Mo Farah, beaming and mo-boting away after his triumph at the Great North Run recently, credited his blistering 59min 23sec win to crowd support.
“I really enjoyed it and if it wasn’t for the crowd just edging me on, I think it would definitely have been a different result,” he said.
As a (rather more leisurely) veteran of several London marathons, I can relate to that. Encouraging cheers can buoy you up and give you wings. That’s why I have my name printed on the front of my club vest. I like to hear perfect strangers shouting it and telling me I’m doing well, especially if I’m feeling pretty buoyant about the race I am running.
When I’m the spectator, however, I’m often a little conflicted about the kind of support I should offer. It’s a conundrum I ponder every time I volunteer to marshal at my local parkrun.
Donning my hi-viz “voluncheers” vest and taking my position at the confluence of four paths in the hilly park, I consider my most useful, and possibly least irritating, modus operandi. Should my role be merely that of human signpost? In which case I would keep my trap shut, smile encouragingly and point runners in the right direction. Certainly, some of the fearsomely focused frontrunners flying past me, stony faced but with the steely gleam of a PB chaser in their popping eyes, looked as if they’d appreciate mute, brisk efficiency from a marshal.
Perhaps, though, it behoves me to offer some friendly encouragement, tinged with admiration, as these sinewy Saturday athletes speed past.
Speed, and my perception of it, is another variable in my marshalling quandary. When you’re a bystander, breathing easy in the pleasant September sunshine and watching as runners of all shapes and sizes, and in various states of aerobic extremis, pass you by, you develop a slightly critical eye. They all seem to be jogging, for heaven’s sake. Yet these are our parkrun elite. I know their 5K times beat mine into a cocked hat. So, I must conclude, when other marshals are cheering me on, that I must look like I’m practically staggering, even though I feel like I’m leaping along like a young gazelle.
So I decide to engage in some motivational shrieking. But what is the best thing to shout?
“Keep it up!”
Don’t these all sound slightly patronising? I risk many an old-fashioned look from the back-of-the-pack runners, who have already been lapped by the steely-eyed ones and know that this isn’t great running, but they’re doing their best and, like me, feel so much better having completed their umpteenth parkrun than if they’d stayed in bed on a Saturday morning and nursed their hangover.
Perhaps, then, I should don my running-coach hat and call out some practical, physiological guidance:
“Keep your cadence quick! Use your arms to pump you up the hill!”
Or practical, geographical guidance:
“Keep going, only one more hill to go, then you’re on the home straight!”
Or practical, philosophical guidance:
“Running gives you the perfect conformity of form and matter!”
Cue many a bewildered, sweat-streaked look.
Perhaps it’s just best to dangle a carrot. Remind the runners that in a few minutes, they’ll be heading to the park cafe for post-run breakfast, or that someone has baked cakes to celebrate a parkrun milestone, and that there might not be any left for the stragglers.
This Saturday, I tried a new approach, just telling everyone: “Run faster!”
I swear they sped up as they went past, even if they gave me evils as they did so. And no one came back at the end to punch me on the nose.
So I have tried many motivational approaches (OK, I haven’t been brave enough to proffer the George Sheehan philosophy), both as a course marshal and as a run pacer. Mostly, I’ve discovered that yells of warm encouragement go down well with people struggling to complete a race, or gunning for a PB. Sometimes, runners come to find you to say thanks for all the vocal support.
I’ve done that. My last parkrun PB was, I am sure, down to a fellow runner, and good friend, standing 400m from the finish funnel, checking his watch, jumping up and down and screeching: “This is incredible! You’re heading for a 30 second, no, a 40 second PB!”
That was my Mo-ment. Without my exuberant friend in the hi-viz, I, too, would have had a different result.
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