Why You Should Watch a Marathon

It's no secret that running a marathon is high my bucket list. While I work through setbacks that have kept me from lacing up, though, I've found that watching others tackle the distance has also been kind of incredible. Recently, I had the opportunity to spectate two great races: Boston Marathon and QDR Queens Marathon. They were so good--and so very different. But I went home after with the same thought both times: the marathon is truly one of the greatest displays of human potential.

2018 Boston Marathon Finish Line

2018 Boston Marathon Finish Line

Racing 26.2 miles is no joke. It takes months of preparation, hard work and sacrifice. To watch the culmination of those efforts on race day is a privilege. With a race that lasts as long as the marathon does, a lot can happen out on the course. You'll celebrate with runners who fly by, well on their way to strong PRs. You'll hurt with runners who are limping or struggling. You'll feel the race. The determination is unparalleled and electric. If these people can accomplish this much, what can YOU do if you set your mind to it?

The spectator experience can vary tremendously depending on the size of the race. Both big and small races come with their own unique perks. Boston, for example, is unequivocally a "large" race--nearly 30,000 people make the pilgrimage from Hopkinton to Boylston Street every year. The energy along the course is infectious; it's impossible to not be inspired! From the cheeky girls at Wellesley

to the enormous support at Newton's Heartbreak Hill, each neighborhood gives runners something to look forward to as the miles tick by.

This year in particular, Boston had some of the worst weather in race day history. Yet despite freezing rain, headwinds and a real feel in the 20s at the start, runners showed up. I can honestly say it was one of the most humbling and moving experiences to watch people off all ages, ethnicities and backgrounds persevere for hours in those conditions.

The view from mile 17 of the 2018 Boston Marathon

The view from mile 17 of the 2018 Boston Marathon

Certain races, such as Boston and NYC Marathon, are known in particular for their crowd support. Between fellow spectators and the steady stream of runners passing through, there's never a dull moment. Anything goes. At NYC last year, a teammate was even handing out leftover pizza to runners at mile 14. People took it!

In contrast to the big name marathons, the QDR Queens Marathon this past Sunday had a grand total of 103 official finishers. It took place in Flushing Meadows Park in the midst of soccer games, hobby joggers and toddlers on bikes. Runners trickled through the 8-loop course; there were often stretches when no one came by at all for several minutes. Spectators consisted primarily of volunteers, family and friends.

It's easy to let the crowd carry you in a race. It's tougher when you're alone, and it makes the random cheer or cowbell all the more meaningful. Having people on the course is encouragement for runners to push a little harder, run a little faster. I'd argue it can even be more inspiring to watch these small races because of how much more mental strength they require. Even with no one around to cheer or pace with or even witness their struggle, the runners keep going. To the next water station. To the next mile and group of spectators. All the way to the finish.

Starting line at the 2018 QDR Queens Marathon (Photo credit: @hoezayyy)

Starting line at the 2018 QDR Queens Marathon (Photo credit: @hoezayyy)

On a looped course, you can cheer from almost anywhere and have a great view. Out-and-back courses offer similar opportunities for seeing runners multiple times with minimal effort. Some point-to-point courses make it easy to follow runners by bike or car, but if you're only going to pick one spot to cheer, I'd suggest settling somewhere between miles 16-23. This is when many runners begin to struggle. A little encouragement can truly make someone's day.

The good news is that as running continues to gain popularity, opportunities to run or cheer at a race have also increased. Every state has at least one annual marathon, usually in the spring or fall when the weather is best. You can find specific dates on sites like Running in the USA or Find My Marathon. Intrigued but not ready to get off the couch quite yet? Check out the documentary Breaking2 for a healthy dose of runspiration right on your TV.

If you're feeling extra festive, you can even bring a cowbell or sign out to the race course. A funny message written on cardboard is more than enough. The runners will appreciate your support and the laugh. Many people now write their name on their shirt or bib so that even strangers can give them a shoutout. Few things bring people together like the marathon. Whether you need a little inspiration or a renewed faith in humanity, the sidelines may be just the place to look.