Triathlon Spectating Like a Boss

This past weekend I had the honor of watching friends and teammates compete in Ironman Oceanside 70.3. It was so much fun to cheer my heart out for others competing, and it’s something that I don’t get to do very often since I’m usually on the other side of the fence! It’s not always easy to spectate for a triathlon- so today I’m sharing some tips to successfully navigate a triathlon as a spectator!

Find out when you should be there

Triathlon is an early morning sport. It sucks for spectators, but it’s the best thing for the athletes and the community impacted by the race. Find out when your athlete would like you to be there. Do you need to see the whole race? Do they need you to hold their bag for them after transition closes? Ask what time they’d like you to arrive, and then be there on time.

Pack like you’re going to a theme park

Spectating for a triathlon is a lot like going to a theme park. You’re going to do a lot of walking. You’re going to stand around and wait a lot. You’re going to be out in the elements. Be sure to wear comfortable walking shoes, bring a hat and sunscreen for a sunny day or a poncho and umbrella for a rainy one. Bring a bag you can toss everything in- jacket, sunglasses, water bottle. Pack snacks for a longer day, maybe a book.  Most importantly, don’t forget to fully charge your cellphone and camera so you can take lots of pictures of your athlete.


Check the race website to know what the parking options are. The race will often have several roads closed and may also commandeer parking lots for racers with passes only. Have a plan to get near the site, park (and pay if needed!) and walk to your watching spot.

Pick Your Spots

Check the race website to look at the course maps. Choose a spectating point where you’ll be able to see multiple overlaps. Transition exits and entrances are good spots for this, as well as anywhere on a multiloop course. For a half or full Ironman, be prepared to take a break and get something to eat or go back to your hotel since your athlete will be out there anywhere from 4 to 8 hours for a half and 8 to 17 for a full. The bike leg is often the best time to do this as athletes are usually far from any spectating points. You may want to prearrange a spot with your athlete to find out where you can provide the best moral support, or feel free to wander to different spots. The more you see your athlete and can cheer them on, the better. Finaly, be sure to be at the finish chute to cheer your athlete on to the end.

Be loud

Bring a cowbell. A horn. A megaphone. Blast some music for all the competitors (remember that athletes can’t wear headphones or bring personal devices, so this is much appreciated!). Wear a wig or a costume. Bring signs. Write on the road with colored chalk (do this well before the race starts and check the rules as some races do not allow this). Running a triathlon is tedious. Running a half or full ironman is torture. Seeing a friendly face cheering you on is the best spirit-lift an athlete can ask for.

Spotting and Tracking your athlete

Find out before the race what your athlete’s bib number is and what they are wearing. This is so helpful in being able to spot them. It’s also a good idea to ask them their anticipated pace and split times (how long they think it will take them to complete the swim, bike, and run). This can help you do the math on where your athlete might be on course. In Ironman branded events, you can track your athlete using the Ironman website or a number of apps you can download for your phone, including IronMobile and IMTrk.

Be supportive and respectful

This should go without saying, but my last race I actually had a woman who had her stroller in the bike course lane and yelled at me that I was in the car lane. The road was closed- there was no car lane- and I found myself having to a) dodge her stroller and b) get yelled at by her and her friends. It was a head scratcher. Unless you see something dangerous about to happen and feel the need to warn an athlete, or an athlete asks you a question about something specific, assume that they know more than you and yell nothing but supportive things.

On the other hand…

There are some supportive words that are also some of the most frustrating things to hear. “Are you nervous?” and “You’re almost there!” or “You’re almost done!” were unofficially voted the worst motivation by my triathlon team, because I wasn’t nervous but I am now that you asked, and we’re rarely almost there or almost done. We appreciate the sentiment, but when you’re sweaty and tired and dirty and want to take a nap, the words “You’re almost there” may earn you less than a smile back.

Be familiar with some common triathlon rules

Particularly the rule that an athlete cannot accept support from anyone other than other athletes and race officials. This means you can’t hand or take anything from an athlete. No water, no food, no chapstick- nothing. You also can’t run alongside your athlete to pace them (a few yards to cheer them on is fine). You CAN feed them information on how they or others are doing, and give them hugs or high fives, which are always appreciated.


Me on the right, congratulating my Betty Squad teammates, ice cream in hand…                                                                     (photo credit Jillienne Sanders)

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