Who Are Marathon Spectators?

I am a marathon spectator.

I, myself, don’t run. Trust me, I’ve tried. Treadmill, road, track. I want to be one of those amazing athletes who push themselves to keep going, just one more mile . . . and then just one more after that. I want to feel the heaviness of a finisher’s medal around my neck and the crinkle of a shiny wrap around my shoulders. I long to round a corner, dead tired and foot sore, to see a sign with my name on it urging me to go the distance.

I’m just not a runner. I don’t have the drive, the patience, the endurance.

But I am a marathon spectator.

There are few other events that I enjoy more. The pumped up, friendly atmosphere, the inspiring stories, the peppy music, the colorful race outfits, the challenge of navigating by car to the place you want to be to see a runner friend or family member pass while all the main streets of town are blocked off. The expo the day before that has all those state-of the art shoes, weird-looking energy bars, and t-shirts and magnets with inside jokes printed on them that only runners and their family members would understand or laugh over. I love it all.

My first date with my husband was to a marathon he was participating in. Fifteen years ago, my good friend called me to say he had a big weekend coming up: a wedding he was attending Saturday night in one state followed by a marathon he was running Sunday morning in another. He asked me to come along with him and a couple of friends on the trip. Sometime during that weekend, between dancing at the wedding, holding hands and talking during the long car drive, and cheering him on in amazement as he ran farther, longer, and harder than I ever could, we fell in love. The Fox Cities Marathon in Appleton will always have a place in my heart for its role in our early romance.

My husband’s brother and sister-in-law (and now their two daughters) were also avid marathon, triathlon, and Iron Man enthusiasts, so between my family’s marathon and half-marathons, I’ve become and expert spectator.

I’ve walked around Chicago with a friend, map in hand, calculating distances and my husband’s pace to be able to pop up several times throughout the route to cheer him on. It was that experience spectating the marathon in downtown Chicago that inspired me to write regional fiction. Seeing the same sites that were backdrops for the characters on my favorite television show, Early Edition, made me want to give readers the excitement of walking the same streets as the fictional characters they loved.

I’ve been dropped off at the start of a marathon only to find that my ride home decided not to come. And so I’ve also had the experience of riding the fan bus to the end of the route and sitting there on metal bleachers for hours and hours in the cold fall morning, wrapped up in one of those crinkly, shiny wraps, given to me by a kind race worker who heard my story and took pity on me, watching as first the elite, and then more and more runners finished, all to the repeated tune of the 1988 Summer Olympics coming out of the loudspeaker.

I’ve taken the nine hour trip to Detroit and sat in in a stadium seat at Ford Field, reading the race magazine for two hours and waiting for my husband to finish just so he could live out his dream of running through the tunnel and onto the field of his favorite football team. I’ve also missed him finish and then spent two hours afterwards, a short person in a crowded arena, trying to connect back with him so we could start the nine-hour drive home.

I’ve sat in a hotel in my pajamas and looked down several stories at the start of a race, taking in all the colors of race shirts below us, leisurely having breakfast with a friend, and then headed out to find our loved ones on the course, towing my one-year-old daughter with us.

I’ve stood on the sidewalk and watched in awe as thirteen-year-old girls, eighty-year-old men, amputees in wheelchairs, and people dribbling basketballs do this thing that I will never be able to do.

I’ve pulled my jacket around me tighter against cold and rain and watched runners battle the elements in their running gear, and I’ve sought out the shade on those blistering hot days and watched runners, red faced and limping along, douse themselves with water at the next water station and refuse to give in to exhaustion.

I’ve stood at the end, my eyes going back and forth between the timer clock above the finish line and the crowd, hoping to see my husband appear before his goal time passes. Often, that goal time was just under four hours. Yes, I’ve stood there near the finish line many times at that popular four-hour mark.

I’ve run the marathon with the distance that’s perfect for me: the mile-long kids run with my daughter, the day before my husband ran a half marathon.

I’ve sweated it out, watching the clock in the school gym, a few minutes before preschool graduation, hoping that my husband can finish his race and the forty-five minute drive home in time to see my daughter’s presentation. And I’ve seen the smile on her face as he arrived, just in time, thanks to a personal best record, medal around his neck.

I’ve stood on the sidewalk and chatted with strangers about where they’re from and who they’re there to support, and I’ve cheered with them as their runner passed.

I’ve attended award ceremonies in the atrium of Lambeau Field when my sister-in-law placed in her division and said to my husband proudly and loudly enough for other spectators to hear, “Yeah, it’s pretty cool that she won her division, huh?”

