From The New York Times
Trying to Sneak Across the Finish Line? Not So Fast
By JOHN BRANCH
(This article references the 2008 New York City Marathon)
Once marathoners rounded the corner at Columbus Circle and turned into Central Park, marshalls were waiting to steer unofficial runners off the course.
“Where’s your bib?” a woman with a bullhorn shouted. “We need to see your number!”
Beyond her, staggered along the final few hundred yards of the 26.2-mile New York City Marathon course, were about 15 other like-minded volunteers. They intently scanned the surge of runners coming toward them, their eyes darting across the midsections of the participants, looking for the race bibs that identified them as registered participants.
Their job was to make sure that people who did not start the race also did not finish it.
People without the bibs are called bandits. And the benign-looking people just inside the fence who confronted the bandits, chased them and “exited” them off the course, in their particular parlance, are called bandit catchers.
It is a plum volunteer assignment, one that several of the catchers have been doing for more than a decade. They wear running shoes and credentials around their necks that read “bandit catcher.” They do not care about excuses, because they have heard them all, and have little patience for those who dawdle.
“I feel like I’m doing something important,” said Les Neidich, a bandit catcher for about 10 years. “There’s nothing more enjoyable than catching people who don’t belong in the race, even if I have to chase them to the finish line. Which I sometimes do.”
Bandit catchers remove several hundred unregistered racers each year. Most leave without argument. Some offer meager excuses or an invective or two. A few keep running, unaware, perhaps, that the catchers have both fresh legs and more friends downcourse. On rare occasions, bandits are physically removed from the course, and nearby police officers offer support.
By the catchers’ estimate, 95 percent of the people they “exit” are not trying to do anything illicit. They are simply running alongside friends or family members to offer support, or they just jumped onto the course at some point and reflexively joined the humanity snaking through the boroughs.
The other 5 percent?
“They want the glory of finishing,” said Jodi Richard, the longtime captain of the bandit catchers.
Once marathoners cross the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge at the start of the race, there are few barriers preventing others from joining the race. But the final few hundred yards in Central Park are lined close with fans. Finishers are given a medal, a blanket and food and drink. They are celebrated by public-address announcers and cheered by people in bleachers.
Race organizers do not want to run out of supplies, but the main issue is more than logistical.
“It’s about the spirit of the marathon,” Tom Kelley, the director of race scoring, said last week. “We want to make it special to cross the finish line.”
The bandit catchers gathered at about 11 a.m., not long before the women’s elite runners began arriving. There is little concern that someone will jump onto the course or take a shortcut to try to win the race, not in this day of focused television coverage and a tracking chip on each participant’s shoe.
Prime time comes after the three-and-a-half-hour mark or so. For a couple of hours, bandit catchers shout at runners and weave through the busy stream, plucking bandits out every few seconds.
A man without a shirt or a bib moved quickly with one pack. “Who’s this guy?” Richard shouted, mostly to the other volunteers. She quickly approached him. He pointed a thumb backward. The bib was pinned to the back of his shorts. Hidden bibs are the bane of the bandit catchers.
Moments later, a fast-moving man in a T-shirt was escorted away, without trouble, through one of the slim openings in the fence and back into the anonymity of the crowd. The man, Rehan Tahir, was visiting from California and did not realize the marathon was this weekend. But he jumped in near the start, and kept going until he was stopped.
“I wasn’t in it for the glory,” he said. “I just wanted to run the course.”
Every runner has a story, legit or otherwise. A German man had four safety pins attached to his shirt, but no bib. He could not explain how he lost it. One man had a blue bib — from a completely different race. A woman ran past two catchers after showing a folded bib in her pocket, but a third catcher looked closer and found the bib was from last year’s marathon.
A boy, about 10, wanted to escort his father to the finish. But the bandit catchers did not allow it, and the boy shuffled to the side, where his father returned to get him after finishing. Another man held an infant, hoping to share the big moment. The catchers let him by.
“I wasn’t taking the baby,” Richard said.
A pair of friends had joined the race at the Queensboro Bridge. Fernando Bedoya of Bolivia and his friend, Giorgio Groppi of Italy, wanted to cross the finish line but knew it was not the right thing to do.
“They run for 26 miles,” Groppi said of the waves of runners behind them, headed to the finish. “We run for 10. We are just pretenders.”
Nearly five hours into the race, the bandit catchers were still staring intently upstream. Thousands of racers were headed their way. Richard, the lead bandit catcher, chased down one person, then walked back to her place along the course, a bit out of breath.
A cry went out.
“The guy in the green Ireland hat!” someone shouted.
Richard turned and ran toward the finish line.