A Spectator’s Guide to the Philadelphia Marathon

Executive editor and three-time marathon runner Tom McGrath spills what racers want — and don’t want — from their cheering section

This Sunday morning, while much of Philly remains snug in their beds, I, and 8,000 of my closest friends, will stand at the starting line of the 16th-annual Philadelphia Marathon. Have we trained? You bet. Are we excited? Absolutely. Will we definitely make it to the finish line?

Uh …

Look, anyone who’s ever run a marathon will tell you that finishing is hardly a slam dunk. I’ll chronicle my attempt at running 26.2 miles — complete with photos of my own mile-by-mile disintegration — in the next issue of HL. In the meantime, though, my fellow runners and I have a simple request: Help us out.  Please. And here are five ways you can do it.

CHEER. It’s hard to put into words exactly how much of a difference the crowd — or lack thereof–can make when you’re running. One of the most miserable experiences of my life came a few years ago when I ran the Vermont Marathon. Yes, Vermont is beautiful and the people who live there are quite lovely. The problem is there are only about 27 of them in the whole damn state, which meant that by the time we reached the second half of the course the only ones cheering for us were three squirrels and a white-tailed deer (and in retrospect, they may have just been chattering among themselves). It became the longest, most Bataan-Death-March-like running experience of my life. So please, Philly, no matter where you’re standing on the course — you can check out a map here –give us a little bit of encouragement as we run by. And pass it on to the squirrels.

MAKE SIGNS, ETC. The knock that non-runners have on running — that it’s god-awful boring — is absolutely not true, except during a marathon when, okay, sometimes it’s kind of true. The worst part is actually the middle chunk of the race, when you’re past the adrenaline rush of the first few miles but have not yet reached the pain, filth, self-loathing, and general obliviousness of the last six miles. So a good distraction goes a long way, and we appreciate anything you can do to make the miles go by: a clever sign, a musical act, tap dancing, spinning plates on sticks. We’ll take whatever you got.

STAY OFF THE COURSE. You would think this would be obvious, but apparently — and I’m talking to you here, Mr. Guy-Who-Darted Across-Broad Street-on-His-Unicycle-Last Year — it’s not obvious to everyone.

PACK EXTRAS WITH YOU. The only thing you can say for certain about a marathon is that you can never really say anything for certain about a marathon: blisters appear unexpectedly; body parts you didn’t know you had can get rubbed raw; gloves get sports drink spilled on them, then freeze solid. If you’re out supporting a friend or family member, make like a Let’s Make A Deal contestant and jam a bunch of just-in-case items in your bag: extra socks, toilet paper, extra shirt, shoelaces, Vaseline.

NEVER SAY…. My most important piece of advice, and one I’ve saved for last so it sticks with you. A few years ago during the New York Marathon, I was hobbling through the hills of Central Park with about three or four miles to go when an overly sunny guy chirped, “You’re almost there!”
    Dude, I was so not almost there.
    I didn’t say anything to the guy — I was apparently having a sort-of mini-stroke at the time — but had my left side not been numb I would have thanked the man for his encouragement, then asked him to keep his measuring to himself. A simple “Atta, guy!” and a high-five are all any of us need.