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Race Bandits: Running Without a Ticket

Running
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If the phrase “race bandit” conjures up heroic images of outlaws in capes running away from the outstretched arms of blazered officials and race administrators, think again. Race bandits are simply people who run a race without official entry – either without a number, or with a fake one. “So what’s the big deal?” you might ask. “What harm does it do?” Woe betide the innocent person who posts that question on a running forum: tempers will soon flare, with supporters seeing it as a strike against “the man” and opponents denouncing bandits as criminals who should be strung up.

It’s a phenomenon largely confined to running and cycling races that take place on open roads where the possibility (and indeed legality) of closing the course completely to all comers is limited. Cheating, of course, is a problem in all sports. Bandits, though, often see themselves as heroically standing up for the rights of the free man – or, indeed, woman: one of the most famous “race bandits” is Bobbi Gibb, who ran the Boston Marathon in an era when women were banned, forcing organisers to rethink their sexist assumptions.

Boston has always been the epicentre of race banditting (not surprising; it’s the world’s oldest annual marathon). For years the organisers tolerated those who ran without bibs, holding them back until all the registered runners were off. They were treated as virtual folk heroes, celebrated for having a go at an event that was seen as for elite athletes.

These days, marathons have become mass participation events. Entries are prized, expensive and often involve hard work not only in training but also in fundraising for charity. Organisers have to account for numbers, take out expensive insurance, and make sure they have enough supplies and medals for the entrants. More than that, they have a duty of care, a responsibility for those who join in. And if something really bad happens, it’s all their fault. Since 2014, even Boston has now banned the bandits. So are the days of banditry over? Not according to one…

A Race Bandit Speaks

How long have you been banditting for?

I started about 20 years ago. It was both easier and more common then. I’ve done Boston, and the London Marathon lots of times, too. The first time I did it in a race, it was a total accident – I just happened to be running and found myself caught up in a couple of hundred people, running in my local area. The roads are public, they don’t have exclusive use of them, so I ran too. It was fun. It planted a seed. There’s quite a few of us out there, we share tips and experiences.

What do you get out of it that you couldn’t get on your own?

I get a buzz out of it, and I guess I push myself harder when I’m surrounded by people. I’ve ended up talking to people, pacing people, helping them to their best time. And I’ve also done it solo without exchanging a word with anyone.

Do you have sympathy for the people organising the races?

I do understand the issues to some extent, but to be honest that sympathy is limited. I think they should ask themselves why people do it; race fees now are spiralling out of control and lots of people can’t afford them. It’s ridiculous when a 10km costs £50 to run.

Is that necessary? Does it really reflect their actual costs?

So much of that must be just profit. These guys are running a business, it’s not a public service, so I don’t feel remotely guilty about it. They’ll cry about making money for charity, but most of the time that’s a tiny cut of their profits, which I’m not eating into. I’m not taking someone else’s place. The most I’ve ever “profited” out of a race is by taking a cup of water on a very hot day. They were giving them out to spectators too, so really, what’s the difference?

You don’t grab a medal at the end then, or any food?

No, I don’t. I do know people who do. I would be pissed off if I’d paid to enter a race, and then they’d run out of medals because the numbers were all screwed. I think of myself as a more “pure” bandit.

So there are good bandits and bad bandits?

Yes, I’d say so. I was talking to a guy who said he’d run a race with two numbers, but one was his friend’s. As a really good runner, he’d qualified his mate for a guaranteed “good for his age” spot at a major marathon, as well as himself. You can call me a freeloader, but that’s just cheating.

So race directors shouldn’t have an issue with you?

They should stop acting like people are stealing from them. They need to look at their own policies: for instance, lots of races now won’t let you transfer entries even months in advance of the actual race. Say you pay £60-70 to enter a marathon, then tear a hamstring two months before. That’s your race screwed – and most races now won’t even let you sell the place on, or even give it away. Why should runners be out of pocket for bad luck? And if I go and bandit a big marathon, there’s going to be loads of those people who don’t even turn up; they get sick, miss the train, whatever. Are a few bandits really going to add more numbers? Of course not.

What about the health and safety issues?

If I fall over and break something, I’m not going to sue them, am I? There’s always no-shows, so the “we account for X amount of people” argument doesn’t hold water.

Have you ever been caught?

No, not yet. I’ve had people ask me where my number is, but I think most people – other runners anyway – are in their own worlds.

The Case Against Race Bandits

Toby, a race director, provides the counterpoint

So what’s the problem with race bandits?

These guys are just thieves, let’s not glamorise them as “bandits”. That makes them sound like Robin Hood. They are only benefiting themselves – they’re cheats, pure and simple.

That doesn’t sound half as glamorous, does it?

You know what drives me mad? People who say they have a “right” to run too. They have a right to run around their local park, their own road, wherever the hell they like. But not races that other people have paid their hard-earned money for.

Some claim it’s because races are too expensive…

Well, don’t bloody enter, then! I know this has a history – women running races from which they were excluded and all that – and that’s different. That’s a protest run. But these days, what are they protesting? They just want a free ride. And it’s not safe. Races have a cap on the number of entrants for a reason: because that’s the maximum number of people the course and the infrastructure can support. A race director gets a permit to use roads for a race, and that costs money.

You figure out that number and you get your insurance, and you get the right number of marshals – who are mostly volunteering.

Bandits might say you are exploiting them for profit, too…

What kind of profits do these guys think we make? I’m a runner, too – I got annoyed with badly organised races and figured I could do it better myself. Sure, I’ve got to make enough money to keep going and feed my family, but I’m not Donald Trump, you know?

What about the no-shows? Surely the numbers balance out?

What are you going to do, say: “It’s OK to have 10 bandits, but 50 is not on?” It’s not just about providing the water and medals for the number of finishers who have actually paid, it’s about the course itself. What if it gets congested?

What’s the reaction like when you catch people?

I caught a guy once. I was polite, just asked him where his number was, but he started ranting about how we were taking over the race world with our corporate mentality. This was a trail race, in a field with cows. Hardly corporate slick. I’ve had horrible emails from people too, stuff you’d take to the police. But mostly, people end up being apologetic. It’s usually just someone who was pacing a mate, not serial offenders. 

I explain about the liability thing and some people go, “I’m hardly going to sue you, am I?” But if a bandit gets hit by a car, or breaks their leg, the race director could be found liable.

Has it happened to you?

Thankfully no, but I heard of a race where a guy jumped in without a number, with his dog. A double whammy, as dogs weren’t allowed either. The leash tripped up someone who had paid, who ended up with a chipped tooth and bad grazing. I’m just waiting for the headline about the idiot suing the race and the guy he took out…