Thank you, Stranger! The Power of Road Race Spectators

Running is often a solitary struggle. For some, an impassive face hides the battles raging within. For others, a tortured grimace reveals the massive effort of racing. Keep pushing. Suffering is only temporary. Shut up, legs!

The faraway look you see in a runner’s eyes is real. I’ve completed races where I can’t recall crossing a bridge, or running past a national landmark. There comes a point in almost every race where I crawl deep into my own head to find the strength to keep going. In those moments, the world gets quiet and I see nothing but the thirty-foot patch of gray asphalt that lies in front of me.

Amazingly, a single word can pull me back to the surface and fill my world with brilliant colors and a cacophony of cheers. “Go, Jason!” Hearing my name and seeing a smiling face is enough to give me a huge boost of energy. My struggle is no longer my own. The stranger who shouts my name takes the burden from my shoulders and makes it there own for a brief moment. It’s a display of generosity and kindness that can literally move a runner to tears.

Before running the 2014 New York City Marathon, I wrote my name on the front of my shirt with a black sharpie.  I heard my name shouted hundreds of times and smiled more during that race than I have at any other. The two million fans lifted my spirits and made me feel invincible. I pumped my fist and high-fived every hand I could reach as I crossed the Willis Avenue bridge into the Bronx at mile 20. A year earlier, I had hit the wall at this same spot. Back then, nobody knew my name and nobody seemed to care.

Spectators and runners have a symbiotic relationship. Runners who interact with the crowd are rewarded with encouragement and cheers. Spectators want to be rewarded for their efforts as well. So, we all must give a little to get a little. A simple ‘thank you’ or wave from a passing runner goes a long way. In fact, a little positive reinforcement can be enough to motivate a fan to cheer louder and clap longer in hopes that another personal connection can be made.

Psychologists refer to this principle as intermittent reinforcement. It’s a very successful reward system. A person never knows when the reward will come, but they keep exhibiting the behavior in hopes that it will happen soon. Gamblers and fisherman are very familiar with this concept of unpredictable rewards. And, as it turns out, so are the crowds that line the course at road races.

The next time you race, remember that you’re not alone. The cheering fans you see along the course are your allies. They can lift you up and pull you along when you’re struggling. They can even make you feel invincible at mile 20. All you have to do is smile, nod, wave and show them you care.

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