Running a marathon is tough. That won’t be news to anyone, obviously. So anything that can make such a tough task a little bit easier is always welcome.
When one of my good friends signed up to run this year’s Brighton Marathon, it seemed only right to go and cheer him on. So, along with my other friend (and fellow 2016 London Marathon runner Matt) last weekend I headed to the south coast to take part in a spot of marathon spectating. It was a great experience – and it also taught me a lot about what it’s like to experience a marathon from the sidelines.
The first lesson: if you think the logistical planning involved in running a marathon is tough, try spectating. No, really, it’s complicated!
When you’re running a marathon, your biggest challenge is getting to the start on time, dropping off your bag and kit, and then getting ready to run. Most big marathons will take care of the rest: dump your kit bag in the right place at the start of the London Marathon, and it will be magically handed to you after you finish.
Spectators have a lot more to consider. You’ve got to work out how to get there, where you’re going to spectate and, if you’re cheering on a friend, what time you need to be there to make sure you see them. And you’ve got to work out how to do all that while trying to account for an unknown number of other spectators, and the disruption in the city you’re heading to due to road closures because, you know, there’s a marathon taking place.
It’s not easy, and requires lots of planning. On last year’s London Marathon, my brother managed to head to the start with me, saw me three times out on the course and made it to the finish – while also finding time for a Gregg’s sausage roll. I have a new-found respect for his efforts.
Me and Matt spent much of Saturday evening poring over maps and spectator information from the Brighton Marathon website, while poring over train timetables and parking options.
Brighton is about an hour’s drive from my house, but with the city limited parking at the best of times, let alone on an unseasonably sunny weekend during the school holidays with a marathon on, the train seemed a better option. Well, aside from having to work our way around the inevitable line closures caused by weekend engineering works in the London area. And it was while delving into train timetables that we stumbled across a brilliant plan: don’t get the train to Brighton at all.
Eager to avoid the huge crowds we anticipated around the start and finish areas and the centre of Brighton, me and Matt had identified a chunk of the course a few miles west of the town centre, in Hove. We reckoned the crowd would be a bit thinner there, and the twists and turns of the course would make it possible for us to see our friend four times in relatively quick succession at miles 15, 17, 18 and 24. And, almost by accident, we discovered a train route that went from Clapham Junction to Hove, without going near Brighton.
This turned out to be a genius move. The train was much quieter than ones heading to Brighton on the way down – and the difference was even more marked on the way back (a Twitter search for #brightonmarathon results in lots of pics of a massively overcrowded Brighton Station on Sunday evening).
The other great benefit of heading straight to Hove was that it made for a far more relaxed start. Because our first spectating point was at around mile 15, we had a few extra hours to play with to get in position.
Mind you, it was a bit surreal being stood on a platform at Clapham Junction at 0915hrs, contemplating that the marathon was starting some 50 miles south of us. And even more odd checking my friend’s split times through the Brighton Marathon app while on the train to Hove.
Those split times taught me another important lesson of marathon spectating: following someone’s split times is much more stressful than actually running one yourself! Seriously, every time check provided more questions than answers. Was my friend going too fast? Was he going to slow? Was that slight drop in pace planned? Trouble is, the only information we had to go on were the split times every 5k or so – a hugely incomplete picture. At least when you’re running a marathon, you know how you’re faring.
Still, our stress at interpreting split times was more than tempered by our relaxed start. We even arrived in Hove with an hour or so to spare before we needed to be in position, giving us time for an absolutely lovely cooked breakfast. If you’re ever in Hove and need a quality breakfast, I can wholeheartedly recommend Wolfies Kitchen.
Fortified by breakfast, we then headed down to the course, and got in position. The Brighton course featured a section which involved running down one side of a street, doing a small loop and then running back the other. That meant we got two viewing chances for the price of one. We duly spotted our friend going past, shouted enough until he spotted us and gave us a pained wave, and then waited for him to return. I think we even did our part by giving him a bottle of water.
We then dropped down a street and saw him again five minutes later, before heading further down to the seafront, where a stream of marathon runners were making their way along the final few miles of the course on the promenade. It was all wonderfully English seaside: blue skies, a pebble beach, brightly coloured beach huts – and an ice cream shop.
