When Italian runner Gianclaudio Marengo became separated from his group after the 2015 New York City Marathon, he rode the subway for two days before being found. Among the many odd details of his story was the fact that he’d run the marathon wearing a bib registered to someone else—an injured teammate who’d given Marengo the opportunity to take his place.
The problem is, using another person's entry is prohibited in most races, including New York City. And once Marengo made headlines, his secret was out: His results were invalidated, and he and his teammate could be banned from future marathons. Race officials have since touted this as an example of why bib swapping can be dangerous: Marengo’s name wasn’t registered as having run the race, adding to the confusion when he was reported missing.
Marengo’s certainly not the only person who’s ever raced with someone else’s bib. It’s just that most people never get caught; as long as they’re not setting course records or sparking a citywide manhunt, they don’t attract the attention that might warrant a close look at their results. But just because runners can get away with bib swapping, does that mean they should? We took a look at common reasons for this practice, its potential consequences, and whether it’s really so bad.
On rare occasions, bibs are swapped with the intention of deliberate cheating: A registered participant recruits a faster runner to race in his place and win him an age-group award or an entry into the Boston Marathon, for example. Usually, though, the practice is less malicious: A runner gets injured, decides to leave town, or simply doesn’t feel prepared for the race, so he gives his bib to someone else.
This is more common for sold-out races, when aspiring runners can’t enter under their own names. Sometimes bibs are handed over for free, but often, registered runners sell them to recoup registration costs—or even make a profit.
Safety is the biggest concern about bib swapping for race directors. If a runner gets hurt on the course and cannot respond to medical attention, his or her race bib should be linked to a name and emergency contact information.
“We’ve had a runner end up in the hospital while wearing somebody else’s number, so we contacted the wrong next of kin and it really created a panic,” said Patrice Matamoros, director of the Pittsburgh Marathon. (To combat this problem, Pittsburgh is one of a few races that now offer legal bib transfers.) Race entries can also include information about allergies or medical conditions. “If someone indicated that they have diabetes but the person wearing their bib doesn't have diabetes, that’s really a concern for us and for the doctors who are treating them,” she said.
Other people’s safety could be in jeopardy as well, in rare cases. Les Smith, director of the Portland Marathon, recalls one year when race officials received a phone call from the babysitter of a child whose mother was supposedly running the marathon. The child had fallen and needed emergency surgery, requiring a parent’s consent.
“Our crew on the course spotted the number,” he said. “But when this person was stopped, it turned out not to be the mother; this person had done a blind purchase of the bib on Craigslist or eBay.” (To this day, he has no idea why the mother lied about running the race or where she really was during that time.)
Skewed results are a problem when runners swap bibs. A man who runs wearing a bib registered to his wife or his father, for example, may accidentally win an age group he doesn’t belong in, bumping out another runner who actually earned it.
Your online racing reputation can suffer if you give your bib to a slower runner. With the introduction of race result aggregators like Athlinks.com, people who hand over their bibs must be comfortable with having someone else’s race results linked to their names indefinitely.
Don't forget insurance claims. If you can’t run because you’re sick or injured, bib swapping could cost you when making claims: Smith said he’s received subpoenas for marathon records of people filing for disability who are supposedly not well enough to work.
Your entry fee entitles you to a shirt, a medal, and access to aid stations and food during and after the race. And it’s true that if you don’t run, you probably won’t get any of those things. In this sense, the act of bib swapping feels similar to ticket scalping or sharing music files, said Shawn E. Klein, blogger and philosophy instructor at Arizona State University.
“Since no one is apparently harmed, there is a sense that it is not serious,” he said. “If no one bought tickets from scalpers or resellers, then the tickets just go to waste and we miss out on events. If we buy them, no one is hurt and we get to go to the event; it’s a win-win.”
But in most cases, race entries (and the perks that come with them) are meant to be non-transferrable—and those bibs contain personal information that concert tickets and music files don’t. That’s the bottom line, said Klein: When you check the box on your race entry that says you understand the rules, you are agreeing to this stipulation, the same way you would when buying an airline ticket.
Also, Smith points out that races rely on a certain percentage of no-shows to keep entry costs down. “No event orders a shirt or medal for everyone who has registered,” he said. “There is a real science to this process ... formulas, truisms as to who will not show.” The more people who run with bibs that would otherwise go unused, the more skewed this formula becomes, and back-of-the-packers could end up without the swag they paid to receive.
In the running community, using someone else’s bib usually isn’t looked down upon as much as banditing—running a race with no bib at all. Bandits, after all, use race resources that no one paid for. They make already full streets even more crowded, adding extra runners to the mix, rather than taking the place of runners who chose not to be there.
Many races take serious steps, like employing “bandit catchers” on the course, to prevent bibless runners from crossing the finish line. After this year’s Baltimore Marathon, race directors posted a photo of two bandits, attempting to shame them into taking responsibility for their wrongdoing. It worked: The runners came forward, made a donation to charity, and their photo was removed.
Still, using someone else’s entry doesn’t mean you belong on the course. You may get fewer dirty looks from fellow racers if you’re wearing an official bib—and you may feel less guilt while you chug Gatorade at the aid stations—but don’t tell yourself that what you’re doing is right.
From an ethical standpoint, bib swapping seems like a classic gray area, said Klein. “On one hand, it is the violation of a rule and of an agreed to contract with the race organizer,” he said. “On the other hand, it seems, to many, harmless: It doesn’t seem to impart a competitive advantage or disadvantage to anyone else running the race.”
But the “no one gets hurt” argument assumes that the illegal runner won’t skew the race standings or need medical attention on the course—neither of which the swapper or swappee can be sure of. Plus, said Klein, the rules shouldn’t be ignored. “One has to be careful with such slippery slope arguments,” he said, “but I think there is something to the idea that the willingness to violate unimportant rules now can influence the willingness to violate important rules later on.”
Overall, Klein concludes that “runners should probably not engage in bib swapping in races where such swapping is forbidden.” To Smith—who’s also an attorney—the answer is even simpler: “Using a number not assigned to you is dead wrong.” In fact, he said, it’s a form of fraud and false impersonation, and could potentially be punishable under state law. “Today it is like using someone else’s ID or health record.”
“Some races allow bib transfers to another person, or from one distance to another, but those types of transfers use up race resources,” Smith said. Small race staffs with small budgets may not be able to manage official transfers without bringing on additional employees. Matamoros said that the $15 fee the Pittsburgh Marathon charges for transfers goes toward paying the person they hired to handle the transfers.
Check your race’s policy on refunds and bib transfers. Many will let you defer a guaranteed entry to the following year, although for some, like New York City, you’ll have to pay a second time.
Others may be more forgiving: The North Face Endurance Challenge series allows transfers to future races in other locations, or to different race distances, for a fee. Some obstacle-course or multi-sport series, like Ironman and Spartan Race events, have similar transfer policies.
Some races, like the Pittsburgh Marathon and the Marine Corps Marathon, now offer official bib transfers. This ensures that wannabe runners can still get into sold-out races, and those who can’t run have a legal way out. Swapped runners get a new bib with their own name and number, and are put in the appropriate corral for their pace.
For future events, consider purchasing race insurance if it’s available. This may qualify you for a refund in the event of personal injury or illness, transportation problems, job loss, jury duty, and a few other circumstances. Unfortunately, forgetting to train is not one of them.
Aside from these loopholes, there may not be much you can (legally) do once you’ve committed to a race entry. But look at the bright side: You can always go to packet pickup and take home a T-shirt. Of course, whether you wear it is another ethical quandary in itself.
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