Be Best:

Becoming the Ultimate Spectathlete


From fun runs and full marathons to open water swims, long rides, and triathlons, we often find ourselves at sporting events on the weekend. When the mood strikes or if we’re particularly keen on a race, we sometimes also become participants. And whether it’s a cut-throat competition or a more casual event, it’s hard to think of a time when there were no supporters or fans along the way.

It might just be a kid screaming, “GAMBARE!” from the window of a car whizzing by, or a group of eager volunteers fervently baptizing runners with ice cold water. Perhaps you convinced your spouse to stay posted in a comfortable VIP tent by the finish line, or your college buddies have decided to make your race a proper event of their own, complete with day-drinking copious amounts of sangria.

It might sound easy, but being a spectathlete is hard work in itself! Shorter events may permit for last minute planning and improvisation, but some of us need to be prepared to spend a full day out on the course. There’s a lot of elements involved in being a spectacular spectathlete, so we’ve put together six categories for ranking the spectathlete.

Whether you’ve got years of experience or you’re about to embark on your first race as a part of the support crew, see how you stack up as an Age Group, Professional, or Champion spectathlete!

Funny encouraging sign during a race

What is a spectathlete?

In short, the spectathlete is a special type of supporter and fan. Done correctly, the role of the spectathlete is undoubtely more time-intensive and involved than that screaming kid fading into the distance. Often, it is an endurance sport of its own requiring a not insignificant number of hours planning and organizing towards a specific race that someone besides yourself is competing in. It typically involves a large number of props, including but not limited to poster board, markers, cowbells, food, beverage, and maybe some body paint, depending on your level of commitment.

Show And Tell

Age Group
Whoops, you didn’t plan very well and now have exactly five minutes to whip up some vaguely encouraging/corny posters. We hope you have the creativity and that little bit of design sense to make the markers, colored pencils, crayons, or highlighters look good on a poster board. God forbid, you’re using the blank side of some old cardboard box. Tsk tsk. If you have chalk and road conditions permit, you might scribble some encouraging words on the asphalt.

Those with 30-60 minutes to procrastinate on that Friday deadline should immediately begin researching witty things to write on their posterboard. Once an appropriate statement is decided, Age Group materials may be used alongside a healthy dose of clip art, (ir)relevant images, and/or memes. Ryan Gosling tends to be popular among the ladies, but really, anything to bolster the humor. Ideally, the poster is kept secret from the athlete for maximum surprise factor. Multiple posters encouraged.

At the very least, the poster should be weatherproof and visually appealing, as though it is part of a major ad agency campaign. Champions lean towards a more laborious design process, often opting for a heavy reliance on Photoshop and professional-level printing. The truly committed will probably purchase a custom big head foam cut out.

Fan high-fiving athlete before race

Be Loud, Be Proud

Age Group
Yell their name(s) with a combination of sometimes unintelligible words and all-encompassing exclamations, including “Go!” “Wooo!” “Yeah!” “Nice!” and “Great job!” (or similar). You may be an Age Grouper but you still know better than to say, “You look great!” (they don’t, and we all know it) or, “Almost there!” (unless the finish is less than 400 meters away, you are spouting lies and creating false hope).

A little bit of Age Group, plus a litany of more encouraging phrases to build your athlete’s confidence, as well as friendly suggestions, such as “Looking strong!” “You’re kicking butt!” “Awesome pace!” “Stay aero!” “Good cadence!” “Relax the shoulders!”, etc.

Relay valuable information to your athlete regarding the positioning and timing of the leading athlete(s). For instance, “9th!”, “45 seconds from third!”, or “5611, 2 mins ahead.” Most useful for the competitive athlete, especially those gunning for the podium. Usually best to avoid if your athlete is towards the back of the pack and maybe even middle of the pack, depending on her/his personality and competitive streak.

Exist Loudly

Age Group
You’re armed with your voice and limbs (for flailing in excitement upon sighting your athlete). You come as you are, but you’re pumped and ready to make some noise and high-five til your palms are numb! Whether it’s a short race or you swung by the race last minute, Age Group spectathletes believe in minimalism. They’ll clap and holler loudly but there isn’t much effort otherwise.

