Controversies are rare in the running world. Oh, there are disagreements over things like what is the best approach to marathon training or whether a taper is best at two or three weeks or how many carbs one really needs for a carbo load, but by and large we are not a very controversial bunch. However, occasionally a topic comes up that does put runners on different sides of an issue. One of these is the idea of bib switching.
First let me separate bib switching from the idea of banditing a race. To bandit a race is to run without a bib, to jump into a race and run the course without being officially registered. Bib switching is a cousin of this, but in bib switching a runner has a bib that they have begged, borrowed, or bought from a legitimately registered runner.
I, personally, have never banditted a race, but I know many people who have. The practice never bothered me that much. The bandit was on what was normally a public road, and most bandits I knew were polite enough not to take refreshments meant for registered runners. They also did not get a race shirt, an official time, a medal, or any of the other accoutrements, so I never felt like they were really hurting anything (although I am sure many race directors would disagree). The liability issue never bothered me much. I just did not think it was really that big of an issue.
Recently, though, another practice has popped up, bib-switching, where a runner will obtain a bib from someone who is registered and run the race posing as a legitimate participant. Initially the idea of this didn't bother me much, but recently my perspective on this has changed because an incident occurred that affected me directly, which caused me to really look at the practice.
I ran a large race recently, one where registration closes almost the same day it opens and one where participants must commit six months in advance of the race. In the weeks before the race, my Facebook and Dailymile running groups were awash with literally dozens of people looking to acquire a bib for the race or to trade a bib from one distance for that of another (i.e marathon to half or vice versa).
This did not bother me particularly. I understood the motivation of most of the runners. Many were injured or ill and not able to run the race or needed to switch distances. Others had not been able to get registered in time but wanted to run the race with a friend or family member. Some had work or family commitments that kept them from the race, but they did not want to see the opportunity go to waste. In fact, I was so unconcerned that I even offered to repost a request from one group to another to help a runner out.
However, my feeling about this changed after the race. I found out that someone I knew who was running on a switched bib had won an age group award. Not only was it not in this person's age group, but it was for the opposite sex!
I may be dense, but I was stunned by this. It had not occurred to me that someone would actually be taking an age group award away from someone who had probably worked hard to earn one. I felt horrible for the person who had just missed an award because a bib-switcher had taken it. I know how much work goes into getting an award in a large race. It is a huge accomplishment and a huge disappointment to finish one place out of the medals.
Then I started thinking about this even further. This was just one example. I am assuming that most of the people who bought bibs actually finished the race (unlike bandits, who would normally turn off before the finishing chute). How many other finishers in the race had been bumped down a place or two in their age group by someone who was not from that age group and perhaps not even the same sex?
This puts the practice in a whole different light. It moves it out of the "no one is really being hurt by this" category. It bothers me. Someone asked if I planned to turn the person in. The answer is "no." I have no desire to get this person or the person who gave the second runner the bib into trouble, especially not when I had originally had no problem with the idea (as did the people on my running groups -- no one spoke out against the practice in the comments).
However, I do think this is an issue that deserves some serious thought. On one level, runners need to be more responsible about this issue. If a runner really wants to run the race and needs a bib to get to the start or to not be pulled from the course, then the responsible thing to do is not cross the finish line. I mean, really, what is the point? The runner can't claim the time. Okay, so the runner would not get the finisher's medal, but perhaps that is a sacrifice that needs to be made in recognition that one is breaking race rules to participate. I believe that runners have an obligation to not do something that directly impacts the other "legitimate" runners in a negative way.
After a lot of thought, though, I think that the real responsibility for addressing this problem lies with the race management. This whole practice happens because some race directors make no arrangements to fairly handle requests related to race changes. Every single one of the people that I talked to who were looking for bibs would have very happily gone through proper channels if that was an option. I think most runners would even be willing to pay the small processing fee that might go along with such a transaction. Most runners do not want to run under a different name and would MUCH rather have a legitimate time for the race that they could claim.
When a race demands that runners commit so far in advance, and when a race closes so quickly that people new to the running scene might not even realize entries were available, then doesn't it seem reasonable to have some process by which people who need to be rid of bibs and people who would like to purchase their spots can get together.
Many races do this. For example, the Pittsburgh Marathon allows runners to switch from one event to another by paying a fee and allows for bib changes all the way up to race weekend. The fee ranges from $25 to $35 depending on the nature of the switch. The Boilermaker 15k, an extremely popular road race in New York that sold out in 65 days last year for the 14,000 runner cap, this year announced a newly minted transfer policy for this year's race. The rules related to the transfer were clearly outlined for runners and involved a $10 fee and a transfer date. Other marathons such as Columbia, SC marathon , the St Louis marathon, and the Steamboat marathon do allow and make arrangements for transferring.
This issue is a controversial one for race directors. According to Runner's World's race director blog, there are several considerations. It does involve more administration: costs must be decided, processes established, and deadlines set. Another issue is that race directors often overbook their races, counting on the no-shows, in a way similar to the airlines. Finally, the question must be settled of who determines who gets the transferred bibs, the race director or the participant.
These are no doubt considerations that race directors would have to address, but none of these seem to be prohibitive. Perhaps this should just be considered one of the elements that needs to be planned for to run a quality race. The "it would be a headache for race directors" argument isn't particularly convincing for me. If they are up to the task of putting on a race with thousands and thousands of participants, they ought to be up to the task of making arrangements for the few hundred who may like to make the event or bib switches. Perhaps they could talk to the directors who do allow transfers to find out what process is used. It obviously is possible.
While I have no doubt that this might require more work on the part of race directors, I think it is their responsibility to do more to accommodate the needs of the runners. As one of my running friends pointed out, at heart this is really a "customer service" issue. These events are supposed to be for the runners. In the push to make these events bigger and bigger, the needs of the runners are often forgotten in favor of what is easier or more beneficial for the race organizers. The fact that some races are able to allow for this process suggests that it can work IF the race directors are willing to do it.
What do you think about this issue?