I’ve parked at closed businesses and sprinted to the finish line, being ushered across the route by officials, to get there in time to snap a picture of a runner friend finishing.

I’ve felt the thrill of the adventure as I’ve weaved my way through the back roads of cities, piled out of the car with my husband, our three-year-old daughter, baby boy, and eleven-year-old niece so we could catch up with my sister-in-law in half a dozen spots along the route. Then we’d jump back in the car and weave our way to another location, rushing and laughing, hoping to connect with her at just the right moment.

I’ve sat at home, searching through triathlon web sites to find the page where you can track your athlete. I’ve done so every twenty minutes all day long in cases of Iron Man triathlons, tracking family members who have already started swimming by the time I got up and are somehow still running when I am getting ready for bed.

I’ve done a lot of things while spectating marathons, but there’s one thing I’ve never done:

I’ve never been afraid.

I’ve never felt concerned for my life or limb or eardrum.

I’ve never looked at the person standing next to me and wondered if he or she has just set in motion events that could hurt myself or someone I love.

I’ve never once had a contingency plan in place as to how to best throw myself on top of my children and onto the ground in case disaster strikes.

Who are marathon spectators?

They are the wives who bandage blistered toes and massage aching backs. They are the husbands who give pep talks the night before. They are the kids who hold up hand-made poster board signs that say, “Go Mom!” or “You can do it, Aunt Jenny!” They are the spouses who happily let a good portion of their household income go towards expensive shoes, running gear, race entry fees, and travel expenses, and they are the people who have to explain to curious fellow shoppers in parking lots why their car has a bumper sticker on it that says “13.1 Because I’m Only Half Crazy.” They are the friends who stand on the sidewalks at the start, most often in the early morning, pre-dawn chill, to cheer their loved ones on at the gun and whose presence at the finish line provides that final burst of willpower for their runner to make it.

They are people like my beautiful, funny, sweet fourteen-year-old niece who was at the Boston Marathon Monday supporting her mom. She was a block away inside a restaurant when the bombs went off. Her mom had not finished yet and was diverted by officials. I have thanked God probably a hundred times in the past three days for protecting my family.

My first thought on Monday was, “Well, we won’t be doing that again.” And I was sad because I’d lost something. Something fun I loved, something that had been the backdrop for a lot of great memories, something that couldn’t be part of my life anymore because of the “what if”s that started to creep in.

But I have this feeling that my runner friends and family are too strong to let cowardly acts of terror keep them from running marathons, and somebody needs to stand on the sidewalk, holding the sign and cheering.

So I am still a marathon spectator.


Jenifer Brady, a regional fiction writer from Wisconsin, is the author of the Abby’s Camp Days series. http://www.jeniferbrady.com


82 thoughts on “Who Are Marathon Spectators?

  1. Jenifer! I just read this at work. YOU NEED TO SUBMIT THIS SOMEWHERE! I’m not sure where, but someplace like a Sunday paper where lots of people will read it. VERY good! Thanks for sharing! Now share some more! Louise


  2. The people who planted the bombs are the sort of people who think that pain and difficulty will get others to give up.

    Marathons are about endurance in the face of pain and difficulty.

    Therefore, the whole idea of running a marathon proves the bomb-makers WRONG.


  3. Hi Jennifer,
    I think the spectators are one of the parts that makes Marathon’s fun for people who run in it. I have never run a marathon before but I love to cheer the people on who are in. I hope that what happened in Boston doesn’t stop other marathon’s and we all can continue to come and be safe and also be spectators!


  4. Glad to know your family is safe and also that you are not letting this keep you from being a continued spectator and supporter in the future. On a lighter note, my sister has never liked running either. She just really really really really dislikes it. She forces herself to jog from time to time when she is off from classes and work, but she does not enjoy it.


  5. I’m not an avid runner, but I do enjoy running. High fiving kids and seeing the funny signs while i ran my half marathon in 2011 was a great relief from the mental pain of running. Kudos to you and your fellow spectators. Your support means more to runners, especially recreational runners like me, than you’ve probably ever been told.


  6. I run quite a lot and spectators are everything; just a few words of support, a friendly face or a clap can make all the difference – don’t stop spectating!


  7. Ray ran five marathons and many shorter races, so I can identify with being a spectator and getting wrapped up in the excitement. This is very good, Jen. I agree you should submit it to some paper or magazine such as Runner’s World.
    I’m glad to see you are still writing.


  8. Well said. We can’t let fear stop us. I’ve never run a marathon, but I used to run middle distance on my high school track team. I know the kind of pain runners have to work through. Whoever committed this crime picked the wrong people to piss off.


