An Open Letter to Spectators

This letter was inspired while I was mountain biking this afternoon. I was off my bike, walking a rocky section when I came up to two hikers going in the opposite direction. The heavier of the two said to me "It looks like you bit off more than you can chew." Her comment turned an already difficult ride into a full blown sufferfest, with a little parrot sitting on my shoulder repeating "More than you can chew, more than you can chew." Her comment shouldn't have bothered me, but it did. Since she obviously was not an avid athlete, I'm hoping she was well meaning. I have seen and heard many well-meaning but destructive spectators, and I was inspired to come up with a Spectator's Guide after my confidence was crushed by an overweight hiker on a Sunday afternoon.

Dear Spectator,

Congratulations! Your athlete is about to participate in _________ race, which I know he/she has been dedicated in training for and you have graciously tolerated all the antics that go with training for said race. We appreciate you. We love having you at races. But if you're new to the scene, there are a few things you need to know that will make every one's day go much better.

  1. Do not get in line for the Porta Potties before the race. There are literally hundreds of athletes that have pre-race nerves, are taking care of "business", or are regretting the jalapeno bacon cheeseburger they ate last night. Do not make them wait for the bathroom. One minute after the start, there will be plenty of Porta Johns available for you to use. As soon as you see your athlete off, you'll have plenty of time to kill anyway.

  2. Do not wander onto or try to cross the course. If you absolutely have to cross the course for some reason, check left, then right, then left again and make sure there are no athletes coming or going. Then check left and right again. Only when you know you can cross without interfering with someone's race should you do so. People who are racing move fast. Bikes racing move even faster. If in doubt, wait some more. When you do cross, be quick about it. Don't stroll or dillydally. Don't get onto the course to take pictures. I know you want the best picture of your stud muffin as possible, but with your nose in the camera, you may miss a tired and fatigued athlete who wanders into your path, knocks you down and breaks your camera. Wait, you wandered into HER path. Take pictures from the sidelines or well beyond the finish line area.

  3. Keep an eye on your kids. I love seeing kids at races and I think one of the best things you can do for your child is to introduce them to an active lifestyle. But please don't bring your kids and let them run wild. It's annoying to have to avoid kids in transition areas, starting corrals, and finish line chutes but it's not about the inconvenience. If some guy riding at 25 mph isn't smart enough to slow down when approaching transition and happens to hit Junior, well, let's just say no one wants that to happen. Again, people move fast and bikes move faster. Junior may not be paying attention. Maybe you don't care that your perfectly behaved child just ruined someone's race, but you should care that your offspring could be hurt. My favorite place to see kids: on their parent's shoulders. This is great for 3 reasons. Junior can't wander off and get hurt, he is in a much better position to see racing Mom or racing Dad, and the spectating parent gets a workout. Everyone wins!

  4. Watch your language. I don't mean swearing. In fact, sometimes a properly placed expletive can be quite motivating. Watch what you say to athletes, whether you know them or not. This requires sub-guidelines. 1) NEVER be negative. 2) It's OK to lie, e.g. "Lookin' good!" We know that's a lie and we appreciate it. 3) If you can't lie and can't think of anything nice to say, non-words are good too. Woo hoo, Wahoo, Ooo Ooo, Yay, Yee Haw, and barn animal noises are preferable to negativity or silence. 4) Use names if you can or specifics. Lots of bibs now have names, but "Go Girl" or "You're kicking ass, Man" are also good. 5) Use phrases like "Push harder" or "Pick up the pace" with caution. If that works for your athlete, great. For people like me, when someone says "Push harder" I feel like they're telling me I'm not working hard enough already when I'm usually going as hard as I can and ready to puke. If I'm in a really bad place, that just might get you clothes lined. The same goes for critiques on form. My training partner can tell me to lengthen my stride or relax my shoulders and it's a good thing for me. A stranger saying the same thing only makes me feel worse. 6) DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT say "You're almost there" unless you can see and hear the finish line from where you are. You may think that 5 miles left in a marathon, ultramarathon, Ironman or 1/2 Ironman is almost finished. But any athlete can tell you a lot can happen in 5 miles and to tell someone they are almost finished when they may have another hour of running left is cruel.

  5. Only athletes get to enjoy the post-race finish line spread. It is really unfair to the racers for you to grab a water and some fruit for yourself or your kids. The athletes had to pay a fee to race and part of that covers food. There are exceptions. If the race is almost or completely over and there are leftovers, ask a volunteer if it's OK to take something. If you or a family member are diabetic and need sugar, seriously, grab what you need. But don't just help yourself because you want a snack. I was in a multi-distance race and finished towards the front of the long course. The short-course athletes had mostly finished and I saw multiple families and spectators with their hands full of food, Gatorade and Mountain Dew. When I came through, no Gatorade, pop, or grapes, they had run out. And there were still at least 50 athletes that hadn't finished yet. It's a bummer to race hard for over 2 hours and only get water and some brownish bananas. Leave the goods for the athletes who need them. Same goes for chairs in the finish chute. Let the athletes sit, that's the least they deserve.

I know that's a lot of things not to do. But there are things you can do that every athlete will appreciate.

  1. Cheer. Clap. Do anything that makes a positive noise when any racer goes by, not just your athlete. Trust me, everyone appreciates it. And don't you want every other spectator cheering for your athlete when they go by?

  2. The cowbell is your friend. You can never have too much cowbell.

  3. Signs, posters, and sidewalk chalk are great. (Don't put sidewalk chalk down after the race has started. You have to plan that one in advance.) Put your athlete's name on a poster and make some generic ones, too. Funny quotes, inspiring words and phrases, trust me, we see it. Your poster saying "You are tough!" just might help someone push past a cramp or catch a second wind.

  4. Thank the volunteers and race officials. Thank the course marshals. They are keeping your athlete safe out there.

On one last note, I believe in race karma. Be polite and courteous. Don't push and shove. It's a big day for everyone. Maybe it's your athletes first race or maybe they're trying for a new PR. But there are most likely people there who are racing in memory of a loved one they lost, just lost 100 lb and are reclaiming their life, or it's their first race after having a child or beating cancer. Just remember, this is an important day for everyone.

See you on the course!

A Girl Named Sam


Kelly said...

Love this! I especially hate when the after race replenishers for the racers become breakfast for the families!!

Christi said...

This a great post and something that needed to be said.


Julie said...

Amen! Love this!

pigtailultrarunner said...

Amen!Amen!Amen! Thanks Sam.. great post!