How To Be The Marathon Spectator Runners Love

Cheers of encouragement are a great morale booster, but every marathon runner has fond memories of that spectator, the one who had the perfect snack or motivating words at a tough point in the race. Here’s how to be that angel.

Decide where you want to be

First, a word about planning. A marathon is 42km long, and many races run a half-marathon at the same time. The half is 21km, but its course may diverge from the main event. Be sure to check the race’s website to know who is running and where, and station yourself appropriately. A rough guide:

  • Kilometre 5: Everybody is feeling good

  • Kilometre 10: Half marathoners are getting tired but they know the finish is coming soon. Full marathoners are getting tired and trying not to think about it.

  • Kilometre 20: Things are starting to get rough. Most of the runners have been on the course for 2+ hours. They’re cramping, they’re hungry, their legs hurt. But they’re still moving.

  • Kilometre 30: This is the low point for a lot of runners. There’s a saying that you can split a marathon into two halves: the first 20, and the last 6.2. Most runners passing the 32km mark are, or soon will be, exhausted and desperate.

  • Kilometre 35: This is the home stretch! The runners have been through a lot but they know they’re almost at the finish.

World class marathoners will make it through the course in a little over 2 hours (for men) or two and a half (for women). People who take 3+ hours are experienced, strong runners; those who take 4+ would often describe themselves as recreational athletes. People who take 5+ hours are usually mixing in some walking with their running, and/or started with one of the other groups but ended up really struggling.

With this information, you can decide where to set up, and when. Since this is a multi-hour event, you may want to find a few spots and move between them. Consider who will pass by your station, and how they might be feeling.

Hand out food

Posters and cheers are great — and we’ll get to those — but if you really want to do something special, have a snack or drink that the marathon doesn’t officially provide. These are especially appreciated in the later miles of the race. Some ideas:

  • Orange slices, or other juicy fruit

  • Gummy worms, or other candy that’s not too hard to eat on the run

  • Starchy food, like pieces of bread (this is the one time it’s acceptable to cut them St. Louis style)

  • Salty food, like pretzels or chips

  • Beer

  • Cold coffee (I haven’t seen this in person, but there is demand for it)

  • Cookies, cake balls, or anything delicious. These folks haven’t eaten anything delicious all day.

Remember that people will be grabbing the snacks with sweaty hands and little to no coordination. (They will also be much less interested in cleanliness at kilometre 30 than at kilometre 10). Plan accordingly, and make things easy to grab. Small portions are better than large ones; people can always take two.

Provide relief from hot weather

Marathons tend to be in the spring and autumn, to avoid the year’s hottest weather. A typical marathon day is cold at the start and warms during the course of the race. That means that by kilometre 15 or 20, the sun may be beating down on runners who are already feeling beaten-up. If it’s a hot day, consider helping folks cool down:

  • If you live along the race course, set out your sprinkler or even just stand around with a garden hose and let people run through.

  • This one is great for kids: bring a super soaker, and a sign encouraging runners to ask for a squirt.

  • Bring a cooler full of...well, anything cold. Fla-vor-ice popsicles are cheap and you can cut them in half with scissors.

Give motivation

This category is the cheapest, but it can be the most thoughtful. There’s a lot you can say to a runner to give them the strength to carry on. Not everybody will be receptive to your message, but you’ll make the difference for somebody.

  • High fives. Seriously, just stand on the footpath and hold your hand out. I’ll totally perk up and run across the street for a high five from a kid.

  • Creative high fives, like a poster that says “tap for a power up” or wear a Mario costume and give fist bumps

  • Yell the name on people’s bibs. A lot of marathons let you put your name on the bib under your number, or people will sometimes sharpie their name on their shirt. Cheer them on by name, or by description: “Lookin’ strong, pink shirt! You got this!”

  • Funny signs, like genuinely funny ones. I appreciate “Most Boring Parade Ever” and “Seems like a lot of work for a free banana.” Senses of humour vary, but do your best.

  • If someone is having an especially hard time, consider giving some personal words of encouragement, like so:


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