What I Learned About Supporting Runners at a Big Race

I had an amazing inspirational day on Saturday.

The started with a bit of rain and an amazing double rainbow. I only caught part of it, but how often is there a rainbow at 7 am??

For several hours I cheered the runners compete in the Akron Marathon, Half Marathon and Team Relay through the streets of Akron, Ohio. I was a spectator along with another estimated 99,999 other people!

Over the past 4 years I ran in this race. Both in 2015 & 2016 I was on a marathon relay team and in 2017 & 2018 I ran the half marathon. This year my participation was limited to making it about supporting runners by cheering and high five-ing.

I’ve done a lot of volunteering at water stations over the years (at least 12 different races) and have competed in over 30 races since 2009 (mostly 5Ks and three half marathons.)

As a runner, I know that having someone watch you makes a difference in performance. You just simply try harder. And when the going gets tough, a kind word or even a smile at the right moment can make a really huge difference. I find it inspiring being around people who are working to achieve something really hard.


Go Random Stranger - what I learned about Supporting the RunnersDuring my time running, spectating and cheering people on, I’ve learned a few things about supporting runners:

  • Make a sign that makes people smile. My signs were taped to a rake. They are easier to hold. And it left one hand free for the ringing the obnoxious cow bell.
  • Move locations to get different perspectives of the race. From 8:15 am I was at mile 6 until around 9:30. The streets were filled with half marathoners along with the full marathon racers and the relay teams. As this group turned into a trickle of people, I drove my car over to mile 14 and rang the bell again from 9:45 until 10:40 am. Mile 14 was at the top of the hill where the marathoners had just finished about 2 miles of vertical climb. It was much hotter as the overcast skies had burned off and sunglasses were needed.
  • I had a 2 sided sign but used the “Go Random Stranger Go” side that I used for for 99% of the race because it got the most smiles and comments. Many racers yelled out “Thanks, Random Stranger” and I hollered back “This sign is for YOU!” Most of those comments were at mile 6. At mile 14 I got a couple of “Hey, there’s that random stranger again!”
  • The other side of the sign said “This sounded like a good idea 4 months ago!” which for some reason I thought was funny the night before, however when I got to the race it seemed pretty snarky. Certainly not encouraging. I realized that there were a lot of people who thought it was funny, but they were all the bystanders and spectators, not the runners! So I learned for future races where I am a spectator… but sure to think of it from the perspective of a tired runner.
    Supporting the runners with a Sign and a Cow Bell
  • I learned that when cheering people on, it is great to use their name. The Akron marathon would print the name of the person (or what ever you wanted) printed on the front of the bib. It was particularly effective when the person was running by themselves. Their face would light up in a smile and their eyes said “Thank You!” even if they were too tired to say anything.

One problem that happened a few times with using people’s name. I would say something like “Looking good, Julie!” but as soon as I got the words “Looking Good” out of my mouth, someone else, running right next to Julie would say “Thank you!” It only happened a few times, but made me feel bad, like I was calling out the person next to them and not them!

So, to remedy that, I learned to not use someone’s name if they were running near someone else, or I would use the name first, like “Julie, Looking good.”

  • I mentioned the obnoxious cow bell. I put it on a rubber band so that I didn’t have to worrying about setting it down and picking it up. As a runner, I always appreciated the cow bells. Especially when they ran in the same pace pattern as my feet were running. It helped me to keep going.  As a spectator, I learned that cow bells are obnoxious to the people around you. Hearing that constant ringing for more than an hour gets jarring.

It is a similar effect for cheering people on.

  • I learned if I said the same thing over and over and over, it feels like a chant and starts to lose all meaning. So I tried to switch it up:

    “Stay strong.” “You got this.” “Good job.” “Looking good.” “Keep it up.”

  • I learned that the runners have different attitudes towards how the day was going. While some people had head phones on. Most smiled back at me with my cow bell and sign. Other people wanted to be noticed. I found to really encourage someone, that it was really important to lock eyes with the runner, just them, one by one. A few runners didn’t want to engage, they were in their own flow state. And some were really desperate in need of some encouragement and support. “Thank you!!” some runners would gasp.

Once in a while the runner would looked like they were out for an easy run. They had a quick easy smile come across their face. “Thank you random stranger!!” they would shout back at me! I suspect that these type of runners were pacing someone else. Especially when I was a mile 14 and the runners had just completed a 2 mile up hill section.

  • I learned it was good to be prepared. I was really glad I brought my own water bottle. Being out there, cheering people on makes my smile start to hurt, dries out my teeth and gets my throat dry and voice raspy. A good swig of water fixed that every time. I tried to make it all about supporting runners.I know that people were running for 5 hours at a time. And I know I was only out there for a little over 2 hours, (so it feels like I shouldn’t have any issues,) but believe me, I was glad to have water. If you are going to be supporting runners and cheering people on, it’s good to have water!
  • I learned that is is good to research who you know will be running the race. Seeing the flat version of people the night before on social media really helps to identify someone when the sea of runners are going by!
  • Best of all, I learned that I loved seeing all the familiar faces running by me! Friends I know from volunteer work. People from my gym. Women from MRTT (Moms Run This Town.) Even someone I recognized from the Becoming Elli Community! (More about her later!!)
  • I learned that I should have padded the handle of the cowbell. I ended up with a blister on my right index finger. (I guess I should have trained to ring, eh?)

While I’ve taken the past year off from running, I still greatly admire the runners and get inspired seeing the determination, courage and struggles. My heart is filled when I participate – as a runner or volunteer or even just as a spectator who is all about supporting runners!

I’m sure you have some ideas, as a runner or a volunteer at a race or a spectator.  What’s the most encouraging sign you’ve ever seen? What phrases have you heard that encourages people the most? Let me know by leaving a comment below or calling our voice mail at 330-970-6662.

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