Why Running Bandits Are Bastards

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The roads into Boston are free 364 days a year, so why would you pay to run a marathon on that one odd day? Rules don't apply to you! You're too rich! Too young!

Well, here's some news: you're a thief and a bastard. And here's why.

First, organizers of races don't just pull their field sizes out of a hat

Scott McConville is the director of the Wharf to Wharf Race in Santa Cruz, Calif., which hits its 42nd anniversary this July. For the last 27 years it's sold out its 15,000 entries, but that doesn't deter a large number of bastards from jumping in anyway: in a typical year, he can expect around seven thousand non-registered runners.


"It's crammed at 15 thousand," he says. "If we had 30 thousand in bandits, like Bay to Breakers (in San Francisco), it would be a safety hazard for us."

McConville knows this because he's worked the race for years, and he's in frequent communication with Santa Cruz's Police, Fire, and City officials to discuss field size.


The Boston Marathon's notoriously narrow starting area in Hopkinton is the reason for its number of entries, and not because they want to crush your dreams.

Then there's the fact that it takes a lot of money to produce these races

The typical cost of a race in Santa Cruz County for 300 to 500 people isn't cheap. First, there are the permits to close down the roads, says Russ Coillot, owner of two Fleet Feet Sports running stores in Aptos and Monterey, which put on six races a year. The permits are $2500 each. Then there's insurance: "a couple bucks per person," he says. Finish line food is around four bucks per, and a finisher medal—because you can't have a race without finisher medals—is a couple more bucks.

"Port-o-potties, man," Coillot says. "Port-o-potties are pretty expensive, and you can't tell me that the bandits didn't use them."

"It comes down to loss prevention," says J.T. Service, owner of Soul Focus Sports, another race management company in Northern California. "There's been some start-up cost. There's been an idea, a trademark, intellectual property—that's all the foundation of it.


"I hate to say it, but the running business has become just that: a business. At Walmart, you're not allowed to experience the fantastic products at home without paying for them. It shouldn't be any different for running."

There are also safety issues, because race directors don't want you to die

All those aid stations with their sports drinks and water and energy gels aren't just there for decoration. Race directors are doing the math, and if you're too cool to register, that's something they haven't anticipated.


"So (bandits) blast through Boston pretty fast—3:40," says Coillot. "There's a four-hour marathoner behind them, and maybe they're out of water."

This is a bad thing, because during inclement weather, especially hot days, people can die or be hospitalized if resources are taxed beyond their means, like during the Chicago Marathon in 2007.


With limited space, people will run on the sidewalks. And then they run into phone poles, miss curbs, and hit fire hydrants. "You need a certain amount of space to see obstacles in a road race," McConville says.

And then there's the finishing line area. God forbid somebody has a medical emergency with too many people in too little space.


"If someone were to have a heart attack between the finish line and collecting their goodie bag, and you can't get to them," McConville says, "that person's not going to make it."

Shame on you

"I make it a point to call out bandits," says Coillot. "A little public humiliation is appropriate."


"You make them feel like they're breaking a law, so that the next time they do it, they second-guess themselves," McConville says. "If you can create that feeling that they're not welcome to be there, sometimes that's even more effective than any type of punishment."

But more and more, it's about education. It's possible that a small percentage of bandits just don't know what they're doing is wrong. Maybe they haven't ripped someone's bib off Instagram, photocopied it, and then passed it to their friends. Maybe the just wanted to be part of a big community event, which is what these races have become.


"The goal is trying to educate the community that it is wrong," McConville says.

It's the same community whose school system receives a quarter of a million dollars each year from the non-profit race. But that doesn't happen if you don't pay.


"It's a feeling, an electricity in running a race," Service says "Clearly there's a value."