Kara Bonneau had trained for months to run the 2014 Boston Marathon, one of the sport’s premier events. Excited about the challenge ahead of her, she posted a photo of her official race bib #14285 on her various social media accounts so that her friends and family could track her as she traversed the 26.2-mile course.
Mary Pilon is the author of The Monopolists and the forthcoming The Kevin Show. She primarily writes about sports, business, and politics.
After crossing the finish line, Bonneau punched her bib number into the Boston Athletic Association’s website to look at the snapshots race photographers routinely take at various checkpoints of the race—both to sell as souvenirs and to verify results. She was surprised by what she saw. The photographs showed four different runners. None looked like her, but all sported bib #14285 as they trotted along the trails. Confused and outraged, Bonneau posted the images to her blog, asking for readers to help her solve the mystery of the other runners’ identities. The seeds of #BibGate2014 were sown.
Bonneau didn’t yet know that she was part of a scam that has become a trend in the racing world: social media banditing—where a runner uses social media to enter a race without officially registering. This typically means lifting a bib number off of someone’s Instagram ahead of a race, creating a duplicate, and then using the hoisted entry to run a race incognito. It’s a phenomenon born out of the current dual booms of technology and endurance events—and the very tools bib counterfeiters are using to circumvent race regulations are also being used to bust, ban, or—in some cases—publicly shame cheaters. And many are still divided about whether it’s a silly prank or a serious threat.
“I was just really shocked,” Bonneau tells me. “I think I would have been upset to see cheating in any arena, but because the Boston Marathon—and particularly this Boston Marathon, the year after the bombing—had such special meaning to me, I was really angry.”
For professional athletes, the motives for cheating generally are more obvious: money, fame, and often a low likelihood of being caught. But why would a middle- or back-of-the-pack runner lie or cheat in a race that doesn’t even matter?
Long before social media made things like bib replication easier, banditing at major races was viewed as a brave act. Rebellious runners like John Tarrant gatecrashed races as a political statement, in protest of rules about amateurism that limited how much money athletes could earn in appearance fees and endorsements. It was an underdog move against the proverbial Man. Darren Garnick, a filmmaker and runner in New Hampshire who bandited the Boston Marathon in 1986, said he laments this shift from those days to today’s anti-bandit culture.
“I think it’s sad there’s this crackdown,” Garnick says. “I remember after finishing the marathon then that I was beaming. You can’t take your car on the Indy 500 track and you can’t just walk on a PGA course. But the Boston Marathon is world-famous, and you could be a part of it. I don’t remember marathon bandits being considered a threat or a freeloader or a cockroach then.”
Organizers with New York Road Runners estimate that of the more than 50,000 runners who hit the starting line each year, the number of marathon bandits typically never exceeds 50. But the threat of banditing was large enough for the NYRR to create an anti-banditing campaign: “Respect the Run.” The campaign launched this spring, featuring amoeba-like cartoons stealing bibs and proclaiming it “risky business.”
NYRR staffers spend days before the race patrolling Craigslist, eBay, and Facebook, looking for people trying to purchase bibs or runners who may have errantly posted images of their bibs online, unaware of the counterfeiting risk they’re creating. Each year, bibs for popular races like the Brooklyn Half and the marathon are designed differently and with distinguishing features—a US Mint-like approach. “The methodology of the people trying to run a race without a real number has become more sophisticated,” says Christine Burke, NYRR’s vice president of runner products and services. “But I think the technology and tools we have to monitor them have become more sophisticated, too.”
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Critics of banditing argue that while marathoning is for many a personal quest, road races are often public events that use city streets, volunteers, and law enforcement. Entry fees from registered runners go toward costs like food, police, and other operations, and with a glut of bandits, organizers are concerned about straining resources. More crucially, bibs also may contain emergency contact information that could be necessary in the event of a disaster. After the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, road races have ramped up security efforts; that includes monitoring who is running races. According to Boston Marathon spokesperson T.K. Skenderian, that—along with expanded online photography—has created “greater awareness and greater discouragement towards this practice from the running community than before.”
Most major races, including the New York City Marathon, require runners to provide photo identification when picking up a bib. Most provide bibs only a few days before the race, shortening the window in which someone could copy a bib. The start of the New York City Marathon, at Fort Wadsworth in Staten Island, is sealed off to those who aren’t registered, making it difficult for someone to start the race with a faux bib. The finish line is filmed, allowing for further forensics.
Though Burke and her team have ramped up their counterfeit detection efforts technologically, she says that the old-school tipline from the “very active self-policing runner community” provides ample ledas on which the NYRR then follows up. “The social desire of someone to be in their running community on the day of the TCS New York City Marathon can be huge, and they’ll go to any means necessary,” says Burke.
