Runner's World has carried my columns most months since 1967. The magazine allows me to post all but the current month's copy here. These archived columns, dating from the website's launch in mid-1998, are my originals. They're slightly longer, slightly different in wording and often carry different titles than the RW version.

Ban the Bandit

(August 1998 RW)

A running dictionary might carry this definition: "Bandit. One who runs a race without paying an entry fee or wearing a number. Also known as a 'turkey'."

Banditry is one of the less-proud traditions of the Boston Marathon, where these turkeys swell the field by more than 10 percent. The lure of the old race is so strong, and entry standards so high, that party-crashing here is a spring sport among local collegians. But the practice also extends to runners old enough to know better.

Here I pause to confess running as a bandit a few times (but never at Boston) before I was old enough to know better. I didn't go near the finish chute where entered runners checked out, and drank little or nothing.

But I now see that running numberless was still wrong. I'm ashamed to have violated one of the two basic rules of racing.

The first is to enter properly. The other, more serious and most basic rule is that you run or run-walk if that's what it takes every step of the way. Anyone who does less and still claims to have "finished" is a cheater.

Cheaters and bandits aren't partners in crime. In many ways they're opposites.

Cheaters pay to commit their crime by entering the race. They run part of the way and claim all credit. When caught, they're universally reviled because they shame us all.

Bandits pay nothing. They run all the way but want no credit. They're tolerated, even celebrated in some circles as running Robin Hoods who take from the rich races that can afford it.

Cheating is a major crime against the self-policing nature of the sport. It's an attempt to steal honors from someone who earned them. When cash is involved, this thief deserves to prosecution.

By comparison banditry is a misdemeanor. Courses are designed to handle a certain number runners, and race or city officials often limit the allowable number. Bandits throw off that count and are guilty of trespassing.

Races plan their drinks by the number of entrants. Each time a bandit grabs one, some legitimate runner might not get any. This is a violation akin to shoplifting.

When bandits cross the the finish line, they mess up the scoring of entered runners. Think of this or malicious mischief or vandalism.

Cheating is a bigger crime. But banditry is a bigger problem because the bandits are far outnumber the cheaters.

The free-loaders defend themselves by saying, "It's a public roadway. I pay my taxes and have a perfect right to be here."

This is like insisting it's okay to drive on that same road without a license, paying no heed to speed limits or stop signs. Or it's like borrowing a friend's car, using his gas and not refilling the tank then driving along a route closed that day for a parade.

Runners complain about bicyclists, rollerbladers, skateboarders and babyjogger-pushers on the course, and many races ban them. Bandits are an equal nuisance, and race directors say their numbers are growing.

Some bandits call their act a protest against high entry fees. There are hidden reasons for those fees such as permits, police protection and insurance needed to conduct a safe and efficient race.

Runners who don't like the fees can protest by skipping the party, not by crashing it. Use this road the other 364 days of the year when it is open but not on raceday when other runners have paid to control its traffic, both automotive and human.

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