How to Spectate the London Marathon

Blogger’s Note (12/4/11): Due to sparkling statistics I notice people are looking for the best tips to spectate.  Below is my experience of last year’s marathon, which is witty and wonderful and you should read it three times.  However, for those who want in, out, and on with their lives listen up:

  • Signs on bamboo sticks.  Or stakes, or tree trunks.  No joke.  Make a sign, a really simple sign on a very bright background (or with very bright paint) and put it on bamboo sticks.  This is because you will generally be crammed into a very small area with LOTS of people.  Show this sign to your runner before hand.  Don’t bother surprising them.  There are LOTS of people running, and they will know where you are and be grateful for it.
  • There is NO FOOD on the course.  At least, not last year.  So if your runner needs food you need to pick spots where they can get their bananas, power gels, etc.  It needs to be obvious, down to the side of the street you plan to be on.  If you have a sign like above, it will make it easier for them.
  • If you want to have a pack of people, dress the same.  Bright colours, pom-poms, noise makers, all out.  In the places I went I found myself sometimes four people deep.  So if you get trapped back, they see your sign and flashes of colour they will know where you are.
  • DO NOT EXPECT TO SEE YOUR RUNNER MORE THAN TWICE.  If they are fast, you’ll only see them once.  Travel is difficult and time consuming because everyone is there to cheer on their respective people.  Pick your spot WELL IN ADVANCE and camp there.  If your runner needs lots of support spread out the family and friends.  Paint them neon, have them carry signs on sticks.
  • Pick your meet up spot WELL IN ADVANCE.  The entire St. James Park is the finish area and it will be crawling.  They go by letter.  Pick your letter, meet there.
  • BRING FOOD.  Snacks, picnic, you name it.  For you and your runner.  This will keep you and your runner happy until you get home/to the after party.
  • BRING A CAMERA.  The stuff you’ll witness is incredible.
  • HAVE FUN.  It’s seriously the most intense experience I’ve had, and I wasn’t running!  It’s a lot to take in.  And if you have food, neon, and signs you can enjoy the experience in a very stress-free manner.  Be there for your runner!

And now, the bloggy:

I thought it was no big deal.  I mean, I knew the London Marathon was THE BIGGEST marathon anywhere.  51,000 registrants, and of that 39,000 would cross that start line for sure.  You average two supporters per runner and you are looking at 78,000 people.  You add people on top of that, who love watching races and live in the city, you’re looking at 100,000 people.

All in 26.2 miles.  52.4 if you consider both sides of the course lined, though they don’t let people line up a few places.

But I had spectated before.  I’d done Houston.  I’d done Disney.  Both have extensive entrants and supporters.  But it was nothing, absolutely nothing, compared to the London Marathon.

First, let us chat about the Expo.

They say it is the biggest anywhere, and I think it is just in floor space.  Truth be told if a running store wanted to bring their entire stock, they could’ve, and sold it right there on the floor.  The selection was incredible, and I’m grateful I left my purchasing power at home.  For samples, you had every imaginable power/energy bar and bean (which we considered mashing together into a super bar/bean, capable of the energy of the sun).  There was drink powders, apples, and … beer.

That’s right, go to the London Marathon Expo.  Get beer.

It wasn’t like they were handing out pints (well, they were handing out coupons to get pints and if you were a runner a pint can was in your goody bag).  But, if you were up to it, you could feasibly work your way through the floor with a 1/4 pint of beer, grab bits of energy bar and an apple, then loop back again.  I don’t know what to say about this being pre-race nutrition, however, if you are in a pinch remember: beer is a carb.

As for spectating:

You should show up several days early and, this is imperative, bring a mobile phone that works.

Several days of advance planning (if not weeks) is essential if you are going to properly spectate.  They were kind enough to provide several pages of spectating in a Virgin London Spectators Guide.  However, even though they listed approximate trains and boats and teleportation they were more concerned with the 72 pubs along the course, and less about you moving from one point to the other.  Sure, they wrote paragraphs on “the best way” and listed every station and foot tunnel closed, but,  unless you are a regular traveler to the central and east side of London, it sounded like a posh form of travel Twister.

Granted, since there are 100,000 – 200,000 people just crammed into the area they probably should have written:

“Transportation on the day of the marathon is somewhat like trying to squeeze yourself through a small rubber tube filled with people: You just don’t want to do it.  Instead, why not pick a place (relatively close to a pub) and paint yourself and a sign neon orange.  Attach balloons to that sign, and, if possible, shoot off fireworks every 5 minutes.  This is so your runner(s) know where you are.”

And that is because when they let the masses go, it is a never-ending mass.

My mobile phone had the very unfortunate task of dying on me as I made my way to the 10K mark.  This means that, despite my little painted shirt and my total lack of signage (due to rain, which destroyed the paper) it would not be easy to find my husband.  However, I hoped that my years of spectating experience would help me to find a place where I could stand out and be seen.

Nope.

As there is a never-ending mass of runners so there is a never-ending mass of spectators.  And the smart ones who painted themselves neon orange with neon signs saw all their friends.  They also put their signs on cloth on bamboo sticks.  I must remember that.

Lesson learned.

However, I can tell you that if you are caught in a bind and cannot use a mobile phone consider standing just outside of a water station, which I did at mile 19.  Provided the missile sounds of water bottles whizzing by your ears doesn’t bother you much, you’ll be a-okay, and people will clear the area.  Magically, this produced a meeting between myself and my husband.  Though we did decide in the future, should phone death occur, two pre-determined spots will be selected along with side of the road.  More than two and it’s just too darn difficult to travel.

Finally, when you have to get to the finish area (which one must… hopefully) do so with patience.  The British can queue.  Serious, hardcore queuing.  They bring lunch (which I was stupid enough not to).  My years of “meeting under the letter” are common.  Just not the “meeting under the letter with 300 of your closest friends” common.  Seriously, what is little tents lettered A-Z at most races are entire St. James Parks to the London Marathon.  Agree on a letter way in advance.  Thankfully my husband and I magically picked the same one.

So there you have it.  One day I’ll run the London Marathon, but until then I shall spectate it.  Preferably with neon.  And food.  And a phone that works.  Congratulations to all the runners.  I watched you and man, you looked awesome.

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