Bandit On The Run

The original race bandit? Image via

The bib-less bandits run among us. They gum up aid stations, photobomb our race photos and steal our bananas at the finish line. But they also make history.

Today I’m writing about bandits: people who run races without paying to enter them. While researching the net for this post, I’ve become more apprehensive to reveal that I’ve…*ahem*… “jumped into” a few races without paying the often overpriced entry fee. ย But does it help to say that I would never bandit my “A” race of the season? If I also thought I might be in for a big PR mid-way through training, I will gladly pay the fee to compete, too. Other than these two scenarios, is there really any harm in heading out for a run that just so happens to be with 5,000 or so other people on a perfectly marked course, fit with timers and water stops?

Is it wrong to bandit?

It depends who you ask.

On one end of the spectrum, there are runners who believe that banditing a race is wrong, unethical and considered stealing. Smack dab in the middle of the debate are those who believe that as long as you use the race as a training run, do not take any fluids, and do not take any of the food at the end of the race, than you are ok to freely join the entrants. Kudos if you don’t cross the finish line, too! At the opposite side of the spectrum, there are the true Bandits at heart: jump in, take the water, eat all the food you can eat, and grab that hard-earned medal because you earned it!

Where do you stand on the issue?

Am I paying for the race or the shirt?

But will you run (and pay) for a shirt? Image via

When you bandit, you will likely not receive a t-shirt. But the t-shirt debate is one reason runners will bandit a race. As entry fees have risen, the quality of our shirts have gotten better, too. For some smaller races, there are options to pay a discounted race fee if you don’t care about a shirt. In fact, open track meets at colleges are usually pretty cheap ($5-$10) and there’s no shirt involved. The bandit argument is that if more races had the option to run shirt-less, so to speak, you’d have a little less bandits and possibly more competition showing up to race. But then more competition equals more staff and more police and well, more money!

It’s not against the law.

There is no law being broken by a middle-spectrum bandit. A police officer cannot issue a warrant for your arrest if you happen to go for your jog on the day of the Rock N’ Roll Half Marathon. In fact, some would even argue that it’s ok to take a Gatorade as the reason for the drink on the course is to advertise. So, the more, the merrier. I’ve never jumped into a race over 13 miles so taking fluids has not been an issue for me. However, after the race is over, I’ve seen plenty of bib-less people grab some post-race goodies. I’ve also seen volunteers throwing away boxes of food after the awards ceremony. Does it make it right? Let me go ask my superego.

I wonder if Freud’s theory accounted for banditing? Image via

Just don’t cross the finish line.

Along with not taking any fluids or food, many runners insist that if you are going to jump into a race, just be sure to not cross the finish line as it can mess up the results. I’ve got another confession to make. I’ve only bandited two or three races but I haven’t been able to escape the finish line (sorry race directors!). Maybe this is a sign that I should stop with the banditing altogether. If you accidentally receive a medal at the finish, turn it down. Or better yet, give it away. When I jumped into a half marathon last year and was too disoriented to notice a volunteer draping my neck with a medal, I walked away and gave it to a two year-old girl whose face lit up as bright as the medal itself.

I know, still doesn’t make it right.

Don’t be that guy. Or girl.

Does it just need to stop?

There a multiple ethical issues involved in this debate. Wherever you stand, it’s probably not a good idea to become a cheapskate weekend warrior. But most runners even frown upon the middle of the road bandits. A primary issue is that if one person thinks it is ok to bandit a race then what would happen if a hundred other runners thought it was also ok to bandit? The liability is then placed in the hands of the race director. And this includes those just jumping in to help out other runner friends!

What do you think? Have you run a race without paying? Do you think it’s wrong no matter how it’s done or do you give some leeway for the act?


I write about mindfulness, mental health, and the professional sport of running with the occasional poking fun at the sport. When I am not running, I'm either helping people as a counselor or trying to make them laugh as an amateur open mic comedian.

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  1. I’ve banditted a few races in the past, too. But here is something to think about:

    One of the highest expenses to a race company is paying the city/law enforcement for road closures. The cost of road closure (and thus, safety) is usually a flat rate that isn’t affected by the number of participants. So my take on it is, a bandit contributes to the rising cost of race entry fees. But what about running part of a race to help out a friend/teammate/spouse? Hmmmm… So many great questions, J!

