Arguably one of the greatest aspects of participating in a race is being cheered on by total strangers. Medals, PBs, killer thighs and a sense of accomplishment all have their merits. But once you become a grownup, unless you’re a rock star or really good at public speaking, race day is pretty much the only time you’re going to get publicly applauded by complete strangers willing you to succeed.
As a wannabe disco superstar with the musical talents of a hamster, race day is the only opportunity I get to revel in my (imagined) adoring public, and I bloody love it. But despite my lust for the cheering limelight I must confess, until recently I wasn’t much of a race spectator and rarely returned the favour.
The truth is I found it a bit like PE swimming lessons at school, when I pretended I had my period so I didn’t have to get naked in front of the other girls (times have changed). Within seconds of sitting by the pool inhaling the heady scent of chlorine and watching my classmates happily splashing around, I always desperately regretted skiving and longed to jump into the inviting looking water. Until recently I saw race day as a similar torture and couldn’t bear watching happy runners without breaking into a run.
During my ultra widow days I was certainly dragged around enough cold wet hill races in the Scottish mountains to cheer. But the audience participation doesn’t count when it’s just you, Hamish the tea maker and a bunch of bored looking sheep huddled under a wet tarpaulin waiting for 12 gnarly old runners to whizz by.
My attitude to race spectating changed dramatically when my mum recently came to stay. Although the woman is arguably the embodiment of joy, she was the one that wrote the letters to my PE teachers at school so I could skive, and has never really been one for sport. I’ve tried countless times over the years to persuade her to come and cheer for me during a race and she’s always made excuses. But then I forced her to come to mile 21 at the London Marathon a few weeks ago and suddenly everything changed.
Within two minutes of seeing the first wheelchair racers whizz by my mum was in floods of tears and over the next six hours I watched her morph into a one-woman cheering machine. Together we laughed, sang, wept and screamed our heads off, cheering every single runner on as if they were our best friends. It was the most fun I’ve ever had not running in my entire life. With multiple sound systems competing for air space, thousands of spectators and an electric atmosphere, cheering for the London Marathon is like taking ten ecstasy pills at a giant happy rave minus the comedown.
There’s something almost primal about the instinct to cheer during a sporting event. Joining the sea of people and collectively encouraging runners you will never meet to succeed is good for the soul and made me feel elated for days afterwards. The following week my mum called to tell me she’d already booked tickets to come and cheer me on at the Istanbul Marathon in November and hoped it would be as much fun as mile 21 amidst the mighty Run Dem Crew. I haven’t got the heart to tell her it might be a little bit less crowded.
Last weekend I decided to take my newfound cheering skills to the next level and meet my gorgeous friend the insatiable Susie Chan and my new Scottish buddy the bearded warrior Graham Kelly at mile 31 of the Thames Path 100. I figured 100 miles was a slog worthy of extra special cheering, so I bought them a bag of chips, several miniature bottles of whisky and a smile.
With just my friend Simon Lamb and I applauding the exhausted looking running field as they stopped for sandwiches at the checkpoint (yes, you get sandwiches during ultras, how cool is that) it wasn’t a full on race spectator experience. But I felt the same infectious joy for encouraging complete strangers as I did during the London Marathon, and bloody loved every second of it. Enthusiastically encouraging strangers to succeed feels fantastic, but when a runner you know and love appears on the horizon, it is nothing short of euphoric. Just knowing that I gave them enough hugs and whisky to keep going for a few more miles made me smile all the way home.
If you have yet to cheer for an event, I implore you to get your butt down to the running route and scream your head off at strangers with wild abandon (or come join my mum in Istanbul!) Not only does cheering ensure the runners have a better time, but it will fill your heart with happiness and refill your karma tanks to boot. Those runners out there have not only trained their asses off for months to get there, but many of them have raised massive amounts of money for charity and they deserve to be celebrated. And you never know, when it’s your race day and chance to shine, they might just return the favour.
Having discovered the delight in race spectating, I have now decided to quit all my jobs and become a professional race spectator. If you need a shouty redhead, call me. I’m also available for weddings, Barmitzvahs and cocktail parties.