Following a frustrating spate of ailments, last weekend I begrudgingly dropped out of a big race. After recently writing an article on the subject, I was painfully aware that running an ultra while feeling below par was a bad idea, so I decided to heed my own advice and DNS. Having booked and paid for the weekend - and convinced my running buddy Ed to join me - I decided to put my supporter hat on and embrace the other side of running. If I couldn’t run the race, I was determined to support the hell out of his instead.
Medals, PBs and a sense of accomplishment all have their merits, but arguably one of the greatest aspects of race day is the support. From loved ones to total strangers, being publicly applauded by people willing you to succeed is nothing short of magical. Running long distance is often an emotional rollercoaster, so the tiniest gesture can also make someone’s race day. But as I discovered on Saturday, being on the other side of the fence can be just as rewarding.
Chasing my friend Ed around Scotland was great fun and in many ways even more exciting than running myself. Aside from forgoing the pain of running 38 miles, I discovered giving really is receiving. So does yelling encouragement at weary runners really change the game? I asked a few runners for their race day tales and was inundated with heartwarming replies.
‘Two days before I was due to run my first 100K ultra I found out we were no longer able to use the car we'd been promised. Already nervous at the thought of running 62 miles I was now in a state of full-blown panic. I needn't have worried though; my lovely boyfriend and one-man cheer squad made it his mission to follow me across England using every mode of transport available. Walking for miles to find obscure bus stops he got trains, hailed taxis and even found a special needs bus so that he could be there at the checkpoints and pick me up in a taxi at the finish. Seeing Stuart waiting for me at 20K in was the boost I needed to send me on my way to run the next 80. I was elated to have finished in under 14 hours but he'd completed a different sort of ultra marathon and had even brought me a celebratory pork pie. He's a keeper! Our B&B hosts were far more impressed with his efforts than my ultra marathon. He got extra bacon and everything.’
‘One vivid memory I have of how support changed my race experience was during my first ever ultra marathon around the Isle of Wight. I had been running for hours, my legs hurt like hell, and I had just reached the point where I wished for it all to stop. I had been going up and down some cliffs for what seemed like hours in the biting wind. I thought I had seen the finish flags! I thought the end was very near, when in fact it was still a mile or so away. When I realised this I very nearly stopped. Then, standing in a field, literally MILES from a road was a lady and a child. Clapping like mad and cheering me on a windy cliff. They were telling me I had 1 mile to go and I was going to make it! I nearly burst into tears at their kindness, standing there in the cold cheering the odd ultra runner past. What wonderful people. Yes I AM going to make it. I practically skipped the last mile over the line; that's how happy they had made me. Thank you supporters! You know not the power you have.’
'Running the Hackney Half this May, I was melting on an unusually boiling hot day and struggling to stick to the mile splits on my arm to get me to a PB. At around mile nine I suddenly felt completely terrible and like I couldn't run another step. I was really light headed and desperate for a drink but knew there wouldn't be a water station for at least another mile or two. At literally that moment, this woman appeared on the roadside about two metres from me, holding out ice-cold bottles of water she'd just bought in Tesco. She gave me one, looked me straight in the eyes and said with such conviction "You can do this!" and I did!! I got my PB. Thank you magic lady!’
‘At about 85K into the Capadoccia Ultra Trail I was in a bad spot, having just relinquished the lead and going up one of the biggest climbs. An old tractor was chugging up the mountain road behind and as he drew level the farmer started shouting at me in Turkish. I apologised for not speaking the language but he opened his cab and signalled for me to jump in! A kind offer, but not one I could accept. He wasn't going much quicker than me anyway. When I passed his orchard about a mile along the road he called me over to offer up some apples but again outside support is against the rules, plus I couldn't stomach much anyway. He was a lovely chap and indicative of the people of Capadoccia!’
