The other day a couple of race directors were talking about the return of their in-person events and they touched upon something special: the idea of audiences returning to watch us race. Is there any greater act of generosity than standing on the side of the road and applauding strangers pass by? And, as runners, is there anything that feels quite as good? For some extraordinary human beings, I am told, the giving of applause feels just as good as the receiving.
“I love cheering because it is nice to see what it looks like from the sideline. I give support and encouragement to fellow runners in a pay-it-forward kind of way,” wrote a runner-cheerer on the iRun Facebook page. “I’m the one with the cowbell.”
I was racing around an oval on Saturday, laps in and out of the wind, and, while I was finding encouragement in my music, there really was very little incentive to cause myself pain. Sure, it should be inherent and every race should be like the Olympics, but, the truth is, running around in circles in early March in the grey, cold bleakness kind of sucks. Maya Anderson, who owns BlackToe Running, was cheering and it struck a chord. Her cheering made me try harder and, at nearly 48, tired and cranky, I almost hit a PB.
“Seeing people pushing themselves and knowing from first-hand experience the difference it can make to have someone encouraging you, the energy boost you get from hearing your name—even if it’s from a stranger—can change everything about your race experience,” says Heather Gardner, founder of KardiaAthletica, and a legendary cheerer at Ontario events. “Nothing I like better than standing for hours to cheer on your run family and run community, getting blisters on our fingers from clanging cowbells and holding cheer signs, and losing our voice from all the You got this! at the top of our lungs.”
Don’t think those cheers don’t help set records. I know for a fact that even the Olympians are energized by the applause. Reid Coolsaet, after he’s lapped me, never breaks a smile when I yell out his name, but he’s acknowledged afterward that he can hear me and it helps. Krista DuChene, like Coolsaet, an Olympian, says that the cheers mean a lot to her when she races. “Occasionally the odd person distinctly yells out, Go Krista!, and that makes me smile. It’s heart-warming to have an engaged and positive audience,” says DuChene, who coaches with Coolsaet as part of CoolsaetGo. “The cheering is particularly helpful when you’re hitting a rough point and need it most.”
Krista DuChene, when she hits a tough spot, is often competing to be the fastest Canadian marathon runner of all-time, like she did in 2013, when she bested Silvia Ruegger’s longtime marathon record only to come in thirty-one seconds behind record-breaking Lanni Marchant. Cheering, on days like those, makes history. But it’s not the elites where the applause matters most. It’s in the middle of the pack or, dare I say, the very back. Sandra Holder is 70-years-old and has run twenty-three marathons and seventeen times finished the 30K Around the Bay. In 2017, Holder was competing at Around the Bay and had enjoyed her run—though, if she’s being honest, she says, it was more a walk.
“Because I’m so far behind everybody else, I get all the cheers personally,” Holder says, with a laugh.
At the end of her race, some five hours after the event started, in very last place, Holder crosses the finish line and lets out a yell. At that moment, confetti falls, a band plays and the audience goes wild. Holder may just shed a tear (watch the video here). Holder says applause from strangers is like manna from heaven. An unexpected decency that sparks joy, stirs the human spirit, and reminds us all of what’s possible: in life, and in running. Not just good finishing times. Good times that are shared, and remembered. With in-person racing returning, the opportunity for this connection awaits us all.
“A smile is the one thing that costs you nothing,” says Holder. “You give it and you get it back and you can lift somebody—a total stranger doing something for other people.”