How to Cheer at a Marathon

I’m not a runner. I never will be. I tried it for a while but I hated it. But ever since Mark started the C25K program nearly 3 years ago, he’s been addicted. That means the kids and I have cheered at a LOT of races – 5k, 10k, half and full marathons – we’ve done them and I have a few tips for anyone who wants become a professional run spectator like me. I probably should have posted this last week, before the Cleveland Marathon, but now you’ll know what to do the next time a crazy friend or family member says they are running a “mary”.

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Cheering with my cousin & his family at the Oktoberfest Half in Grand Haven, MI

Here’s what I take when I cheer, especially with the kids:

  1. Snacks – race cheering is all about waiting for hours to watch someone run by in 30 seconds. Snacks and drinks are a must.
  2. Noise makers – it doesn’t matter what it is, if it’s noisy take it. We usually take 2 cowbells with us. Side note: why are cowbells a marathon tradition? Just to be obnoxious? This time I also took a tambourine (from the toy box), in the past I’ve taken whistles, maracas and once, a harmonica.
  3. Something visual – pompoms are always in our bag. Small flags work, too.
  4. SIGNS – of course make them for all of your friends running. But make some generic ones for runners to enjoy why you’re waiting. They really do like them. My other tip is to laminate a few with clear contact paper – this will protect them from rain & water stations and makes them sturdy enough to keep for a few races. (You’ll see some sign repeats in the photos).Image
  5. Course Map – this is critical, especially when the races’ website crashes on race day (cough *CLE Marathon* cough)
  6. Distractions – race spectating is a hurry-up-and-wait game. It can also be totally boring. Take a book, a phone, and if you have kids with you, toys. They will save you.
  7. Camera – I don’t lug my big camera with me because I’d rather cheer when I see my runner then have a camera in my face. I do, however, try to snap a shot or two on my phone or a point and shoot.
  8. Pack all of this in a backpack and wear comfortable shoes. You’ll likely be hoofing it for several blocks at each cheering spot. Take a stroller for little kids.

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Cheering at the Shaker Father’s Day 5k

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Cheering with friends is best – at the Blossom Time Run with the ClassyChaos Crew

When it comes to long races (half-marathons and above), I like to move around and catch my runner(s) a few places on the course. Here’s what I do pre-race.

  1. Print course map and look at recommended cheering spots. Almost every long race will have some “official cheer stations” and these can give you a good idea of where you can easily part near the course. I don’t normally cheer at these official spots, but go a mile or so on either side.
  2. Find 3-4 areas I want to cheer that are 5-7 miles apart, which gives me about 35-60 minutes to get from place to place. (Unless your runner is crazy-fast, then you’ll have to scale back to 2-3 areas).
  3. SCOUT YOUR CHEERING SPOTS. This is critical – something that Mark learned this past weekend. Where can you park? What streets will be closed? What’s the best route from A to B; can I walk or should I ride? I can spend more than an hour pouring over Google Maps looking for parking, access to public restrooms, and how everything interconnects. Don’t forget to look for a list of road-closures in the area. Even better – drive the course the day before and find your spots – I do this for out of town races so I can learn the area a little better.
  4. Print driving maps for each section (i.e. map from cheering spot A to cheering spot B) AND have a phone/gps with you on race day in case you run into any obstacles.
  5. Sign up for up for text alerts so you know where your runners are on the course. You’ll start to get anxious without these updates… remember that even if you know their usual pace, they may be slow for the first few miles before the pack thins out.

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Finish line cheering at the Perfect 10-Miler

Race Day!

  1. Have your runner(s) text you a photo of what they are wearing that day. This gives you something to look for in the herd of runners. This was critical for me finding Jenna on Sunday.
  2. If you are cheering with a group, you can all wear matching shirts, hats, headbands – something for your runner to look for.
  3. Let your runner know where you will be. I’m not talking exact locations, but “somewhere between miles 9 and 11” will give them something to look forward to.
  4. Dress in layers – most races start early when it’s chilly but warm up fast. And don’t forget your sunscreen!
  5. If you want to see your runner cross the finish line make sure you arrive at least 35 minutes before you anticipate them crossing. This is the most crowded area, it’s hardest to find parking and people will be jockeying for space on the curb.
  6. CHEER! Cheer for everyone – shake those noisemakers and randomly yell encouragement. Many runners have their names written on their shirts so use it when you cheer.

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Cheering at the Flying Pig Marathon with my parents

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Cleveland Fall Classic Half Marathon cheering squad – this one is ALWAYS cold!

That’s about it. All my knowledge about being a good cheerleader for the runners in your life. Have something to add? Put it in comments!

 Coming soon… our Cleveland Marathon Cheer Experience.
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6 thoughts on “How to Cheer at a Marathon

  1. Runners also need to pick a side to run on and consistently stay on that side as much as possible. They should communicate their preferred running lane too. This will help your spectators find you.

  2. regan says:

    Never tell someone “that was your last hill!” or “you’re halfway done!” unless you know that to be true. Here we have a very massive hill at mile 11 of the Austin Half marathon. The cheerleaders at the top were happily yelling that we had all completed our last hill but we had a few more to go. That can really mess with your head. Same thing with “halfway done!” A lot of races have half and full participants on the same course so people may not actually be halfway done. Or you could be bad at math (ahem, guy this weekend who was super confused about what half of a half marathon is.)

  3. You guys were AWESOME cheerleaders.

    (I also like Mark’s comment about picking a lane. I was thinking that myself when I wasn’t sure what side my family would be on. From now on I’m going to have to tell everyone the left-ish is my side.)

  4. You really go all out! We’ve gone twice to cheer for a friend at the Twin Cities Marathon, but we only went at the end to see him at the finish line. One of these days we may have to watch the WHOLE race.

  5. I think my comment was just eaten… But what I did say is that we’ve cheered a friend twice at the Twin Cities marathon, but never watched the whole race just came to see him at the very end. One of these days I’ll have to do it for the WHOLE race!

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