Wait, did somebody say ice cream? And Ben and Jerry’s ice cream at that? Is it wrong to sit eating an ice cream while watching people run a marathon? Probably. Maybe. But, well, it was a darn tasty ice cream…
Now, contrary to these tales of breakfast and ice cream (and I haven’t even got into the ma-hoosive sandwich I munched at Hove Station while waiting for the train home…), my Brighton trip wasn’t all about food. It was a chance to get caught up in the wonderful vibe and atmosphere of a big city marathon. And, in a way, it was payback time.
On both the London and Houston marathons I completed, the crowd played a huge role. The encouragement, clapping, cheering and support really did help me push on in moments when the pain kicked in and I began to doubt myself. So I didn’t stop at cheering on my friend in Brighton.
I’m not exactly the world’s most outgoing person, and I’m certainly not the whooping and hollering type. But I spent an awful lot of time last Sunday clapping, cheering and yelling encouragement at random strangers running the Brighton Marathon. And it was a lot of fun.
There was even some utterly random chat. Since it was a warm, sunny day I stuck on a cap in a desperate attempt to protect my pasty, fast-burning English skin. It just so happened to be a Houston Texans cap, which actually caught the attention of one runner, who somehow had the resolve to shout some Tony Romo-based banter at me as he passed.
A particular memory of the Houston Marathon was the encouragement that came from having complete strangers call my name – a benefit of having it emblazoned on my race bib. Plenty of Brighton marathoners had their names written on their shirts, and where possible I took to shouting their name in encouragement.
Mind you, I learned there was some balance to it, especially when we were stood at our final spectating point on mile 24. There was an art to reading the body language of a runner as they approached: some were pushing on strong to the finish, some were gritting their teeth and hanging in there. A few looked utterly defeated.
I eventually began to read from a runner’s body language how receptive to cheering they might be. And, contrary to what you’d expect, those runners who were really struggling often didn’t take too well to it. Perhaps they were just exhausted; perhaps their time plan was out the window. Many just seemed to want to get to the finish quietly.
By contrast, many of the middle group of runners – those clearly struggling but still pushing on – really did seem to feed off the crowd support. And if, in some small way, my being there to clap and cheer played some small part in getting them to the finish, it was worth the aching hands that resulted in clapping almost non-stop for several hours.
With my marathon running friend having his family in town, and with our train home departing from Hove, once we’d seen him head past mile 24 we set out for Hove Station. By the time I was back home late on Sunday afternoon, I was strangely, well, exhausted. Spectating on a marathon, it turns out, is hard work.
That said, it’s nowhere near as hard as running one. Despite that, as much fun as my day was, it would have been even more fun to be racing, not spectating.
Wait, what’s that, you say? Entries for the 2018 Brighton Marathon are now open? Hmmmm…
One of the best bits about taking part in races is the crowd. Whether it’s the millions who turn out to spectate on a big city event such as the London Marathon, or the small smattering of friends and family that show up for a Saturday morning parkrun, crowd support is always uplifting, motivating and welcome.
But race crowds don’t stop at just cheering you on: some of the most enthusiastic spectators you’ll find in events are the kids, and they’re particularly keen on offering up some high fives.
I’ll be honest: I didn’t think I’d enjoy randomly high fiving strangers while I was running. It seemed a bit daft, possibly a bit indulgent and, well, a little odd. I started running for myself, and didn’t really feel I needed the support of a crowd.
That changed on last year’s London Marathon. In the early stages, I found myself running at the side of the road in a bid to escape the masses of runners packing the middle. And that put me within near-touching distance of masses of outstreched hands. And, well, I got caught up in the moment, and started joining in the high five action.
And you know what? It’s great fun, and gives you a tremendous amount of energy. But there’s a catch. Because you need to do it right. And so, in the spirit of my running technique thread of breaking down seemingly simple things with an excessive amount of detail, here’s my guide.
To understand how to do something, you need to understand why you’re doing something. Here are the main objectives for the in-race high five:
- To successfully pull off one, or more, high fives with one or more spectators during a race
- To help make running a fun, vibrant spectator event by engaging with the crowd that are cheering you on
- To temporarily distract yourself from the pain and effort of tackling a race with a spot of crowd interaction
- To ensure every attempted high five is a success so you don’t look stupid
- To avoid accidentally hitting, striking or otherwise swatting a spectator with a badly timed high five attempt
- Got that? Right, let’s get into the how then…
1. Pick your target
Offering an unreciprocated high five is a little embarrassing at the best of times, but when it happens mid-run you’ll just end up looking utterly stupid.
