Paulina Reso Paulina is the digital media and film editor at Philadelphia City Paper. When she isn't fretting about the website, she's writing about urban cycling, people's pet projects and cultural oddities. She's grown a five-pound zucchini and teenage girls often mistake her for Julia Stiles.
At races, cheering spectators can boost a runner’s time more than a jolt of caffeine or a downward sloping hill. When I was 10 miles into the Brooklyn Half Marathon and clutching my side to stop a sudden cramp, an onlooking girl insistently shouted, “Don’t give up. You better not give up.” She could have been talking to anyone, but then she said my name, which was written clearly on my bib. I finished the race partly so I wouldn’t disappoint her.
One-and-a-half years later, I volunteered to man one of the Philadelphia Marathon’s 22 cheer zones, distributing sign-making supplies and noisemakers while hoping I could coax a few dispirited runners across the finish line. For nearly seven hours on Sunday, I shouted for world-class athletes striving for a personal record and first-time marathoners hoping to finish the damn thing.
5 a.m. Toting a thermos of black coffee, I drive to Kelly and Sedgley Drives, where I’ll be stationed a half mile from the finish. Two blonde representatives from hawkeye, a marketing agency helping the title sponsor Gore-tex produce the event, frantically text and place calls, searching for the tent that was supposed to be there thirty minutes ago. I overhear one hawkeye rep say she slept only 25 minutes that night.
6 a.m. "Have a great run! Oh, wait, was that me being too nice again?" one perky runner says to her friends en route to the starting line. Wired 96.5, “Philly’s Party Station,” sets up speakers close to my table to broadcast commercial-free radio for the duration of the event. A hot chocolate vendor starts heating water in a pot so large it will take an hour to boil and I unpack my supplies: foam hands, clappers, posters, markers and pretzels.
6:59 a.m. Half a mile in the distance, runners countdown the seconds to the start of the race.
7:15 a.m. Three boys refuse offers of free hot chocolate, too preoccupied with making signs. "You don't know how to write mom's name?” one says, “M-o-m." An adult makes a sign that reads "Worst parade ever."
7:45 a.m. 45 minutes after the race starts, a handcyclist speeds by the 13.5 mile marker. Katy Perry's "Roar" has already played twice. (By the day’s end, it will have played an excruciating five more times on the radio.)
8:11 a.m. The lead runner reaches the nearly-halfway point. His feet seem to barely touch the ground. A pack of runners passes by soon after.
9:19 a.m. Runners dressed in costumes start appearing at the 13.5 mile marker: Ballerinas, superheroes, a flock of flamingos.
9:20 a.m. Abebe Mekuriya, who ran a 2:17:34, has won the race. Top runners zoom past, salt crusted around their armpits and bloodied nipples soaking their T-shirts.
10:20 a.m. After watching runners pass for a few hours, I can categorize their expressions in three groups: stoic, pained and beatific.
12:05 p.m. Finally, a barefoot runner. He’s running a 4:45 pace with a serene expression. Spectators gawk, naturally. Lunch is a bag of chocolate doughnuts I find at the bottom of my supplies bin. After testing different cheers, I’ve found the most motivating one: “Five minutes to the finish.
1 p.m. By this point, people are dragging their feet, and that promise of five minutes to the finish isn’t so true anymore. Marathon runners are required to maintain a 16-minute per mile pace. The woman next to me is cheering for every single person, "Amanda, you can do it." "Rob, you're almost there." She does this for at least an hour.
2 p.m. Seven hours after the race started, the finish is technically closed, but runners are still on the course, shuffling along to the end that is near, but out of sight. My voice is hoarse from shouting, my thighs strained from jumping and my right arm aches from waving those clappers for hours. I leave the lingering cheerers to their work.
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