There’s nothing that can quite compare to race-day energy: the cheering crowds, the runners pushing themselves to PRs, and the emotion that comes from experiencing bucket-list accomplishments firsthand.
Spectators actually play a huge role in all of this. Ask any runner what they remember about their big race, and, chances are, you’ll hear some variation of “the crowds got me through it” or “the cheering kicked me into another gear.” And this is true whether we’re talking about someone looking to finish their first 5K or an elite athlete shooting for a world record. Water Bottle
Just take Eliud Kipchoge, the Kenyan pro runner who broke the world record for the marathon in Berlin in September. If you’ve watched a professional race before, you’ve probably noticed the pros receiving specialized water bottles that are handed off to them at various points. Kipchoge received his hydration bottles at each of the 13 aid stations from Claus Henning-Schulke, a marathon volunteer veteran who has actually worked with Kipchoge multiple times before.
After every station, Henning-Schulke celebrated each successful hand-off with an emphatic fist pump. And his enthusiasm did not go unnoticed by Kipchoge: The world’s record-holder called Henning-Schulke “my hero” while maintaining a 4:37-minute mile pace for all 26.2 miles of the race.
“My biggest remembrance of Berlin is the guy who was handing me water, still my hero up to now,” Kipchoge said in a video feature for the Berlin Marathon. “The way he was handling and acting and talking was unbelievable.”
But you don’t need to be a world-caliber athlete to benefit from having great spectators cheering you on. In fact, if you’re cheering on a runner who is competing in their first race, that encouragement might be even more appreciated. And spectating can be magical even if you don’t personally know anyone running the race. You might not know it, but your well-time cheer or high-five might be just the thing that runner needed at that very moment to keep going.
So what’s the best way to make your presence known to a runner and do everything you can to make it the race of their dreams? There are actually a ton of things to keep in mind when spectating a race—it’s not as simple as assuming a spot, staying there for a set number of minutes or hours, and clapping. If you want to really max out your support, spectating becomes a little more of an active pursuit.
SELF caught up with two spectating experts who have cheered on the sidelines of the world’s biggest races for their best tips. Here’s what you should know to become a really awesome spectator.
Your job doesn’t start when the race begins: There are some things you can do beforehand to set you (and your runner) up for success.
A big one? Take the time to make a sign that’s individualized to your runner—for example “Sub-4:00, Ashley!” or “Run Like Hell, Kenny!”, rather than a generic “You’ve Got This!”
Personalized signs are a huge part of spectating for the hundreds of college students who make up the famously boisterous Wellesley Scream Tunnel at the Boston Marathon. For decades, the students have held encouraging signs and cheered on the runners who pass by the Wellesley campus at the race’s halfway point.
Leading up to the Boston Marathon, Munger House—the student-led group that organizes the Scream Tunnel—receives hundreds of messages via the group’s Facebook page from friends and family of runners requesting custom messages on handmade signs. The Wellesley students spend hours making those signs on poster board, which helps create the ultimate cheering section around mile 13.
So far, Avalon Swanson, the Munger House president for the 2022-2023 race season and leader of the cheering section, has made up to 500 signs each year for inspiring runners, including cancer survivors, expectant mothers announcing their pregnancies, and individuals running their debut marathon. As Swanson has learned, making unique signs is an easy way to give runners a boost during a hard effort. “It really only takes 10 minutes to put one together,” she says. “It’s a cute way to get people energized.”
To make a motivational sign, Swanson suggests spectators focus on crafting a message that will stand out to their runner. Use the colors of the charity they’re running for, jot down an inside joke, or include their favorite pop culture reference, Swanson recommends. To make sure your sign is seen, go big and bold with the lettering and use high-contrast colors so your message sticks out. And don’t be afraid to dress it up with additions like glitter, cut-out art, or a photo you know will make them smile.
Wellesley students cheer for everyone on the course, including elite athletes and back-of-the-pack runners, which means the race is an all-day event for them. To stay energized throughout the effort, Swanson recommends bringing snacks and plenty of water. She also suggests bringing cough drops to soothe your voice while screaming for the runners. Or if you’d rather not use your voice to cheer throughout the day, she suggests bringing noisemakers, like cowbells or horns.
You’ll also want to do a little research ahead of time for what to expect that day. Check the weather report, for instance. If there’s even a chance of rain or showers, bring some rain-resistant gear. Remember, you’re going to be outdoors pretty much the whole time.
Sunscreen is another essential to help protect your skin in all conditions on the course. “It snows some years in Boston and you can still get sunburnt from the snow, so it’s important to wear sunscreen,” Swanson says.
You may also want to check out which local businesses may be open beforehand. Most big races take place on Sundays, which means some may be closed. Be sure to map out open coffee shops or restaurants ahead of time so you’re not left feeling hungry or looking unsuccessfully for a bathroom on race day.
Matt Kuzma and his wife, SELF contributing writer and certified run coach Cindy Kuzma, literally wrote the book on marathon spectating. Together, they published Marathon Spectator Guide: How to Support Your Runner All 26.2 Miles. Kuzma’s been spectating his wife for two decades—including 30 marathons and tons of shorter-distance races—so he has a pretty solid understanding of the dos and don’ts when you’re on the sidelines.
A big do? Make technology your friend, and use race resources to track your runner. Most major races now have a website that sends notifications to your phone, or an app that allows spectators to track live splits, projected finish times, and results. In many cases, all you’d need to know is your runner’s name or bib number to track them.
