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What Spectators Add To The Marathon Experience


You know, many of those injured and all three of the people who were killed at the scene of the Boston Marathon were there to cheer on the runners. They weren't running. Running is usually a fairly solitary sport, but a marathon is a unique moment when these athletes run alongside others, for one thing, and they're cheered on by sometimes thousands of spectators. Runners rely on those familiar faces and their cheerful signs to motivate them through all 26.2 miles.

And runners, we want to hear from you right now: When has a spectator changed y our experience of running a marathon? 800-989-8255. Our email address is You can also join the conversation by going to our website. It's, and then click on TALK OF THE NATION. Joining me now is Erin Ryan. She's a runner herself. Yesterday, she wrote the essay, "The People Who Watch Marathons" for the website Jezebel, where she's a contributing writer. And she joins us by phone from her office in New York City. Welcome, Erin.

ERIN RYAN: Thank you so much for having me, Celeste.

HEADLEE: How many marathons have you run?

RYAN: I've just run one, but I'm training for my second this fall in Chicago.

HEADLEE: Oh, well, congratulations. You ran the Chicago Marathon in 2010, right?

RYAN: That's correct.

HEADLEE: Was there a spectator who made a difference for you in that race?

RYAN: All of the spectators made a huge difference to me in that race, but there's a couple that really stand out. First of all, my mom and dad showed up. They drove all the way down from Wisconsin to see me, and at mile 21, my mom jumped in and ran with me from miles 21 to 24.

HEADLEE: Oh, wow.

RYAN: And if she hadn't been in there with me, I don't know if I would've been able to finish it. As you may or may not know, when you're training for a marathon, you never run an actual marathon before race day. The furthest I had gone up to that point with mile 20. So having her there really changed the experience for me.

But there were also a few strangers that really made a difference, I mean, people that I've never seen before and that I probably never saw again. There were people that kind of camped out in a desolate stretch where there's not very many fans - it's kind of far away from all the terrains - with signs that were yelling for me as I came by right around mile 18, 19. There were people doing - there are men dressed up like cheerleaders in Boystown cheering for all these people that they didn't know.

And in Pilsen, which is the Mexican-American community, there was a mariachi band, and everybody came out onto the street and they were cheering for us, and it was amazing. And without the crowd, I don't know that I would've been able to finish, and I think most marathon runners feel similarly.

HEADLEE: You know, what is the difference between a spectator at, say, a baseball game or a soccer match, and a spectator at a marathon?

RYAN: Well, marathons are primarily a test of your tenacity and endurance. And, you know, there's never a question when someone walks out onto the field, in most cases, whether or not they're going to be able to finish a baseball game - unless, you know, we're talking pitchers. But this is a test of being able to keep going, and having spectators there telling you yes, yes, you can do it, and pulling for you. Everybody there on the course wants every runner to succeed. There's no one there that is cheering against you. And that's, I think, why marathons are so unique, or large-scale running events are so unique, is because it's one of the last public, uniformly positive community events in America.

HEADLEE: You know, the running community, in some cases, is quite small and tight. I wonder what you hear from other runners, especially marathon runners. Are people nervous about running another race?

RYAN: Well, the feedback I've gotten since writing the piece has been overwhelmingly positive, and every single runner that has responded to me over Twitter or Facebook or on - in the article's comments has said that these - the incident in Boston has motivated them to go harder, to go faster, to try harder. And I've heard from people that have never seen road races before that this incident makes them want to go watch a marathon, makes them want to go watch people run and encourage strangers and participate in that community.

So I think that if the intent of the attack was in any way to try to deter people from gathering in public, it's going to be a huge failure because marathon runners and marathon spectators are a tenacious group, and this is something that's unifying them.

HEADLEE: And we're putting a call out to runners who are listening: When has a spectator changed your experience of running a marathon? 800-989-8255. With us on the line from Binghamton, New York is Melissa. Hi, Melissa.


HEADLEE: So when did spectators make the difference for you?

MELISSA: About, I don't know, 10, 12 years ago, I was training for the first and only marathon I've ever run in Durham, North Carolina. I think it was the first Durham, North Carolina marathon. And I got a minor injury just before, which meant that if I wanted to run in a marathon, I had to find another one, right, around the time I was peaking. And that was in Charlotte about six weeks later, which was about three hours away. And I would never have gone to the marathon if friends hadn't said, you know what, we're going to go with you.

And they are these two women that were my friends but, really, they were more acquaintances. They were kind of my, you know, little angel marathoner buddies, drove with me out there, spent a night in the hotel with me, showed up at about three different places along the route, put me in the car afterwards, drove me home. And that was my little miracle. I would not have run without them.

