Sunday, 6 October 2013

Banditing a run

What is a race bandit? Simply put, you run but you don't pay. I was mulling over the reasons one might see it right or wrong doing so. I felt it rational to post my ideas on the pros and cons of paying for a race. The coin is two-sided: Am I justifying an immoral act, and/or do races have much justification in claiming my money as rightfully theirs?

I run most every day without paying. What makes race day so much more special that I have to pay to run this day, this hour? Were I running on a private road, or indoors in a controlled environment, the rationale is clear enough; it's their turf, so they can charge whatever they want. If I own a private club I can choose to charge obscene fees for nothing more than the rights to exclusion. Outdoor road races are, however, an interesting beast. They cost plenty to enter, more power to them, but why pay at all? Let us consider what is rightfully owned by the race organizers.

Service fee argument: the "service" being for organizing many people in one place. A service rendered is a non-trivial thing, as can readily demonstrated by gradually exchanging one's paperclip for a house. Organizing a race can cost someone's time, hence your money. Then again, service fees are small and should therefore not be more than a few dollars. And how much do we need this service in the first place? I once had an idea for an app that allows people to create their own routes and post their best times, but it turns out that already exists. And it's free. It's also free to create your own running groups and pay nothing. Today I paid $40 for a run for the cure. It was not necessary to pay (no prizes for "winning"), but then you're just cheating a charity. (Aside: there are also services rendered such as paramedics, but I understand that injuring yourself during any regular run should entitle you to tax-paid emergency services)

Road closures: Although large races like New York, Boston, etc have an entirely closed-off course, smaller races often cut corners creating a narrow strips with pylons, sometimes on areas not normally permitted for cars. The big expenditure is the cost of extra police, but here too some races spend more than others. It might be worth considering whether you are banditing a race with a lot of hired help. Roads themselves, however, are paid for by taxes, hence there is little reason this alone justifies the cost of a race.  Making the analogy with toll roads, where larger vehicles cost more than smaller ones (where the latter cause less damage to the asphalt), damage caused by running feet is nil. Some of my taxes go towards road repairs, so as a runner on the road I cannot feel there is any theft in taking up physical space where a car would ordinarily go, race fees or no race fees.

Proof of Timing: Though this could be grouped into the service fee pack, one is being charged for an accurately-timed and measured race course. As already mentioned above, there is no great difficulty to doing either of these things yourself. The other half of this service is providing proof that you actually ran this distance. Who would believe me if I went to the local track, and timed myself for 8:30 for 3k? Well, actually, why would I lie...? But the fact is some races go to great lengths to enforce non-cheaters. Is that worth something? Consider the following examples:

Story 1: My dad ran a marathon in Amsterdam, and they nearly disqualified him for not having appeared at one of the check points. He's a damn honest guy (who ran a 4-hour effort not in danger of stealing prizes from the Kenyans), but they only acknowledged his finishing time after a friend emailed the organizers many photographs of my dad reaching said checkpoints. A pointless punishment. Amsterdam race organizers can be assholes.

Story 2: I ran an cross country university race yesterday. It was in a public setting, so I didn't mind paying $10 just to have fellow competitors toe the line (c.f. Service fee argument). Nevertheless, since I was running as an independent and not a university student my "official" time of 26:21 was more or less non-existent. I finished 8th, but you won't see my name anywhere here.

Story 3: A few years ago I competed in a 50Km Keskinada ski race. At one of the checkpoints about 40 km in (where my vision was getting blurry) I missed skiing over a timing mat. I'm 100% sure I skied at least 99.99999% of the distance but I was subsequently disqualified without apology. (Aside: I have never since raced the Keskinada)

Story 4: Conversely, there's the case of Neena Cheema, who has been taking shortcuts at canadian race for years to win age category medals, which seems to me on par with shoplifting chocolate bars from Sears. There are many cases of those who either deliberately or by accident literally cut corners in races. Certainly cheaters may get caught, but we have to stop pretending this doesn't happen rather frequently (for whatever reason). And running a race "wrong" is not always the athlete's fault, as many races are known to run short, or long. I know of few instances of apologies or refunds from races that were mis-marshalled or mis-measured.

The point of stories 1-4 is not to make these cases into sob stories but to show that "proof" of timing is not guaranteed. Racing an "official" course probably does improve the odds you are telling the truth, yes, but the above examples hint that official timing requires the same personal honesty and external factors as much as if you were timing yourself.

As I wrap up, keep in mind these arguments have nothing to do with exhilaration of being with a group of like-minded individuals doing something they enjoy. This is all quite petty; I am acting here only in the interest of saving money. So why pay these fees per se? Certainly you cannot put a price on fun, but for the same reason we then end where we began, that the price you pay is arbitrary. The simple alternative to racing and paying fees is to not race. That's it. Banditing a race seems like wanting it both ways, to enjoy the spectacle but not wanting to participate in the cost.  That line of reasoning assumes the fee is already justified (and compounded by peer pressure), but it is clear that assumption is problematic. The biggest problem for banditing a race, for me, is that clearly there is something you don't like about the race, so it would be far more productive to boycott the damn thing and run somewhere else.

Overall I am split. I do see anything wrong with banditing? Not enough to discourage it, or even to prevent myself from doing it. The roads are for everyone's use, and the longer they stay closed to traffic the better for everyone, including the city coffers. Assuming a race counts as a service fee, they should be small, and are at present too high. The actual cost of a timing service is debatable, as is the assumption that all runners follow the rules more-so than when alone. And if I'm comfortable running alone, why am I so uncomfortable racing alone? In all but the largest races I'm basically running by myself regardless (Hell, I ran the last 10 miles of both the Ottawa and Toronto marathons solo).

Unlike making a libertarian-style decision to not pay taxes or obey certain rules of law, the decision to pay for road racing is so unimportant and trivial as to have at least part of me ashamed for even spending so much time on the topic.  Thankfully there are other thoughts in my head. When I'm asked what I think about when running, truth be told there's a jumble of thoughts, though most of them are junk. This stream is of dubious worth, but I'm posting it just in case there's some point to this down the line. At the very least it's out of my head. Be gone. And happy banditing.

PS, here's other's thoughts on the subject: Someone against it, on the fence, against, and a list of races that are themselves bandit.


  1. banditing a race where they have denied you entry, i'd like to think it's a justification.

  2. The link that mentions insurance...just for curiosity's sake, so people know, those waivers you sign are not legally binding in Quebec. So a) you can always sue a race in Quebec, even if they make you sign one of those (not saying you'd win, but you don't waive any rights by signing) and b) I wonder if you bandited, if they could deny you help as a result? I think it comes down to a social contract. We agree to all meet up and run, and pay someone to organize it. So it's breaking that social contract to bandit. I wouldn't call it theft, however, that's being hysterical.

    1. I agree. It comes into one of those very grey social areas like tipping badly. John, do you know if there have ever been instances of lawsuits in Canada for a road race? I don't know of any. Or more trivial matter, know of anyone demanding a refund for a mis-measured race course?