Running's Neglected Spectators, January 2013

Roger on Running: A New Year's Resolution

A proposal to support our spectators
Would running down First Avenue in the New York City Marathon be quite so bearable without throngs of cheering spectators?

Here's my New Year's Resolution for running: do something for the most ill-treated, long-suffering section of the entire running community — our heroic, neglected spectators. Yes, neglected. Taken for granted. Left out in the cold, or the heat. Exploited as visual background scenery but invisible when the value gets added. Nonexistent when the pundits plan where our sport is heading. When the experts peered into their crystal balls to describe the future of road racing in the December issue of Running Times not one spared even a thought for how the sport might provide better for its spectators — those patient millions who stand in the curb for hours at a time to cheer on a horde of total strangers. 

We hear often about the “TV audience,” and how the sport should be reconstructed to satisfy their lust for dumbed-down entertainment. NASCAR has even been proposed as a role model. Meanwhile our real live vibrant sidewalk supporters get, if they are lucky, a few words of thanks at the winners' media conference, which they are not invited to attend. 

We take a lot of pride that running is a “mass spectacle.” But to be a spectacle, someone has to spectate. Road race crowds may not be paying customers, but they do make an important contribution. They make runners feel significant. It's the crowds who make us heroes.

So this is my footnote to visions of the future of running — take better care of our friends on the sidelines. Every race boasts of its crowd numbers, and how they are special to the spirit of each particular community. But how many races actually do anything to make their experience more enjoyable, better-informed, more comfortable, or even more conformable to health and safety standards? No seating, no shelter, no refreshments, no water, no toilets, no information, no medical support, no pre-race entertainment, no extras, no thanks — that's the norm, with very occasional exceptions. As a spectator, the only thing any race ever provided for me is a broad-shouldered cop to keep me back off the road. 

The Tour de France — a sports event even more long-distance and fast-moving than ours — shows how good the spectator experience can be. And the Tour ties that in with the commercial vitality of the cycling industry and its related sponsors. Jacques Sonbrion, a former peleton member turned sports writer, described the scene for me in an email (translated): 

“A huge sponsors' caravan goes through an hour before the race, a cavalcade of floats and vans, music blaring, ooga horns, all color and noise and fun. They toss out free merchandise to the crowds, and grown men go diving for free candies, pens, caps, stickers, drinks. It's like a Christmas parade on speed. 

“Then there's a colossal merchandise machine, at the start and finish towns, and along the course, selling all the jerseys and souvenirs. The Tour is a massive business. There are giant screens at the finish, and people have TV satellite dishes on their camper-vans. The local regions promote themselves on the TV coverage by erecting huge bikes made of hay-bales or flowers or whatever, and there are colored banners all along each stage. Many families make it their holiday, there are hordes of sun-burned Danes, drunken Aussies, Basques who storm across the Pyrenees. Thousands walk or ride up the mountains. It's all free entertainment — no charge, no tickets, but nonstop fun,” Sonbrion said. 

It all makes the Wellesley women or the crowds on First Avenue sound quite understated. 

The Tour's high-pressure commercialism may not be the right model for running, but we could for sure get more imaginative than free bang-sticks. There have been some positive changes, like names on the elites' bibs — “Meb” or “Kara” — to help the cheering. And the pacers at the Virgin London Marathon and some other races now wear distinctive black-and-white stripes, so you're less likely to go crazy whooping for a guy who is being paid to drop out. But still the shoe companies insist on dressing their star runners alike, so the moment when the front pack flashes by continues to be confusing more than exciting.

“Issa bigga grouppa!” once cried an Italian marathon star who was hired as expert commentator for American TV.


The fans and random streetside supporters can't help you run faster, can they? What if races didn't have noisy and enthusiastic throngs of fans lining the streets?

It's hard to sound knowledgeable about eight identically-dressed Kenyans passing your spot at 4:50 mile speed. Yet in any sport the fans like to feel knowledgable, at the very least to know who's winning. 

So give the crowds some help, guys. Did no one think of putting the World Marathon Majors leader in yellow? Or the defending champion in, say, orange or whatever is the race sponsor's color? It's worked for a hundred years in the Tour. 

One of the best crowd experiences I've witnessed was at the Auckland Commonwealth Games marathon in 1990, when a giant screen was placed at the link point on the figure-8-shaped lap, with public address commentary aimed specially at the crowds gathered there. Even on point-to-point courses, we could surely think of locations where such a screen would provide a focus for crowd entertainment, as well as enabling them to follow the race. It would be a nice way of saying thanks to Wellesley students for their vociferous decades as unpaid TV extras. Radio coverage works well for informing the crowds at the Utica Boilermaker, which also throws a party for the most supportive neighborhood along the course, a great way of showing that the cheering crowds are an integral part of the race. 

Those ideas are old technology. The new millennium is opening new opportunities. The Rock ’n’ Roll franchise offers text message tracking, though Joe reported from Las Vegas that “I had difficulty getting my calls through to Colleen during the race, so I don't know if the system actually worked.” 

The ING New York City Marathon this year introduced a mobile phone app designed to provide information to spectators and the world at large. 

“Developed in cooperation with Map My Run, the app offered runner tracking, live race video, marathon and tourist information, and location-based offers and games,” said Drea Braxmeier, spokesperson for the New York Road Runners. 

So from the sidelines, you could track any runner in the New York field, as well as follow the elite races. There were teething problems, partly due to saturation usage, which makes my point. The need is there. In our spread-out sport, information is everything. Back in 1908, progress from the Olympic marathon in London was shouted through megaphones. Now we have better technology. We could do so much to make on-course spectators feel properly part of the “mass spectacle” that they have generously helped to create. That would be the best holiday present they have been given for many a year. 

Tags: marathon spectators, New York City Marathon, Running Times, Tour de France

sitemap xml