Those who have run any race, whether a 5,000 metre, 10,000 metre or a marathon are aware of the crowds that are supportive and inspirational for many runners. Why? In particular at the Chicago Marathon, there are about 1,700,000 fans who come and cheer for the runners on a 26.2 mile race. Since they are frequently on both sides of the streets, it is almost a 52.4 mile continuum of encouragement. So the question is why such a large throng at the Chicago Marathon and of course other majors as well such as Boston?
1) First these are major sporting events in which world-class runners are competing. It is also an event that does not charge admission, since it is run on city streets throughout a spectrum of neighborhoods.
2) Many of the supporters know persons who are running and are cheering them on. With some 40,000 runners who crossed the START line at the October 2013 Chicago Marathon, obviously many partisans would come and root for them.
Checking time and temp on iPhone at 22 mile mark in Chinatown.
3) Yet many come to support total strangers, “random strangers” as one sign said. They are vociferously and passionately encouraging total strangers to succeed and complete the race. They do this with cheering, with signage, with loud speakers. “You are awesome!” “You can do it!” “You are half way!” “Only a 5k fun run left to go!” “You are almost there, you got it!” At one point when I was really fatigued, I caught the eye of a woman who was cheering on the runners and I motioned her my gratitude for her encouragement. She saw me and became more supportive. As I was running pass her, I mouthed “thank you,” and she came practically into the street on Michigan Avenue with her fist waving and with great intensity shouting, “you are there, you are so close etc.” Here is a total stranger giving me a momentary but major source of encouragement that kept my adrenalin flowing. Strangers helping strangers in such a massive display of support is rather rare in American society. Especially in a large major metropolitan area, folks go about their business and avoid, ignore or rarely interact with strangers, much less take the time to come to a marathon, buy materials to make signs and root them on.
4) I think many of the running fans want to feel a part of the event. In addition to their magnanimity and kindness, they construe the marathon as a happening and since they are not running, they want to enjoy the next best thing: connect to the runners, engage them, communicate to them, be recognised by them and have them read their signs. The fans want recognition and to be acknowledged by the participants: rare in sport but not in marathons. In marathon racing, virtually all of the crowds have “box seats” as it were. I was thinking they can get a lot closer to the athletes than say a first-row seat at Fenway Park or Wrigley Field or Busch Stadium. They can feel and touch, hand-slap and fist-bump runners who also connect with the fans. Well you can’t do that at a basketball, football or baseball game: or 99% of the fans cannot.
5) I see some parallelism here. Marathon running is one of the few sports that non-elite, amateur runners can participate in the same event as star runners from Kenya, Ethiopia, Russia or where have you. I ran in a race with world-class, Olympic athletes who are turning out two hour and change amazing times to run a marathon! The third fastest marathon and course record was 2:03:45 by Dennis Kimetto (Kenya). Yet beware of so-called world marathon records other than course records due to variance between the venues. While I never saw them, nevertheless, we competed in the same race. What other sport allows the vast majority of its participants “on the field” with the pros. Therefore fans and spectators can encourage the elite runners who are competing and the rest of us who are basically just trying to finish the grueling, unbelievably long race.
The kindness of the crowds, the ambience of support and encouragement is something I will savour forever. It makes running such a great sport and yes I do thank some of the fans; I do wave at them; I do acknowledge them and interact with them!