Thanks to Peter Asciutto -- the owner of Vac & Dash in Albemarle -- for contributing this op-ed column:
In communities across the country, there are many free events that running stores and running clubs organize for you participate in.
In Albemarle, Vac & Dash and the Uwharrie Running Club organize a laundry list of no-charge events, which are designed to help promote the sport of running and to get a good workout in with a group of like-minded folks.
Races are another matter. As race organizers and race directors, we are responsible for a variety of costs, including paying for T-shirts, awards, food, water, parade permits, insurance, race bibs, safety pins, signage, paint to mark courses, printing of brochures, mailing of brochures, timing fee, advertising and public safety officials.
We expect that everyone who runs our races will pay for them. But it's often not the case.
Therefore, Vac & Dash, the Salisbury Rowan Runners, Uwharrie Running Club and Tour de Kale committee recently adopted a "No Weasel (Bandit) Running, No Bib Swapping Policy." The policy states:
"In an effort to have a race accurately timed and give everyone a fair shot at winning awards, we ask that you do not run in a race organized or timed by Vac & Dash, Salisbury Rowan Runners, the Uwharrie Running Club & Tour de Kale committee unless you are properly registered. This means no bib swapping/transferring or running as a weasel/bandit. (Weasel/bandit running means not registering or paying for the race and purposely running in all or part of the race.) If a runner is being paced by a non-registered runner, the runner is subject to disqualification from the race. Thank you in advance for honoring this request."The policy addresses two issues: Bib swapping/transferring, and weasel/bandit running. Let me discuss the bib swapping/transfer issue first.
Many times people pre-register for a race, then something comes up, causing them to become a no-show. They then give their race bib to another, so their money doesn't go to waste. People that do this, do so without meaning to cause harm. They figure the race slot was paid for, so what's the big deal? I do want to make the point again, folks that give their race bib to another do so innocently, not realizing the problems it causes.
The immediate problem bib swapping/transferring causes it that it corrupts the database. If a medical emergency would occur, race organizers would not be able to properly identify a runner wearing the wrong race bib or have the proper contact information. Secondly, it can mess up the awards. I've announced the name of many age group award winners who weren't even at the race. Not only is it embarrassing for the person who wasn't at the race, it means that the runner who should have gotten the award gets short changed.
The other issue -- weasel running -- is a completely different issue.
First off, I'm calling it weasel running from here on out and not bandit running because I think the word "bandit" has too cool a sound to it, almost like it's referring to some sort of rebel pulling one over on "the establishment." The establishment, in this case, is volunteers putting on races to raise money for charities. So calling the offending runner a "weasel" seems like a more appropriate term.
Weasel running has been around since I started running in the '70s. I always thought is was pretty sleazy for a person to jump into a race without paying for it, but other than that, didn't think much of it.
Over the last few years, as I've helped with race management, timing races, etc., I've witnessed the negative effects weasels have on races. Recently, I've had conversations and communications with weasels, and have read articles, blogs, forums and posts written by weasels and those who support them. Their justifications for jumping into races have not influenced me to change my opinion on the matter. Below are my answers to some of the weasels' comments and questions.
"It's a public road, you can't prevent us from using it."
Running is free. You can do it pretty much anywhere, including public roads. However, that does not give you the right to purposely show up at a scheduled race and run for free when others have paid to participate. If you want to play catch with your buddy, you can do so for free at most public ball fields. However, would you go in the outfield and play catch during a softball tournament? Same with public tennis courts. You can play for free, but would you go out and practice your serve when the high school team has the courts reserved for a match? In Albemarle, we are required to get a parade permit to use the roads for a race. In China Grove and Denton, they close the streets for the race.
"I'm not hurting anyone or taking away from their experience by running as a bandit [weasel]."
So you're saying it's OK to sneak into a movie, remain quiet, leave before the ending and justify your actions by saying that you are not taking anything away from the paying customers movie experience? You may not be hurting the paying customers, but you are stealing from the theater owners. When you weasel into a race, you are stealing from the race directors, volunteers and charities that put on the races. You are getting some sort of value by participating in an event that requires an entry fee.
"Races cost too much, so I pay for some and not for others."
My response to this one may sound cold, but in real life, if money is an issue, then pick the races you really want to run and enter them properly. If you can't afford it, don't participate. Most 5Ks are $15-$20. Marathons are $50-$100. It's no different than deciding if you want to eat in or go out for dinner. Finances are finances.
"I'm not crossing the finish line, so it doesn't impact the results and awards." "It's a chip-timed race, so I can now cross the finish line, since I don't have a chip, I won't impact the results" "I don't drink the water, take an award or T-shirt."
Doesn't matter. Jumping in the race as a weasel changes the dynamics of the race for those that paid to participate. There are also plenty of examples of how weasels have impacted how others have raced.
At the Bunny Run 5K a few years back, a weasel ran off course. The runner following him sped up, ran off course, and chased the weasel down to let him know he was off course. At the Run the Valley 1/2 Marathon last year, a weasel was one of the front runners, then pulled off course just before the end. The runners that finished in second and fourth place said they would have raced differently if they had known what position they were in coming back to Badin. The guy that finished in second had thought he was in third and the guy finishing fourth thought he was in fifth. In both cases, the Weasel changed the dynamics of the race.
It's not just the front of the pack where weasels get in the way. If you did not register for a race, you become an obstacle that a paid runner has to dodge and run around at some point in the race. I know many runners who started with 40-minute 5Ks and have worked hard to get down to below 30 minutes. They don't need weasels in their way either.
"What's wrong with pacing a friend?"
If you pay to participate, then you are part of the race and can pace anyone you want. Jumping in a race to pace a friend for part or all of a race gives your friend an unfair advantage over others. If it were a basketball game, would you be allowed as a spectator to come out of the stands and shoot free throws for your buddy? By eliminating the pacer who did not pay to participate, we are keeping the playing field level for all participants.
According to reports, anywhere from 2,000 to 4,000 weasels jump into the Boston Marathon and Chicago Marathon per year. On many blogs and forums, these weasels say, "We don't take any water, and since it's chip-timed and we are not wearing a chip, it doesn't effect the results." When I read those comments, I laugh. They want me to believe they're being ethical about all of this. Makes you wonder how the few thousand weasels contributed the disaster at the Chicago Marathon in 2007, when officials had to stop the race due to running out of water at aid stations. Medical personnel also were tapped out as they treated hundreds of runners for dehydration.
As race organizers, we want to promote the good health, competition and fellowship that the sport of running brings. Hopefully, establishing and publishing this new policy will help the races roll along smoothly.
Peter Asciutto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.