Course volunteers are great. They provide energy, support, and guidance during most races. Always better than a neon traffic cone, it is a welcomed sight to have a smiling face pointing you in the right direction and offering timely encouragement. There is another side to this, however. Often a well-meaning cheer can really hurt your mental game during a tough competition. Here are a few thoughts on that topic from a recent race.
I love giving people on the side of road a big smile or high five when they applaud as I run by them. Law enforcement officers always get a special call of gratitude. A common refrain by spectators is some form of “looking good!” My favorite response to this is often, “feeling terrible!” It is nice to give a chuckle to those who have given up their time as they watch (and smell) this mass of crazy people jogging past them. Problems arise when these supporters try to get overly creative or technical with their comments.
Hear the Volunteers, But Don’t Listen
At this one 5k (3.1 mile) race in particular, the course featured a generously downhill first mile and a half. According to my watch, I ran the first mile in 5:56. Needless to say that whenever an “out and back” type of course starts that way, you always wonder what hills await the return trip to the finish. And, of course, there was plenty of uphill during the second half of this journey through one northwest DC neighborhood. After cresting the top of an especially painful incline, one friendly volunteer yelled out “heartbreak hill, you did it!” There were several reasons why I wanted to knock this guy over and roll him back down the hill. First, heartbreak hill is the last of the excruciating hills of Newton during the Boston Marathon. This is a 5k, hardly an analogous situation, mentally or physically. Second, around the next corner there was another hill of a similar grade incline. Not cool. So here’s to you, overzealous-exaggerating-volunteer-guy.
Hear the Volunteers, But Don’t Trust Them
The temperature had already hit 80 degrees by 8:30 that morning, so it was hot. The second half of that race was a hearty challenge, given the weather and the elevation. Hurtling down the road toward the end, I was about ready for it to be over. At each intersection was a volunteer, more cheerful and energizing than the next. It was really energetic and motivating. One of them, though, decided to encourage the runners by shouting the remaining distance. “Half a mile,” she yelled as we passed. I knew I was going slowly, but I ran plenty more than that after passing her. It definitely messes with your head when you have a specific amount in your head and it turns out to not be true. Remember, for a runner, a quarter mile can be quite significant. So let us raise a glass to you, unknowing-distance-trickster-girl.
Volunteers Are Great, Seriously
To be clear, I do not begrudge volunteers of any of these (admittedly minor) infractions. I love all the hooting and hollering. The energy is what can help myself, and so many other runners, push through the rough patches of any race. It is just this runner’s suggestion that if you are ever watching a race, make your cheers generic. Humor is also appreciated. During the Rock ‘n’ Roll USA Marathon I remember one sign that read, “you run better than WMATA,” a funny motivator and simultaneous dig at the notoriously confounding DC metro system. At another juncture, there was a couple who decided to dress up like a ketchup and mustard bottle. One was yelling, “catch up to the next runner” while the other followed with “relish the moment.”
Positive energy helps a ton, while specific perceived strategy tips are often distracting or can fall on deaf ears. So if you keep yelling, I will keep trying to voice my appreciation. I cannot promise a funny joke, but you never know what I will say beyond a certain point of exhaustion.
Have you ever had a memorable or funny interaction with a spectator? Recall any particularly motivating or de-motivating cheers? Share your experiences in the comments section below!