The first step is to identify willing high five participants. This is, as you’d expect, fairly straightforward. Look for someone at the side of the road with their arms outstretched. These will usually, but not always, be kids. Try and pick the ones who look eager.
2. The approach
Next step: get into position. You’ll want to do this early: you don’t want to be swerving across the course in the path of your fellow runners and having to slow dramatically, just for the sake of a high five. So work your way to the side of the course, so you’re in close proximity to the crowd.
The next bit is to make sure your intended high five targets know you’re coming. Try for eye contact, since you don’t want to surprise anyone. And, when you’re closing in, extend your arm into the high five offering position.
Now, the accepted running high five arm position is a little different from usual. Raise your armco about mid-chest level, elbow-bent, and then extend your arm with palm facing forward. Remember, most of the in-race high fiving action will come from junior spectators, so you don’t actually want to make your high five that high. They won’t reach, and you’ll look stupid.
3. It’s high five time
Okay, arm extended, eye contact hopefully established. The rest is fairly simple. Keep running towards then, without adjusting your pace, and when you’re close adjust the height of your hand to match theirs. Then you may proceed with the high five.
Another pro tip though: don’t put any extra effort into your high five gesture. Remember, you’re running relatively quickly, so your arm already has plenty of latent momentum. If you adapt the traditional arm thrust that you would with a traditional, non-running high five, you’ll hit your high five target with a fair degree of momentum. Frankly, you don’t want to be that guy who bowls a kid over during a run. Nobody wants to be that guy.
Instead, let your running momentum propel the high five. Keep your hand flat and relaxed.
4. Never look back
Now, this bit sounds harsh, but it’s a necessary evil. If you realise you’re going to miss a high five, just miss it. Sometimes kids move their hands inadvertently, sometimes you get your angle wrong. But while a missed high five is always disappointing, it’s going to happen. But if you ease up and try to correct the error, you’ll only slow your pace and cause problems. Try to forget it and move on.
Advanced high fiving: The next level
Okay, that’s the basics covered. You can now proceed with mid-race high five action. And, frankly, it’s quite fun. It really can give you a motivational boost, if only because it’s something to distract you from the pain and grind of a particularly long race.
But if you want to take your mid-race high fiving to the next level, here are some advanced high five techniques to work on.
The high five chain
This is when you approach a line of people, all holding out their hands to offer high fives. The basics apply, but you’ll need to make sure you keep adjusting the height of your hand as you work through the group. Unfortunately, kids and other high five fans don’t tend to be the same height, and they don’t tend to hold their hands out at the same point. It’ll be up to you to adjust as you go. It takes effort, but it’s better than the alternative: missing out the smallest kid in the group. They’ll only get upset.
The ‘hit for power’ board
This seems to be a somewhat American running thing: there were a lot of people on the Houston Marathon holding out boards with messages such as ‘hit for power’ – frequently adorned with pics by Super Mario World mushrooms and the like.
Again, it seems a simple proposition, possibly even a bit easier than your standard high five. After all, a big bit of cardboard is a far larger target area than a hand. But beware!
For starters, it’s hard to tell exactly what the signs are made out of. You don’t want to smack a poster hard and then discover it’s actually thin paper that you’ve just ripped through. Conversely, it can genuinely hurt if you put too much momentum behind hitting a board that’s made of seemingly indestructible cardboard.
The tactic is to make sure you don’t punch it, but tap it with your palm, before swinging your hand out the way to ensure you don’t accidentally knock the board out of the holder’s hands.
This technique is difficult to master, but is a huge tool to stop yourself looking daft if you miss a high five, or realise you’re offering one that’s going to be unreciprocated.
If you spot that happening, you’ll have a few precious moments to adjust your gaze from the first line of spectators by the road to those a little further away. Be quick. What you’re looking for is someone waving. Then, raise your outstretched high five arm and quickly convert it into a wave. Pull it off, and you’ll be able to maintain your styling as an enthused runner grateful for the crowd, rather than looking like a numpty who just plain missed…
So that’s what you need to know about mid-race high fives. Get it right, and it’s a fun bit of crowd interaction. It’ll keep the spectators happy and, if done well, will distract you from the pain and slog of a long race without slowing you down at all. Frankly, it’s worth doing just for that…
This is the second in a series reflecting on the 2017 Houston Marathon. You can read the first part here.
