The crowd running along Tacoma’s waterfront was chasing bandits.
One was stealing the spotlight. The other, a man running as a woman, was about to swipe a trophy.
Both entered last year’s Tacoma City Half Marathon without paying, creating what race organizer Paul Morrison called “all kinds of chaos.”
Doug Hill was volunteering at an aid station on May 5 when he saw the first bandit, the race leader, zip past. A few minutes later his daughter, Alycia Hill, passed. He was excited to see she was the first woman and likely would win.
What he, the spectators and even Alycia didn’t know was that she would win outright, the first woman to do so since the race started in 2007. This bit of history wasn’t discovered until the results were posted.
She won because the bandit ducked off the course just before the finish line and wasn’t seen again.
A bit farther back in the race, a man was running with his girlfriend’s race bib. When he crossed the finish line, he was electronically logged as the second-place woman, making the race results inaccurate. A year later they’re still incorrect on the race website.
Last month’s high-profile race-bib bandit incidents at the Boston Marathon cast a spotlight on a tradition nearly as old and widespread as racing itself. Deanna Muller of Auburn-based BuDu Racing says she even sees bandits in small community races.
These nonpaying racers are also called turkeys, poachers and sometimes, by race directors, things unsuitable for print.
“It is stealing,” said Nona Snell, director of the Capital City Marathon in Olympia. “… I totally give them the benefit of the doubt. I don’t think many of them realize they are creating problems, but they are.”
Morrison said he hopes Sunday morning’s Tacoma City Marathon will be free of bandits, but he knows thefts are probably inevitable.
Different kinds of bandits create different kinds of problems.
The bandit who arrives on race day with a counterfeit bib, as the Boston runners did last month, are rare because few races require participants to qualify to take part.
But the two types of bandits who created issues in Tacoma last spring are common.
Bandits who simply drop into the race and run without bibs aren’t likely to ruin the results if the race is electronically timed where a chip is affixed to every legitimate participant. But if they cross the finish line in a manually timed race, they can create errors officials might not be able to correct.
Perhaps most disruptive are bandits who run wearing another person’s bib. Men running as women. Teens running as 60-year-olds. Suddenly age group and gender ribbons are going to the wrong people, and race officials have a mess on their hands.
After last year’s Tacoma City Half Marathon, the fourth-place woman called race headquarters to insist she’d finished third.
Claudia Hansen, the Tacoma City Marathon Association’s director of operations, started investigating. It was an easy mystery to solve.
Had Hansen checked the woman’s Facebook page, she would have seen the woman had updated her profile photos two days after the race. The new image showed the couple at the race with the boyfriend wearing her bib.
But all Hansen had to do was plug the names for the top three women into the race photographer’s website. Seconds later she saw the second-place woman clearly was a man.
Hansen called the number associated with the bib and learned the woman had registered but couldn’t run. She gave the bib to her boyfriend so she didn’t feel as if she was losing her entry fee.
Hansen said the woman was apologetic and neither she nor her boyfriend ever tried to collect the award.
The couple’s decision not only threw the overall results into disarray, but it also affected the age group results. While the results are still incorrect on the website, Hansen collected prizes from some women and then mailed them their proper awards.
It took several hours of work, Hansen said, “and cost more than what she paid to register.”
It’s not uncommon to pay $30 or more for a 5-kilometer run or $75 or much more for half marathons and marathons.
Injured or changed your mind? Tough luck. Refunds and transfers are rare in the running world.
“That might contribute to the problem,” said Morrison, who used to offer free insurance with entries into some races before the insurance company he used went out of business.
But race organizers say offering refunds and transfers is easier said than done.
“The money is already spent,” said Morrison, who handles expenses ranging from security and closing city streets to food, shirts and finisher medals.
Tacoma City and Capital City marathons also cut checks to local organizations that supply race day volunteers.
“I think most people understand this (why there are no refunds) when they sign up,” Morrison said.
And allowing people to transfer their entries to somebody else or another race requires extra work from volunteers who already are stretched pretty thin, Snell said.
“I think our race is priced reasonably, but I know it’s not cheap,” Snell said. “You have to buy shoes. I’m sympathetic to that.”
But, Muller said, “There are more affordable races out there. … I don’t think it’s always a money issue. I think it’s a choice.”
Running in the Boston Marathon last month, Morrison saw police pulling several bib-less runners off the street.
It’s pretty common for large races to have a posse patrolling for poachers, but you won’t find them at most local races.
One reason is that the streets are public places. Morrison says the Tacoma City Marathon Association pays for the roads to be closed to traffic, not pedestrians.
While a brazen bandit can point to this, Morrison says, “it’s still unethical.”
The problem gets worse, race organizers say, when bandits take food and finisher medals and other items for which the racers pay.
If bandits exercise the pubic-streets loophole, they should follow rules that minimize their impact, Morrison said. No food, water, shirt, medal, aid station treatment or anything else that comes with the entry fee.
And stay off the road, Morrison said.
“We paid to have the road closed,” he said. “Run on the sidewalk.”
And don’t cross the finish line.
At last year’s Capital City Marathon, Snell spotted two bandits in the post-race food line. She booted them and asked them to return the big, square finisher medals they’d collected.
While bib bandits are a nuisance, they also could be putting themselves at risk, Snell says.
A bib allows race officials to instantly identify an injured runner and dial up their emergency contact.
“If they’re a bandit and something happens to them, we don’t have any information or we have the wrong information,” Snell said. “It’s not good and it’s not safe.
“There’s just so many reasons people shouldn’t do this. Reasons they aren’t thinking about. And it’s just not fair for those who registered.”