Philadelphia Marathon: The Complete Guide to Being the Best Spectator Ever

Photograph by Jeff Fusco

Photograph by Jeff Fusco

Fact: Training for a marathon is hard work. It takes months of rigorous preparation, intense focus, and lots and lots (and lots!) of time spent logging miles. But on Sunday, when the gun goes off for the 20th anniversary Philadelphia Marathon, the runners won’t be the only ones doing the work. Or, at least, they shouldn’t be.

Having run my fair share of races over the past few years, I can tell you without a doubt or reservation that spectators are a ridiculously important ingredient in the magic that is race day. It’s an energy thing, and runners can only generate so much on their own, especially when they’re heading into double-digit milage. So, spectators, simply watching people run past isn’t enough. The runners need you to fully commit to the cause and be a super amazing, spectacularly energetic,  awesomely enthusiastic sideline cheerleader.

In case you need crib notes, I’ve asked some runner friends and readers to share how spectators have gotten them hyped on race day, so you can learn a thing or two. Consider this your Complete Guide to Being the Best Marathon Spectator Ever. And on behalf of the 30,000 runners who’ll be slogging away this weekend: Thank you.

1. Scream Your Stinkin’ Heart Out. 

There is nothing worse, from a runner’s standpoint, than a large swath of spectators standing still and silent as statues as you run by, especially at key points of the course. I griped about this last year after the Broad Street Run when, as I came into the Navy Yard in view of the finish line, I realized that the spectators who’d planted themselves there were just … standing there. Silently. I kid you not. I actually thought something tragic had just happened. So, guys, don’t do that.

2. Cheer for Strangers, Too. 

Chances are, if you’ve woken up early on a Sunday morning to watch a race, you’re probably there to support a specific friend or family member. But the thing is, when you friend or spouse or sister runs by, she’s gone in a flash. That means you’re really only cheering for your runner for a few happy seconds. You can put aaaallll that time before and after to really good use by cheering for strangers. If you’re feeling especially magnanimous, maybe stick your hand out for a high five or two. When I run, I high five every stuck-out hand I see. (Little kids are THE. BEST.) It’s a nice gesture of support, even if you know you’ll never see the person again.

3. The Bibs Have Names for a Reason. 

You don’t have to put on your reading glasses to see the giant printed names on the runners’ bibs at the Philadelphia Marathon. Guess what? They’re there for a reason! Medically speaking, they’re useful in case a runner collapses, and the paramedics want to shout their name until they come to. But! They’re also there so that spectators can personally cheer for any and every runner they see. So don’t feel sheepish calling out, “Go Brian!” or “You can do it, Sue!” or “Emily! You’re awesome!” (see what I did there?) because even though we don’t know you from Peter or Paula, we’re still psyched to hear our names ringing out over the whoops and hollers.

4. Make a Sign, and Make It Funny.

I’m not talking about anything fancy here, but if you’ve got a marker and some poster board, have at it. You might think runners don’t notice the signs, but they totally do. And in those moments when all you want to do is stop, a funny sign can really lift your spirits. Here are some great sign ideas if you need them.

5. Costumes Are Awesome. 


6. Don’t Shout, “You’re Almost There!”…

… unless you can physically see the finish line from where you’re standing (although you shouldn’t be able to. See #7.). Here are some better phrases to try on for size.

“Great job, _____!”

“You look strong, ____!”

“You can DO IT, _____!”

“You’re kicking this race’s ass, _____!”

“There’s beer in your future, ______!”

And etc.

7. Don’t Stand Near the Starting Area. Or in Center City. 

I know how tempting it can be to plant yourself right smack dab in the middle of the action, but where the runners really neeeeed you is along Kelly Drive at miles 22 or 23—near the end of the race. This is typically a very sparse section of the race, as far as spectators go, and unfortunately it tends to coincide with the point of the race when the marathoners are running on fumes, so they could really use the extra encouragement. If you can get there, make a day of it on Kelly Drive.

8. Stick Around Until the End.

Look, not everyone is a sub-four-hour marathon finisher. Heck, lots of people aren’t even a sub-five-hour finisher. The problem with being near the back of the pack is that the river of spectators usually dries up before they finish. If you want to win extra bonus spectator points, stick around until the end. The back-of-the-packers will be so, so grateful.

9. Be a Useful Pitstop. 

If you’re there to cheer on a friend or family member, offer to take his or her extra layers at a designated point in the race. Or, hold some Gu packets (or whatever your runner’s fuel-up jam may be), and slip them some extra energy when they run by. Think of yourself as Team Mom.

10. Have a Post-Race Plan. 

Speaking of your runner, chances are he or she will be maxed OUT (mentally, physically) by the end of the race. Don’t leave it up to the runner to plan where you’re going to celebrate after the race. Whisk them away to a pre-determined place (in your car, which you should have parked nearby) and let the reverie begin.