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October 29th, 2021

How to Spectate the NYC Marathon


by Farah Visslailli & Morgan Mowers

If there is one thing that we, the NYC Running Community can all agree on, it is that NYC Marathon Sunday is hands down the best day of the year. It’s certainly our favorite holiday. The energy in the city is palpable. And this year, we expect it will be even more so. After two long years, and a missed and now made-up 50th anniversary, not to mention a global pandemic, the big finale to all the World Majors is finally upon us. Nervous anticipation is turning into legitimate excitement for those running this year, and this spectator right here is right there with them!

Are there people here who have no idea the race is going on? Okay, yeah, they exist. But do those very same people contribute to one of the best marathon memes out there (seriously, whoever puts that compilation together of all the people trying to cross the street in the middle of the race set to Chariots of Fire??), so we can’t hold that against them. As for the rest of us who are very much aware of what is going on, let me tell you, we know how to throw down (see: Lafayette Avenue in Fort Greene, AKA Mile 8.5 AKA the best block party I’ve ever been to).

I’ve logged many miles on the course during that first Sunday in November – as a runner, a coach, and also as a humble spectator (dancing in the streets counts as miles, I assure you) so I want to share a bit about what I’ve learned about how to approach this day from the sidelines, and expert marathon-spectator Morgan Mowers has also chimed in with some of her best advice. Let’s call this Best Practices for Spectating the NYC Marathon That You Can Also Apply to Other Marathons. And runners, there’s a little something in here for you, too.

  1. Location Location Location. First and foremost, you’ll want to plan out where you’ll be cheering. One spot towards the end of the race? A few stops along the way? Take a look at the race course map and then look up how to get there. And spectators, you will definitely want to communicate with your runners ahead of time where you will be, including, but not limited to which side of the street you’re going to be on. This is especially important if you’re spectating during the first 8 miles in NYC, when runners are obligated to be on a certain side of 4th Avenue in Brooklyn depending on how they come off the Verrazzano Bridge. Runners with orange bibs will be running on the left side of 4th Avenue, and runners with blue and green bibs will be running on the right side of 4th Avenue. So, find out what color bib your runner has, and plan accordingly. Thinking about hitting multiple spots? Our pal Kelly over at Bad Ass Lady Gang has some strategies/plans you can give a go. Remember that mta.info will be your BFF if you’re going to give this a try – as we all know by now, trains are never doing what they’re supposed to on weekends, and NYC Marathon weekend is no exception, unfortunately.
  2. Say My Name: First a reminder for the runners that will help the spectators and in turn help you too: put your name on the FRONT of your shirt. Just do it. Trust me, it’s worth the trouble. I’ve made the mistake of forgetting to do this, and it sucked. It makes a big difference when the cheering is personal. Plus it is always entertaining to hear all of the unique ways people can mispronounce your name! On the flip side of this, spectators: if you see a name on a shirt, say it loud and say it proud!
  3. What Not To Wear. Relatedly, runners, make sure you share with your fans what you’ll be wearing for the race. I suggest laying out all of your clothing the night before (you’ll want to do this anyway), snapping a photo, and sending it around or just put it on the Internet for all to see. It makes a big difference as a spectator when you know exactly what color or outfit to keep your eyes peeled for. And spectators, comfortable clothing is key! Look up the weather beforehand, and dress in layers. And it is always a good idea to pack a hat and an extra pair of gloves in your bag in case it gets chilly.
  4. Technology, friend or foe? Most major marathons these days come with an app that allows you to track your runners. Definitely DO use this! (Definitely also bring a battery pack for your phone!) But, understand how the app works. Runners will likely run over timing mats every 5K or so, and that is the data that is feeding into the app to tell you where the runner is. In between each 5K, the app will estimate the runner’s location based on their last 5K pace. But a lot can happen in 5K. Walls may be hit, or busted through – you really just never know, especially in those later miles. So remember a runner’s estimated location according to the app will be *most accurate* right after one of these 5K checkpoints.
  5. The Subway Trick. You may now be thinking, what if I end up on the wrong side of the street, or what if I’m cheering for multiple people with different colored bibs and I don’t want to end up like one of those people trying to cross the street? I got you! Let me introduce the subway trick. Some subway stations in NYC are set-up such that you have to go into a specific entrance depending on whether you are going uptown or downtown – but not all of them. Some of the larger subway stops are connected underground so you can actually go down one side of the street and come up the other without having to swipe your metrocard. This is a non-exhaustive list of subway stops that fit this bill:
    • 59th Street and 4th Ave in Sunset Park, Brooklyn (~Mile 4)
    • 36th Street and 4th Ave in Sunset Park, Brooklyn (~Mile 5.5)
    • Atlantic Ave-Barclays Center, Brooklyn (Mile 8)
    • Bedford-Nostrand Ave (G Train), Brooklyn (Mile 9)
    • Bedford Avenue (L Train), Brooklyn (Mile 11.5)