The key to motivation, at least according to Homer Simpson, is donuts – and, of course, the possibility of more donuts to come. And that profound advice clearly struck one spectator on the Chevron Houston Marathon course.
Around 11-and-a-half miles into the course, running along Wesleyan St, I noticed a man by the side of the road waggling a big, long stick in the direction of the runners ahead of me. From a distance it seemed a little concerning, until I noticed what had been shoved onto the end of the stick: a donut. A big ring donut. He was offering runners a motivational donut.
It was, admittedly, a tempting proposition. Donuts are, after all, quite tasty. They’re also incredibly bad for you, although an excessive amount of calories isn’t really something that need concern runners approaching the halfway point of a marathon. But I declined: I’d carefully plotted out my mid-race hydration and refuelling strategy and it didn’t include donuts.
Still, a man waving a donut on a stick was just one of many memories I’ll take away from my 26.2-mile running tour of Houston. For the second in my randomly meandering series of Houston Marathon reflections (you can read the first here), I’m going to look back at some of the memorable spectator sights and signs from the event.
Before we begin, a quick note: you might notice a lack of images of the sights and signs on this page. That’s because I don’t run with my phone, so had no way of capturing them. So, er, sorry about that. You’ll just have to take my word for it…
The spectator sights
Dressing up is a big thing on the London Marathon. It’s a huge charity event, and thousands of runners raise amazing amounts of cash by completing the 26.2 miles in all manner of outlandish costumes.
The Houston Marathon couldn’t possibly live up to such fancy dress action, and it didn’t – at least among the runners. While there was some fancy dress action going on, it was on a far smaller scale (at least where I was running). But, bizarrely, what particularly stuck with me was the number of spectators wearing fancy dress. It seemed a pretty big thing, and it certainly wasn’t a trend I noticed in London (although I possibly missed it among the wall of people).
There were dancing Elvis impersonators. There were people dressed up as dinosaurs. I’m pretty sure I remember people randomly dressed up as two parts of a sandwich, for reasons I’m still not entirely clear about.
Plenty of the companies with shops and restaurants along the route also got involved. There was actual Ronald McDonald (outside a McDonald’s, obviously). The Chick fil-A cows were dancing along with a charity group. There were more, but I can’t recall them now. But to anyone who was dressed up and cheering on runners during the marathon: thanks. It really did make a difference.
Aaah, the signs. There were lots of signs. At the expo, event sponsor Chevron was giving out big card signs with ‘go!’ written on and a space to write a message underneath. I saw hundreds of them on the course, many made out to the friends or family of spectators.
Some of the spectators without a proverbial horse in the race settled for ‘go random stranger’. At one point I even managed to shout ‘that’s me’s!’ to someone holding up such a sign. She just stared at me like I was a bit odd.
There were also plenty of homemade signs, stretching from the humorous to the crude and a little bit rude. I spotted some slogans multiple times, others were very much one-offs. The Houston Chronicle has done a gallery of some signs here, but these are some examples I can recall:
You’re almost halfway there! [This was being held up about two miles into the course. Who says Americans don’t get irony?]
I bet you need to pee right now!
You’re beating all the runners behind you!
Remeber, you paid to do this! [This once was a bit cruel, so I left in the typo I spotted. Hey, I’m a professional editor, you can’t expect me to stop subbing when I’m running…]
May the course be with you [Star Wars puns never go out of fashion]
Worst parade ever!
I trained for months to hold this sign
If a marathon was easy, it would be called your mother [Yup, I did say they weren’t all classy…]
Hit this sign for star power!
I saw multiple versions of the latter being held out by various people – but I only had the opportunity to actually reach out and hit one. It was such a well-constructed sign that it actually hurt quite a bit. More notable was that the boy holding it called out a number to his mum – around 100 or so, if my memory is right. Given that this was after the half marathon split and I finished 265th in the marathon, that’s a mightily impressive interaction rate (well, assuming his counting and my memory were accurate…).
