The Spectator Question

12.07.09: Why do I hate the people so many other runners love?


The banana jumped out at me around Mile 24 of my marathon two months ago when I was depleted, exhausted and about to miss my time goal by mere seconds. She was waving her arms, sticking out her tongue and encouraging me to laugh when it suddenly dawned on me: I hate spectators.

A marathoner is never supposed to utter such words after all, they—with their cowbells and signs and shouts of encouragement—are there for us, the ones slogging out the miles, in pain and sometimes delirium. Their support is supposed to help us push through those last lonely miles, to help us draw strength from their encouragement.

Throughout my training, everyone told me to use the spectators, to pick a race that was full of them so I might be buoyed by their cheers. I tried, but I ended up at the at a smaller marathon where spectator support is spotty at best. And I am glad I did.

Because for me, running has always been an individual sport. I have a favorite training partner, but besides her, I prefer to go it alone. My long runs are solitary endeavors. I do not need a team or a coach or a friend to present a training program for me because the drive and the desire to run is something that comes from within me. People on the outside mostly just stand in my way.

My longer races prior to the 26.2-miler—a 10-miler and a 7.1-miler—have both been mid-summer races that I finished in a pool of sweat, practically seeing stars. In both races, the last two miles were full of good-spirited spectators who mooned us and blew funny-sounding noisemakers to encourage us and take our minds off our aching bodies. They were sweet and thoughtful and I hated them all--with their beers and their laughter and their non-sweaty bodies. Their support was from the heart, but mine was pounding too hard to appreciate it.

I know I am not alone. One friend reported cursing out a toddler around Mile 25 of her marathon and still others say they threw packets of Gu at particularly obnoxious sideliners, so why do I feel so guilty?

I am a seasoned runner, someone who has run enough races and trained enough to know my style and I know I run on anger. It fuels my runs. I draw more strength from remembering past slights and the people who doubt me more than the encouraging words of strangers.

In a few races, I did not even really want my children at the finish line because, as much as I adore them, this is a personal vendetta, something I have to prove to myself. To be in that mindset, I am not the person who watches marathons like I do at home, touched by the “feat of human endurance.” Instead, I am the mad mommy that emerges only when running my own race. My children don’t need to know mad mommy and neither does anyone else. Yes, a lonely race is right for me.

We are supposed to say we love the spectator support and I know that a lot of people do. But for me, it is a distraction. Telling me I am “almost there” at Mile 10 is just cruel. And calling me a psycho at Mile 6 when the half-marathoners turn around? Sadistic, indeed. And at Mile 24 when I am trying just to live through the experience, I would much prefer a spectator hand me a banana than dress like one and try to make me laugh.

Of course, there were some (perhaps those who have run a few themselves) who knew the right way to support us.

Those who set up unofficial water and Gatorade stations on their front lawn were bastions of kindness and compassion. The ones who passed out orange slices and held signs, quietly reminding me at Mile 10 when I was practically panting to “trust my training” knew the right words to help me catch my breath.

Even still, I could have lived without them. After all, I did trust my training. I did it all myself. And later, when I crossed that finish line, I was all alone. And I was never prouder.

Sasha Brown-Worsham is a writer, a mother and an unabashed, unashamed runaholic. Check her progress each week as she trains to qualify for the Boston Marathon.