Thursday, 19 April 2012

Run like an American

Last weekend I ran the inaugural Edinburgh Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon. A lot of stuff happened and it was overall a pretty cracking event, but the main thing I took away was an observation of a stark divide between the way we plucky Brits run and the way our American cousins race. My conclusion is to do with politeness, and not in the way you might expect.

Lining up for this race at 9am on Sunday morning, and having investigated the route, I was prepared for spectator numbers to be relatively low. That’s fine with me – I’m happy to switch off and let my legs do their thing if necessary. But equally I knew I would be falling into a familiar pattern, whereby I become excessively grateful for the few spectators who do bother to show up. I end up running in a constant state of preparedness, looking for the next tiny group of spectators defiantly clapping and whooping and cheering on an otherwise empty road. I make eye contact, smile, say thank you and distribute high-fives to those who want them. I do the same for volunteers, acknowledging the vital and generous contributions of those fluorescent-clad heroes of the open road. Sometimes I find myself putting more energy into engaging with spectators than actually running.

I have to do this, because it seems that almost no-one else bothers.

I think I understand why this is – you’re in the zone, you feel like an athlete and you’re working hard on a great race. When you come across people clapping, you steel your gaze forwards, determined to look the part and be deserving of this admiration. You’ve no time for cheerful thanks or petty high-fives. You have a goddamn race to run. These spectators have no idea what you’re going through and their mere mortal clapping is just another indication of their incredibly inferior status to your god-like athletic prowess.

Or maybe it’s the opposite. Maybe you think they’re out supporting someone specific, waiting for a friend or family member to round the corner and appreciate their own personal cheering station. To acknowledge this cheering might be to misappropriate someone else’s goodwill. Maybe you feel a little embarrassed that a huge crew of people have turned up to witness your middle-of-the-pack struggle. Maybe you’re not used to praise. Maybe you’re just a slave to your natural British reserve.
Not many supporters at mile 3...

Either way, I beg you to get over yourself. Smile, say thank you, engage with another human being, and make races friendlier places to be, both for spectators and runners. This is where the Atlantic divide seems to favour the Yanks – I see Americans smiling and laughing and chatting to each other at races all the time. I could barely move a few paces in San Francisco without striking up an optimistic conversation with a total stranger.

Even the liveliest of British spectators could do with taking a leaf out of our colonial cousins’ book. The Crew Chief, whom I sent to an American finishing school in the deep south for a year in preparation for her role, is a master of US-style supporting. She whoops and hollers and engages with people like it’s going out of fashion. She puts the most fervent of British fans to shame, as even they are hampered by that awful stiff-upper-lip reserve. When I saw her during last weekend’s race I could hear her encouraging and enthusing the steely-eyed runners for several hundred yards after I had passed her, many of whom, rudely, didn’t even acknowledge her.

So run like an American. You never know, you might have more fun.

Happy running


2012 to date: miles run - 142.72, miles biked: 29.2, metres swum: 750


  1. More than a little intrigued to see if this is a similar experience other Brits have had. Regardless, nice to know us boisterous, sometimes uncouth, Americans do something to be looked up to.

    1. Round about mile 24 I'm always hoping for someone boisterous and uncouth to take my mind off the suffering! Good to hear from you, Dane. Perhaps we should jointly conduct some sort of elaborate research project on this phenomenon?