11 Race-Day Rules for Being a Super Spectator

By , SparkPeople Blogger
When our SparkPeople team ran the Flying Pig half marathon in May, we were blown away by the energy and enthusiasm of the spectators along the course. At 6 a.m. on a rainy, windy Sunday morning, hundreds of people came out in droves—garbage bag ponchos and all—to show their support. It didn’t seem to matter that each spectator was there to see a specific friend or family member—their cheers were universal, and the cumulative effect was motivating. From the woman ringing the cowbell to the high-school cheerleading squad to the Elvis impersonator, each fan played his or her part in propelling us to the finish line.
After the race, as we swapped stories about our favorite people along the course, we wondered if there might be some unwritten rules of the road—spectator etiquette, if you will. We talked to a couple of our running experts to get their take—and it turns out, there are some roadie rules. Below are some of our curbside takeaways.
Unwritten Rule #1: Don't make false promises. 
Around mile eight of the half-marathon course, a well-meaning man called out, "You're almost there!" At first, I perked up—For real? Almost?—until I spotted the mile marker and realized there were still five very long miles to go.
Beth Weinstein, an NYC-based ultramarathoner and owner of Only Atoms, advises spectators to avoid calling out the "almost there" claim unless there's less than a mile to go. "It may seem 'close' to someone who's not running, but one mile is far when you've already run 12.1 or 25.2," she says.
And if you’re going to tell a runner how much distance is left, make sure you’re accurate. “There's nothing worse than than being told you're a quarter mile from the finish when you're actually a half mile from the finish,” says running coach Kyle Kranz. Instead of focusing on distance, opt for one of the always appropriate, "looking good" or "great job."
Unwritten Rule #2: Come bearing (useful) gifts. 
I'll never forget that moment during last year's half-marathon, when severely painful chafing had me literally about to call it quits at mile 11—and then I spotted her, my guardian angel. She was standing at the curb holding out wooden sticks with big, beautiful globs of Vaseline on them. Without her just-in-time remedy, I most likely would have ended that race with a DNF status.
If you're planning to watch a race, consider bringing along some helpful handouts. "One of my favorite things at races is [when] spectators hand out things like tissues, paper towels, bananas, orange slices, Swedish Fish and sometimes even beer," says Weinstein. "New York Marathon, Cincinnati Flying Pig and Vermont City Marathon are all great races with spectators handing you stuff you want."
Unwritten Rule #3: Keep strollers to the side. 
While a race can be a great source of family fun, make sure to keep strollers clear of competitors. Weinstein points out the potential danger of walking, biking or pushing a stroller across or through a race course. "It's not only annoying for racers, but it's also dangerous for both them and you—and especially the baby in the stroller."
Unwritten Rule #4: Don't cross a (busy) course.
I saw this happen during the half marathon: An overly optimistic spectator thought he had plenty of time to dash across the course to the other side of the street, only to realize he'd misjudged and collided with a female racer who ended up landing on her butt. As a general rule of thumb, if runners are in sight, you should probably avoid intersecting.
Unwritten Rule #5: Don't silently wait for "your" runner. 
Naturally, you're on the lookout for the spouse, kid or friend you came to see—but that doesn't mean you have to stand around with your hands in your pockets until he or she comes along. Cheers are free and you won't run out, so go ahead and bestow them on strangers. They'll appreciate the unsolicited bolster, and you'll get in some good practice for the moment when your racer passes.
Unwritten Rule #6: Make a sign. 
Okay, so this isn't a hard-and-fast requirement, but if you're going to make the effort to get up early, fight traffic and walk to the race course, you might as well take a few extra minutes and make a morale-boosting poster. Seeing all the creative signs—ranging from funny puns to words of encouragement to song lyrics—helped me along the half-marathon course. Use your imagination and keep it light: A little dose of humor goes a long way.
Unwritten Rule #7: Keep 'em cool. 
Kranz recalls a fun part of the Fargo Half Marathon, when residents along the course used their sprinklers and hoses to cool off hot runners. “Runners love having the option to jump in a sprinkler,” he says. “People were having fun with it: Kids had squirt guns, and people were very willing to turn their hose or sprinkler on a runner to cool them off.”
Unwritten Rule #8: Keep it positive. 
During our race, I was shocked when I heard someone call out to a woman who was walking part of the course: "Hey, you're supposed to be running!" For all he knew, she was injured or had intended to walk it all along. The old lesson about not having anything nice to say holds true here.
Unwritten Rule #9: Don't light up. 
This seems like it should be obvious to everyone, but there are still people who think it's okay to smoke along a race course. Runners are already working very hard to fill their lungs with air, and breathing in tobacco fumes isn't exactly conducive to their goals. (Better yet, make a resolution to quit altogether.)
Unwritten Rule #10: Cheer by name. 
If you're spectating at a race where the bibs have names on them, go ahead and personalize your cheering. Hearing their name called out will give the runners a huge morale boost.
Unwritten Rule #11: Bring your own supplies. 
The water stops and food stations are for the racers—as are the post-race goodies—so be sure to come prepared with drinks and snacks to fuel a potentially long wait. You might also want to bring a camera and/or cell phone, sunscreen, cash and a map of the race course. If rain is expected, pack an umbrella or poncho.
Have you ever cheered on runners or walkers at a race? How did you help boost morale and create a positive racing environment?