    1. I agree that it becomes a huge liability issue and this is one reason why I probably won’t bandit again!

  2. I’m going to fess up! I’ve jumped in races. Once I was doing my long run at the park and it was just about time to do a marathon pace push and I happened upon a 5 mile race. It was probably about a mile into the race when I jumped in and I just ran along and tried to stay out of everyone’s way and got off the course and ran to the outside of the water stops. I jumped back out before the finish. I’ve also jumped in races to pace friends. I’ve never actually raced-raced without a bib. I think that’s a bad idea. If you’re trying to do your best you need to run tangents and what-not and you’re likely to get in the way of paying customers. I agree that you should not take anything you didn’t pay for: food, water, medals, shirts, etc. As I said, I wouldn’t even take the tangents of a race I didn’t pay for!

    I agree that it would be nice if there were more inexpensive race options: $5 short races and $20 halfs or something. It’s sad to me that racing is becoming a rich (wo)man’s endeavor. If someone couldn’t afford to race but wanted to race, I wonder what the average RD would say. Maybe we should start Salty’s Budget Racing ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. I think that the logic that people bandit because race fees are so outrageous is sort of like the logic that we use when we go to the movies (taking in our own water or whatever). The truth is that it’s not following the rules. It’s not illegal (it probably is at the movies) but it’s not exactly right either.

    I’ve never bandited but I can see both sides of the argument (or all three sides). I guess I would say that to determine whether it is ethical/moral is first of all an individual decision. But also a way to judge that is would you list it on your personal ad when looking for a date? Or tell the guy/girl on the first date? Or tell your priest/minister at the church ice cream party? Or tell your grandmother? If you’d be fine with those, then you’re fine with it so enjoy!

    1. Haha…you know? Not many runners who bandit go around telling about it so there’s a little bit of the answer to the moral questions…

    1. I meant to talk more about the Boston Bandits but figured there was already enough controversary in this post. I’ll have to cover that another time!

  4. I am definitely on the far end of the spectrum and I think banditting a race is wrong. So far so that this post makes me uncomfortable because it sends the message that it is justifiable. The $ argument doesn’t pass muster with me either – there are plenty of cheap races if you look for them. If you have to be selective or save $ for races, do it.

    BTW Katherine Spitzer did not bandit Boston. She registered as K. Spitzer.

    1. I don’t think Ginger’s saying it’s justifiable and I am certainly not (my mentioning of the expense of racing was just to discuss that tangential topic), she’s just discussing the debate and leaving it to each runner to come to his or her own conclusions about it. I think for a lot of us, myself included, jumping in races without paying is part of our running culture – just what we do to help friends or get in a good workout and we haven’t necessarily thought through all the ethical implications. I would say I’m guilty of that and I appreciate this post for getting me to think more about the big picture of it. I’m not quite at the point where I think anyone who does it is a raging a-hole, yet ๐Ÿ™‚ but I’ll definitely avoid doing this myself in the future after this discussion!

      1. Salty’s right in that it is a sort of underground act in the running community. I know a lot of runners who will jump in to help pace or use the race as a training run and can successfully not cross the finish line. Does it make it right? Probably not, but I’m just surprised at how many runners take this issue so seriously. Maybe it’s the heart-attack having and then suing bandits that ruin it for us. Banditting seems to be running’s equivalent to the guns vs. no guns debate or republicans versus democrats or death penalty versus no death penalty, etc.

    2. I’m with you, Mint. I’ll go a step further and say I don’t think it’s right when friends jump into the race to help pace.

      I don’t understand how you can’t avoid running through the finish line of a race you didn’t pay for. I’ve never had a finish line sneak up on me. Some will have a long finish chute area (like Chicago), but then you need to stop before you get to that area or turn around.

      1. The two races I jumped into and crossed the line, I will admit that I didn’t know the finish and didn’t plan my exit very well. So in order to not give my bibless self even more away, I just ran in. BUT, this just gives even more reason to quit the banditting!

  5. Sorry, but the very term “bandit” is the clue as to whether this is ethically / morally right or wrong. It is stealing, pure and simple. As Rosemary states, it is road closures, police protection, and the insurance the race directors have to buy that is much more of an issue that whether you take a drink, run a tangent, or cross a finish line. I’ve never run in a race I didn’t pay for, even for part of it. If you want to pace a friend / spouse, pay your way. It really doesn’t matter if we would tell our grandmother. Just because a person can justify their unethical behavior, doesn’t mean it is right…only that the person has found a way to justify it to themselves (and in their opinion, to others).

    We all spend money on specialized running clothes, shoes, GPS watches, etc. If you feel the need to be on a race course, then pay the fee, or just run somewhere else.

    1. I wholeheartdely agree with the policing issue and road closures and race fees for that. I like Rachel’s suggestion below to just run cheaper races and avoid some of the bigger, coprorate-esque type races.

