“Neither a borrower, nor a lender be.” -William “Billy Bob” Shakespeare

Let me get up here before I speak.

Let me get up here before I speak.

Well, the above advice from Polonius to his son Laertes in “Hamlet” (don’t be too impressed, I looked it up) not only applies to money, but seemingly also to racing bibs.

Earlier this month the man who supposedly won the Marine Corps 17.75K learned a “Hamlet-like” lesson. Gerardo Avila broke the tape, but it turns out he was wearing the bib that belonged to another person, Steve Henry.

Now this wasn’t some kind of dime-story thriller “switcheroo” plot or a sci-fi “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” tale turned real.

Nothing so elaborate. It just turned out that one guy wore another guy’s bib, ran the race and got caught (in a glorious fashion, mind you).

As a result, Gerardo (or was it Steve) was disqualified and both men were barred from participating in any MCM (Marine Corp Marathon) events for the rest of 2014.   You can read about it here.

What this does do is bring to light an ongoing (and growing) controversy in the racing world.

Illegal bib transfers.

Most races prohibit runners from transferring their bibs, meaning once you sign-up for a race, under no circumstances can you re-assign (sub-lease) the bib to a family member, friend or sell it to someone else. If you can’t run the race you basically have two “legal” options:

  1. Defer until the next year, which means forfeit your entire fee (no shirt/medal/swag too) and you will be given a guaranteed spot in the next year’s race. Note you still have to pay the race fee for that year too.
  2. Skip the race and eat the cost.

That’s it.

Proposed penalty for "illegally"  transferring your bib.

Proposed penalty for “illegally”
transferring your bib.

I say most, because some races, like the Hollywood Half Marathon and the Marine Corps Marathon, do allow you transfer your bib up until a certain point, provided you go through the proper channels.

So, what is the big deal with transferring bibs to begin with? And if some races allow it, why can’t all?

It’s actually a bit of a complicated issue.

The best analogy to go with is booking airline tickets. We book flights months and months in advance. Why?

  • It’s cheaper; flights get more expensive as the travel date approaches. (Just like races)
  • If we don’t book early, we run the risk of the flight being sold out. (Just like races)

With me so far?

Airlines overbook flights because from experience they know people will cancel, change flights or simply not show up. (Just like many races)

That’s right, experience has shown that a certain percentage of registered runners won’t be able to compete in a race for numerous reasons… injuries or illness, schedule conflicts, loss of interest, family emergency or a multitude of others.

And if a runner ends up deferring, so much the better. Because that’s a fee already paid, yet the space is still available to be sold again (kind of like unused gym memberships).

As a result, race organizers will often overbook a race knowing that people will drop out for one reason or another. In the end, they’ll still wind up at or close to capacity… and make some nice extra cash to boot. Now this may sound a little greedy, but in defense of the big race companies, race management is a business like any other. And in business the end goal is to make money.

Money talks... and apparently runs.

Money talks… and apparently runs.

It is therefore in their best “financial” interest NOT to allow people to transfer bibs.

But by giving racers limited/no options in the face of forfeiting their increasingly-expensive race fees ($195 for a Disney half marathon), you encourage them to seek “unsanctioned” (aka illegal) solutions. They give the bibs to family members, friends or sell them to others.

Some races have tried to minimize this “back alley borrowing” by forcing racers to pick up their own bibs at expos (supposedly in the name of security). Let’s be honest, how does this practice really make things that much more secure? And people still will give/sell bibs to other people.

Race organizers also try “guilt” racers by talking about the negatives of “illegal” bib transfers. The following is a quote from MCM director Rick Nealis as mentioned in the above article featured on Runner’s

“Illegal transfers of bibs have significant ramifications including potentially altering age award results, but more significantly, should a bandit runner require medical attention during the event, medical personnel would not have necessary information about the individual.” 

Both of the above points are valid. An illegal transfer could skew the final results (very very slightly) and yes, a person wearing someone else’s bib could have wrong information in the event of an emergency (although odds are on the emergency contact info on the back of the bib, a person is going to put their proper information and not that of the person they’re replacing.

And both of these issues could be easily dealt with if races took charge of the bib transfers, making sure that the replacement runners give the proper information and sign any necessary paperwork.

In fact, some races do just that.

So, why do some races allow bib transfers and not others? Two reasons (but both have to do with money).

  1. Allowing bib transfers will eliminate (or lessen) a race’s opportunity to maximize profits by curtailing overbooking.
  2. Handling bib transfers will require additional time and manpower… again, cutting into potential profits.
Black market bibs.

Black market bibs.

Is there a solution that will make both sides happy?

One solution offered by some races is “cancelation insurance.” By paying an additional non-refundable fee upfront (to a third party company) you can get a refund on your race fee if you can’t attend for “select” reasons. Unfortunately, I read one of those policies and it was definitely a case of “Big print giveth, small print taketh away.” It only covers certain incidents and who wants to deal with an additional insurance company. Between life insurance, renter’s insurance, health insurance, car insurance and other various insurances, I’ve had enough of being told why my claim is being ignored.

Isn’t there something better?

