Race Day for Non-Runers: Being An Amazing Marathon Spectator

Race day is obviously stressful for the runners. All the work and training have been focused on this single day. But it can be just as stressful for another group: the marathon spectators and the runners loved ones. Cheering and waiting, often fighting traffic, road closures, and detours. Supporting someone they’ve seen suffer and work, helpless to do anything to help but cheer.

I call the friends and family that come out to cheer me on race day my race sherpas. The Sherpas on Everest help the climbers by doing much of the behind the scenes heavy lifting and carrying much of the gear. Race sherpas take care of many of the logistics on race day. With the logistics taken care of, the runner has fewer things to think about.

How to be a Successful Marathon Spector (aka Race Sherpa)

Most races are now several thousand or tens of thousands of runners, so race day is chaotic. Each race has its own special challenges. There are three general phases to being a race sherpa: chauffeur, cheerleader, and post-race.

marathon spectators checklist
Download the Race Sherpa Checklist PDF

Chauffeur and Pre-Race Logistics

Review Start Area Maps

If you are dropping your runner off at the start or if you will be parking to see them off, review the start area maps that are published online or that are included in the runner’s event materials.

  • Where is the start area? Are you familiar with it or comfortable driving around the area?
  • Is there a separate athlete drop-off area?
  • Will there be any road closures or detours due to the race or just due to regular ol’ road construction? Keep in mind that roads may be closed or restricted after the race starts until runners have clear the area, so you could get boxed in.
  • If you plan on parking, is parking allowed? This generally isn’t an issue, but some races have restrictions and specific transportation requirements.

Timing

While your runner is ultimately responsible for race morning timing, be aware of the agenda. That way you can be a second pair of eyes and keep things moving if (when?) your runner gets distracted.

Cheerleader and On-Course Spectatoring

I don’t think ‘spectatoring’ is a verb, but I think I will make it one, it can be surprisingly hard work.

Study the Course

Once again, road closures, detours, and delays can be a major issue on or near the course on race day. Know what areas will be closed and prepare alternate routes.

 Runner Tracking

Many races now have online runner tracking. If the race has tracking, download the app, register, and/or test it ahead of time if that is possible.

Wardrobe Selection

This goes in both directions:

  • Do you know what your runner is wearing?
  • Does your runner know what you are wearing?

Marathons are a sea of people, flooding past. If you don’t know exactly what you are looking for it will be very hard to spot your runner.

To make it easier for your runner to spot you, give them a heads up on the general area(s) you plan to be and consider wearing something bright and obnoxious. I guarantee that you will feel (and look) ridiculous a wearing neon pink polka dots standing in a crowd of spectators wearing normal clothes, but you will be SOOOOO much easier to spot. Other viability options:

  • A mylar balloon or several regular helium balloons
  • A ridiculous hat or other headgear
  • Distinctive noise makers
  • A lego head

A lego head? Say what? I know this from experience: One year I did the Twin Cities Marathon where many spectators ‘chase’ their racers at different locations. They cheer their runner, hop back in the car leap-frogging to the next location. We runners start seeing the same spectators over and over. One couple wore lego-man style heads. High quality, over-sized, bright yellow heads.

I can’t believe the visibility was very good for them, but they were the most identifiable spectators I ever came across (and came across, and came across…)

Post Race Logistics

First of all, marathon spectators need to understand your runner, after just finishing a marathon, will be exhausted and may get temporarily stupid. Runner’s brain is a real thing. Pre-planning even the most logical steps can be helpful.

Have a SPECIFIC Meet Up Spot

Have a specific meeting area to meet up with your runner. ‘By the food’ isn’t specific enough. Identify a specific street corner, store front, or vendor tent. Finish line maps are usually published online or in the runner race material.

Some races have specific family meet up areas for this purpose. I’ve had mixed results using them personally, but they are usually a safe option.

Have a Plan B

This is less of an issue in the age of cell phones, but have a plan B in case you can’t find each other. For example, “if we haven’t met up by 1 PM, we’ll do this other thing…”

 Balloons

Another good use for balloons, tall hats, a tall friend or something else that will stand above a sea of people.

You will likely feel stupid walking around with a Dora the Explorer mylar balloon all day, but it makes you so much more visible.

 Offer to Carry a Runner Rear Bag

Offer to carry a post run bag at the finish. A dry top, shoes, and something warm to put on immediately, without having to go to gear check, can be a godsend.

Write Down Your Phone Number

Make sure your runner has your cell number with them, either in their phone if they are carrying one or write in on the back of their bib number. Remember, runners get stupid after a race. Don’t judge us.


And On Behalf of all Runners:

Thank You!!!

Thank You! A million times thank you.

We really appreciate the moral support and logistics support on race day. We may forget to thank you (we will be exhausted and distracted), but we couldn’t do it without you!

marathon spectator pin

You may also enjoy:

Don’t Psych Yourself Out at the Race Expo
Supporting Your Loved One During Marathon Training


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Sent every two weeks, the Huffing and Puffin newsletter contains interesting links on running, fitness, inspiration, and whatever else catches my eye.

Sara is a runner, running coach, writer, blogger, and a lover of all things written.

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