    2. People just need to relax. As with anything else in life, stop worrying so much about what others are doing. I plan to bandit very soon and can’t wait to see if anyone actually cares more about who hasn’t paid versus just worrying about their run.

    1. Good point. Though if you aren’t paying attention or didn’t study up on your manners, recognizing what was going on and knowing what to do might be a trick.

  6. As someone who has volunteered at a lot of races, including Boston, consider this:

    I take Patriot’s Day off as a vacation day to volunteer on the course because I do not get the day off from work. I have to stay on the course until the last people in the race pass by me. This INCLUDES bandits, because the end of the race vehicles aren’t going to run them over when they see they’re bib-less. So, even though the Boston bandits start in the back, they’re not being very considerate of the volunteers or our time. A few hundred extra people on a day like this year means I’m out there for an extra 1/2 hour!

    Entry fees are also paying for medical personnel. They’re not going to refuse to help someone if they collapse and don’t have a bib. So the paying runner’s fees paid for the medical personnel to help the unpaid bandit. Again, is this considerate of either the time of the personnel, or of the other runners who coughed up the dough for the race?

    Sure, they are getting expensive, but if you look hard you can still find very affordable, and often FREE races, right in your own back yard. I know of a USATF certified marathon in SW Virginia – which happens to be my favorite marathon, and the entry fee is a whopping TEN DOLLARS! At the end of the day, there’s nothing that says you HAVE to race. If you can’t afford to run it legitimately, you shouldn’t run it.

  7. Yeah, I’m gonna have to go with “not ever okay.” I have never done it but used to hold the “middle of the road” opinion, until I heard people point out (as some have done here) the issues of insurance/liability, if you happen to need medical assistance, etc. I am not sure what would happen if something happened to you on the course and you weren’t official and hadn’t signed a waiver or anything. I know everyone thinks “but nothing will happen to me” but… whatever. It could, and anyway it doesn’t really matter – the point is that too many bandits, or something happening to a bandit, could possibly jeopardize a race happening in the future, and considering all the work put in by RDs and volunteers I just don’t think that’s fair. I agree 100% w/the ridiculousness of how expensive some races are, but that’s why I don’t do those races… not even that I couldn’t afford it, I just think it’s obnoxious to charge that much so I don’t really want to support it (and I don’t enjoy really huge races anyway, and that’s what the expensive ones tend to be.)

    Just my $0.02. Great topic for conversation and thought, though!!

    1. I tend to only choose the cheaper races.I’m hoping to get fast enough that the race fee might be paid for me some day, too!

  8. I don’t think it’s right. Sorry to be black and white about it but I think it’s tantamount to stealing.

    The pacing thing is a grey area…or even running for a few miles with a friend…that’s grey. If you don’t start or finish but just do a few miles, I would be less damning…but running all or most of the race, that’s not on.

    Recently, I think a bandit had a heart attack or an accident and was suing the race organizers even though he wasn’t a paid-up racer. That’s scandalous, in my opinion!!

    Yeah, this is a good topic for a Monday.

    1. It’s crazy to think a bandit is suing the RD. Now that, my friends, is true bandit at heart! And I can say I am not that.

  9. I don’t think it’s okay, but I do make a distinction between someone who is trying to race (or do race-pace miles) versus someone who is helping their friend through 1-2 miles. For me, the biggie is the health issue. It’s easy to say that you will carry your own water, etc., but if you need medical attention, you are taking resources away from those who did follow the rules and pay, and you are making it more difficult for emergency personnel to find out your vitals by not having a bib.

    One thing that I’ve seen discussion about online that really, really bugs me is people making fake bibs or wearing bibs from previous years to try to hide their bandit status. That to me is taking it to another level, with so much premeditation, and just flaunting that you are stealing.

  10. What an interesting conversation. I confess that, as a relative newbie to racing, it had never occurred to me to bandit a race. For the record, I personally would come down on the side of saying it is wrong and unethical. I’ve never organized a race, but I did organize a few protest marches and the fees for road closures, police services, and insurance are stiff.

    One scenario does make me think, though. Some of my usual weekend routes go along streets and paths that I know are used for various races. I can completely envision myself forgetting about a race scheduled for one of “my” routes and coming upon the crowd. In the confusion of the moment, would I continue along the race route even though I wasn’t “really” running the race? or head off in some other direction just to get out of the way? My by own statement, I should dodge off somewhere else, but would I think that fast?