If there’s a Sherlock Holmes of marathon bib counterfeiting forensics, it’s Derek Murphy, a business analyst in Ohio and the founder of MarathonInvestigation.com. A 10-time marathoner himself, Murphy became fascinated by marathon cheaters after reading about them on running message boards—specifically the creative ways that runners were trying to hack the system. There were the short-cutters who simply didn’t hit every inch of a course, a la Rosie Ruiz at the 1980 Boston Marathon. There was the young woman who posted a series of Instagram images of herself “training” and smiling at the finish line, but had no entry to the race. The health blogger who furiously biked a course in Fort Lauderdale in February to try and create GPS data that could “validate” her missing splits. Or the Michigan dentist who made up races altogether.
Murphy has “outed” myriad marathon cheaters through his obsessive analysis, which encompasses everything from suspicious negative splits in data sets to matching distinguishing features in race photos—such as moles—to runners. As a matter of practice, Murphy tries to reach out to potential suspects before he posts, both to fact check and to get a comment from the alleged bandit. Perhaps most jarring to Murphy is how many marathon cheaters seem to go out of their way to post about their race after the fact: A golden age of humblebragging fuels the false reality. (In September, a trio of bandits at the coveted Beijing Marathon were busted after posting a photo of all three bandits wearing the same race number.)
Murphy recalls a woman identified only as “Patty” in his posts: She was a runner in a Tinkerbell skirt who was outed for using a counterfeit bib in the Disneyland 5K and 10K, two races organized by runDisney. (The popular theme park race series encourages runners to complete the course in costumes.) A serial offender from prior bib banditing, Patty was apprehended in pants and a T-shirt at the race finish line by law enforcement, according to photos on MarathonInvestigation.com. (An Instagram account believed to belong to “Patty” is no longer active, and attempts to reach her for comment were unsuccessful. A request for comment from runDisney was not returned.)
“It was just odd,” Murphy says. “I understand the motivation of people who are trying to qualify to run Boston, or be part of it. You can see the benefit even if you don’t agree with it.” But when it comes to less prestigious races like cartoon character-themed 5Ks, “this is the stuff that’s beyond me.”
Though many runners applaud detective efforts like Murphy’s, others say there are negative consequences to being shamed online for what they feel is a victimless crime. Mark Porter, a cancer survivor in Boston who does fundraising and volunteering with several charities in the area, says that he and a couple of friends wanted to run the Boston Marathon this spring to honor a teenage boy named Christian who was undergoing chemotherapy treatment. They created fake bibs, ran the race, and were then written about on Murphy’s site, where dozens of impassioned commenters criticized his decision to bandit Boston.
Porter understands BAA’s decision to bar him from future events, but he still defends what he did. “I had done it and if I was in the same situation again I would do the same thing again,” Porter says. “I didn’t see the harm to anyone. I didn’t steal from anyone.” It was an act that was “way more important than copying a marathon number,” Porter tells me.
Porter posted a response to Murphy’s article explaining his banditing, writing that “it was a very emotional experience where a lot of tears were shed and it was also three days before the 2016 marathon.” After the race, the cheats visited the teen to pass along a medal from the race. “Christian was smiling, happy, and was very thrilled with the medal we gave him,” Porter wrote. “This was one of the greatest feelings we have ever had.”
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Commenters criticized his decision further. Some asked why he didn’t opt to run a different race for charity; others questioned the practice of running for charities altogether. One commenter posted: “To me, his explanation is akin to saying it’s okay to steal another person’s car because had they not, they would be late for work and lose money. What? What they did was wrong.” Another said that the story “had very little (if anything) to do with Christian and a whole lot to do with being pompous azzes [sic]. Every single one of them knew better.”
“If you looked at those comments, you would think I stole someone’s children and burned them at the stake,” Porter says. Since Murphy outed him, Porter says the shame in the running community around banditing has reached a shrill extreme. “People get lost in the details,” he tells me. “They don’t keep in mind the big picture. It’s not black and white—there’s gray in what we did. We may have done the wrong things for the right reasons.”
Those who are the rightful owners of bib numbers tend to disagree. As for Bonneau’s banditing mystery, after she posted the photos of the other four #14285 bibs, three of the four were eventually identified—sort of. Two were students from a college’s men’s cross country team. One just had “Lauren” on her shirt. The fourth, a woman with a brown ponytail in a white tank top, is still a mystery to Bonneau.
Bonneau says she never had any direct communication with any of the bandits, but friends of one of the runners reached out to her. “[They told me] I should be ashamed for trying to ruin their friend’s life,” Bonneau says. “But I never responded.”
Nor is she supportive of their bib copying. She adds: “Especially in cases like Boston, where so many people work really hard to qualify, the idea of bib counterfeiting still strikes me as nefarious. If someone wants to run a race, they can find a legitimate way to do it. Period.”
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