Say What, Spectator?!

May 6, 2012

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!



  1. I’ve never had a funny experience as a runner, but during last year’s Baltimore Marathon (which winds through some of Baltimore’s toughest neighborhoods), I saw a guy get arrested, probably for something drug-related, while runners trotted by. Definitely made me chuckle.

    • What a sight! That definitely qualifies… and clearly, anything goes in Charm City, right?

  2. One of my personal favorites was when a spectator, at mile 10, said, “It’s all downhill from here!” It wasn’t. There was a 750-ft incline approaching in the 12th mile of the half. Thanks, Spectator! You give very good advice here: “Hear the volunteers, but don’t trust them.” 🙂

    • Seriously, right? There are plenty of educated spectators who may also be runners and know what they are saying, just never really know!

  3. Although it doesn’t happen often, sometimes I hear comments from “the jerk spectator”…like yesterday during a half marathon a guy was yelling out things like “only 10 more miles to go” when it was actually more like 4. These comments are so rude and when runners are already pushing themselves as hard as they can a stupid comment like that can make them feel defeated! I don’t understand why people like that even bother to come to the race? Fortunately, they are the minority!

    • You know I was only thinking about unknowingly misinforming spectators after this particular race. The class of people you are talking about is a whole different league. I would definitely have some choice words for that guy from your half, but obviously you running that race is all the validation necessary. It is a good thing they are in the minority though, all hope is not lost!

  4. If I’m racing with a shirt with my name on it, I’m always energized when a spectator yells out an encouragement along with my name. They seem to get a kick out of it, too. Luckily I’ve never encountered the crazy spectators some of you have or I’ve just blocked them out. The more yelling and cheering the better for me! I guess I love the attention!

    • The name on the shirt, or arms or legs, is always a great idea to get spectators to cheer you on during a race. Just make sure that you are not so lost in your thoughts that hearing your name does not make you jump, thinking someone actually knows you on the sideline. Maybe I just get easily confused, who knows!

  5. My favorite was around mile 9 of the Cherry Blossom 10-miler. There was a girl with a poster that said “Harder, Faster, Stronger – Just a little more” and right next to her was another girl with a poster that read “<– That's what she said."

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