Spectators and Volunteers: The Life Force of a Marathon

I’ve had a couple race reviews I have been really needing to post( especially since I have been asked about them by other runners), and I will definitely have them posting soon, but the horrific events at  the Boston marathon have caused a lot of moments of somber reflection and “what-if” feelings, and I felt it was important to write some of my feelings about those who were injured and killed during the bombing, because a common trait was shared amongst many of them, and that was that they were spectators.

Marathons are difficult no matter how many you’ve run, and marathon runners are resilient because they will do whatever it takes to cross the finish line and earn that medal. The sense of accomplishment is amazing, and even after 13 marathons I find myself being so thrilled to complete another one. The race medals are piling up, as well as the race shirts and swag, and yet I still have the drive to continue running rather than slow down. It’s so wonderful to explore a new state on foot and make so many new running friends (even if just for a few hours), it’s truly a unifying and positive experience. The feel of crossing the finish line is exhilarating and that feeling of elated joy NEVER fades for me. Even after crossing the finish line, I can’t help but smile and congratulate the finishers around me, ask how they’re feeling, and sometimes we’ve even hugged. It’s just that emotional and uplifting.

There are so many facets of a race though, that I think can sometimes go unrecognized, and I felt it was important to mention it. A marathon is NOT just about the runners, and without these other contributing elements it would simply be an incomplete disaster. Whether we realize it or not at the time, we need each and every one of these facets like we need vital organs. The marathon is a living and breathing thing with many important components that are needed to run effectively:

The spectators are truly part of the driving force of a marathon. They stand in the cold, wind, blazing sun and rain, and cheer for HOURS. They ring cowbells, dress in costume,  hold up motivating signs, make their own fuel and beer stations for the runners, and children anxiously stand waiting for high fives. Their claps, cheers and shouts, listening to them call out your name, all of it provides that extra boost and adrenaline rush that we all need. Even though they may not a family member, they are PROUD OF YOU, and encourage you as if you were their own kin. They are so incredibly important to a marathon, and their love and support of the runners is something that can’t be put into words.

The volunteers have to wear a multitude of hats. Some are there at packet pick-up to ensure you get everything you need before race day. Others get up early, stand for HOURS holding out water, sports drinks, gels and food for us. Others spent backbreaking hours cleaning up our cups that we (sometimes) discard without a care (though I always try to aim for a trash bin to save them some trouble). They range from children and teens, to members of the military, various charity organizations, and a multitude of other groups. They cheer us on, give an encouraging word and a smile, and range in age from young children to seniors…their enthusiasm doesn’t falter and they help provide the sustenance we need to get to the next milestone as we race to the finish line. In smaller races, they are sometimes your ONLY spectators. The firemen and police direct traffic and keep the course safe for you to cross roads safely. The medical stations are manned by people ready and willing to assist during an emergency or even a lesser ailment (whether it’s a little BodyGlide or BioFreeze, heat exhaustion or blisters, they treat everything with the same amount of concern). Without these volunteers, we would certainly have a much harder time as marathoners.

The race directors and staff take countless hours of time making arrangements for a MILLION different factors that must run seamlessly on race morning. When people complain about race logistics, take some time to think about how much work it takes and realize it’s a behemoth of a task. I was always thrilled to receive personal emails from race directors when I have a question, and it really personalizes the experience for me. I don’t feel like just a number, but an individual that matters. The amount of time, effort and planning it takes to organize a marathon usually takes longer than the training itself! And of course there are the race announcers that are at the start and finish, always providing the countdown details and naming off finishers as they cross the finish line. It’s always great to hear your own name, I think!

Then finally there is our OWN personal cheering squad: your friends and your family. I have been lucky that, for every single marathon, there was always someone waiting for me along the race course. There was always someone to give me a hug or kiss and good luck wishes as I enter my corral. There was always someone to greet me enthusiastically at the finish line and bring me a drop bag or carry my things. Always. And time and time again I think how lucky I am to have someone waiting for me, how blessed I am that they can be there to cheer me on again and again.

My point is this: next time you run a race:

THANK YOUR VOLUNTEERS as they hand you water and fuel, and eventually your finisher’s medal.

THANK THE POLICE AND FIREMEN that direct traffic and keep you safe.

THANK THE SPECTATORS that clap, cheer you on and call out your name.

HIGH FIVE THAT CHILD that’s been awaiting recognition (I promise it will make their day).

BE MINDFUL when you throw your cups, Gu wrappers, banana peels and trash.

GRIN FOR THE PHOTOGRAPHERS as they snap your picture (even if you feel lousy!).


HUG YOUR LOVED ONES once you’ve got that medal draped around your neck.

I’ve run a lot of marathons, and I have felt pretty lousy during some of them. But no matter WHAT, I always made sure to thank those who are out there supporting us any time I can (even if it’s just a grim nod and a quiet thank you). It’s SO important to recognize them as the life force of a race. It’s not just you that is propelling you to the finish line, even if you think it is, I promise you that there is more to running a marathon than just YOU.

Please remember that as you toe the line for your next marathon, and take some time to ponder that in silence before you cross the start line.

Runners, is there anyone that I forgot? Please make mention of it in the Comments section and I will be happy to update with your contribution!


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