Spectator Sport

I once heard the phrase “vanity runners” used to describe marathoners. Not only did it sting, but it stuck with me. Sometimes, it makes me ponder why people run, why I pay money to run in “race” events, and if it really is vanity. Then, at other times, I get up at 5 am, wide awake and excited to get up and drive to watch thousands of people suffering through a marathon, and I get the feeling that there is a lot more to it than vanity.

A couple of weeks ago I went to watch a friend run a marathon. I’ve been running with her since my first 5k, and our escapades have included sparkly running skirts, killer hills, spectating for another friend’s first marathon, and lots and lots of ice cream. For this race, I thought that some brightly-colored signs and ridiculous cheering from me was in order.


On the night before, I sat down with a pace calculator and Google maps to figure out where I would go and when I had to be there in order to see her. The runners have to train and all, but man, spectators have to do math!

As I drove around trying to find a parking spot near the first viewing area, I caught sight of runners on course, and the sight was incredibly exciting and moving. I wished that I could be out there running with them, but I was so motivated to cheer them on.

You hear a lot about how running is 90% mental and the rest is physical, but somehow the emotional part is always left out of the equation. Yet, how many times do we go for a run to help sort out or diffuse our emotions? How often do we express our strongest feelings by putting one foot in front of the other? And adding a personal element to it – seeing someone on the sidelines who is calling your name – creates a force that mental focus alone could not achieve.

In that spirit, I hoped to provide some quality support for my friend and all of the other runners I would see along the course that day.


So one of my posters was this “DQ if you BQ” creation. I thought a lot about that sign, because I knew that she was going to try and qualify for the Boston Marathon. I traveled to Chicago last year to watch her run an amazing race there, and she was so blazing fast that as I tracked her, I was sure that she would make a qualifying time then. But GPS tracking apps can be a little misleading, and even if you’re on pace, if you don’t run even tangents, you can run extra distance and therefore end with a slower finishing time that your actual running pace. That happened to her in Chicago. She wasn’t really intending to BQ, so it wasn’ a huge deal, but when you’re that close, it’s frustrating. At least, it was to me. This time, I knew that she was going for it, and all of my calculated viewing times were for a Boston-qualifying pace.


So given the race’s start time and her estimated pace, I knew about what time I’d see her at the first viewing spot. Actually getting to the viewing location at just the right time required some skill though. I was lucky enough to arrive just before she ran by, and she was ahead of schedule!

When I saw her, I held up my poster and cheered. She pointed to a young guy running next to her and said he was running his first marathon and to cheer for him. He looked embarrassed, but I and the other spectators cheered, and just like that, they passed us by.

Getting to the next viewing spot required driving parallel right along a section of the course. I looked for her and realized that if I pulled over, this would be a perfect impromptu spectating spot. I pulled into a conveniently available parking space and jumped out with my camera and poster and cheered for everyone who went by. It was still early in the race, and the runners were lively, and I felt charged by their energy as I rarely do around large groups of people. There’s something about this sport that brings out some less-introverted qualities in me. Unfortunately, I must have missed her, because after about 15 or 20 minutes, I still hadn’t seen her. It was fun cheering in this spot, but it was time to move on and attempt to get to the next spot about 6 miles away.

I say attempt because so many roads near the course were closed. I got within a mile and started walking, but when I checked the time and saw that I might be cutting it tight, I jogged lightly to pick up the pace. My knee didn’t hurt, so I jogged a good part of the way, which was a bit of a victory for me. It was the most I had run since my own marathon last November.

I arrived with enough time and cheered as she came through a water stop with the clock showing that she was on the same ahead-of-schedule pace as before.

After I snapped some photos and watched her turn a corner, I examined my itinerary and saw that there were not any recommended viewing locations for over 10 miles. That gave me a lot of time to get to the next one and settle in a little bit.

I drove down to the park where she would pass through again, which was a transition spot for the marathon relay. Team members were milling about, and half marathon runners were starting to pass through. I was walking towards the course when a huge cheer went up, and I saw someone running with a large American flag. He was dressed in full fireman’s gear. He and another fireman ran the half marathon that day, and not only did they inspire every person who saw them, but they cheered on the other runners on the course.


My friend’s sister snapped this photo a few miles later as he neared the end of the race.

I found a spot away from the crowd, with a good view of the time-clock, where I could wait and cheer on everyone else who came through. The runners were coming into the park from a wooded bike path, where they had been running alone or with little company for miles. I looked for names on their race bibs and cheered them on individually. Some were just barely holding it together and didn’t have the breath or energy to react. Some were excited and waved or thanked me. Others were wearing thin and looked appreciative. I did some math and predicted when my friend would arrive if she continued her previous pace. When that time arrived, I thought that every woman with a dark tank top was her, but the minutes ticked by and I didn’t see her. I did some more math and figured that she could have slowed a bit, and that she’d probably come through in the next 5 minutes. She didn’t. I continued to cheer on every person who passed by, which was fun, but I looked at the clock and realized that she would have to come through very soon if she were going to stay on BQ pace.

I wondered what was happening out on that course. I remembered getting a calf cramp at mile 18 of my marathon and how I was unable to run for a period of time and then could only hobble carefully for miles. Did she get injured? I glanced back at the clock. If she arrived within 2 minutes, she would still be within reach of a BQ, maybe with some buffer, depending on her chip time vs gun time. And then there she was, completely healthy, looking strong, running up the path. I held up the DQ if you BQ side of the poster and told her I’d buy her ice cream if she BQ’d because I knew she would. I took a picture of her as she ran by the timing clock, and then I grabbed my stuff and started running after her along the side of the course.


She said “It’s only a 5k left. I think I can actually do it!” and I said “Definitely!” I shouted that I’d see her at the finish, and I trailed further off to the side to avoid running into any other spectators. This was a busy spot, and people were reading her bib and shouting her name, and she sped down the path into the last few miles of the race.

When I saw her again, the finish line was in sight. I was standing at the beginning of a long straightaway that was lined with people. I cheered for her and snapped pictures and was so, so happy, because I knew that she had done it. A minute later I got a text giving her exact finishing time when she crossed the finish line.

Sometimes running and the culture of “racing” can be a little less than impressive. The idea that everyone gets a medal or that the field is divided into multiple age categories so that 30 or more “winners” are awarded for one race can cheapen the experience, but it’s not always about that. In fact, it’s often about hard work, tons of heart, and doing an activity that you feel joy and accomplishment in.

After the race, my friend posted the following quote to sum up her marathon experience that day:

“I ran for not myself. I ran for Chris and Frankie. I ran for my kids to know how powerful you can be if you set you mind to it. I ran for my soccer team so they know never give up! I ran for my cheering section, and guess what – this girl ran an 8:14 per mile pace and qualified for Boston 3:35:41 . I am so happy I actually cried.”

I’m so proud of her for training hard, running a good race, and being a great role model, and I’m so glad that I got to be there to cheer her on!

And do you want to know the best part? Her time was fast enough to guarantee her entry into the 2016 Boston Marathon. Her registration has been accepted, and I can’t wait to cheer her on (in person or in spirit) on April 18th!

Oh, and yes, I bought her ice cream to celebrate. 😉


3 thoughts on “Spectator Sport

  1. I really enjoyed reading your account, and getting an idea of what the spectating role demands. We can’t wait to cheer Erin on in Boston!


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