I was a Boston Marathon Bandit

Who's foolish enough to attempt the Boston Marathon with no training?  Mostly high school and college students who can pull the youth card to trump any physical challenge.

Who’s foolish enough to attempt the Boston Marathon with no training? Mostly high school and college students who can pull the youth card to trump any physical challenge.

(NOTE: For the first time ever, “bandits” or unregistered runners who run 26 miles at the back of the pack, will be banned at the 2014 Boston Marathon.  But the reason has nothing to do with security concerns. To supplement my Boston Globe column defending the bandit tradition, I’d like to share the original account of my unauthorized Boston Marathon run in 1986 along with two high school buddies.  DISCLAIMER: This piece was written by a high school student.  I repeat: This piece was written by a high school student.)


“Seven Marathon Hours of Pounding the Pavement”

Originally Published: May 15, 1986

The Chelmsford Independent

By Darren Garnick

It can be done. We proved it to ourselves, our friends and our family. It is now an established fact that three ordinary high school students, with absolutely no preparatory training whatsoever, can finish the Boston Marathon and live to tell about it.

On April 21, 1986 – Patriots’ Day – while most of our friends were lounging around the friendly confines of the Fenway Park bleachers, Steve Kaplan, Chuck Keefe and I lined up with approximately 6,000 other runners at the starting line in Hopkinton.

As I looked around at the mobs of well-trained athletes, I mentioned to Chuck that running this race was something crazy enough for David Letterman to do. Here were three guys who get tired pressing the buttons on the VCR, with the gall to stand next to runners who completely document their hourly oxygen intake and ATP/amino acid ratios.

Like broasted chicken and red wine, marathons and us just don’t mix. For us, running the Boston Marathon was psycho.

We had no physical checkup, no doctor’s blessing, and most importantly, no running experience. Chuck didn’t even have a decent pair of running shoes (he ran in flat tennis sneakers).

But we did finish, which is more than I can say for about 1500 other people (most discouraged from the rain showers). When all was said and done, the timetables read: Chuck Keefe – 6:13, Steve Kaplan – 6:25, and Darren Garnick – 7:00. Yes, we did finish a good four to five hours behind front runners Rob de Castella and Ingrid Christiansen, but need I remind you that these people are Olympic medalists. The point is we competed in the very same race as world-class athletes – people we would be reading about in the next week’s Sports Illustrated.

Australian Rob de Castella beat me by about five hours.

Australian Rob de Castella beat me by about five hours.

And that is what makes the Boston Marathon special. Prize money and Mercedes aren’t going to change that. As long as the unofficial runners – the postman, your neighbor, the guy who owns the deli – continue to line the streets, the Boston Marathon will continue to have the same magical quality that has attracted the fans for the past 90 years.

The starting pistol went off and suddenly the three of us were part of the sea of bouncing heads we had all seen on television many times before. I was literally swept away by a moving river of people – awestruck by the number of runners participating.

The cheers of the crowd were deafening. At the two-mile mark, the Rocky theme rang out over the throng while we all ran with clenched fists and outstretched arms for the duration of the song.

Shortly after our moment of glory, however, reality set in. We were not in the physical condition to run 16 consecutive miles. So we turned to our only available option, the walk-run method. We would run as far as we could, walk for awhile and then continue to run when we were no longer tired.

I stopped a little past the five-mile mark to take my first walk. Chuck held out until the eleventh and Steve lasted to the sixteenth. Mr. Kaplan lamented afterwards, “I practically crawled from the seventeenth mile on. I couldn’t force myself to walk much faster.”

In addition to the Rocky theme, songs such as “Chariots of Fire” and “Born to Run” were blasted at various checkpoints during the course. It is amazing how your legs are no longer tired when you mentally absorb the music. Shouts from the crowd of “Go Shortage!” (the inscription on my T-shirt) and “UMass!!!” (referring to Steve’s sweatshirt) refueled our energy throughout the entire length of the course. We were continuously handed orange slices and cups of water by the endless line of volunteers.

We encountered spectators from all walks of life during the race. In Wellesley, groups of college girls obnoxiously squealed “Go for it” in unison, while on the other end of the spectrum, coeds in Cleveland Circle offered Steve some beer.

Children lined the streets with outstretched arms – a gesture of friendship. As I ran past these children, slapping their high fives, I was reminded of Carl Yastrzemski’s final game at Fenway, in which he greeted the fans in a similar way.

Chuck ran with an army sergeant for a short period of time. The soldier, clad in fatigues, shouted obscenities at the race dropouts and called them “gutless,” “wimps,” and “men without courage,” among other things.

One man I passed, an artist, asked me why I was running the race. I told him “just so I can say I did it.” He was flabbergasted by my response and couldn’t believe I wasn’t gaining anything by this (such as a bet with friends). “What I’d give to be young and crazy again,” he muttered.

A bus came by and offered Chuck a ride several times, and I toyed with the idea of taking the subway (a la Rosie Ruiz), but not finishing the course never really was an option for us.

