"There's only one hard and fast rule in running: sometimes you have to run one hard and fast."

Friday, August 8, 2008

Bandits, part 1

At the last meeting of the Upper Midwest Trail Runners board, there was a discussion of the growing problem of bandits (those who run races without paying the entry fee). I was in an odd position, as many of the board members are race directors and I, well, I was once the Bandit King. It quickly became apparent that most people don't know that bandits are a real problem for races and also that most people don't understand why people become bandits. It was agreed that someone had to start the discussion - and soon - and I'm probably the one to do it. I have a lot to say on the subject. First, I'm going to discuss the situation from the bandit's point of view (with suggestions as to how to better races so banditry is less of an option) and then from the race director's viewpoint, with particular reference to trail races.

Katherine Switzer, the bandit hero

When I started running, the only woman runner anyone could name was Katherine Switzer, the first woman to officially finish the Boston Marathon. What was overlooked was that she ran the race against the rules (it was a male-only event) and that she had run the race the year before as a bandit. She wasn't the only one; there were a half dozen women bandits in the Boston Marathon every year. While the race director pointed out that there were other marathons that they could do legally, they wanted to do that particular race, a few as a feminist statement, but most because it was a high-profile event or close to home. These women would be considered pioneers today, but their names are lost because they didn't have official finishes. Such is the fate of the bandit.

School rules

In high school (decades ago), the Minnesota State High School League was threatening any runner who accepted an award at a road race with banishment from high school sports. I was good enough to win some awards and preferred roads to track and cross-country, but still wanted to compete in school events. Thus, I ran unofficially as a bandit during the school year, but paid entry fees in the summer. These rules were straightened out within a few years, about the same way that athletes could retain amateur status, as long as prize money was called "developmental funds."

In college, I also ran races on the road without entering them, but this was simply to keep the coach from knowing that I was doing them.

Social events

The Bay-to-Breakers race in San Francisco was the first to break the 10000 runner mark. It topped out at 50000 in a few years, almost all of the runners being bandits. For all but the first hundred or so, it wasn't a race, but an event; those racing paid so they could get official times, but the others just wanted to be part of the scene, walking down the streets in costumes (or nothing at all!) and often stopping at various locations for food and drink along the way.

Many of the running community I saw only at races, so I wanted to go to as many as I could, just to see familiar faces. Sometimes I paced my brother through a marathon, though he didn't really need it, and I didn't enter because I didn't want to pay the high cost to run a slow time and have people ask me for weeks "What went wrong? I saw your name in the results. Did you get hurt?" I made it a point not to cross the finish line and mess up the results and I rarely took more than a single cup of water in 3 1/2 hours, which I was sure was in the race budget.

The running boom makes my life harder

In the 1980's, it seemed everyone started running. Most of the beginners headed to the local high school tracks to log their miles (or fractions thereof), not aware of the damage they were doing to the tracks. Schools tried to dissuade runners from running in the first lane, but eventually they would have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to resurface the tracks and then they closed them to the public. [A tip for those who run mile after mile on a track: most tracks are designed so that 7 laps in the outside lane is exactly 2 miles; it's more accurate than eight 400 meter laps in lane 1!]

The only ways I could do speedwork was to join a track club, with their member fees and uniform fees, running the races they chose and driving across the city to run their workouts on their schedule, or to stay sharp by racing often. The Twin Cities was one of only a handful of places where one could find a race almost every weekend, so I raced as often as I could. Being a college student with no income, I couldn't afford to pay to enter every race, so I paid for those where I might win a trophy, but not for the larger, more competitive ones. I figured that the smaller races needed my money more than the big ones.

Racing popularity breeds expense

Races started to get more expensive with the increase in runners. I remember leading the hue and cry when the Get In Gear 10K raised its price from $5 to $8 in 1986 (compare the increase in prices of races since then to inflation!) The race had grown so large that they had to hire buses to carry runners to the start, a cost not seen in smaller races. Also, the park board saw the race as a windfall and increased their fee for events. Yet, once the big races increased their price and the number of entrants continued to grow, all other races followed suit.

The largest races, such as the Twin Cities Marathon, soon discovered that the local racing community consisted of only about a few thousand runners, the rest being people who ran only one marathon in their life. Therefore, they started tring to compete for runners in other markets and had an advertising budget small races didn't. They also had to keep getting more local first time marathoners, so they added frills that the hard-core runners didn't want. The T-shirts became multicolored, long-sleeved, "miracle fiber", increasing their costs; smaller races were compelled to do the same, or suffer by comparison. Soon, there were enough small races that they competed for entrants and the easiest way to get them was to offer better "goodies."

The last race I ran as a bandit was one where the race had paid foreign runners to enter (rather than the other way around), gave them free transit, free room and board and awarded a ton of prize money - all of which I didn't think the other runners should've had to subsidize. There was an "expo," where vendors were trying to sell to runners, but where they were all complaining about how much the race charged them per square foot of space. The T-shirts were festooned with a dozen company logos; entrants were paying to advertize companies that were also subsidizing the race. There seemed to be an endless supply of money coming in to the race, yet they were charging entrants a fortune.

Add to this the fact that people had to enter the race six months in advance (the interest on the money should've been enough for the race!) and there were no refunds. Runners who got injured or had some other commitment started to sell their numbers to recoup their losses; this was against the race rules, of course, and I spent months congratulating runners whose names I saw in the results, but who didn't actually run. I ran it without a number; the race I planned the previous week had had terrible weather and the week of this one was perfect. I ran a personal best - though I can't count it.


Diane said...

Interesting. I've never been a bandit, although in 2004 I did buy a race number from someone who was injured so I could run the Marine Corps Marathon (I was living in Washington D.C. at the time)

keith said...

I accidentally ran a high school track meet as a bandit a few months ago. I went up to my local track one evening to do some speedwork and I had no idea there was a race going on (i thought it was a soccer game) until the astonished cries of "GET OFF DA TRACK YA FREEKIN' IDIOT!" got my attention.

True story. I wanted to dig a hole in the ground and hide, such was my mortification.

Matthew Patten said...

My issue with bandits is the obvious. Running bandit is essentially "the rules don't apply to me" attitude.

Set aside the standard race director problems:
Liability, control of race size, race support, etc.

When bandits are added to it, the racers have to deal with more people in the crowd.

Bottom line, it's like the person who cuts in front of a long line. If everybody participated in this practice, races would cease to exists and they would be chaotic.

I have never run bandit, nor bought or sold a race bib.

We all need to call out bandits. It is bad for the sport.

Joe said...

Wasn't Bandit the pet Bulldog on Jonny Quest?