon. Trust me, a 10k is not ‘almost’ there and you’re just making the runner realize this even more. πŸ™‚

Have Fuel:

Orange slices are a runner’s best friend.


So are…

  • Jolly Ranchers
  • Watermelon
  • Icee Pops <— best marathon hand out EVER!
  • Mini Chocolate Bars

It may seem funny at the time, but beer is not. πŸ™‚

Trust me, runner’s get tired of gu and chomps during a marathon, The possibility of a juicy orange slice around the next corner is about as good as it gets come crunch time.


Also, having prepared water bottle for your runner ‘just in case’ is a major plus. πŸ™‚

Take Photos:

Runners. Love. Pictures.

Call us conceited, but we love having proof that we ran the race. The professional race photos are expensive, so make the personal ones count! πŸ˜‰


I suggest shooting in a ‘sports setting’ or high shutter speed.


And just hold the button down. Better to have 30 photos and end up with one good one, then take one photo and have it be awful.

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Don’t Complain:


Your runner needs to concentrate on the race and not be stressed worrying about you. It’s his/her big day, let them enjoy every minute of it.

  • Wake up at 3:30am with a smile
  • Offer to drive before and after the race
  • Don’t make them late
  • They just ran for +hrs, don’t mention how you were standing there for +hrs
  • Tell them over and over again how proud you are of them πŸ™‚


1 Tori (Fresh Fruition) May 20, 2011 at 2:24 pm

I love the hill sign!

So true about not complaining as a spectator! I’ve never run a race before, but I know when people complain about having to stand around all day at my dance competitions, all I can think is “but I was the one dancing…” Haha!
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2 Michelle May 20, 2011 at 2:28 pm

Great post. At the Eugene Marathon on May 1st at maybe the 3 or 4 mile marker (can’t remember exactly), a family had a grill right outside their house and were grilling up bacon. Usually the smell doesn’t bother me, but during a marathon it was just gross and I felt myself wanting to gag. Food is great – oranges, etc. But bacon? Yeah, no.
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3 Michelle (The Runner's Plate) May 20, 2011 at 2:36 pm

I agree that seeing friends and family–even if only for a few seconds–is totally worth it!! (No matter if you are a spectator or the runner.)

4 Freya May 20, 2011 at 2:36 pm

LOVE this post! I’m going to make my mum read it before my next marathon :p (though saying that- she was an amaaaazing spectator / helper at the first!)
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5 Stephanie May 20, 2011 at 2:39 pm

I love this post. I love having a pit crew so to speak on the side line for me and I love also being on the other end!

6 Jenny @ Fitness Health and Food May 20, 2011 at 2:42 pm

awww what a wonderful post!

I have loved spectating vicariously through you, especially your brother and sister’s recent marathon. It’s so wonderful that you all support each other as lovingly as you do – I can tell how close you all are!

Have a great time in Philly! πŸ™‚

7 LindsayH May 20, 2011 at 2:44 pm

wouldnt jolly ranchers be a choking hazard? i can just see myself inhaling one into my windpipe when im huffing and panting along.

8 miranda @ working mom works out May 20, 2011 at 2:58 pm

Great post Meghann! I’ve never spectated before so this will come in handy!

9 lauren May 20, 2011 at 3:08 pm

When I ran my first marathon this past December, my parents made a poster to cheer me on that paid homage to “The Office” (my favorite show) – it said ” Go Lauren! That’s What She Said” – and had Office characters on it. My parents said lots of runners laughed & gave thumbs-up when they ran by πŸ™‚
lauren recently posted..Half Marathon Training

10 Dori May 20, 2011 at 3:23 pm

Awww Derek is so good to you.

I agree, seeing my friends/family during a race gives me a boost of energy and happiness I didn’t know I had in me!
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11 Claire May 20, 2011 at 3:26 pm

Omg so sweet! My bf has been at all of my marathons and has helped me run the final 6 in all of them. I really needed him there at heartbreak hill when I ran the Boston Marathon last year πŸ™‚

12 Ali @ Around the VeggieTable May 20, 2011 at 3:30 pm

Great post! I ran my first half 2 weeks ago and having my bf tag along to watch and cheer me on was the bestest. I so appreciated ALL the spectators, especially the ones that were cheering for everybody! It was such great motivation πŸ™‚
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13 emily May 20, 2011 at 3:30 pm

This was a great post! Adam always runs with me, but he can go soooo much faster, I sort of think I should sit out our next race and just spectate.

Love your axe the “you’re almost there” reminder too. When I did the Disney Princess Half the last 1.1 miles weren’t marked and I would have killed for someone to just tell me the actual distance I had to physically make myself travel! πŸ˜€
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14 Holly @ The Runny Egg May 20, 2011 at 3:41 pm

I hate “you’re almost done” — especially when someone tries to joke and does that at mile 1 or 2 πŸ™
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15 Danielle @ Long May You Run May 20, 2011 at 3:59 pm

Reeeeaaaallly good post… I’m going to spread this around before my first marathon!!

Also as bad as ‘you’re almost there’ is: “it’s all downhill from here.”
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16 Jessica @ Healthy Dairyland May 20, 2011 at 3:59 pm

That is so true! I had 1.5 miles left of my half last weekend and I was dying. Those few seconds I saw my parents and sister, gave me the energy I needed to finish.

