We’ve all seen them: they are the ones who shout encouragement and give us high fives and orange slices. Whether crowded shoulder to shoulder or standing alone on a street corner, they inspire us to keep moving as our legs shout at us to stop.
I’m talking, of course, about the spectators who cheer us on at road races. We love them all, but they are not all alike, and some stand out in my memory more than others.
Over the years, I’ve learned that although a smile and a wave are universal, encouragement can sound different from country to country and place to place. In the U.S., we hear shouts of “good job” and “looking good” but in Ireland, it’s “Well done, lads” while in Rome, the locals shout “forza”, meaning “strength.” In Vienna, runners hear shouts of “hopp hopp” meaning jump faster, while in Bermuda, the gentility of the British Empire still reigns, and race-watchers offer encouragement politely.
Meanwhile, in Beijing, the crowds stand in hushed observance, offering support with only an occasional clap or shout. And in Pennsylvania, I saw Amish farmers watch half-marathoners in stony silence, perhaps disapproving of so much seemingly pointless effort. On the other end of the spectrum, however, few runners who tackle the Boston marathon will ever forget the unbridled enthusiasm of the female undergraduate students who line the course as it passes Wellesley College.
And music! From high school marching bands, to garage rock bands and bagpipe players, spectators seem to know instinctively that music helps lift tired feet. Years ago there was one guy who parked his old beat-up car at the far end of lonely Haines Point during the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington D.C., blasting the theme from “Rocky” from his open trunk. It was a simple gesture that hope he knows how much his little gesture helped pull many runners through one of the most difficult parts of that race.
I’ve also learned that every city has it’s own character, but some have more characters than others. I was having a hard time in the New York City Marathon one year and had to take a walking break in Harlem. A man suddenly jumped out of the crowd and yelled, “I didn’t come out here to see you walk!” I got back to running.
In Dublin, meanwhile, the locals seem unconcerned about bad weather, and even the kids stand and clap for hours. At mile 11 of the marathon one year, a golden-haired girl, no more than 7 or 8 years old, looked up hopefully at us and squealed, “Give us a smile!”
Other people help us accidentally by providing a welcome distraction, like the punk-rocker in Pittsburgh who, emerging from his apartment during the marathon and looking like he had barely survived a wild Saturday night, gazed at the runners streaming past and asked, “where’s everyone going?”
And some spectators, well, they’re not even people. I ran the 1999 Antarctica marathon, and there weren’t many cheerleaders on that course, but we did have a pair of gentoo penguins who spent hours watching us make our way through the ice and mud.
My favorite spectators, however, are my friends and family. More often than not, they aren’t runners themselves, and sometimes they don’t fully understand why it is that I choose to run these races in the heat, the cold, or the rain. But they still come out to cheer me on, and knowing that they are there is all the encouragement I need.
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