‘I was running Trans Gran Canaria this year and having a bad race. I dropped at 70K along with a really nice guy in his 50s from Yorkshire. He accompanied me to the medical tent and told the nurses funny stories. Then he let me sleep on his sofa in his apartment (I didn't have accommodation because that's how I roll when I travel) then I took him out for a fry up in the morning to say thanks. He was a truly nice guy and I found his life story really inspiring - he'd been a bus driver for 20 years but then had to quit because he was suffering from ME, and retrained as a mental health nurse. It reminded me to be brave and follow my heart more.’
‘Last November (2014) I ran the New York marathon. It was freezing cold, with a bitter, howling wind, and as soon as I crossed the line the sweat started to chill me to the core. Then I got cramp in both my calves. I think I probably whimpered a bit. A lovely volunteer practically carried me to the first aid tent, totally distracting me from the pain (god the lactic acid). Then about five medics and volunteers sprung into action, massaging the cramps away, finding my phone and dialling my husband's number for me because my hands were shaking too hard. Another held hot broth to my lips because I couldn't safely hold that, either. They got me changed into warm clothes. They talked to my husband to tell him I really was ok, not to worry. It was, I suppose, no more than their "job" for the day but they were all so wonderfully enthusiastic, congratulatory and kind that I'll not forget it in a hurry. The lady who walked me there later came back, even though she was supposed to be having a break, to check I was ok. Volunteers are wonderful.’
‘Comrades is an annual 89K road race between Durban and Pietermaritzburg in South Africa, the route alternating in direction each year. It's now in its 90th year and firmly embedded in the psyche of the country, bringing out huge crowds all along the route and for that reason alone figures high on my list of the best. What's striking is that it comes from people of all backgrounds and in South Africa; extreme wealth lives in very close proximity to extreme poverty. The contrast is nowhere more clearly illustrated than atop Botha's Hill where the privately educated, suited boys from Kearnsey College cheer on, just down (or up!) the road from Ethembeni school for physically and visually impaired kids. All support is appreciated but it was the Ethembeni that stood out for me. These kids are almost all from the poorest backgrounds where life is hard enough without their additional challenges, yet their enthusiasm was boundless. It was impossible to resist high-fiving as many as possible as I forgot (briefly) the pain and instead felt humbled to realise just how privileged I was to be there.’
‘After not getting a place at the London Marathon again last year I decided that I would join the Cheer Dem Crew, the cheering arm of our running community Run Dem Crew. I had only been part of the crew for eight months and didn't know what to expect, but it turned out to be one of the most uplifting days I have had. From the very first wheelchair and elite athlete all the way through the afternoon to the last runner, the atmosphere at our cheer point (Mile 21) was electric. The thing that made it so incredible, besides the number of supporters who turned out, the 300 confetti cannons and the oversized facial cutouts of each member who was running, was that we weren't just cheering our crew, we were cheering on London. Every runner who went past was given some love as they went by and it wasn't restricted by club, charity or ability.’
‘St Oswalds Ultra 100K, 2015 – The day had started brilliantly, setting off at sunrise from Holy Island on the Northumberland coast. I was missing having my partner and his usual pre-race pep talk at the start, as he was away on exercise with the TA for the two weeks leading up to this event, but had my Mam and a friend with me for moral support so set off in a pretty good place mentally. Skip forward 13 hours… my feet were falling to bits, the friend who’d met me at 50 miles to pace my last section kept losing the route, the terrain was becoming more difficult underfoot, and it was now dark. Fair to say that this was a definitive low point! Then came the final straw – I can hear someone calling my name, “That’s it, I’m hallucinating – I can’t finish this!” Little did I know, my partner had driven straight to the finish line on arriving back in the UK, and started walking backwards along the course to find me – as he appeared out of the dark, I swear I’ve never been happier to see anyone! Things really turned back around for me mentally here – I really felt I could do it now with his support. One big cuddle and slightly delayed pep-talk later, and I was back on my way to finish as first lady for this distance in the event’s first year. What a special moment.’
If you have yet to support a friend or cheer for an event, get yourself down to the race route and scream your head off at runners with wild abandon. Not only does good race day support ensure the runners have a better time, but giving something back to the community will fill your heart with joy. And you never know, when it’s your race day and chance to shine, they might just return the favour.