It’s not enough to just look the part of a spectathlete, you’re expected to sound the part, too. Your remarkable enthusiasm probably means you’ll be hoarse from all of the shouting. To provide a multi-sensory experience for your athlete, the use of  noise-making props are highly encouraged. Noisemakers, cowbells, cheer sticks, drums, bullhorns…dust off the noise-making apparatus at home! Pursue at your own discretion.

Most of the time, the Champion spectathlete does not differ greatly from the Professional. Ambitious Champions may opt to stream upbeat music, hire a mariachi band, or to the horror of athletes, sing karaoke. Note that Existing Loudly may interfere with the spectathlete’s ability to Run Quick See (below).

Race finisher carrying two toddlers
Fan holding sign during race

Dressing The Part

Age Group
Maybe you’re in a previous edition’s race tee, your own finisher’s shirt, or just plain gym wear. Come as you are, but if it’s a long course event, make sure you’re going to be comfortable!

Isn’t it a shame that society dictates and we only wear our Halloween costumes once a year? Races give spectathletes an invaluable opportunity to dig into their closets and bring out all of the costumes, tutus, wigs, and silly hats that haven’t seen the light of day since college days. Of course, the more outrageous the outfit, the better. You’re not only making the other spectathletes giggle (they’re just jealous, we promise), you’ll contribute in boosting the spirits of your athlete!

We have two words. Body paint. Be mindful that nudity is generally discouraged, if not illegal in most areas. The less bold may opt for Professional status plus face paint.

Spectators watching race

Run Quick See

Age Group
1 spot. For shorter races, this is perfectly acceptable. Many events start and finish at the same space though, and while a few variables should be considered, it usually  doesn’t take much to step things up a notch and shoot for Professional status.

2-3 spots. Ideally, you send your athlete off at the start, catch him/her mid-race, and see the athletes power past the finish line. Even if the start and finish aren’t in the exact same locations, they’re usually within walking distance. Depending on the course, that start and finish may qualify as two spots, but we encourage Professionals to stake out at least one more spot to capture your athlete’s race face.

4+ spots. Much easier for long course events; in particular, triathlons offer many opportunities for the spectathlete to shine. Of course, it goes without saying that the Champion spectathlete must plan in advance to fulfill four or more sightings.

Here To There, There To Here

Age Group
You’ve probably studied the course map and you have a rough idea of where you’ll sight your athlete. You might be leaning on luck a little but whatever the course is like, you’re using your own two legs to navigate yourself throughout the event.

You’ve definitely studied the course map and know approximate time frames for when you expect to sight your athlete. You know where the bathrooms, hydration stations (for you…and the athlete!), and photo-worthy spots will be. Whether it’s by foot, metro, or bike, you have a good idea of how to get from one place to the other for maximum sightings.

You are basically a walking spectathlete map. You have more or less memorized the course map and time permitting, completed a course recce. You know where you want to take photos of your athlete looking strong and where your athlete might need some encouragement. Depending on the course, you’ll be on some kind of transportation device like a scooter or a bike (preferably a tandem, so someone can chauffeur you) for efficient maneuvering among sighting spots.

Useful Links

Make race day bingo cards for the kids (and adults)! Examples include this template and the Milwaukee Marathon.

For long course events, consult the race map ahead of time and have an approximate schedule for sighting your athlete. Check out this handmade guide for Ironman Wisconsin.

Always read through official event guides, if provided. Here’s an example from Ironman Chattanooga and a handy printable guide from the 2016 New York Marathon

It can be a good idea to browse through the athlete guide. An information-rich spectathlete can be a very useful resource for the forgetful athlete. 


Prepare for downtime 

Cheer others on

Study the race course 

Look at the weather forecast

Plan nutrition and hydration

Know your athlete 

Know the race-relevant apps and social media links

Bring a good camera, or have enough juice on your phone to last through the event


Wait to prepare until the last minute

Get in athletes’ faces or demand high-fives

Wander into the race course

Underestimate the weather and the elements

Be a nuisance to other spectathletes

Be embarrassed

Complain or be selfish