And for the fourth time since 2015, I’ll be among those lining up in the starting corrals along West Washington Street. That year, fueled in part by the existential angst of turning 30, I picked up what had been for me a long-shelved habit of distance running. Since then, perhaps trying to outrun my own mortality, I’ve logged seven marathons and nine half marathons, including three Minis, among my favorite annual races for the civic pride it invokes.
Along the way, I’ve become a student of one of the great traditions of recreational distance running: The homemade spectator sign, that neon, Sharpie-scrawled totem that possesses the ability to fortify—or break—a runner’s will.
I’ve spent many bleary-eyed, intestines-in-a-vice hours trotting along courses while studying, critiquing, and ranking the creative sensibilities of signs. And one of the trends I’ve noticed over the course of these hours is that the content of these signs are becoming increasingly shopworn and derivative. We can do better; and we must do better.
Don’t get me wrong. I respect the signmakers and hoisters. Were they not lining New York Street near the black-and-white checkered finish line, my lactic acid trip would be all the less enjoyable. That squinty-eyed, why-are-you-doing-this incredulity spectators have for runners? Runners also look at spectators that way: I paid to be out here busting my giddy-up sticks at this ungodly hour, why are you here?
And yet a city that produced the droll and deadpan humor of comedy demigod David Letterman can do better. And we must do better.
Ahead of Saturday’s race, allow me to offer an appraisal of the current state of recreational running spectator signs, and humbly suggest some helpful inspiration for those of you who will dot the course Saturday morning. Consider this a comedic call to arms.
Good: “Worst. Parade. Ever.”
Judge’s comments: It’s funny. It’s playful. It works. But can we make it more topical and subversive, while keeping the parade concept in there?
Better: “Trump’s military parade will tank harder than you.” (Keep workshopping that one, maybe.)
Good: “I do Netflix marathons.”
Judge’s comments: Yes, good. But can we localize this? Humor is found in specificity. Perhaps add a touch of Hoosier popular culture.
Better: “I do Stranger Things marathons.”
Good: “All this work for a free banana?”
Judge’s comments: Needs more Indiana.
Better: “I don’t run marathons because I prefer tenderloins to tender loins.”
Best: “You look better than LeBron after a 7-game series against the Pacers.”
Good: “I love your stamina. Call me.”
Judges comments: Nothing says sexy like getting propositioned at the same time I’m working up a good chaff.
Better: “Is Trump’s doctor yours, too? Because you have great energy and unending stamina.”
Topical and Political Humor
Good: “You’re running better than the government.”
Judge’s comments: This is a Ron Swanson-esque critique of state and federal bureaucracy, and therefore indisputably funny, no matter whether you’re a Republican or Democrat. But all comedy—like all politics—is local.
Better: “You’re running more reliably than IndyGo.”
Best: “You’re running better than Indiana’s U.S. Senate candidates.”
Good: “If Trump can run, so can you.”
Judge’s comments: This feels somewhat dated. Provocative in 2015, perhaps, and smile-inducing in 2016. Now, though? This fare is too dated and too dark, even for 2018.
Better: “You’re running a half marathon. DO NOT CONGRATULATE.”
The Bathroom Jokes
Good: “Run fast I just farted.”
Judge’s comments: These are funnier the younger the sign holder.
Better: “Never trust a fart after mile 20.”
Best: Better to avoid this category: There’s a good chance, based on what has just transpired on the course, that it’s too soon.