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How to be a great fan

Marathon runners thrive on encouragement. There’s a right way to cheer them on — and a wrong way

Bobby Looney (left) and Justin Mundt (right) offered a runner encouragement as they crested Heartbreak Hill during the 2018 Boston Marathon in Newton on April 16.
Bobby Looney (left) and Justin Mundt (right) offered a runner encouragement as they crested Heartbreak Hill during the 2018 Boston Marathon in Newton on April 16.(Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)

I’ve cheered on the Boston Marathon runners most every year of my life, but in 2007, something changed, accidentally. My wife and I decided to skip the crowds in Boston, and instead went to Newton to the top of Heartbreak Hill, the most iconic geographic feature of the race.

I’d always wanted to see the fabled hill on Patriots Day, and as we stood there cheering and welcoming the runners to the top, something surprised us: a huge chunk had no idea they had arrived at the storied peak until we told them. The runners were so thankful for this information that we made it an annual tradition, one that took on an official slogan the following year when I randomly yelled “Heartbreak is behind you now” to a female runner who immediately came over and gave me a tearful hug. Those five words are now on a blue-and-yellow canvas sign that we hold each year atop Heartbreak, and it has been kissed and hugged and high-fived and selfied countless times.

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In 2016, I finally crossed running the Marathon off my bucket list, and then did it again the next year. And those experiences, plus my years atop Heartbreak, confirmed to me that one of the most incredible parts of the Marathon experience is the role that the crowds play. Marathons are the rare big-time sporting event where the competitors can hear a single voice in the crowd, and I get emotional just thinking about all the strangers who had the incredible ability to say just the right thing to me at just the moment I needed it. Others, however well-intentioned, had a clear misunderstanding of how the mind and body behave during a 26.2-mile race.

So here are some easy tips to help you have the most positive impact on Marathon Monday.

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A runner tapped a sign to celebrate climbing "Heartbreak Hill" during the running of the 120th Boston Marathon in Newton on April 18, 2016.
A runner tapped a sign to celebrate climbing "Heartbreak Hill" during the running of the 120th Boston Marathon in Newton on April 18, 2016.(Keith Bedford/Globe Staff)

Understand encouragement

“Run faster!” “Pick it up!” These people are everywhere, and seem to be missing the fact that this is a marathon, not a sprint. A shocking number of people think screaming in your face will boost your performance. Running too hard, even for the elites, is the fastest recipe for failure. Everyone is running their own race, at their own pace. So aim for softer encouragements: “You look strong.” “You’ve got this.” “Good pace.” “You’re running smart.” “You’re making us proud.” Think less “bad high school football coach” and more “good kindergarten teacher.”

Say their name

Many runners write their names on their clothing, or even in marker on their arms and legs. There is a reason for this – it has been scientifically proven that hearing your own name stimulates the brain and carries feelings of encouragement. So if you see a name, shout it. That little hit of positive energy can go a long way.

Respect that the walkers are walking for a reason

No one sets out from Hopkinton on Patriots Day planning for failure. But sometimes it happens. Sometimes, you just have to walk. Maybe cramps have taken over. Maybe runners went too hard in the first half and it’s catching up to them. But it is rarely a failure of motivation, so no amount of screaming in their face is going to change that. Instead, it’s probably a runner being smart, catching their breath, hoping the cramps will ease, and trying to recover enough so they can be running when they make a right on Hereford and a left on Boylston.

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‘Almost there!’

This is funny when you hear it in Hopkinton and Ashland, and amazing when you’re in Boston. But anywhere else on the course, it can be annoying. And while we’re at it . . .

Remove the word ‘only’ from your vocabulary

Many fans have a good-hearted tendency to tell runners how many miles are left. Where it fails is when they throw the word “only” in front. “Only 8 miles to go!” may sound like it would be encouraging to someone in a 26.2-mile race, but when your legs already have 18 miles on them, that word “only” is more discouraging than encouraging. When in doubt, celebrate what’s been accomplished, rather than what remains. “18 miles down” is much better than “only 8 miles to do.”

Know exactly where you are, and celebrate it

A marathon is a series of micro-accomplishments, and checking them off is a source of pride. The miles are marked, and most everyone is wearing a GPS watch anyway. But in between those mile milestones, anything that can be labeled an accomplishment comes with a psychological boost. “Welcome to Wellesley.” “There are GUs in one-10th of a mile.” “You’ll see the Prudential for the first time just around this bend.” Be specific, and be creative.

Keep the course clear

Running a marathon in a straight line is tough enough. Having to cut around people who have pushed into the road, or chosen a terrible time to bring the kids and the stroller to the other side, can inspire wincing pain and dirty looks, or even lead to injury on dead legs that aren’t prepared to dodge a defender.

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Fill the dead zones

There are the spots that are always crowded. And then there are the spots where it’s so quiet runners wonder if they’re still on the right course, such as a long, barren stretch along the commuter rail tracks in Framingham. Spread out, and your cheering can have a greater impact in those dead zones.

The back of the pack needs you, too

There are 30,000 runners in the Boston Marathon, and roughly 80 percent of them have qualified for the race by running a previous marathon with a time fast enough to meet the rigorous standards required for entry. Achieving the status of Boston qualifier is considered a lifetime achievement by many serious runners. But behind them, mostly in the final wave, are the charity runners who make up the other 20 percent of the field. They don’t leave Hopkinton until 11:15, more than an hour after the elites. The charity runners represent all sorts of incredible causes, and many are far from elite; simply finishing might be their lifetime running achievement. And that goal is tough. So definitely cheer on the physical specimens at the front; anyone who has qualified for Boston has done something amazing and deserves to be celebrated. But also stay for the slower runners – and the incredible stories they represent – way in the back. They’ll hear every word you say, and they’ll appreciate it.


Billy Baker can be reached at billybaker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.