Fleet of Foot and Blissfully Bold, Freeloaders at the Marathon Wear Fake Bibs—but Win No Prizes

In the Running World, They’re Called ‘Bandits’ and Race Officials Don’t Like to Discuss Them; the Cockroach Analogy

By Kevin Helliker – Wall Street Journal, November 5, 2011

For anyone without an official slot in Sunday’s New York Marathon, here’s a thought: Run it anyway. But don’t expect the running establishment to cheer you on.

Peter Sagal tried that at last month’s Chicago Marathon. Without paying the $145 registration fee, he joined the nearly 38,000 official marathoners on Oct. 9, partaking of free Gatorade along the way.

“I know it’s wrong,” Mr. Sagal, host of National Public Radio’s “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!,” wrote afterward in a blog for Runner’s World magazine. But, he joked, “I waved to the crowd in a charming way, so maybe I earned it.”

The response to Mr. Sagal’s blog was overwhelmingly negative, with some readers calling him a thief and vowing to boycott his program. “I was surprised by the intensity of the reaction,” Mr. Sagal said in an email.

There’s nothing illegal about jogging down city streets without a race bib, or even accepting aid-station refreshment offerings. But in the running world, Mr. Sagal’s offense is known as banditry, and any mention of it tends to produce righteous indignation. Do bandits realize how much it costs to provide T-shirts and finisher medals, to pay staff members, recruit volunteers and hire police to close down roads?

“Have you no sense of shame?” Runner’s World executive editor, Mark Remy, asked last year in a published dressing down of an unnamed bandit. “There’s a special circle of hell reserved for people like you.”

Still, it’s hard to combat banditry. Any public talk of it causes some race directors to cringe, for fear of giving the idea to runners who had never thought of doing it. Perhaps no marathon secret is more closely guarded than how many extra finisher medals are needed to accommodate bandits.

The potential number of bandits, meanwhile, keeps growing as races like the ING New York City Marathon sell out faster and faster. About 140,000 runners applied
for 62,000 slots. “Anytime it gets harder to get into something, people become more creative,” says Richard Finn, spokesman for the New York race.

Some in the running world see little hope of stamping out banditry. “Bandits are like cockroaches and rats—good luck eradicating them,” says Ryan
Lamppa, media director for Running USA, an industry-supported research agency.

Some races quietly station bandit catchers along the race course to pull off runners without official bibs. The largest concentration of bandit catchers at the New York marathon stand guard at the entrance to Central Park, intercepting bibless runners in the final stretch.

But in the tech age, when runners can easily produce fake chest gear, going bibless isn’t even necessary. Finish-line photographs from the 2009 New York race showed two runners wearing bib number 12345.

One was Oliver Haslegrave, the registered holder of that bib number, who shortly after finishing the marathon received a letter from organizers asking him whether he had participated in the ruse. As a charity runner who had earned his spot by raising thousands of dollars, Mr. Haslegrave says the question upset him.

“One byproduct of the other guy faking his number is that my legitimacy got called into question,” says Mr. Haslegrave, a 32-year-old New York designer.

That other guy appears to be Merrill Lynch analyst Liem Vuong, whose Facebook page until last week offered public access to finish-line photographs he had posted of himself and Mr. Haslegrave both wearing bib number 12345.

Through a Merrill Lynch spokeswoman Mr. Vuong declined to comment. The Facebook photographs are no longer publicly viewable.

New York Road Runners, which organizes the ING marathon, declined to comment.

Sometimes, bandit catchers catch the wrong people. Cindy Carcamo paid $115 to enter the half-marathon portion of last year’s Nike Women’s Marathon. After months of training hard, she flew to San Francisco to run the race, only to be kicked out 40 yards short of the finish line.

Her mistake? Losing her bib the morning of the race. An Orange County Register reporter, Ms. Carcamo wrote an article called, “My half marathon comes to a bitter end.”

Typically, race directors are reluctant to talk about how many bandits make it to the finish line. But to explain to Ms. Carcamo the need for a bandit-catching system, Nike last year released to her its finisher totals, she says: 20,600 women finished a race that just 19,500 had started. Nike declined to comment.

Inside running, experts debate what, if any, level of banditry is acceptable. Nearly everybody believes it is wrong for bandits to accept finisher medals.

To avoid that, Mr. Sagal stepped out of this month’s Chicago race a mile before the finish line. Many believe it is all right for bandits to run part of a race, particularly if they carry their own water. But others believe that running unregistered is wrong under any circumstances.

The Boston Marathon dispenses official slots only to charity runners and applicants who have logged speedy finishes in previous marathons. Yet unlike many other
marathons, Boston’s doesn’t pull bandits off the course. It lets them finish, but doesn’t give them prizes.

Before his knees gave out, Conrad Welzel, 58, ran the Boston Marathon 36 times, 32 of them as a bandit, the first when he was a teenager. “I wasn’t going to pay for a race that started in my own neighborhood,” says Mr. Welzel, who grew up in Hopkinton, Mass., where the Boston Marathon begins.

Until recently, the bandit-richest race in America was Bay to Breakers, a century old 12-kilometer event in San Francisco. Some years, the number of bandits nearly equaled the official field of 50,000.

But last year, race organizers started requiring an official bib, in large part because of bandit misbehavior on the course.

“Bandits were the No. 1 leading cause of property damage during the race,” says Sam Singer, spokesman for Bay to Breakers. “They were drinking quite a lot of beer and wine out on the course.”Read more>>