HEADLEE: Wow. And then you have them to thank for your achievement. Thank you so much. That's Melissa in New York. And also on the line is Naomi in Emerald Isle, North Carolina. Naomi, have spectators made a difference for you in a marathon?

NAOMI: Definitely. I actually ran my first ultra marathon in February, and it was about 33 miles on the trails. And I had a friend that I had helped out at a previous ultra, and about halfway through - I hadn't been able to eat at all for 16 and a half miles - and he just gave me words of encouragement, met me there at that halfway point and gave me food and told me, you know, eat until you can't eat and keep going. And I ended up finishing my first ultra marathon that day. It was a great experience.

HEADLEE: Your first? Have you run more?

NAOMI: Not at present. I ran the Marine crew marathon last year and then the ultra was my second distance race.

HEADLEE: Naomi, thank you so much, calling from Emerald Isle, North Carolina. And we have an email here from Christie, who says: I regularly run in our state's July 24th heritage celebration - Christie's in Utah - that celebrates the Utah pioneers reaching the Salt Lake Valley. The marathon course traces much of the mountain path these people traveled with their covered wagons. It's a humbling site to emerge from the canyons and see the Salt Lake Valley.

It literally brings me to tears seeing the signs of spectators cheering us on and saying they did it, you can too. Streets full of spectators high-fiving us runners and waiting for the parade later that morning is the highlight of my summer.

And we're speaking with Erin Ryan, who wrote about a piece about the people who watch marathons just published on Jezebel yesterday. Erin, it sounds to me, and maybe I'm overstepping, but what do you think? Do you think there's many marathoners who would not complete the race if not for the spectators?

RYAN: Well, I think marathons are - they're a physical activity, but it's a mental game as well. And a lot of being able to push through those last 6.2 miles especially is being mentally strong. And, I mean, you can play the what-if game. I mean, maybe it would be possible for people to finish without the crowd, but in my recollection of my experience running the marathon, that's what gave me the mental strength to push through when I physically couldn't go any further.

HEADLEE: So you've already said that you think that the runners will be out and still running marathons. What about people watching? Do you think people will be nervous about watching marathons because of what happened in Boston?

RYAN: I think it will be on people's minds as they go to watch marathons, but I don't think that it'll change anybody's behavior. The response that I've gotten from the piece that I wrote from non-runners has been universally positive about the idea of going to watch races. And so I haven't seen anyone or heard of anyone saying that this is going to keep them in their homes instead of along the race path, cheering on the people that they love and the strangers that are also running the race.

HEADLEE: Since you mentioned it, let me read this email from Carissa in Denver, Colorado, who says: I had a random man get in my face and yell at me two miles from the finish line in Chicago in 2010. I had started walking. And he got up in my face and said, come on, you can do it, don't stop now. He got me running again, and I was able to finish with a personal best. I mean, how common an experience is that, Erin?

RYAN: Yeah, it's really amazing. And the runners encourage each other as well, but the spectators are so incredible. I wrote about in the piece there's something that a lot of people do when they run marathons, especially non-elite runners. What they'll do is they'll iron on their first name to the shirt that they're running in and it's - so that people along the path can yell out their name because people love doing that. They'll yell at you...

HEADLEE: Even strangers.

RYAN: Yeah. They'll yet at you by first name, and it's so encouraging to hear them say, you know, go, Erin. But for - when I ran, I didn't do that, so people yelled at me by the color of my shirt. Like, keep running, pink shirt. You can do it. You know, and these people that I've never seen before holding signs, giving me high fives, it was just great.

HEADLEE: We have this email from Jesus(ph) in - I guess in Texas, who says he ran in a San Antonio marathon and it was very, very warm. And Jesus says: Most residents brought out their garden hoses and were spraying water to cool us down. It was so appreciated and gave most of us runners a much needed boost. Thank you, San Antonio. Shout out there to Texas. You know, what's - what is the attraction, Erin, for a spectator of a marathon?

Why - what does the spectator get out of it? They haven't completed a marathon. They don't get a medal. They don't get the triumph of having crossed that finish line.

RYAN: I think people like watching other people succeed. It's the same principle behind why every time on, say, a show like "American Idol," any time any judge has any criticism whatsoever toward any of the contestants, there's booing in the audience even if it's apt criticism. People like watching people succeed at what they're trying to do. And I think a marathon is just a very pure form of that. It's a very - there is a goal, and you complete it or you don't. There's no grey area.

And as a spectator, you know that you are - you can look at the runners, they look at you. And you can know that they heard you and that they're going on maybe because of something you said to them.