    1. That’s basically what happened to me the time I jumped in the race mid-run. It was on the same route on a path in the park. It wasn’t a particularly crowded race or anything and they didn’t shut down the path. Curious what people think: was this wrong?

  11. Oh really, not a single one of you would EVER run with a race? What if, like Salty, you just happened to be running there anyway? Would you turn around and go run somewhere else? I doubt any of us would!

    I once ran into a race in Prospect Park, where I happened to be running on my own. I ran with the racers for a little while and it wasn’t a big deal. It’s a public running space, and I’ll run there if I want whether a race is happening or not. And I ran there while the Brooklyn Marathon was happening as well. It wasn’t a big deal.

    As for actual banditting, I have no problem admitting I did it once. A couple years ago I registered for a race in Central Park and trained up to it for 9 weeks. A few days before the race I discovered I had registered for the wrong race and my race was now closed. I got up early anyway, went to Central Park and went running. Just so happened I ran an unrecorded PR in the park that day too, running the same loop the racers ran.

    I hadn’t done it before and I haven’t done it since (I learned my lesson, to double check my registration a few weeks out), but you know what? I don’t feel bad that I did it that time. If I trained and tapered for that day, there were no other races in the area I could join and I wasn’t allowed the option to buy in (even though I wanted to), then why not?

    I’m not saying it’s right, and if you know someone who has a chronic banditting habit I think it would certainly be appropriate to intervene. But I think it’s fine to acknowledge there’s some gray area. We know it’s going to happen once in a while whether we like it or not and it seems to me there’s not much sense in getting our knickers in a twist when it does.

    1. Yeah, I see at least two issues. There’s the true bandit scenario: racing/racing a race as if you paid without paying. Perhaps with faking bibs and all that. Then there’s the jumping in a race for whatever reason: stumble upon it or to run with a friend or family member for some stretch. I’ve always felt the first scenario was wrong. That is stealing even to me who generally lives in a land of gray ๐Ÿ™‚ The second set of circumstances is very muddy to me. What if the course isn’t closed? What if it’s in a park, like Central Park when there are tons of runners not racing and racing? What if you only run your mom the last .25 miles to the finish of her first marathon? What if you finished a shorter race or faster than your friends and go back out and run people in in the longer races or who are slower than you? I still can’t say any of those scenarios are categorically wrong the way “real” banditing is. This topic is really interesting. I suspect this isn’t the last we’ll feature it here!

  12. Most often when I have contemplated banditing I have ponied up instead. I believe I have only truly been a bandit intentionally once. I did it at a race I don’t support at all and one I had previously given money to time and again with disappointment in the product provided for all. To the point that I have sworn I will never give that organization my money again. It doesn’t excuse my behavior, but I really don’t feel too bad about it. I stayed out of other runners paths, I didn’t take aid, and I cheered on friends as I ran along. Consider me a roving cheer machine if you will that just happened to run most of the race course.

    My grey line is I have often gone to races and run a friend through the final miles, or a portion of the course. I never even would have considered this banditing prior to this post. Often it occurs after my paid for race is done, where I go back in to run with a friend going longer or who is a bit slower. Definitely a grey area since I did pay for a race on that day, just not the same race, and I clearly didn’t pay to run portions of the course twice. And here I thought I was being a good running pal. Perhaps I am indeed something much more nefarious ๐Ÿ˜‰

  13. I’ve never bandited (though I have run using another runner’s bib – just to have that out in the open). I believe it is wrong, period, whatever your behavior (taking no fluids, staying out of other’s way, not crossing the finish, etc) or attitude may be.

    A major question in ethics is: Am I making an exception of myself? Am I able to do x because not everyone else will? The only reasons bandits can justify their actions is because not a lot of people do it. If lots of people did it, courses would be clogged with runners who have absolutely no business being there.

    The fact of the matter is, that you can not avoid having an impact on those around you. Case in point: As I approach the finish of the Chicago Marathon this past Sunday, a course marshal jumps onto the road in front of me, to tell a bandit that he must leave the course. Both these guys practically trip me, and the friend I’m running with for her first marathon, in this process. Case 2: Boston 2012: Almost every picture I have from that race includes bandits, including my finish shots! More importantly, while passing Boston College (that’s around mile 21, and it’s 90 degrees and I’m not exactly feeling fresh) a group of 4 runners jump onto the course in front of me. One woman immediately trips and stumbles to the ground a couple feet in front of me forcing me to jump over her! My hamstring hurt for the remainder of the race, something I really didn’t need.

    The justification that race fees are too high doesn’t fly – that’s a rationalization to excuse the behavior. There are inexpensive races. If you want to protest race fees then there are better ways to do so.