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Thank you Report
HARROWJET 6/10/2020
I take a sign and enjoy the reactions when runners see it. Report
CECELW 3/29/2020
I have never heard of a participant wanting a gift. Report
At an Ironman in Kona many supporters were dressed in ‘team’ t shurts emblazoned with their athlete’s name. One group chalked messages on the pavement to encourage every runner. One group wore pink wigs. It was a great day. Report
We go to support our daughter, she was not fast her first race but she was not last. I noticed the announcer had packed up and left shortly after she finished but there were still lots of people who had not finished yet. Since we have always stayed and cheered until the last person finished. Report
Awesome information. Report
Who knew? Guess I will do better now. Thanks Report
Totally agree with all of them. Just got home yesterday from rooting on the runners at the Boston Marathon last night. Really can see the impact of the crowd. Report
...my city holds one of the larger marathons each year... some of our Sparkers travel my city for this event...every year for the last 20 year's, my family and neighbors cheered for the runners and i can honestly say 1-never had the desire to sign up and 2-always respected the runners with positive affirmations!...common sense... Report
I've never been at a race before but this is good to know just in case. Report
Very interested blog, thanks for sharing. Report
As a runner of marathons I love crowd participation and spectators that come out to cheer. I don't think it would be the same amazing experience if these wonderful people didn't come out. ALSO... No runner expects "gifts" - seriously? Don't list that. BTW, Flying Pig is one of the finest races around :) Report
Great tips Report
Unwritten Rule #2: Come bearing (useful) gifts. --- Good grief, I am staying home if racers are expecting hand outs.

Unwritten Rule #9: Don't light up. --- if a racer cannot handle cigarette smoke in the open air, they probably shouldn't be racing in the city.

I didn't have issues with runners until I read this article. Now I am thinking that most runners must be full of themselves to think that they somehow should be treated special. I do not want to run with people like this. Report
Good to know. Report
Going to be cheering on some friends in a couple of days. Spectating at races is great fun! Report
At the last station in a hilly half marathon I needed Vaseline. She didn't have any but had packets of mustard. I inquired why, and she said that they are good for long distance runners, but informed me 13.1mi was not a long distance. Haha! Meanwhile my arms were chaffed so badly. The whole experience stung (in more ways than one)!!! Report
One of the most annoying things for me was seeing people with glass of champagne while watching marathon runners. Report
Great article. More people need to read this!! It would have been awesome back when I used to race to have signs and more cheering people. Report
Please keep small children and dogs back away from the runners. No one wants to trip over your two year old or inspire the most well meaning dogs to a game of chase. Report
Rule #12 - Don't run the race with your kid along in a jogging stroller! That happened during my first 5K and I was petrified I would trip over the darned thing as the man ran beside me. I think it's great to instill the love of exercise in kids, just not while you're running with a group in a race. Report
These are great! I ran a 5K last November and what's stated in Rule #5 is so true. There was a running club participating in the race and they enthusiastically cheered their members but did not extend that courtesy to the rest of the runners. As I ran past, I said with a smile, "I need some love right about now!" They all laughed and cheered and we all felt great. Cheer on all the runners - you never know whose spirits and resolve you'll lift. Report
Good tips, I have never been a spectator and plan to be soon. Report
Smoking is a personal choice. Report
As a runner, I love enthusiastic spectators. They give you that super push when you need it. I remember one who called me out by my shirt and told me that he believed in me and keep moving. Another was a policeman who said, "I saw you at the beginning and so glad to see you at the end. Look 25 feet and there's the finish line." He was literally jumping up and down and so supportive. I will never forget that. Report
I would agree with all of those! As a VERY amateur racer, I have to say that one of the most emotional moments for me was when I was struggling at a point in my race and someone encouraged me by calling my name. It really boosted me up to go from "just someone in the crowd" to feeling like what I was doing mattered!
Above all... keeping it positive is SO important! Report
#1 I have heard the "almost there" when not even close too many times to count. Unless I can see the finish line, don't tell me I'm almost there. And even then, I may not feel like I'm almost there. Also, don't tell me "last hill" when there are many more to follow or that the course is well-shaded ahead when there isn't any shade in sight. I'm sure that they were all well-meaning, but they were also very wrong.
#2 and #7 were so appreciated at my most recent marathon. It was 90-degrees and humid. The spectators that had ice, cold sponges, and hoses/sprinklers along the course were a God send. I don't think I would have made it without them.
#8 I was doing the absolute best that I could do at the end of that marathon. Yes, the finish line was right there in sight, but I couldn't pick up the pace to save my life. I was going as fast as I could in that moment. I didn't need to hear spectators telling me to speed up or that I was going slowly, and, yes, I did hear that. Again, they may have been well-meaning, but they certainly didn't word it correctly.

But overall, spectators are fantastic and really do help keep the energy up. And I appreciate them even if what they say isn't quite right. Report
Doing my first race ever last year was a half marathon. Even as I ran/walked I cheered the runners who were ahead of me on their way back past the slower runners. Having a name on your bib is a definite plus and I for one was happy to hear my name cheered by others that I did not know. Positive energy reaps positive outcomes. Report
I definitely agree with rule #9 especially when you are close to the runners. I have ran a race where a spectator on the front line cheered everyone while exhaling smoke which flew in my face. Awful feeling especially since I caught a whiff up it while on my last leg. Kudos for rule #9. Report
#12 Please do NOT crowd the course! Please stay back and let the runners run. Trust me if you are at the end of the course - I have no extra energy to weave around you! Report
#1 I was told "almost there" with about 1K left in the 3rd 20K loop..problem is, I needed to complete 4 20K loops for my 50 miler.
#4 - someone crossed the course in front of me, just as I was bombing downhill. I body checked them, no regrets.
#8 - I was told to stop walking many times...uh I'm a run/walk pacer, and if my pace is supposed to be walking, I'll be doing it, even if I'm 500 m from the finish.