I've actually been a spectator of marathons before. My cousin gave birth and then nine months later ran the Chicago Marathon in 2011. Yes, she's amazing. But I watched her run and I stood along the side, and everybody that was around me, we were all yelling for all these people that we didn't know. And then when we finally saw the people that we knew, we would get so excited. And my cousin came over and gave me a high five, and it was just really - it was a really cool experience. I think people like seeing people reach their goals, and they like seeing people succeed; that's why they want to watch marathons.

HEADLEE: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

We have an email here from Robert in California, who says: I fell in the California International Marathon a few years ago at my own line(ph), struck the side of my face on a piece of concrete. Two paramedics worked on me for about 10 minutes. It was my third marathon in 90 days - whew - so I was determined to finish even if I had to walk. Slowly I recovered while running. And at mile 17, for the first and only time in my 25 marathons, I saw a friend who high-fived me and spurred me onto the finish. I finished in 3:46, only six minutes off my goal, and a darn good time. That's an amazing one from Robert.

And here's one from Aileen in Austin, who says: There's a guy who plays "Chariots of Fire" on the bagpipes every year at the eight mile mark, which happens to be on a steep overpass. I don't know how long he plays but he's been there every year I've run that race, and I can tell you he gives every runner a real boost.

That is awesome. If you happen to be listening, Mr. Bagpipe Player of "Chariots of Fire," please call us at 800-989-8255. And we have a call here from Ochse(ph) - I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly - in San Francisco, California. Ochse, you started out as a spectator of marathons, right?

OCHSE: That's right.

HEADLEE: And - keep the story. Tell me what happened.

OCHSE: Sure. Well, I kind of - I lived in Boston in '04, '05 and just - it was kind of - it's the cool thing to do to go check it out. I never really thought of myself as someone who would be even mildly interested, but then as I saw kind of the raw display of human emotion as people are going by and all kinds of normal looking people who are just putting it all out there and trying their best, it just changed my life to where I wanted to participate in that.

And so I've since run four marathons and each time just the people who, you know, they have like someone was mentioning, garden hoses or orange wedges or, you know, salty things if you need those. Just every - everyone is out there for kind of like this simplest thing, which is run from here to over there, and it's really far and we're all together in it. And so it's just kind of a beautiful thing where people you know and people you don't know can help you.

HEADLEE: Why? What's the - let me ask you the same question I asked Erin earlier, Ochse. What's the attraction? What does a spectator get out of it?

OCHSE: I think the inspiration to push that little bit more and how like each little push that you do can really add up to a lot. And you just see that like manifest so, so like bluntly in like running a long way. And it's kind of like the simplest human's sport, right.

HEADLEE: Yeah. Just you and your shoes and the road. That's Ochse in San Francisco, California. Thank you so much for calling. We're getting great stories. On the line with me is Erin Ryan, who wrote about this. Her piece for Jezebel was called "The People Who Watch Marathons."

So as we begin - as I begin to understand really this relationship between spectators and runners, I wonder, Erin, then what was your response on Monday? I mean, when - especially since the people who are injured were spectators?

RYAN: Yeah. It - on Monday when I first heard the news, I was actually sitting in a meeting, and I started getting a bunch of texts. And it felt sort of like getting like punched in the stomach. I didn't know any of the people that got hurt and the people that I knew that were running the race had already finished. But I couldn't put my finger on why it was so disturbing to me.

And so I left work that day. I went home. I went on an angry run, which is, I think, something a lot of runners can understand. I went on an angry run. And during the run I was thinking that the reason that it made me so upset was because spectators - the people that show up for races are the people that show up for you in life. Those are the people that matter the most to you. And so whoever was hurt, whoever - whatever spectator was hurt was somebody that must have deeply cared or been deeply important to someone that was running the race.

And I was putting myself in the place of a runner or as a spectator and just imaging a violation of that relationship between spectator and runner. And it seemed almost obscene to me. And so the next morning I went on a run again and...

HEADLEE: That's when you...

RYAN: ...the whole - right.

HEADLEE: You thought of this article. That's Erin Ryan.

RYAN: Yeah.

HEADLEE: The piece that she came up with is called "The People Who Watch Marathons." It was published on Jezebel yesterday. She joined us by phone from her office in New York City.

I want to read this email from Diane, who says: My favorite sign in the Little Rock Marathon - half marathon this year: Go random stranger, go. Thanks so much for talking with us, Erin.

Tomorrow, how 15-year-old Pakistani school girl Malala Yousafzai became a global voice against her country's status quo. Join us for that. But in the meantime, "Chariots of Fire," people. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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