As with the fancy dress, some of the companies with shops and restaurants got in the spirit of things when it came to signage as well. Bike Barn on Wesleyan Plaza (close to where the guy was waggling a donut on a stick) really got into the spirit of things, sticking signage up for several hundred metres of the route. With messages such as ‘If you had a bike, 26.2 miles would only take 90 minutes’ they weren’t exactly pro-running, but they did make me laugh.
Another sign that made me laugh was the bar sign outside a bar on Washington Avenue: ‘Liberty Station loves chafed nipples’.
But, if you’ll forgive me for a rare touch of sentimental sincerity, there’s one marathon sign I’ll remember more than all the others: the one my eight-year-old niece made for me. I didn’t see it on the course – my brother ran the half marathon and finished around half-an-hour before me, so my niece was busy congratulating him when I crossed the line. But the thought was there, and my ‘go! Jimbo’ sign (yup, my niece calls me Uncle Jimbo – it’s a long story…) not only survived the flight back to Britain, but is something I’ll treasure.
Coming soon: Houston Marathon sounds and smells (yes, smells…)
The intersection of Congress Avenue and Austin Street isn’t exactly the most salubrious part of downtown Houston, especially at just after six am on a Sunday morning.
On one side of the street is the Harris County Civil Courthouse; every other business on the block feeds off it. There are car parks offering discount parking to jurors, the sort of small law firm offices you imagine seeing in noir detective films, and all manner of bail bond firms. The brightest light at this intersection is bright, red and spells out ‘BAIL BONDS’. It glows in the window of Action Bail Bonds, just underneath a big red banner standing in for proper signage. In short, they’re the sort of businesses you hope you’re never going to need.
Staring at that stark red light in the early morning twilight, it was hard not to contrast the scene with the space and splendour of Greenwich Park in south London. A strange comparison, no doubt, but it came to mind as I questioned whether the 2017 Chevron Houston Marathon I was about to embark on could possibly match the splendour, majesty and experience of running the 2016 Virgin Money London Marathon.
I shouldn’t have worried. The line of businesses that lined the A Corral might have played to the stereotype of Houston as a vast, sprawling, dirty, automobile-filled city built on the back of Big Oil money, but it simply created a false impression.
The 2017 Chevron Houston Marathon was a slickly organised, well-run affair on a course lined with friendly and cheerful volunteers and spectators. The crowd wasn’t as large as London, but they made up for that with enthusiastic and vocal support that showcased the very best of Texan hospitality. And while the course could never hope to match the iconic locations and landmarks that dotted the London course, it firmly showcased that Houston is a vast, varied and vibrant city.
Even the bail bond-lined start corral made perfect sense, in the context of making life easy for the runners. The start line was a block further up Congress Avenue, beside the lovely Court of Appeals building. The A Corral fed back down Congress towards Minute Maid Park – home of the Houston Astros – with the B, C, D and E corrals stretching down consecutive cross streets. When the A Corral cleared, the B runners were fed into the start zone, and so on.
The corrals were placed so the entrance to all five was within a short walk of the George R Brown Convention Center, which doubled as the race HQ and housed the pre-race meeting area and post-race recovery zone.
The start was placed to take runners out of the downtown area on Washington Avenue, which is now home to the sort of fun-looking bars and restaurants that I’m not sure I’m trendy enough to visit. Even at just after seven am, this part of the course was lined with cheering spectators, who waved banners, jiggled cow bells and wore fancy dress. Across the course of 26.2 miles, I reckon I saw more spectators in fancy dress than I did runners. They cheered for friends, family and strangers. Most runners had their names on their race bibs, and the spectators weren’t shy at shouting them.
“Come on James!”
“You got this, James! You can do this!”
“Looking strong, James!”
I’m not sure I was looking strong – my head-wobbling, lolloping running-style rarely looks strong – but it was a huge boost to have so much support. As with the London Marathon, I found myself almost compelled to interact with the spectators: waving or shouting thanks, detouring to the road side to dispense high fives to kids, trying to remember all the signs people were waving. And I found it more fun: unlike the wall of noise and people on the London course, I could pick out the signs, and hear individual people shouting. It somehow felt more human. It was smaller… and in a very good way.