  9. I loved reading your blog and agree with your sentiments – however can’t help thinking that to stay away from marathons in future would be to give the bomber the satisfaction of knowing he achieved what he set out to do. What do you think? Tony


  10. We runners truly appreciate people like you. I agree with the previous comment about needing to submit this somewhere. I’m sure there’s at least one running magazine/website that would be more than willing to feature this post!



  11. I am so glad that you still define yourself as a marathon spectator. What a great theme for an essay – usually the pov about a race is from a runner, but the spectator is just as much a part of the race! I’ve run more than 60 marathons, and I couldn’t do it without spectators – they give you energy when you feel you can’t do it anymore. I love being a spectator when I can’t run myself. Let’s keep spectating. Don’t let the bastards get us down.


  12. My running habit began as a spectator and I have had many similar adventures and experiences to yours. I have since become a participant but I still get opportunities to watch and cheer. I truly hope that you are able to come to terms with this unthinkable tragedy and continue offering your support.
    Beautifully said. Thank you.


  13. I am cyclist and actually prefer to bike because I see more stuff along the way. I also am car-free, so it is transportation too in addition to fitness, fun, etc.

    Great blog post, since there’s more marathon bystanders in this world rather than marathoners in running shoes.

    However we each participate in our own life’s marathon….when joy and tragedy is something we meet along the way in life. Of enormous sorrow, is losing family, like I have for a sister and soon, my father (to cancer)….

    We must make each day, the jog in life that is we chug along in acute observation of things around us….mindful living every step of the way.


  14. i really appreciate how you wrote this in the voice of a spectator. and how you allowed us to identify and relate to the spectators who were injured/killed during Monday’s blast.

    for those who will continue to stand to cheer on runners, or for those who continue to run in the face of fear… press on… press on.


  15. the not giving up spirit is a fight back and a hard slap to those tyrants. the marathoners are strong and way to brave. they also resonate the vivacity of the spectators – the spectators who infuse them with energy, who fuel their burnt out bodies, and balm their sore limbs. the spectators are the live wire. hail them, hail you. congratulations on a beautiful post and for being freshly pressed.
    a fellow spectator.


  16. Absolutely beautiful – as a runner, it is so wonderful to read your views and experiences that you’ve loved as a spectator… I had goosebumps reading this article.
    It is just so sad that it has to end off (and really, get started too) because of the tragic and horrific act of some fool trying to destroy lives.
    Please don’t ever stop spectating, even though it is now something “scary” to contemplate… the feeling of seeing someone you know, or hearing your name being called from the sidelines, is something that nobody but a runner will ever understand – it is absolutely magical!


  17. The point I see and applause on your post is that one should not allow what one cannot control take control of ones life. Marathon watchers or any other type of activity that brings together mobs of people in a determined place and time, will always be appealing to those who want to do harm and get coverage for it, point. Be it airports, train stations at rush hour, as was the case of the bombing in Madrid in 2004 that killed 191 and wounded 1800 civilians on their way to work. No one there has ever stopped using the trains or going to work for that matter.
    We cannot let our lives be governed by fear or even the thought of danger – it would mean, stop living. I walk the streets, use public transportation, travel to exotic countries. For certain I have become more attentive of my surroundings and who walks it. but I go about my daily life with joy.
    I understand that now is the moment of mourning, rebuilding the damage done -be it material or emotional. It is important to try to understand why and how this happened and if possible punish who did it. Only so will many find peace, but it will not reduce the threat of future attacks even inside the United States.


  18. Great article. If only more people would attend marathons as spectators they would understand that the spirit of friendship, enthusiasm, love and participation affects both the runners and those on the sidelines. There is a mutual sharing going on that positively affects everyone and international borders are opened up as participants bring the best of themselves and their home country’s spirit of co operation to the event. The summer months are ahead of us and the events of the past few days should not dampen our enjoyment of life, competition and sharing with others.


  19. I am so happy to have come across this post via freshly pressed. It seriously brought tears to my eyes….a dear friend of mine is, like yourself, a marathon spectator and was in Boston on Monday cheering on her boyfriend. They traveled from Montreal to participate in one of our nations finest events and I am so beyond sad that their experience was one filled with terror. Thanks for the post. This was simply beautiful.


  20. Beautifully written! I too have watched many a marathon that my brother, a friend and my sister-in-law ran and enjoyed the send off, the race (in the car) to the middle to cheer them on when they’re feeling dogged and discouraged and then sprinting to be at the finish line. Thank you for writing this post. It is positive messages like this that give all of us the strength and unity to make sure the bad guys don’t win.


