Earlier this month, Runner’s World published an article about the do’s and don’ts of “banditing”—i.e. participating in a race you haven’t registered for. The article, which also appeared in a print issue of the magazine under the title “The Bandit’s Manifesto,” began by stating that banditing is wrong and that nobody should ever do it—and then proceeded to offer directives on how to bandit as ethically as possible: e.g. don’t swipe someone else’s bib or collect a medal at the end. (Also, perhaps unnecessarily: don’t hog the porta-potties.) I haven’t seen the print version, but the GIF-heavy online article was clearly meant as a little harmless fun.
Not everyone took it that way.
“This might be the dumbest, most irresponsible piece of content that Runner’s World has ever published,” Mario Fraioli wrote in this week’s edition of his running-themed newsletter The Morning Shakeout. Derek Murphy, whose website Marathon Investigation is dedicated to exposing race cheats, published an angry response in which he accused Runner’s World of giving a “green light” to aspiring bandits. Even former Runner’s World staffers came out swinging. The publication’s former “Chief Running Officer,” Bart Yasso, tweeted that “Banditing is wrong on every level including writing about how to do it.” Meanwhile, former RW columnist Mark Remy published an article on his satirical website Dumbrunner.com, offering advice on how to steal a magazine. From the intro: “If you’re going to steal—which, guys, you totally should not—here are detailed instructions to make you feel better about doing it. Plus some silly gifs!”
To an outsider, these responses might seem a little excessive. After all, this was a semi-facetious article about an offense, which, let’s face it, will strike most people as pretty benign. Maybe it’s because I’ve produced my own fair share of dumb and potentially irresponsible content that I felt a certain degree of solidarity with any editors at Runner’s World who might have taken heat for this. Also, it doesn’t seem so crazy to imagine that some of the people who bandit by using someone else’s bib are oblivious that it’s a major no-no. Runner’s World might have shown such people the error of their ways.
Then again, I’m not a race director, for whom the scourge of banditry can be a serious liability (see Murphy’s article) and, more generally, just a huge pain in the ass. Like many big-name races, the New York City Marathon has spotters, whose sole purpose is to catch unofficial runners and banish them from the course, lest they should cross the finish line and make an already daunting race scoring process even more tedious.
If I’ve learned anything in the few years I’ve spent covering the sport, it’s that runners really can’t stand cheaters. And banditing is a form of cheating, in the sense that it’s a blatant violation of the rules, often at the expense of those who chose to abide by them.
Personally, I’m just surprised that banditing has such widespread appeal. For obvious reasons, there isn’t much official data on this, but the Runner’s World article claims that thousands of miscreants bandit every year—which I find totally bizarre. As with reported incidents of adult men and women who knowingly cut courses, I’m always left wondering: Why would anyone actually want to do this?
There’s arguably some financial incentive. Many races are expensive and difficult to get into. In a sense, anyone who successfully bandits the New York City Marathon is saving $295. But what are these people getting for their trouble? Nobody who pays for a marathon is paying for the privilege of running 26.2 miles—you can do that for free. Don’t tell me people bandit to get their hands on race-day goodies. The aid station bagels really aren’t that tasty and finisher’s medals won’t go for much on eBay.
I suppose I see the appeal of doing something illegal just to see if you can get away with it. But if that’s the case wouldn’t you want to do something a little more interesting, and fun, than going for an illicit jog?
Maybe it’s because I’m just a repressed bureaucrat at heart, but I always thought the appeal of races was having official documentation of your effort on the day. I get a little thrill when I see my name in the results, can check out my splits, and can compare my performance to races past. It provides an illusion of permanence. I imagine a future scenario in which my grandchildren are mocking my accelerating decrepitude, but I hit back by producing some ancient race results.
Of course, being an official participant means that your bad races are immortalized, too. That’s just part of the deal. On top of everything else, I think the running community’s contempt for bandits might be tied to the fact that banditing is a form of cowardice. To race is to put yourself on the line and risk failure. Bandits, meanwhile, aren’t risking anything.