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Cheering or Heckling? When does it cross the line?

Date: 
12/26/2014 - 18:10

By Teri Saylor

On Thanksgiving Day, my sore knee was thankful for not running in my local Turkey Trot, and instead joined the fun on the sidelines with friends who were volunteering as course monitors.

For the next hour, the three of us stood by the side of the road cheering for runners. Runners in full turkey outfits. Runners dressed as pilgrims. Runners in tutus. Runners wearing super hero costumes. Runners wearing funny hats shaped like a turkey drumsticks, slices of pumpkin pie, indian headdresses, turkey heads, and even a cheeseburger.

So we hollered at them:

“Go Superman! Think ya can make it Pilgrim – using our best John Wayne voice! Whatta Turkey! Run Piehead! Cute Indian! Wonder Woman!

Of course, we meant all of it as pure fun. After all, if you run a race wearing a funny costume, you know you are going to attract attention.

But as the back of the pack runners approached, one man stood out. He was tall, husky and breathing hard, red-faced and sweating too, despite the chilly damp weather. And he was wearing a tee shirt boldly proclaiming in large, white, all-caps letters:

“RUNNING SUCKS.”

So of course we loudly and gleefully yelled: “Running sucks!”

He looked at us with a puzzled, stricken expression on his face, as if his feelings were hurt. But when we pointed out the slogan on his shirt he got the joke and laughed.

That started the three of us thinking about that fine line between cheering and heckling.

I ran in a Divas half marathon in Myrtle Beach a couple of years ago. The Divas series is a women's race, where the running outfit of choice is a lush tutu. Finishers receive boa scarves, tiaras and a glass of champagne at the finish line. I was about five miles in, running mid-pack next to a sidewalk lined with spectators when a little girl shouted “Go grannies go!”

What? Grannies?

Glancing around, most of the runners in my pack looked quite youthful, with not a noticeable granny in the bunch. And even if some of us were grandmothers in real life, we certainly defied the “granny” stereotype.

Then it occurred to me she was probably there to cheer for her own grandmother and thought all of us were grannies. That's what I choose to believe anyway.

But back to the question at hand. When does cheering cross the line and start to sound like heckling?
I found an online runners' message board with a lengthy thread devoted to heckling. Some runners think the jeers are funny and get big laughs out of some of the wisecracks tossed their way. Others use heckling as motivation to run faster and get in better shape. Some runners get scared. Some get mad. Others get even.

I will go out on a limb here and state that virtually every person who has laced up a pair of running shoes and hit the pavement has heard all the Forrest Gump jokes. From “Run Forrest Run” to “Where's Bubba?” to “Will run for shrimp.” That movie actually celebrated its 20th Anniversary last year, which means it likely premiered long before many hecklers were even born.

Sadistic drivers use their vehicles to heckle runners. Driving through puddles to create huge waterfalls is a minor form of harrassment, compared to the drivers who swerve towards the shoulder of roads pretending to hit runners and cyclists. Some drivers honk their horns scaring runners nearly to death, and sometimes even throw things like cups of soda, garbage and even rocks at runners.

Tall or short, fat or skinny, it doesn't matter what type of body you have. You're going to get heckled for it. From homophobic slurs to catcalls, neither men nor women are immune.

On the message board, a male runner posted that he had been out for a run when a small group of girls got in front of him and started running and screaming like he was chasing them. A female runner reported on “skeezy men on scooters” who whistled, honked their horns and tried to make conversation.

“We're talking 60-plus and on Vespas,” she wrote. “I really do marvel at it.”

Sometimes heckling becomes a life-threatening situation. On message boards, some female runners recount experiences of near kidnappings or rape.

One runner reported that as an 18-year old, she was running along a road at night when a group of men riding in a van stopped and tried to pull her inside. She made her way to a playground where she hid in a covered slide while the group canvassed the area calling out for her. She eventually made it home. Another woman reported she actually quit running for awhile after enough men in cars tried to pick her up. She eventually took a self-defense class and never ran alone again.

On the bright side, heckling often brings with it the motivation to improve. One runner on the message board reported the “run fatass run” shout-out he heard on his morning outing motivated him to lose 35 pounds and increase his speed. Other runners run faster to get away from hecklers and count that as a good thing.

My friend Dale Pithers, a runner here in Raleigh told me about a race in which he got revenge on a group of hecklers.

“Once in a half marathon at Myrtle Beach, a whole group of young guys ran past me around mile 6, each saying 'hang in there 'Big Guy,” Dale posted to me on Facebook. “When I passed them all around mile 12, I said hang in there 'little guys.”

Which just goes to show a heckle can cut both ways..

(Teri Saylor is a columnist for Running Journal. She runs and cheers for runners — but tries not to heckle them -- in Raleigh, N.C. Reach her at terisaylor@hotmail.com.)

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