What Do Race Spectators Need to Know?

Whether you’re part of an enormous crowd or the lone cowbeller at a small event, you’re making a difference.

By: Dave McGillivray, for Runner's World

Sandie asks: What do you think race spectators (of the Boston Marathon or other events) should know?

First and foremost, spectators should know how much they mean to runners. After big races like the Boston Marathon, you always hear runners say that “the crowds were awesome” and “I couldn’t believe all the spectators along the course.” Just because many runners may not acknowledge spectators—especially in the later stages of a race—doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate you.

There’s no other sport where spectators can have such a huge impact on performance. When I was running Boston with everyone else (instead of in the evening after the race is over), I always picked up the pace a bit whenever I hit key pockets of screaming fans, especially the quarter-mile stretch in Wellesley. If we put timing mats at the beginning and end of this stretch, I’m sure we’d see just about everyone hitting their fastest paces of the day thanks to the immense crowd support.

Spectators can also help more directly: Take, for instance, the 2012 Boston Marathon, when it was close to 90 degrees throughout the race. Spectators came out with water, ice, cold clothes, spray hoses, and even popsicles to help cool down the runners—and it worked! Many runners said postrace that the spectators did the most to keep them safe and moving forward through the finish.

If you’re new to spectating, think of what you might like to hear (or not hear) at any given point in a race. Experienced spectators know not to say “you’re looking good” at mile 22 of a marathon, as none of us are really looking too chipper at that point in a race—ha! Or, they know not to say “you’re almost done” when there are still four miles to go—that is still a long way when you’ve already slogged through 22 miles.

The power of the spectators cannot be underestimated. Although they may be there to cheer on a family member or friend in the race, they end up cheering for everyone. The least we runners can do is to thank them as we run by, high-five them, or at least flash them a friendly smile if you can muster one up. Acknowledging the spectators helps them know they’re making a difference, and the gesture can actually help you feel a little better, at least for a moment!

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Dave McGillivray is president of DMSE, Inc., and has been Race Director at the Boston Marathon since 2001.