Again, let’s look to the airline industry (a notoriously money hungry bunch). Airlines do allow you to change your tickets… they just tack on one of their lovely fees (except Southwest, which is one more reason why I like to fly them). And let’s be honest, some of those fees are rather hefty, but at least you’re not forfeiting the entire cost of your ticket.

How about this: Charge runners a bib transfer fee.

That’d work, wouldn’t it?

Many races already charge a “convenience” (or whatever the hell it is fee) for signing up. Others give you the option of having your bib mailed or pick-up on the same day as the race (for an extra fee). So, how hard would it be for them to charge a bib transfer fee. They could even make it on a rising scale (like they do with entrance fees). The closer you get to race day the more it costs to transfer your bib.

Isn't it sad when the airline model is actually better?

Isn’t it sad when the airline model is actually better?

Sure it’s not a perfect solution (I really really really hate “fees”) but it sure is a better solution than what currently exists.

Race organizers still make money, racers don’t forfeit their entire race fee and they can allow someone else to “legally” run the race in their place. And if the fee is significant (say $25 or higher), you won’t see a ton of people doing it willy-nilly… only those who really need to.

Everyone kind of wins, right?

Of course, I should be careful about using the airline analogy when it comes to races.

Next thing you know, Disney will charge you a “baggage handling fee” at gear check.

Oops… don’t blame me.

Run on!

(Do you agree or disagree with the idea of a “bib transfer fee” to legitimize transfers?)

P.S.- Come back tomorrow as “The Runner’s Court” offers up solutions for the Boston Marathon “Bibgate 2014” scandal.

Posted on April 28, 2014, in Etiquette, General and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. Makes sense to me, Scott. I’ve never understood why someone would buy another person’s bib anyway because aren’t you then running for THEM? I mean, you’d get the medal I guess, but you wouldn’t get an official time. And I’d never thought about the age group awards. How awkward would it be if a 24 year old 1:25 half marathoner bought the bib of a 53 year old mid-packer and then won the 50-54 age group? “Wow, sir, you look GREAT for your age!”

    • I’ve got plenty of friends who just give their bibs away if they can’t run a race (at least someone gets to run) so I can see someone doing it for a “free” race. but there really is no logistical reason why transfers aren’t done more, other than races decide not to.

  2. I don’t like the idea of allowing bib transfer (with or without a fee) because I know some people would take advantage of this to make some extra cash…. think of the guys holding out tickets for sale at a big football game.. except at races, or these days through the internet.
    I do think races should allow us to cancel our registration, paying a (small) fee if necessary, at least up to a couple of weeks before the race.

  3. I like the idea because I think it’s a good way of alleviating people from stealing bibs. I was pretty PO’d at the Boston Marathon runners who used bibs they got from someone posting a picture of theirs and I didn’t even run Boston. I just think, for something that special, that you have to qualify for and pay a decent amount of money for, you need to go about it the right way.

    • True. I was pretty pissed at the Boston pretenders as well. Check back tomorrow and give your idea for a fitting “punishment” for them. And thanks for reading.

    • I don’t really care about those who faked bibs at Boston. I know of a few instances of people selling their bibs or registering with fraudulent qualifying times. These people took spots from deserving people. The infamous bandits just took Gatorade and medals.

  4. I don’t think legal bib transfers would alleviate most of the reasons people bandit (such as costs and not qualifying), and you’d have increased risks (such as scalping) and possible increased registration fees (to recoup the “oversold” registrations that I’m sure the races currently factor into their costs, just like the airlines you mentioned).
    To take the airline analogy further, I’d support deferment (with a fee, just like changing a plane ticket) with a “waitlist” for people who missed out on registration (with a reasonable deferral deadline so that travel arrangements, etc. could be made by the waitlisters), just like flying standby.

    • The transferring isn’t to curtail “bandits”… that’s another issue entirely (and I am very opposed to bandits). This is for people who have legitimate reasons to not be able to attend a race to allow someone else to “sub-lease” their spot. But scalping and higher reg fees are definitely a potential side effect. And I like your deferment “fee” idea. Thanks for commenting.

  5. I’m sure that there is some tech solution, perhaps a photo is taken with bib pick-up, then have scanners at several points during the race that check for repeat numbers. When it comes up, match it to the face, if it its not the person who picked up the bib, humiliate the bandits by having security pull them from the course.

    • Scanners, camera and facial recognition software. You must be a fan of “24.” Yup, all that tech does exist, but I can imagine the crazy cost necessary to implement at a race. Good thinking though. Thanks for the comment and thanks for reading.

  6. I ran the 17.75k and was upset to hear of the bib swapping. I busted my tail to get entry to that! Seems like if you take a bib you didn’t pay for or earn, you’re saying that what you want matters more than the rules. Not a good way to live. Like you said, it’s a business and we have to play by their rules.

    • It is a bit of a touchy subject. Running is starting to become big business and when money is involved people can do some not so nice things. Thanks for commenting and reading.

  1. Pingback: Thought for Tuesday – On Bandits, Blog-Scrapers and Proportional Responses | Running Around the Bend

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