SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

April 4, 2014

On The Run: Marathon bandits: Harmless or harmful?

On The Run
Jay Kumar

---- — Everybody probably knows someone who has run a marathon without an official number or jumped into a race to support a friend or family member for a few miles or more. The practice is generally thought to be harmless, and usually becomes a fond memory for the person who jumped in. These folks are known to race directors as bandits. And in most cases, they’re considered on par with actual thieves.

But if a runner can’t qualify, afford or otherwise get (i.e., run for a charity) one of the coveted numbers for a sold-out event like the Boston or NYC or Chicago Marathon, is it really that big a deal if he or she decides to line up behind the thousands of official entrants? Actually, it is.

The Boston Marathon has traditionally attracted plenty of bandit runners, who usually were allowed to finish. But this year as part of the new security measures at the event, unregistered runners will be pulled off the course.

Race director Dave McGillivray wrote a column for Runner’s World this week that explained how bandits hurt big events like the Boston Marathon by using resources that are allotted for official entrants. Some bandits even partake in the post-race food and drink and walk off with a finisher’s medal. Worse, he wrote, unregistered runners can pose a security risk since race organizers don’t know who they are.

This year, the allure of the Boston Marathon is greater than ever, given the tragic events of last year’s marathon. The Boston Athletic Association raised the number of entrants from 27,000 to 36,000, anticipating the increased demand. People from all over—even folks who have never run a road race before—want to run Boston this year to show solidarity with the bombing victims and the city. But unfortunately, as with every running of the Boston Marathon, there just aren’t enough race numbers to meet the demand.

That hasn’t deterred runners in past years, who are happy to run with no number or official swag just to experience the glorious atmosphere and often painful experience of those 26.2 miles from Hopkinton to Boston. During the race, it’s not really an issue for bandits, who are just runners and generally accepted by all. But go online and it’s a different story: there is considerable vitriol directed at bandits. “Bandits are scum and should be treated as such,” according to one poster on the Runners World forum.

Another reason runners may not register for some of the bigger marathons is price, which can run upwards of $200 or more. But there are plenty of marathons out there that charge much lower fees.

I have never run as a bandit, mainly because if I’m going to do a marathon or other long-distance event, I want to do it legitimately. So much goes into the organization of any road race, let alone a massive operation like the Boston Marathon. The tendency of some is to think that nobody will notice one unregistered runner in a field of 30,000, but that’s not the point. Even if nobody notices, running as a bandit is a slap in the face to the registered runners, organizers and volunteers who worked extremely hard leading up to and on race day. If you’re going to run a marathon, go about it the right way and sign up for it. And if you don’t want to do that, then step aside and cheer on those who did.

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On the Run is a biweekly column about the North Shore running scene. Send any questions, comments, or news to jay.kumar@gmail.com.