    I can see NO justification for this action.

  14. I agree with the statement above, but put yourself in my situation for a minute. Most marathon races in other 1st world countries are 40 or 50 dlls. Marathons in Mexico are free or 10 dlls same as other 3rd wolrd countries(shirts, medals, bananas etc included). Running should be a sport for the masses not just for the higher class. The NY marathon was 80 dlls back in 2000, now its over 265! dlls. I usually have to save to buy a nice pair of running shoes, but paying over 180 dlls for using the streets that we pay with out tax dollars is nonsense. Wate, r gatorade and medical aid is only 10 percent of the fee in the big races, the rest is pure profit or used to pay the celebrities and concerts that I don’t really care. Although I would never bandit in local races for charity or similar types I would in a heartbeat in the bigger ones. People that have been running for a couple of years are used to paying 150-200 dlls for marathons, but some other people, remeber when races were for everybody in the 40 dlls 50 dlls range. I had a friend from Kenya living in Mexico, and he was unable to save 110 for the rock and roll, that’s pretty sad. I don’t feel proud to run as bandit in the big races, but sometimes they leave us no choice, but like I said at the beginning, This is for big races (profit), local 5ks and charity runs is a different topic, I am happy to pay.

    1. Thanks for chiming in Ricardo with a different perspective! I’ll have to check out some international/3rd world races in the future, which I will gladly pay to enter.

  15. I’d gladly pay a reasonable but small sum just to run the course. I don’t want their t shirts, their food, their water or their timer ( I use my watch). I don’t want anything other than to run the course. They can provide a convenient exit chute for those that only paid for the rock bottom fee. I certainly don’t need nor want their bib. The $5-10 college entry fee sounds great to me. I am now only getting back into running and will soon want to look into local 10ks, but I was shocked to see how fees have skyrocketed since I stopped years ago. Either give the basic option for people like me or we will bandit them, and I have no compunctions about it. If they have a donation box at the end or beginning I will be more than willing and happy to put in what I can afford or what I think it is worth. 15 bucks is about the most I’d even consider for the privilege to join a 10k without all the bells and whistles. If the race is important to me and I want or need an official time, then I’ll pay the bib-food-entertainment-water-massage at the end price.

    1. If you offered a “basic” option, how would you distinguish those that had paid to use resources (water/gels/ Gatorade, etc) from those that hadn’t? You may be on an honor system but there are many who aren’t and will possible cause a shortage for those who did pay.

      1. I would think a basic option would mean no t-shirt or goody bag. A basic option includes resources of water/gels/gatorade.

        1. Agree with you Ginger – Henrybemis above specifically stated he used no resources. Henrybemis how do you determine what a “reasonable but small sum” is – do you know the cost of police, fire, ambulance, security, park fees, etc etc? While I think some race fees are excessive, I respond to that by not running them as opposed to running them illegally.

          1. I see things it a little different, police, fire, ambulances are covered under our taxes. Park fees, water etc doesn’t, although most brands will do it for free for the advertising. I been running in Mexico for years are cost are usually: free, 5 bucks – 10 bucks for halfs and marathons (that includes goodie bags, shirts etc). The price is a not a reflection of the true cost race, it is a reflection of the demand. The biggest race I’ve been is a 3k marathon and the race was free (government sponsored)

            I never been able to afford a race in the U.S the prices are way to high. I’ve ran marathons in Spain and Japan for 30.00 bucks, but for some reason prices in the U.S are 300% higher that other 1st world countries. Why? because people do pay that amount.

          2. Not all support is covered by taxes – the NYC Marathon (yes, obscenely expensive, but that’s another story) increased its already high fees by over $50 starting in 2012 because the city was now charging NYRR for the police overtime. Also in many cities main roads are closed for part of the day on race day. City employees who are also being paid overtime have to reopen those roads. They are not volunteers. Again, I do agree that a huge number of races are excessively expensive. But for me the solution is to not run them, not run them illegally.

  16. This isn’t a black and white issue.

    Let’s turn the tables of the stealing part of Bandits. I’ve run (and paid) hundreds (maybe in the thousands) of races over the years. Many top runners believe in the basics of what they are paying for such as mile markers, mile marker splits, water on the course, shirt, awards, and accurate results, but when the race itself fails on honoring those things, the race directors attitude is usually “Oh well”. Isn’t that in a sense stealing from me? Take my money, but don’t give me what I paid for?

    So if I’m late to a race without paying and/or want to try it out to see what
    I’m paying for, maybe next year I’ll race and pay.