Being a Marathon Spectator

By: proctor - December 20, 2006

After being a spectator at over a dozen marathons and an ultra marathon, I have a few pieces of helpful advice that I would love to share with those of you who are about to hit the sidelines and cheer on your runner. Whether you are cheering for friends, family, or just 40,000 people who all decided they wanted to run a really long distance, your support will give them energy to finish the race and excitement to last the distance and beyond. It is a really fun day and can be enjoyed to the fullest with a little bit of planning.

What to wear

Due to the fact that marathons take a long time and there will be a lot of standing and waiting, keep in mind that on cold days you will be colder than you think. Always grab an extra bit of clothing, you will be thankful you have it. At the New York Marathon, I wore an enormous fluffy pink top hat that the runner I was cheering on, Chris, could see from three blocks away. I was a little nervous at the time that he wouldn't see me in the sea of people on the side of the street, but as it turns out, he spotted me sometimes before I spotted him because of my hat. So, pick something fun and noticeable to wear then tell your runner what to look for because the more eccentric you dress, the easier it will be for your runner to spot you. Plus, it is really fun to interact with other spectators, and a crazy hat, shirt, or balloon tied to you is a great conversation starter. Also, remember to wear comfortable shoes. It is very easy to put in a few miles yourself, and your feet will thank you for wearing sensible shoes.
the more eccentric you dress, the easier it will be for your runner to spot you.

What to bring

It is really handy to take a backpack, even if you think it will be mostly empty. I have often started watching a marathon with an empty backpack and somehow it ends up stuffed by the end of the race. If your runner is depending on you to hold his or her gear so that going to gear check can be avoided, the backpack can hold water and Gatorade, energy gel, their warm-ups and keys. Take a snack and drink for yourself as well because you will be waiting around for your runner for hours and you might not have time between meeting points to stop and buy food. A camera and back up film or memory stick is a must, especially when you spot your runner in the crowd and want to get a quick photo of them. Focus your camera in advance if you can to avoid getting an out-of-focus picture. (Your runner will probably not want to turn around and then run back towards you so that you can re-take the picture!) And most importantly, get a spectator map. You can usually download them from the race website. As a last minute solution if you did not get one from your runner or the marathon expo, you can usually find one near the start of the race.

The start

Getting to the start early is essential, especially in bigger races where standing in line for a port-a-potty can take 20-30 minutes, and gear check can take another 20-30 minutes. Your runner may want you there for moral support or may not, but just check before hand to see what his or her wishes are. They may want you there more at the finish line to help walk them home or find the car! It is really crowded at some of the more popular marathons, so decide on a very specific meeting point such as an intersection, statue, or building.

Mile markers

Mile markers are usually very well marked with a huge timing clock preceded or followed by several tables with water and Gatorade cups and volunteers. Position yourself at least 100 feet in front of or 100 feet after the mile marker, because it is often too crowded for your runner to spot you in the crowd. My goal is to always get in the less populated areas. Tell your runner where you plan on meeting him or her so that he/she can look for you. And remind them of what you are going to be wearing!

Timing your "meeting" points

If you have a spectator map, you will see that there will generally be 4-6 points listed where you can meet your runner, and sometimes maps will tell you how to get from point to point. The points are usually spaced out enough that you can arrive 10-20 minutes before your runner, as long as your runner stays on pace. The key to finding your runner or runners is to ask them what their pace per mile is going to be. Then give yourself enough time to get there, and be very conservative with your coffee stops along the way--it is really disappointing to miss your runner by 2 minutes, and you may not even know that you have missed him. Your runner will most likely run each mile a little bit slower during the second half of the race, but you should still overestimate the pace per mile just to be sure. I have found that in most marathons, I can find a runner 2-3 times during the race.

If you are driving between meeting points, you have to allow time for traffic, detours, and parking so you can get out of your car and get situated on the side of the road and start looking for your runner. (Hint: Know what your runner is wearing!) If you are walking, you will only cover approximately one mile in the time that your runner covers three, so unless you take a short-cut, you really have to hoof it. If you are taking a cab, keep your spectator map handy because your taxi driver may not know of the race-day detours, and if you run into the course, you will be stuck behind a sea of runners and may have to just get out and walk.

Public transportation, such as the subway or a bus, is often the best option. They may get jam-packed with people, so be friendly and remember that everyone else is there for the same reason as you: to cheer on their mom, dad, sibling, or friend on a mission to run a very long distance. Certain race courses have a big loop which makes it impassable for spectators. Check out the map before the race so that you can make sure you won't get trapped inside the course and not be able to reach your runner. (In Manhattan during the NY Marathon, you can only cross from the east to the west side to get to the finish line via 58th Street or lower since the runners cross the Queensboro Bridge at 59th and run north all the way up 1st Avenue).

Note: Many cities offer a "one day fun pass" for their public transportation which allows you to get on and off the trains and buses as many times as you want within 24 hours. This could mean spending $5 instead of $20, so check it out before hand.

The finish

The finish line is a very exciting place! No matter what your runner's finishing time is, he will be tired and in need of an arm to grab onto when stepping onto a curb or stepping over runners who will be sprawled out on the ground doing some post-race stretching. The best thing you can do for your runner immediately after the race is walk with him for 10 minutes. DO NOT let him sit down immediately after crossing the finish line and grabbing his banana and beer (yes, beer if usually offered free to the runners!). The runner may protest, but he will thank you for it the next day. They need to walk, even if very slowly, for 10 minutes before sitting down to stretch. This allows the blood flow to return to normal and flush out their legs so that stiffness does not set in. Then, 10-20 minutes of stretching is in order, with a snack of at least 400 calories. This should be consumed no longer than 30 minutes after finishing the race in order to promote recovery for their tired, broken-down muscles. Keep your camera strap wrapped around your wrist. Even if your runner seems too tired to pose for a picture, take one with the race bib on before he/she sits down and falls asleep--it will be a picture he or she will treasure for a long time!

About the Submitter


I have been an ACE certified personal trainer since 2000 who has trained over 3000 hours. I specialize in pre- and post-natal fitness, stretching, running, and weight loss. Yoga is also a passion for me and a way of life. I received my Yoga Alliance Teacher Certification in India and love to share the calmness, strength, and openness that yoga offers to people of all ages and abilities.

Public Comments

  • By: annbarr

    Thursday, January 11, 2007 - 6:39pm

    I had the honor of being Curb-Crew for my "Team" on the Emerald Nuts New Years Eve Midnight Run through Central Park in NYC RIGHT after I read this article and it worked like a charm, everything went off with out a hitch! I would add: Have your RUNNER wear a unique item too! It so much easier to spot them for photo ops in of sea of runners wearing black/neutral running gear... AND, spectators LOVE runners who are having fun with the race, and will cheer for your runner, and, as any runner can tell you, the contagious cheers of enthusiasm are a GREAT BOOST!

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