The running industry calls them “bandits.”
They stand ready on the sidelines of a marathon and wait, uninvited, for a chance to slip into the stream of humanity as it goes padding by.
They don’t register and might not even bother to don a fake bib number, but they’ll help themselves to free Gatorade and accept the crowd’s cheers as they run alongside the competitors who paid to enter the race. Some are so bold as to attempt to cross the finish line and snag a medal given to all who complete the race.
In big cities, bandits are no small matter. A 2011 Wall Street Journal article reported that at one San Francisco race, 20,600 women finished a race that 19,500 had started.
They’ve never been a problem in Akron.
Not until, perhaps, now.
This is the first year the Akron Marathon has sold out. Registration for the full marathon closed with 2,000 participants last month, and the race finished filling its 4,500 half-marathon slots this month — limitations dictated by supplies and resources, from medals to hydration stations.
More than once, the local marathon office has turned away a hopeful runner only to hear a parting comment like, “Yeah, well, I’ll see you on race day anyway.”
200 could hop in
By industry standards, Akron could expect as many as 200 bandits trying to join the closed race, Executive Director Anne Bitong said.
“But we’re hoping if we communicate about this ahead of time, maybe we can pare that number down to a dozen or so,” she said.
Bandits are a curious breed.
Running on a public street isn’t illegal. Still, they get nothing for their efforts.
Registered runners get a sack full of swag and a finisher’s medal. Their time is recorded and their efforts are posted online.
Bandits get none of that. They can’t even brag about their antics without inviting the ire of fellow athletes, said Jim Chaney, the Akron Marathon’s associate race director.
Legitimate competitors “very much look down on bandits,” Chaney said.
Outsiders might ask, what’s the harm?
“On the surface, there isn’t any,” Chaney said. “We’re not driving NASCARs at high speeds or drag racing or skydiving.
“But running is one of these things where it’s a shared experience, whether you are an elite runner or the last in the race. There is a common base. We all train and we pay our registration fees and we all try to do our personal best. There is mutual respect in that.
“It’s a very pure type of sport, but it gets really tainted when you introduce bandits and unauthorized runners.”
By “unauthorized runners,” Chaney means friends who might pop onto the course to pace a registered runner and offer encouragement during a tough stretch.
He also means folks who register for one type of race but attempt to complete another. That could be an issue this year, as some folks might have signed up for the half-marathon because the full marathon was closed, officials said.
Stopping the bandits
Sector volunteers will be especially watchful at the midway point, where the course carries yellow-bibbed full marathoners away from the silver half-marathon bibs.
Some national races station bandit catchers along the course to clean up the runner’s field, looking to intercept unbibbed or fake-bibbed runners.
Akron won’t be that aggressive, Bitong said, but bandits can expect to hear an admonishment from a volunteer with a bullhorn.
“We’ll ask them kindly to leave the course. We’re hoping that might shake them and they’ll just leave,” she said.
“Most bandits aren’t malicious,” Chaney said. “I just think they are uneducated runners who don’t put forethought into what they’re doing.”
So maybe a slightly embarrassing shout-out from a bullhorn will give them pause.
“If everyone took a shortcut and jumped in, it really degrades the sport,” Chaney said, “and is a slap in the face to those who are following the rules.”