I was running. Striding up Second Avenue in my new sneakers hurrying to catch my friend who was also running. But she was racing the ING New York City Marathon, and I was merely a spectator hoping to spot her at Mile 17.
If you’ve ever run a marathon, you know how critical spectators can be. I’ve been lucky enough to run three with friends and family peppered throughout the course, lighthouses on a stormy day blinking me in.
Last year in the New York City Marathon, the devil on my shoulder was whispering insidious thoughts about quitting the race as I climbed the steep incline of the Queensboro Bridge around Mile 16. But knowing I had friends at Mile 17, Mile 18, Mile 20 and on kept me going. For one thing, I have just enough vanity to not want to look bad lollygagging up to them when I should be running.
But I also know that seeing them is usually all the encouragement I need.
This year, I was excited for my first marathon as a spectator. My friend Natalie, one of my diehard cheerleaders, was running her first marathon. She was nervous and I was happy to be the one rooting her on for a change.
I met a few other friends who came to see her too—Karen, Christy, Rebecca and Neil—many of the same folks who have always been out there to cheer for me. We furiously scanned the crowd.
In doing so, it helps to know the cardinal rules of marathon watching. To wit, a spectator’s marathon guide.
Spectator’s Marathon Guide
1) Know what your runner is wearing. Scanning faces in an endless stream of 40,000 people is daunting. Scanning for a pink shirt is much, much easier.
2) Pick a spot in advance. Tell your runner the cross-street or mile marker where you’ll be, the side of the course you’ll be on, and then—very important—be there. I’ve found that it’s easier for a runner to spot a spectator than the other way around. Being where you said you’ll be ensures you’ll connect on race day.
3) Get an estimated pace or arrival time from your runner. This is especially helpful if you’re trying to spot them in multiple locales. Don’t count on whatever runner tracking software the race is providing. More times than I can count, my friends didn’t get the updates they registered for or the updates came late. Make sure you have a good old-fashioned analog plan as backup.
4) Signs help but are by no means necessary. I’ve found people both with and without them. But they are certainly always welcome.
5) For runners, put your name on your shirt! The pros do it and you should too. Then every Tom, Dick and Harry will be cheering for you as well. And the people who came to see you just might hear someone else cheering your name. And if you’re out there cheering, give those people boasting their names a shout out. Even if they look miserable, they’ll most likely be glad you did.
Following those cardinal rules, I knew Natalie would be arriving at the west side of 74th Street and First Avenue wearing a magenta shirt with her name on it around 1:30 pm.
Karen spotted her first (thank you, magenta!) and we started waving and screaming her name.
She was frantically scanning the crowd and finally spotted us.
We gave her big hugs and snapped a few photos. We asked how she was and would have chatted her up for 15 minutes if we could, but she had to be on her way.
We screamed cheers as she faded away into the distance, on to face the last nine miles of the course.
And I have to say, it was almost as fun as running myself. We stayed for a while and cheered for other runners as they passed—calling out names and countries as we saw them. Some people smiled and waved. Some simply nodded, too tired to expend any extra energy. And others passed by without seeming to hear. But most people at least smiled. And being a runner I know that smile well. It’s a thank you—thank you for cheering for me. I’m certainly thankful for everyone who’s ever shouted “Go Karla!” and the like. And I’m happy to return the favor.