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Tips for Marathon Spectators

How to Be a Supportive Marathon Spectator

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Updated April 19, 2014

If you've ever run or walked a marathon, you know how crowd support can immensely help you. But being a good marathon spectator takes preparation and work. If you're planning on watching an upcoming marathon, follow these marathon spectator tips to be an asset on the race course.

1. Make Signs

Blisters marathon sign
Photo by Christine Luff
Runners love to read signs along the race course to help break the monotony. Try some of these phrases for signs : "You're all Kenyans."; "There's beer at the finish line."; "All walls have doors" (good one if you're cheering around mile 20 or beyond). If you're supporting a family member or friend, make a sign with his name that will encourage your runner but also help them to easily identify you.
More: Funny Marathon Signs
Inspirational Marathon Signs
Perfect Timing Spectator Signs

2. Be Prepared

marathon spectators
Getty Images
The water stops and food stations are for race participants, so you should be prepared with your own supplies. Pack some bottled water and snacks. Have some goodies for the runners, such as jelly beans, gummy bears, orange slices, etc. Tissues or paper towels also come in handy for runners. Runners really appreciate noise -- yelling, clapping, whistling -- and your hands may get tired from clapping, so you might also want to have some kind of noisemaker, like a cowbell.

Make sure you also have a reliable watch, a course map, cash, a camera, and cell phone. If rain is in the forecast, bring an umbrella, rain jacket, and extra socks. If it's sunny, don't forget sunscreen and sunglasses. You're most likely going to be standing still for a while. So it's always good to have extra layers in case you get cold. And, most importantly, make sure you're wearing comfortable shoes.

3. Respect the Course

NYC Marathon crowd
Getty Images
Don't stand or walk on any part of the course. It's not fair to runners if you make the race course even more crowded or become an obstacle that they have to run around. If you can't see the runners from where you're standing because it's too crowded, move to a different viewing location.

4. Pick an Encouraging Phrase

You Got This sign
Getty Images
Rather than just clapping as runners go by, pick a phrase or two to yell. Some good ones include: "Way to run;" "You can do it;" "Looking strong;" "Nice job;" "You're flying;" or "Looking good." Many marathon runners display their first names on their shirts or race bibs. So if you see someone's name, you can always add that to the end of your catch phrase.

5. But Don't Say This...

Race spectators cheering
Dream Pictures/Ostrow
Unless you're right next to the finish line, don't yell, "Almost there" or "Not far to go." Trust me, marathon runners don't want to hear that phrase unless they are about to cross the finish line. It's also not a good idea to yell out a specific distance such as, "Two miles to go," unless you're 100% certain that the number is the correct distance to the finish line (if you happen to be standing next to a mile marker, for instance). Too many spectators give out wrong information, which can be frustrating, confusing, and disappointing for runners.
Also see: What Not to Say to Runners
10 Things Not to Say to Marathon Runners

6. Use Technology

iPhone
Dean Belcher
Many large marathons have a variety of great services to help spectators follow their runners. See if the race's web site has a sign-up for a runner tracking system, which can send alerts to cell phones, pagers, or wireless handheld devices as your runner moves across the chip timing mats throughout the course. Some races also offer Internet stations throughout the course and at the finish line, where spectators can check their runners' progress online. If your runner is carrying his or her smart phone, there are apps such as Find My Friend, that can help you track them.

7. Timing Is Everything

High five spectator
Getty Images

If you're looking for a family member of friend, find out his or her projected pace per mile ahead of time. (Here's how he or she can predict their marathon time.) This will help you figure out where and when they should reach certain points in the course. But keep in mind for big marathons that it could take a runner as much as 20 minutes to cross the starting line because of the crowds. So don't base the predicted viewing times on the start time. You can adjust your projected viewing times after your first sighting of your runner.

8. Find Your Runner

NYC marathon runner
Getty Images
Make sure you know exactly what your runner will be wearing, from head to toe. In crowded races, it's easier to spot a purple shirt, for instance, rather than looking at everyone's faces. Let your runner know what you'll be wearing and where you think you'll be standing, so he or she knows to look for you. If the race and cheering sections are really crowded, it's helpful for the runner to know what side of the street you'll be standing on. Some spectators even carry balloons so their runners can easily spot them from a distance.

9. Research and Plan Your Route

Woman on computer
Photo by Tripod
For big city marathons, public transportation is the best way to get around the course. Check the marathon's web site to find out which trains or buses you should take to get from one point to another. If you absolutely have to drive to get around the course, you should also check the race's web site to get information on road closures. Whether you're using public transportation or driving, give yourself plenty of time to get from one spot to another.

10. Have a Finish-Line Plan

Chicago Marathon Finisher
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images
The finish line area can be crowded and chaotic, so make sure you and your runner have a plan to meet up after he or she crosses the finish line. Some races have designated spots where runners can meet family members. If there's no family reunion area, make sure you designate another landmark where you'll meet or have a plan for contacting each other.
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