Kuzma recommends one person in the cheer squad take charge of tracking to ensure they find their runner on the course—that way, the whole section won’t get so caught up in cheering that their runner dashes by unnoticed.
“The last thing you want is to put in the effort and miss them,” Kuzma tells SELF. “You’ll be frustrated, and they’ll be looking for you.”
Use the app to have a visual representation of your runner’s location so you can determine how much time you have to reach the next cheer spot—if you’ll be going to multiple locations. Use the bathroom or grab a coffee while you wait for runners to pass.
Kuzma says it’s also crucial to know what corral your runner is in, what time that corral starts, and what your runner’s pace per mile will likely be—especially if the race doesn’t have live tracking, or the tracking gets wonky. Oftentimes, there are significant gaps between the first, middle, and last few corrals in races with thousands of people, so it’s important to have an understanding of your runner’s timing from start to finish.
With thousands of runners and spectators along the course moving at a fast pace, it’s critical that spectators put in the effort to stand out. If you followed the advice in #1, you’ll already be bringing a noticeable sign, but there is more to keep in mind. Kuzma recommends using and wearing bright colors and “going vertical,” with hats, banners, balloons, and flags that stand out above the crowd. Think decorations that go up rather than out.
While cheering for Cindy during her first marathon, Kuzma wore a Hawaiian shirt and a cowboy hat to make sure she could spot him on the sidelines. In recent years, Kuzma has used the city flag of Chicago while spectating major races in and outside of the Windy City, where they live. “It’s helpful to get them up high, above head level so that they can be seen from a long ways away,” Kuzma says.
Knowing what colors your runner will be wearing during the race is also a helpful way for you to spot your athlete and subsequently make yourself known to them. Ask them what their race outfit will be, including colors of shorts, shirts, and shoes, as well as any hats or sunglasses they may be wearing. Give them a description of what you’ll be wearing too.
You don’t need to get incredibly creative with your cheers as long as they offer positive encouragement, Kuzma says.
As for jokes or funny lines? It’s all about knowing your runner. If you know something will make them smile, go for it. But Kuzma says jokes aren’t always appreciated when running. “Jokes aren’t funny when you’re running,” says Kuzma, who’s also run his own share of 5Ks. “They don’t hear them, and if they did, they’d have to think about it really hard.”
Most importantly, don’t tell any runner that they are almost at the finish line unless they are standing right in front of it, Kuzma says. “They won’t believe you and it actually throws them off,” he explains. “It’s not a good way to make runners your friends.”
Before you spectate, be sure to study the course map. Many races mark off areas that are great for spectators, and in many cases there will be more than one location—so you can move around and see your runner in multiple spots.
With that in mind, planning out how you’ll be moving along the route is important. Driving is not recommended on race day, since the locations you want to get to are probably going to be blocked off to traffic. If you’re comfortable riding, Kuzma recommends using a bicycle to reach the mile markers. Many major cities have electric bikes that are activated by apps, so you don’t have to worry about bringing a bike with you if you’re traveling.
More often than not, the second half of the race is the toughest for runners, so, if at all possible, try to plan for a spot where you’ll see them when they may be on the struggle bus. “It’s when the runners are in more pain, the pace has slowed down, things have spread out some, and it’s easier to make the connection and see each other,” Kuzma says.
Most runners will carry fuel and other supplies with them during the race. But if the weather gets progressively warmer throughout the day, you may want to coordinate a clothing hand-off with your athlete, Kuzma says. For example, if the weather is cooler at the start and your runner begins with a jacket and gloves, they may want to ditch the items later in the race as they warm up. (Having said that, lots of runners also toss items to the side as they run, and many major races, like the New York City Marathon, offer charity donation bins for discarded clothing. If a clothing hand-off seems like a complication that will just stress you and your runner out, avoid it.)
Kuzma recommends designating a hand-off zone ahead of time so you can be ready for the exchange. Again, check the map beforehand for good locations so you and your runner can be on the same page.
Race organizers usually have photographers on the course, but some of the best memories are often captured by spectators on the fly. Kuzma recommends taking as many pictures as you can in case the official photos don’t turn out great. “A lot of times, official race photos don’t capture very well, and the runner doesn’t know their picture is being taken, so they’re not smiling,” he says. “If you can capture a good picture of a runner, it’s a really valuable thing.” Plus your runner will likely smile when they see you, and you’ll have the unique opportunity to capture a genuine emotional connection mid-race.
One photo that stands out to Kuzma is the selfie he took with Cindy while she was running her debut marathon (when he wore the cowboy hat and Hawaiian shirt to stand out). “To this day, it’s one of our favorite pictures of us,” Kuzma says.
Because of how densely populated some finish line areas can be, cell phone reception can be notoriously spotty. That’s why it’s best to do things the old-fashioned way and agree upon a designated meeting spot before the race. Many big races share recommendations for meeting spots around the finish line, including an area with letters indicating runner last names. Kuzma recommends choosing to gather around the X, Q, and Z sections, which usually draw smaller crowds.
He says restaurants, coffee shops, and hotel lobbies are also good meeting places. Be considerate of the location to ensure your runner doesn’t have to walk far to reunite with you. After pushing themselves to exhaustion in a big race, the last thing they’ll want to do is walk a long distance.
SELF does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Any information published on this website or by this brand is not intended as a substitute for medical advice, and you should not take any action before consulting with a healthcare professional.