I previously wrote on the power of spectators, focusing on all the positives of attracting spectators to your event. However, there are a few areas we must consider when dealing with spectators along our course or even within the start or finish line areas of our races.
• CROWD CONTROL — if you direct a race with lots of spectators, it’s your responsibility to manage them, too! Anticipating the most popular locations for spectator viewing is key. Just placing cones and/or rope usually has minimal impact. Many spectators will just ignore the rope and cones and stand in front of them to get a closer look. Personnel such as public safety officials and/or volunteers can only do so much. They can direct spectators to stay off the road, but eventually they will creep back. Your only hope is to use crowd control barricades or some sort of rigid fencing. Unfortunately, this then becomes a budget issue, as it can cost the race thousands of dollars. However, it is critical to have crowd control barricades in certain areas, especially at the start and the finish of your race, if you want to maintain control and provide a safe venue. While running in the NYC Marathon, I’ve noticed that they actually place a blue caution ribbon on both sides of the road for almost the entire 26.2 miles! That’s a lot of ribbon! In some locations, spectators respected it, but ignored it in others, going under it and standing on the road. So, a combination of barricades, fencing, cones, rope and ribbon, along with personnel to enforce the restricted area, are needed. Not a perfect science, but the effort can be worth it.
• ON BIKES, ROLLER SKATES — it can be infuriating to see people out on your course riding alongside the race on bicycles, roller skates or any number of other contraptions! That is why it is important to request police support on motorcycles to also ride along with the race, at least with the leaders and where it is safe to do so. If someone does get out onto the course, at least the police officer can direct them to get off at the next safe location. Sometimes these are just "yahoos" trying to be cute, and sometimes these can be coaches or friends attempting to support or cheer on one of the runners. Either way, no one should be allowed onto the course who is not an official participant.
• RUNNING ALONGSIDE LEADERS TO GET ON TV OR DISRUPT THE RACE — for races that have live television or streaming coverage, this can be a real challenge. A race can be a reason for many gatherings and parties along the race course. After a few beverages, some people can get bold and think it would be fun to jump into the race for 25-50 yards and "try" to run with the leaders so they can get on TV. Personally, I’ve seen this a number of times and it can be scary. You don’t know who these people are or what their intentions are. In the 2004 Athens Olympic Marathon, a defrocked Irish priest leapt out of the crowd and tackled the lead runner just three miles from the finish line, causing the racer to lose his chance for the gold. This would be devastating if it happened at one of our races, but there is only so much we can do to prevent it. Crowd control and public safety support can help but won’t totally eliminate this from possibly happening. Just being aware that it is possible can better prepare you to react appropriately, however.
• SECURITY CONCERNS — given what is happening in the world today, security concerns are arguably the most important focus of many high-profile races. The mantra of "see something, say something" is being promoted to the general public at most races now. Additionally, many races have developed a list of prohibited items for both participants in the race as well as for spectators along the course. Prohibited items for spectators could include beverage coolers, backpacks and the like. However, enforcement of these policies is indeed the challenge.
• HANDING OUT WATER AND OTHER ITEMS — this can certainly be either beneficial or disastrous for a race. If done properly, spectators supplementing existing water stations, especially on very warm days, can be helpful. However, using the right cups, providing the right water, handing it out properly while not getting in the way and then cleaning up after the race are all important considerations. What are the chances that all this will be done properly? Moreover, in many cases spectators are handing out more than just water – they may give out food items, tissues, other beverages, orange slices, etc. How sanitary is all this, and who is going to do all the clean-up, especially while the race is ongoing? On the flip side, during the 2012 Boston Marathon, the temperatures reached near 90 degrees. Spectators handed out one-liter bottles (again, this could get dangerous), popsicles, ice, cold rags, wet sponges and sprayed the runners with their lawn hoses. In the end, it was the spectators who helped save the race as much as race management. So, in some cases, spectator involvement can play a huge role in helping the race.
• YOUNG CHILDREN, DOGS — it’s great to see entire families, including pets, on the side of the road enjoying the race and cheering on the runners. However, at times adult supervision is either lacking or adults become distracted and sometimes allow their children to wander out onto the race course, which can be dangerous for both the child and the runners. Similarly, although bringing your dog might seem like fun, if they aren’t on a tight, short leash then this, too, can create a dangerous situation. Remind spectators through local media about both of these potential hazards.
• EYES AND EARS ALONG THE COURSE — lastly, although we have cited a number of challenges we might encounter when there are a lot of spectators along the course, they can also be your eyes and ears along the course in helping to identify potential "jumpers," cheaters who are trying to gain an advantage by jumping into the race somewhere along the course while the race is in progress. Additionally, although we mention above that some spectators may pose a security threat themselves, most can actually be helpful in identifying potential security threats around them.
Recognizing that producing a race is about more than just the participants in the race will help you in the long run. Awareness of spectator "participation" is just as important as runner participation. Being pro-active with local media and in social media regarding your communication to spectators will help ensure a safe experience for everyone involved on race day.