There are “good” Boston Marathon bandits… and there are the sleazeballs

Double click on the picture to read my column defending the tradition of Boston Marathon bandits.

Double click on the picture to read my column defending the tradition of Boston Marathon bandits.

So I’m an unapologetic supporter of (respectful) Boston Marathon “bandits,” those endurance athlete wannabes who stick it out for 26 miles at the back of the pack without formally registering to enter. I defended their honor in a recent Boston Globe column and reminisced about my personal bandit days in this blog.

Exploring the widespread hostility toward bandits (within the elite runner subculture), I referred to the writings of humor columnist Mark Remy, who has been one of the more vocal critics of runners without numbers:

“In an infamous diatribe, Runner’s World executive editor Mark Remy once wrote “there’s a special circle of hell reserved” for bandits. Last month, he snapped selfies while pretending to shoplift sneakers from a running store. It was a not-so-subtle metaphor for those who “steal” from marathons by jumping in the back of the race and avoid the entry fee. Reality check: Paying isn’t even an option for slower runners.

… Curious how widely shared Remy’s views are, I recently posed the question in a Facebook running group. The response was overwhelmingly vicious: We’re thieves, we’re losers, we’re disrespectful to the runners who deserve to be there. One conspiracy theorist alleged that bandits usurp complimentary cups of water from registered runners and gobble up the official finishers’ medals for themselves.”

Not expecting to change Mr. Remy’s mind, I sent him a link to my pro-bandit column. I was pleased to hear back from him the day before the Boston Marathon and have his blessing to share his candid response here (minus a few personal comments):

Hi Darren,
Thanks for your note. I actually saw the Globe thing earlier, and enjoyed reading it… I’ll admit I did find a few things that you wrote puzzling, or built on a pretty wobbly foundation.

For one, I think it’s a stretch to call my takes on bandits “tirades.” It’s true that I think banditing a race is a shabby thing to do, whatever rationalizations you hear from those who do it. (All of which I think are bogus, and none of which address the inescapable fact that bandits are doing something that cost everyone else money, without paying for it. How that isn’t stealing is beyond me.)

For another, your essay strongly implies that bandits, by definition, “start at the back of the pack,” running behind the registered runners. Which just isn’t true. (The blogger who bandited that race in Georgia, and took selfies of herself doing so, sneaked into a corral and ran along with everyone else. I’ve seen, and written about, bandits who actually won the race they were banditing.)

Finally, for the record, the “special circle of hell” quote was taken out of context. That wasn’t from a piece I did on bandits in general. It was from a piece I did a few years back on a particularly galling bandit — a guy named “Liem” who used a counterfeit bib number to run the NYC Marathon. The guy was shameless, hamming it up for race photographers. Turned out he was an employee of Merrill Lynch, so he couldn’t exactly plead poverty. (Again, though, even if he had been poor, I fail to see how that’s germane. If you can’t afford something, the answer is to go without. Not to just take it. But I digress.)

That column seems to be gone now — I think it vanished during a platform migration — but I do recall it was titled “The Case of the Brazen Bandit.” Here’s another take on the guy in question:

http://citycoach.org/open-letter-to-a-cheater/

I’m not naive. I know there have always been bandits in races, and there always will be. I don’t lose sleep over that. What bugs me are those who don’t just bandit, but are jerks about it, and/or who cloak their banditing in something noble-sounding, as if they’re striking a blow for… whatever. I dunno. And/or who do so and then double down on their jerkiness when other runners call them out on it.

Anyway… I do appreciate your taking the time to track me down. Thanks again. And happy running!

Best,

Mark

A couple thoughts on Mark Remy’s rebuttal:

1. Calling another writer’s thoughts “puzzling” or “built on a pretty wobbly foundation” is the nicest way I’ve ever heard to say “How the hell can you think that?”

2. Most bandits I know run at the back of the pack and are courteous and respectful.  They run to honor the spirit of the marathon and admire the endurance and guts of the top athletes — and quite frankly, anyone who is faster than them. I agree with Remy about the schmucks. They deserve to be pummeled.

3.  As for Remy’s “if you can’t pay, you go without” edict, I generally agree with that, too — in every life situation except the Boston Marathon.  There’s a proud tradition in Boston of letting the also-rans chug along the course to answer the ultimate “what if” question: Can I go the distance?

The fans LOVE these underdogs.  The bandits I know are not delusional. They don’t think that their running performance is equal to the official marathoners. There’s a big difference between running with a number and running without. If you’re a bandit, you don’t get listed in the official record books. You don’t get a medal. You don’t get an official bib to tack to your bulletin board or mat and frame with a running photo.  Some bandits I know were so inspired by their experience that they went on to qualify as an official runner or wound up getting a charity bib and raising thousands of dollars.

4. My dialogue with Remy certainly hasn’t brought bandits and bandit-haters closer together, but at least writers with polar opposite positions can discuss the controversy without being schmucks toward each other.

5. The bandit debate will never be settled — just like the Mac vs. PC war.  Though I’d place the anti-bandit zealots in the same camp as the Apple snobs at the Genius Bar who sneer at the lowlifes who type on a Dell.

POSTSCRIPT — Outrage at “Identity Theft” Bandits

Don't Deserve the "Bandit" Label -- North Carolina runner Kara Bonneau discovered there were four other runners in the Boston Marathon who illegally copied her number. (Source: http://karaleighb.blogspot.com/)

Don’t Deserve the “Bandit” Label — North Carolina runner Kara Bonneau discovered there were four other runners in the Boston Marathon who illegally copied her number. (Source: http://karaleighb.blogspot.com/)

A few days after I received Remy’s note, a news story broke that there were a few Boston Marathon frauds who ran with the same counterfeit number.  The real owner of that number Kara Bonneau, of North Carolina, discovered the identity theft when she went to claim her photos from the official Boston Marathon photo site, which sorts pics by bib number.

In my Globe column, I had mocked the “conspiracy theory” that bandits would take someone else’s medals, playfully suggesting that such a person — if she or he existed — should be strangled with the stolen medal. So… there’s always an exception to the norm and this breed of sleazeball does exist.

Counterfeiting numbers and stealing someone’s identity is the antithesis of what true Boston Marathon bandits stand for. Real bandits are open about their running status. They don’t pretend to be official entrants — that’s almost as offensive as the people who make up fake military experience on their resumes.

I got a call from a local FOX TV reporter asking me what I thought of the death threats that were received by some of the people in the above picture, which was widely circulated on the Internet.  My response: These runners may be sleazeballs, but they are not war criminals.  They do, however, deserve to be pummeled.

Remarkably, one of the runners is married to an extremely wealthy gazillionaire (redundancy intended). He’s the founder of Foursquare and could have easily scored a charity bib and plunked down some spare change to make her legal. Deliberately wearing a counterfeit bib is lying.

There will always be a few unethical people who don’t care if they ruin it for everyone else.

None of this chicanery (I wanted an excuse to use that word) changes the fact that bandits are some of the Boston Marathon’s most endearing characters. To “steal” my earlier words:

Hours after the winners take home their $150,000 prizes, they honor the true Boston Marathon spirit. They remind us that no amount of money will move your legs for you.