That said, smaller doesn’t necessarily make it easier to remember everything. As with London, my memories of the Houston Marathon are still a mess of little details and moments. So, rather than ramble uncontrollably for another 26 miles or so – especially since I’m writing this in the hours after getting off an overnight transatlantic flight – I’m going to stop here for now. I’ll write more about the moments and memories, and how my race went (spoiler alert: quite well!), in the coming days. In other words…
Read part two of my Houston Marathon reflections, on the sights and signs from the race, here.
Running 26.2 miles takes a long time – in every sense. There’s the 3h 28m 17s it took me to complete the London Marathon route, of course, but also more than half-a-year of training, build-up, anticipation and preparation. Crossing that finish line on The Mall was the end of a long journey.
Conversely, then, the actual Marathon seemed to pass by in a flash – even if my aching legs currently remind me otherwise. As anyone who has run a marathon will probably attest, it is an overwhelming experience, a physical, mental and emotional experience unlike anything I have ever done before. The physical effort was a long grind, but by the time I had finished it was hard to believe it was over so quickly.
Frankly, it was almost too much to take in. Which is probably why it’s hard to really piece together my London Marathon memories as one long, continuous event in my mind. Instead, it’s a series of fragments and moments. To avoid an overwhelming download of memories, I’ve split this into two posts. Here’s the first chunk, largely focused on the first part of the race.
The first tube
My journey to the marathon started by taking a bus from my house to Richmond Station, to catch the first District line tube of the day, at 7.22am. Arriving at the station and finding a platform almost full of anxious runners, all waiting for the same train, really demonstrated just how big this event was.
Before the start
Again, this was on a scale that’s hard to comprehend – but so well organised. The pre-start zone in Greenwich Park was huge. Bottles of water were offered, toilets were plentiful (as previously noted, needing the toilet before a run can be a major issue…) and there was even free tea and coffee. Well, almost. The only complaint about the whole even I could make was that they’d run out of coffee by the time I got there. They did have decaf coffee, but… well, if there’s no caffeine, what’s the point of a pre-run coffee?
I was in pen four of nine at the Greenwich Park ‘red’ start. I could see crowds ahead and crowds behind. It was only watching it on television later that I realised quite what a mass of humanity was behind me. Again, it’s a scale that’s hard to comprehend.
As for the start itself – what a feeling. Approaching the line was quite the moment. Real excitement mixed with trepidation of a voyage into the unknown.
No, not that wall. More about that wall later.
This was a wall near the end of Greenwich Park that a lot of runners – those who’d got themselves in the pens early and hadn’t partaken in the pre-run toilet run – used to relieve themselves. Quite the sight about less than half-a-mile into the race.
The mass of runners
So many runners. I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly I was able to find some space to run in – I’d feared being blocked in at the start and unable to run at my pace, but there was no real problem. That said, it was far busier than any run I’d done before – I was never alone on the course.
I was just becoming used to the crowds a few miles in when I reached the point where the red start course met with the other two courses. My course went down a slight hill and turned onto a dual carriageway, with the runners from the other starts streaming along the other side of the road. I had to readjust my sense of scale yet again.
Oh, the crowds. All those cliches about a ‘wall of noise’ are completely true. Spectators lined virtually the whole route, cheering and clapping while offering high fives and sweets (clearly, that whole rule your mum taught you about never taking sweets from strangers can be suspended for marathons).
There were bands playing, people playing music from their balconies, spectators in fancy dress. There were people drinking beer and champagne while watching a marathon at just gone ten in the morning.
The enthusiasm really did carry me along, even if it was somewhat overwhelming. Occasionally, the few points where the crowd thinned out provided a welcome relief for the eardrums.
A lot of the spectators held up signs. Many were for individual runners, or charities. Some offered encouragement. Several made me laugh. The one that made me chuckle the most? The one that read: ‘Run like you’re running away from Donald Trump.’ I wasn’t expecting topical humour on the marathon route.
Oh, I also liked the person holding what appeared to be a homemade flag with a tin of Spam on it. No idea why.
Read part two of my London Marathon moments here.
I ran the London Marathon to raise money for the South West Children’s Heart Circle, a small charity that helps children undergoing heart surgery. The marathon is over, but it’s not too late to donate – click the ‘Just Giving’ button below for details. Thanks!