17 Katherina @ Zephyr Runs May 20, 2011 at 4:06 pm

This is such a great post – makes me want to spectate as many races until I’m ready to run some of my own!!
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18 Alaina May 20, 2011 at 4:08 pm

This Sunday will be my first time spectating! Well, I’ll be passing out water for the Harpoon 5 miler. But I’ll be sure to be there with a smile on my face and encouraging words! I’m actually very excited. πŸ™‚
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19 Katie @ May 20, 2011 at 4:55 pm

Great advice! I’ll be referencing this for future races for sure!
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20 LauraJayne May 20, 2011 at 4:55 pm

Love this post! Trying to figure out a way to “accidentally” forward it to my spectators for my race next week!
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21 Emily @ Savory and Savage May 20, 2011 at 5:07 pm

Great post – I loved seeing all the racing photos!
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22 Annette @ EnjoyYourHealthyLife May 20, 2011 at 5:22 pm

so SO true! Love your tips. I have had great friends and family spectating for me….now is my turn. ha~!

23 Katy (The Singing Runner) May 20, 2011 at 5:38 pm

This post is great! I normally go to races alone (I’m actually in Clearwater for 15K tomorrow and I’m by myself) so I definitely rely on other spectators to make me push through.

I will say that the 4.2 seconds I saw my mom at mile 7 during the Disney 1/2 marathon in January was the highlight of my race! I have another half-marathon in 2 weeks and my mom won’t be with me this time- I’m hoping I pull through!
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24 Heather May 20, 2011 at 5:49 pm

Haven’t you already done a post on this?

25 Kate (What Kate is Cooking) May 20, 2011 at 6:33 pm

Haha, my aunt texted me the day after my marathon (that she came to) and said ‘Are you sore? I am from walking around so much!’ Hell yes I’m sore, I just ran 26 miles!
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26 Christine May 20, 2011 at 7:08 pm

I definitely run better when I know people I know may be watching. I don’t want them to see me walk- especially if they got up at 4 in the morning.

Volunteers too- you guys are the best!
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27 Colleen May 20, 2011 at 7:44 pm

This is great! Spectating is underrated πŸ™‚
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28 Ericka May 20, 2011 at 8:09 pm

Love all these tips, Meghann! As someone who has run a few of my races with no one specific in the crowd to cheer for me, I can attest to the importance of ALL spectators! I loved reading all the signs and listening to the cheers, even if they weren’t specifically for me. πŸ™‚

29 Victoria May 20, 2011 at 8:41 pm

Totally agree with the “you’re almost there” comment. Twenty miles into a marathon, sadistic humor is not appreciated.

30 Courtney May 20, 2011 at 8:48 pm

My husband attended one of the races I ran, when he was visiting me in Oregon, and it was so cool, knowing that someone was there for me. He never attended any of my other races, sadly, not even when I started PR’ing like crazy and bringing home 1st place medals, but oh well, maybe the first 26.2 race I run, he’ll be there. πŸ™‚
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31 Kristen May 20, 2011 at 10:03 pm

Great post! I’ve been a supporter and a runner and both are hard work! Signs are the best part other than the smile on a runner’s face when you cheer for them πŸ™‚
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32 the urban pilgrim May 20, 2011 at 10:27 pm

This honestly couldn’t be more true…My gf and I attended the Pittsburgh Marathon just to cheer on several family members and friends who were racing. We cheered so loud that random people from high school were messaging me on Facebook saying “Hey, I saw you at the marathon, thanks for the support!” It felt amazing to know that we helped motivate people who were running while they were motivating us at the same time!
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33 tracey May 21, 2011 at 12:12 am

Great post. I told my racing buddy how much I am missing training for a race right now, but I am looking forward to cheering her on and being a spectator at her next race this summer. And after all, being a spectator/volunteer at the Food & Wine last year is what inspired me to be run my first half at the Princess!

34 Mary May 21, 2011 at 1:18 am

I completely agree with you about signs…I love reading them along the way.
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35 Brenna [fabuleuxdestin] May 21, 2011 at 7:19 am

I don’t think people realize how important spectating is! It totally makes the difference. I just ran a 15k here in my little town – there were barely any people supporting and the atmosphere was totally different!
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36 Alison (Fueling for Fitness) May 21, 2011 at 8:57 am

This was such a great post, thank you!

You are SO right about the “you’re almost there” comments. I couldn’t agree more. πŸ™‚
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37 Raquelita May 22, 2011 at 10:47 pm

I just came across your awesome blog, and I’m so glad that I did! I’ve been reading through some of your posts, and I had to comment on this one because it made me so appreciative of how great a supporter my husband is of my running.
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38 kara t. May 22, 2011 at 11:18 pm

I love this post! When I ran my first half marathon in October, I didn’t have a soul come out to support me. The friend that dropped me off was also picking me up and due to traffic didn’t get there until an hour after I finished. That was frustrating.

Last weekend I ran my first marathon. There was a group of people with posters that kept popping up and they kept cheering me on. Even though they were complete strangers, I felt like they were routing for me and it was incredible! Spectators can definitely make or break a race!!
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