Race day: what to expect from the sidelines of an open marathon

Race day comes up so quickly even though the individual weeks of training pass slowly!

Looking ahead to race day, you will get through the “taper tantrums,” physically get to the race location and then it is show time!

In general, you should expect to:

  • Know the pace goals
  • Figure out the race tracking system or app
  • Communicate planned or expected spectator spots
  • Run around like a nut or find a spot to squat
  • Navigate the crowd
  • Cheer loudly!
  • Decide on a post-race meeting spot
  • Have one long, sweaty, I’m-not-sure-if-I-can-hold-you-up-this-way hug 🙂

The following apply to all types of races, mostly open marathons:

A successful spectating day starts 1-2 weeks prior with the preparation. Check out future blog posts about doing your homework! For brevity’s sake, we will assume you are armed with the tools you need (maps, water, watch, etc.). Race day starts EARLY. Your athlete needs to eat, poop, get dressed, then probably poop again. The best advice I was given was to not take it personally if there was little (read: no) conversation to be had. I usually get up a little after Jon, double check my backpack is not too heavy to run around with, but packed with the essentials.

Know your athlete’s expected pace. This will help save you (a little) anxiety and give you insight into how the race is going for them.

  • Some race expos will have pace bands you can buy that break down each mile or distance with the time.
  • You can be old school and write these times on your arm/hand (pack a sharpie!)
  • Create a note on your phone with the times
  • You will be doing a lot of math throughout the day. If you printed the course map out, I would suggest bringing a pen to write on that with updated times

The easiest way is to figure out the goal finish time, divide by the distance and get your min/mile pace. You can then start with when the race is supposed to start and add those times up so that you match an actual hour/minute time. This way you aren’t doing math every single mile. Whatever works for you!

Example: Race starts at 8:00 a.m., runner’s pace is 7 minutes/mile. If you are at mile 5, you better be at your spot well before 8:35. (Tip: I try to aim for at least 5 minutes before anticipated arrival time. I also allow 3-5 minutes after expected arrival time before panicking that something is wrong. The race might have started late, your runner was in the last corral, etc.)

I wouldn’t rely on the stopwatch on your phone. Chances are, your battery could die or it is too easy to be using your phone and hit stop. I got a basic watch that had a stopwatch on it (Amazon $10 quality) and I used my phone as a back up the first race. I have also used the double watch method– using my normal watch and then a basic stopwatch.

Athlete tracker. Some races are getting with the times and offer some sort of athlete tracking. One that I have used is the RaceJoy app which you can sign up to get text message updates at certain splits. If your athlete carries a phone with them, you can do more up to date or GPS tracking. I enjoy the updates because it can help me monitor how Jon is doing at places throughout the race I am not there to spectate. It also helps me anticipate the time he will be at the spots I am spectating at. Warning: sometimes your athlete’s time chip may not pick up the timing mat and it looks like they got injured, stopped the race, etc. Don’t panic until you have laid eyes on your athlete. If something truly does happen, the race crew will call you. You enter an emergency contact for a reason. 

Communicate where your target spots are so that your athlete will know where to look for you! For example, you say I’m going to be on the RIGHT side of the course, soon after the 12 mile marker. This can truly get them through the race, knowing okay I just have to get to mile 12 and I’ll see Michelle, I can give her my throw away shirt, see her smiling, beautiful face, etc. (you know… normal thoughts they have during races)

  • Make sure they know what you are wearing and try to minimize wardrobe changes
  • It is easier to stick to one side of the course, if possible.
    • If there are a lot of right hand turns throughout the course, you better be on the right hand side so they don’t need to run out of their way to see you.
  • I try to be on the inside of any turns and check out the rest of the course map to see what is easily accessible for spectators.
  • I don’t always do this (because I am no where as fast as Jon’s race pace) but I can usually start sprinting if I am in a pretty open area and just run with him for a minute, to check in and see how he is doing.

*In certain races (Ironman for example) providing aid to an athlete can cause a DNF disqualification. Don’t plan on carrying extra gels, water, socks, etc.  Make sure you read the race rules if this is something you were considering!

Get to where you say you will be. The easiest way to spectate a race is probably by bike or by foot. I haven’t done the whole bike thing but it seems much more efficient when I see others doing it. Taking your car can be done if it is a spread out course; however, familiarize yourself with the road closures ahead of time. The first marathon I watched Jon rum,  I was BEGGING a police officer to let me through a closed road because I had no other way to get there. It is also stressful to keep an eye on the clock, navigate your GPS/map and find parking during races. Most races you can spectate on foot.

You don’t have to see your runner 10 times during the course. If you do, that is FANTASTIC! It should not be an expectation. I find it helpful to go over the race course with Jon well in advance and find out where he might need/prefer I be (The wall most runners hit at miles 20-22 is REAL).

Get to the front! Okay… you don’t need to throw any elbows on a race course, hopefully! I have to say that I have considered this a time or two though! I do nudge my way up to the front when I know Jon is getting closer. The finish line is a free for all. I try to negotiate with other spectators who are totally taking over spaces. “My runner should be coming in the next two minutes, do you mind if I trade you spots until he crosses the finish line?”  If that doesn’t work, move on to another person or spot. Remember, there is a photographer at most races and while you have to pay for the pictures, don’t fret if you don’t have the perfect position for a picture. As long as you can see them and are in the crowd, that is what matters!

Cheer loudly! Cowbells, whistles, loudspeaker, whatever it takes! I really enjoy making funny signs that will be funny yo Jon but also to the other athletes too! Mike’s wife, Angie, made some of those “Fat Head” pictures and has Mike’s face HUGE on a stick and it is fantastic. I always say I’m going to get these made but we have been flying to a lot of races lately and I just can’t imagine going through the airport with Jon’s head as my carry on item.

Decide on a post-race meeting spot. If you take only one thing away from this post, let this be it! Don’t make your athlete carry unnecessary weight with their phone. Pick a spot that is easy to identify and be there. (Look forward to a future blog post about spectating Boston and what happens when you aren’t there!) Some races have very long finish shoots that are full of post race food, medals, pictures, etc. that you won’t be able to get into. Plan on meeting outside of the crowd but not too far that your marathoner is walking extra just to meet you because you don’t want them to walk equally as far back to get another beer!

Have one long, sweaty I’m-not-sure-if-I-can-hold-you-up-this-way hug. This is the best part 🙂     Pro tip: it is AWESOME if you carry an extra set of clothes (including shoes and socks) for your athlete to change into if you are far from a hotel, your house or car. Be sure to bring some deodorant, a towel and even body wipes to get the salt and sweat off of them. Some facilities will have showers available for athletes. 

CELEBRATE!!!!!! Hopefully you had a great time spectating, your athlete had an amazing race day and you get to celebrate together. Smash some post-race pizza, drink some beers and take the next day off to sleep in!IMG_0111




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