  21. Pingback: Who Are Marathon Spectators? | the Travelling Mudskippers

  22. Reblogged this on Time Management For Teams and commented:
    In the early days of Time Diagnostics, I used to coach Marathon runners on the mental side of long-distance running. It’s the ultimate exercise in time management. As the London marathon approaches this weekend, and after the events in Boston, I came across this lovely piece of writing. Terrorism only works if you allow it to.


  23. Reading this struck a real chord in me – I’m one of those wives waking up in pre-dawn darkness to follow my husband out just so I can be at the finish line when he passes, enduring long bouts of boredom while waiting and the sweaty crush of post-run bodies after. I felt so sick reading about what happened in Boston and felt that same fear for the first time. Thanks for sharing.


  24. What a great post~ my heart hurts a bit for every runner and spectator in attendance that day. Running is a newfound love of mine- I, too, intend on running a major city at a major event and for the first time thought “maybe I shouldn’t.” I will push through- as will most runners-and spectators- because that is what we do, isn’t it?! Praising God for your family, safety and inspiring words. Thanks for sharing!


  25. Couldn’t agree with you more! I’m a spectator and i’ll be supporting my friend running this weekend with a banner. We’ve all got to stay strong, otherwise terror will win us over and we’re all too smart for that to happen. Great post! Thanks, Sam


  26. What a well-written and moving post. I am a marathon runner and all I kept thinking about when I saw the events unfold were of my husband and family who have come out to cheer me on and do exactly what you’ve done. I was fully planning to do another marathon in my favorite of all marathon cities: NYC… and one day dreamt of qualifying for the Boston. After Monday, I don’t worry for myself but I just kept thinking “How can I run another knowing that my family might not be safe? How horrible would I feel forever after if something were to happen to them because of me?”


  27. A big heartfelt thank you to everybody who commented, “liked”, shared, and reblogged. I appreciate your thoughts and support. I’ve heard a lot over the past couple of days about how marathon runners need their spectators and how much they gain from them. Well, readers are the “spectators” for writers, and it’s been wonderful to interact with you all. Comments such as yours inspire me to keep writing. Thank you.


  28. A very moving pot, what can I add after all the comments above. You all need to keep on doing it, otherwise those inflicting harm have won.


  29. Hi Jennifer,
    I loved your post as it really brought out the behind the scenes elements of the marathon…something so far beyond my personal experience either as a spectator or as a runner but I have been to AFL football matches here in Australia and they feel like one big happy family and it would just be awful. My thoughts are with the running community in the aftermath of Boston. They are already people who push themselves beyond so many barriers but nobody should have to consider being bombed during a simple race.


  30. Reblogged this on The Blogging Pot and commented:
    I really appreciated this behind the scenes view of the Boston Marathon and I encourage you to read it. Jennifer is a marathon spectator and provides great insight. My thoughts and prayers are with everyone affected by this dreadful tragedy. xx Rowena


  31. Thanks for this inspiring post. It really brought to life the excitement of a Marathon from the spectator side. I love running/jogging and have had the privilege of taking part two times in the Tokyo Marathon (the 10K section only) and experienced the excitement and thrill of being a part of something that is beyond words. They will remain cherished memories. Finishing a full marathon is simply beyond me but after experiencing the thrill, I still dream….. And I know the Boston bombing will not deter any real runner/marathoner or spectator.


  32. I feel like your words came straight out of my mouth! Great piece and one I can relate so very close to – except I had 5 kids to get into and out of cars! Next year, I hope to join you at the Boston finish line …again as a spectator!


  33. Reblogged this on Miss J and commented:
    I read this blog post last week and wanted to save it for my Tuesday Blog Highlight this week, which has been really hard to do because I wanted to share to a few friends in particular. As I prep for my first distance races I am discovering more and more how important the “spectators” and support team are. This author captured them best and I hope you all enjoy and are inspired by her words. This motivates me even more to keep at it and enjoy all that racing has to offer.



  34. This is such a perfectly written post — the runners and spectators would not be the same without each other at these events, both small and large. I have no doubt both groups will carry on with even more commitment and enthusiasm than before. Nicely done.


  35. Thank God for protecting you and your family. I attend races as a participant and totally agree with your last paragraph. My friend/co-blogger and I were talking and she very firmly stated that she refused to be scared off by evil acts and I agreed. We will continue to run and trust God that He will protect us.


  36. Pingback: Who Are Marathon Spectators? | Kaley Ricciardelli

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