Stacy Wells, a man who had just walked 400 miles of peace marches the previous week, summed it up best. “If I start a marathon, I know I will finish one way or another. To me, it doesn’t matter what time I cross the finish line. It’s really all just a matter of pride.”

When I reached the finish line, I was psyched. Not only because I had just completed a physically demanding course that I myself had doubts I could finish, but because there were usually bigtime reporters at this time of the race covering dedicated people like me.

“Excuse me, Mr. Garnick? Jim Boyd, News Center Five. Could you please tell me and the people at home why you decided to run a grueling 26-mile marathon?”

“Because it is there,” I would emphatically reply.

No, the above scene never did happen. I finished the race an hour too early. The news media was on the scene at 8:00 p.m., interviewing a couple of fraternity pledges who walked single file carrying a rope the entire distance.

But I had fun anyway and that is the important thing. The pain, however, is something I could have lived without. Our muscles remained sore for about three days.

Turning over in bed was painful. Steve complained that he couldn’t walk up or down stairs anymore, and Chuck went as far as to say that “he’d never run again.”

Was it all worth it? Without a doubt, yes! Steve, Chuck and I will give it another shot next year – this time with training.

Already, we have been dragging more people in on this marathon craze. People with the “If Chuck can do it, so can I” mentality have already committed themselves. If you are a high school student and want to join us in 1987, by all means drop us a line.

boston marathon bandit manhole postscript

For the record, there was no repeat run in 1987. But Steve and I did reunite in 1996 to run the first five miles of the 100th Boston Marathon. I forgot how “intimate” the race was in the 1980s: Only 6,000 official runners, compared to 36,000 this year.

Digging up this story — and all the surrounding nostalgia — has been a lot of fun despite confronting my earliest flaws as a writer. Take the nonsensical analogy in the fourth paragraph for example: So WHY don’t broasted chicken and red wine mix?  And what’s with my fantasy of being interviewed by Channel 5 anchor Jim Boyd?!?

But back to the Boston Marathon.  In retrospect, it’s curious that I left the most delicious detail of them all out of this story.  I stopped for ice cream in the middle of the race, adding at least 15 minutes to my time.

I recall coming up with the idea to run Boston while watching TV with friends the Friday night before Patriots’ Day. I wish I had included the name of the TV show in this column. My memory is hazy. Was it Dukes of Hazzard? Couldn’t be because the Internet says it ended in 1985.  Maybe it was the A-Team?

My most vivid image from the 1986 Boston Marathon was meeting my Grandpa Bob after the race. He had bad hips and walked very slowly with a cane. Yet, I felt like he was SPRINTING across the street to the restaurant where we had our bandit “after party.”

How about Chuck and Steve — what are they thinking 28 years later?

You happen to be in the right place. I just landed exclusive interviews with them both.

chuck keefe boston marathon bandit quote copy

Now a regular face at area road races, CHUCK KEEFE is incredulous about his decision to wear tennis shoes to run his first marathon. “No way I’d last long doing that today,” he says.

Chuck doesn’t remember the army sergeant he ran with, but he does fondly recall a Jamaican gentleman (with a number) who ran the last six miles with him. “He was waving to everyone and shouting ‘I love America!’ He was the most optimistic person you could ever ask to meet at the 20 mile mark. He was the reason I was able to do it.”

Sadly, the two men did not keep in touch.

Chuck has completed the Phoenix Rock and Roll Marathon and hopes to eventually qualify for the Boston Marathon as a non-bandit. “Even if I have to wait until I’m 50 or 60,” he says. “They keep lowering the times.”

For security reasons, he thinks it is time for bandits to give up their quest. “It’s a different world now. I wish the event still had its innocence. Running as a bandit is one of the greatest teenage memories I have.”

If security issues could be resolved, he’d reverse position, as he does not agree with the prevailing elite runner attitude that Boston Marathon bandits have no right to exist. “Nah,” Chuck adds. “If you’re running at all, good for you!”


Steve Kaplan Boston Marathon Bandit Frankenstein Quote

As a member of the Chelmsford High School Boys’ Cross Country team, STEVE KAPLAN had more running experience than Chuck and I combined. However, he had not jogged a step in the six months that passed since the Cross Country season was over.

Steve initially thought he was going to score a girlfriend out his Boston Marathon power play.  Right around the Wellesley College mark, he met an attractive and “encouraging” UNH girl (we called them girls in college) who ran with him for a while and asked him to meet up with her later at the finish.  She did not wait the two extra hours for him.

Steve, who later went on to compete in several triathlons, recalls having a different endurance strategy than I described in the newspaper. “I didn’t do the run-walk-run method,” he says. “I ran and I hobbled. I walked like Frankenstein. I couldn’t bend my knees.”

“Bending your knees is a prerequisite for running, but it is not a prerequisite for walking like Frankenstein,” Steve adds. “That was a very long 10 miles!”

BONUS: There are “good” Boston Marathon bandits and then there are the sleazeball bandits. It’s my responsibility to point out the difference.


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