There might be more! Honestly, what happens in Queens always has been and always will be very confusing to me as a Brooklynite, but hopefully this list is a good start.

  1. Signage. Definitely make some signs so that your runner can spot you. I recommend having one side of the poster specific to your runner, and the other generic to cheer on the masses. The more creative the better, and bonus points if it’s a pun or joke!
  2. Bring in the NOISE: Bring a cowbell or other noisemaker, like a megaphone. Twice as much fun as just shouting, and your voice will thank you on Monday!
  3. Be prepared to make sacrifices – especially if you’re tracking a lot of people and you have big plans to hit a lot of spots. If you’re tracking a lot of people, there’s a good chance they do not all run the same pace, and what makes this situation particularly challenging this year is the addition of a 5th wave. Runners will be starting their NYC marathon journey anywhere from 9:10 AM to 12:00 PM and even earlier if they’re using a handcycle or are an athlete with a disability. If your people are super spread out, you may want to stick to just one spot, or, decide which athlete you want to try and chase around the city, and know that means you will likely miss others.
  4. Remember to take care of yourselves! This is important. Spectating the NYC Marathon is an endurance event all on its own and it’s going to be a long – but super fun – day, especially if done right. You’re going to get hungry and need some fuel to stay out there cheering all day. This means coming prepared with snacks or dare I say meals, and especially hydration (and maybe even a bathroom spot in mind). Also: cough drops! You’re going to be screaming. Your throat will hurt. Trust. Want some bonus points? If you’re carrying a bag anyway, think about bringing some items the runners may find useful and may not have on them: tissues, bandaids, tampons, pretzels (this has been a big hit for me in the past), and gummy candy. Or be the doughnut person! Everyone loves the doughnut person.
  5. Exit strategy. Have a plan to find your runner when they’re all done. It can be either a nearby restaurant, or somewhere after the finish line although the latter is particularly difficult in NYC. Study the finish area map – it’s different this year. And, be kind, don’t pick someplace too far from the park. Work with your runner(s) to figure out where they will be exiting the park, and try to pick a spot accordingly. Also, be extra nice. Runners’ emotions tend to sore after such a big special race and it can be good, bad, and ugly, or all three at once. 
  6. Post Race Fuel. Don’t forget about reservations for post-race brunch. Or maybe this year it will be dinner. Either way, find your favorite spot now and make reservations ASAP, before they get booked up the week before the race.
  7. Have Fun! We’ve both ended a day of spectating more tired than a day when we’ve run a marathon ourselves. Cheering in and of itself is a marathon, not a sprint, so enjoy it and remember to spread as much positive energy as you can not just to “your” runners,  but to all of the runners that day. They need it and they deserve it!

There you have it. A perfect recipe for a successful NYC Marathon spectating day, if we do say so ourselves. Now let the final countdown begin! 

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