I'm a huge believer in the importance of support; a friendly cheer from someone you know, or even someone you don't, can squeeze a couple of extra miles out of the tiredest pair of legs. When I'm on the course, I like to cheer everyone, regardless of whether or not I know them. Get out there and make some noise!!
- Find out your runner's start time. Many larger races have waved starts; a 5:30AM advertised event could mean your runner doesn't cross the start line until 6:15AM or later.
- Know your runner's predicted race pace, but don't expect them to stick to it. Often times, they'll start out faster (adrenalin) and slow down later. But, if you're hoping to cheer them at, say, mile 10, you'd better know whether they're planning to be there after 70 minutes or 2 hours. In San Francisco, the shuttle bus takes at least 20 minutes to get from the start to mile 4: if you watched your runner start and they have a fast pace, they'll be gone before you get there.
- Know what color top they're wearing. In the bigger races, an impenetrable throng of runners will be passing and being able to look for a specific color is great. Ideally, encourage them into something lurid - green, orange and pink are all great choices. Discourage them from wearing the free T-shirt given out at the Expo: they won't know if it chaffs, and you'll never pick them out from the hordes of others who are wearing the same shirt. Likewise, if they know what you're wearing (lurid also good), they can look out for you. Some supporters bring helium balloons but I suspect they're a hassle to deal with.
- Get hold of the course map and be strategic. Find out where your runner thinks they'd like support, and which sections of the course are easiest for you to get to, keeping in mind road closures and crowd/traffic chaos. (In some cities, the course will alternate to allow for some cross-traffic, so make sure you pick a section that is consistently in use by the runners!) My brother always asked to see us at the 20-ish mile point which can be the (metaphorically) darkest part of a marathon experience. They'll probably need you far more there than they do at the finish line. Ideally, your runner will know where to look out for you - if you can tell them which side of the course you'll be, that's the icing on the cake. The San Francisco Marathon has a wonderful shuttle bus which will help you catch your runner at mile 4, 13, 16 and 22. I paid $20 and strongly recommend it.
- If you're planning to meet your runner after the race, for goodness sake arrange a meeting spot. With thousands of people milling around in identical foil blankets, you could spend hours searching for each other.
- Races today are often chip-timed (meaning your runner has a chip attached to their shoe) and wondrous technology means you may be able to receive text messages when they cross a few key points on the course. Bazu are one provider but the website for your race may have specific details. This can be hugely useful to know if you have, in fact, missed your runner, in which case you can cut your losses and move to the next cheering point. This cost me $5 for the 2009 San Francisco marathon.