The 32nd annual Stratton Faxon Fairfield Half Marathon that took about 4,500 runners through 13.1 miles of Fairfield roadways Sunday morning was nearly as much of a workout for the spectators as for the athletes.
Thousands of people lined the route cheering for the runners, some of them just about non-stop. Many offered words of encouragement, handed out slices of oranges and doused runners with water to help cool them down.
"Good job, guys!"
"Keep it going! You can do it!"
"There's an energy that's produced both on the spectator side and the runners' side, and it fuels the excitement," said Jennifer Kelly of Fairfield, who stood on Bronson Road near the intersection of Mill Hill Terrace with her husband Stephen and children Stephen, 12, and Emily, 10. "We were high-fiving people we didn't even know," Kelly said.
Support for the runners was evident with the first step of the race and continued until the last runner crossed the finish line near Jennings Beach. On Beach Road, where the women's portion of the race began, Alek Dembowski of Brooklyn, N.Y., prepared to hold up a sign he made to support his finance Wendy Hillegass. It urged her to "Run all the miles."
Beach Road resident Peg Rendl leaned up against a car in her driveway to watch the racers pass by. "I used to run as a child but not this distance," said Rendl, who volunteered for Saturday's 5K Run of the two-day Stratton Faxon Fairfield Road Races.
"Oh my gosh. There's no end to it," said Rendl as the long line of female racers headed out on the course.
Ray Turek of Danbury had one daughter Emily, 5, on his shoulders and another, Rachael, 6, was perched on a Beach Road tree limb to catch a glimpse of Ray's wife and the girls' mother, Marsha.
In Southport center, hundreds of people lined the route, including about a dozen people representing the lululemon athletic-wear retail store in Westport. Amanda Webster of Ansonia and Alissa Cretella of Monroe waved signs that read, "Why do all the cute ones run away?" and someone else held a sign that read "Your perspiration is my inspiration."
Mimi Franco of Westchester, N.Y., soaked sponges in a tub of water and created a spray for the racers to run through. Some welcomed the cooling spray deliberately seeking it and running through it with open arms.
"That felt good!" one runner shouted.
Others tried to avoid the sponge spray and the hose another woman held.
Zach Howard, 12, of Westport, gave his mom Michelle Howard a high five as she ran through Southport center. Then he and his brothers Ben, 10, Ollie, 6, and Charlie, 8, and their father Livy Howard raced off to another destination along the route to watch her go by again.
Charlie Howard sat on the street next to a large sign that read, "Go Mom," affixed to a surfboard.
At the corner of Mill Hill Terrace and Bronson Road, the signs were a bit more modest, but supportive sentiments were the same. Olivia Shah, 8, of Fairfield and her sister Caroline, 6, carried small, hand-held signs. They were joined by sister Grace, 11, and family friend Bridget Walsh, 12, of Fairfield.
They waited eagerly to watch their mother Kristen Shah run by. Their father, Premal Shah, was able to track her progress on his cellphone, telling his daughters where she was on the route and when to expect her to pass their spot.
Kristen Shah took a brief respite at the corner to drink water, get some encouraging words from her husband and kiss the top of each daughter's head before heading back on the course.
Some spectators turned out to support runners they knew. Others just wanted to be part of the revelry of the Fairfield Half Marathon, which started with just 200 runners and has become one of the premier running events in the nation.
Throughout its history the race has been two-time host of the U.S. Women's National Half Marathon Championship, three-time host of the National Masters' Half Marathon Championship, and routinely has been singled out as one of the country's top road races by Runner's World magazine.