In a story about the 2000 Boston Marathon, Globe reporter Paul Harber chronicled the scene at the starting line in Hopkinton as thousands began their 26.2-mile journey toward Boylston Street.
Though written more than two decades ago, Harber’s account paints a familiar picture: Enthusiastic crowds, anxious runners, and the usual pageantry preceding the starting gun. But included in his detailed depiction was a term that’s become increasingly unfamiliar to the marathon’s general audience.
“Thousands of unofficial runners trail the official pack across the starting line,” wrote Harber. “Now it is more of a party than an athletic competition.”
The “unofficial runners” were not registered with the Boston Athletic Association. Historically, they’ve gone by a more informal term: Bandits.
There are different versions of a bandit. The most common through the decades was a runner who simply had no race bib. While most other major marathons took a harder stance against bandits, Boston notably tolerated them for years.
In fact, Harber’s reference to “unofficial runners” was merely a continuation of an accepted practice spanning decades in which Globe marathon recaps acknowledged the existence of bandits. As fellow Globe sportswriter Will McDonough noted the same year, “official runners” totaled $4 million raised for charity, while “unofficial runners” raised $2 million of their own.
The legacy of bandits has often been debated, but their impact was rarely tangible as a monetary figure (though many did raise money). The “party” atmosphere Harber described was, to some extent, more accurate.
“We had a lot of fun,” recalled Jim McGowan, who ran in 2000 as a bandit with friends. “We painted ourselves green and ran and everyone cheered for you along the way.”
A college sophomore at the time, McGowan said his group gave out candy while “basically going for a run and high-fiving a couple thousand people over the course of four or five hours.”
Another college bandit from the 2000 marathon, Nick Canedy, said he was persuaded to do it by friends despite having never run more than 8 miles.
“We stayed up late the night before making witty little tank tops and didn’t get enough sleep,” he recalled.
Despite his obvious status as a bandit, Canedy said, he was cheered on by the crowds and given water by organizers.
For years, banditing in Boston was, for better or worse, a tradition. For many, it was a chance to bring an offbeat note to a formal event.
“I remember seeing a guy in a Godzilla costume,” said McGowan. “And I think he might have been dribbling a basketball.”
Bandits have been nominally discouraged from participating, though before 1996, there was never much of an attempt to keep them out.
“It’s been an evolution, like everything else,” said BAA chief operating officer Jack Fleming in a 2021 interview. “If I go back in history, maybe 1996 would’ve been the first year that we actually made an appeal, proactively.”
In that 100-year celebration of the Boston Marathon, the field size jumped from 9,416 to an unprecedented 38,708.
But for years, bandits wove their way into the fabric of the marathon’s history. Current race director Dave McGillivray was once a bandit, as was Fleming himself when he was a student at Boston College.
“I wish now that it had never happened,” Fleming told the Globe in 1996, “but it did.”
Fleming added that the experience was beneficial for him because “it gave me a good perspective on why people shouldn’t run unofficially: I have no medal, my name is not listed on any results list, and I can’t prove that I did it.”
Speaking about bandits years later, his view hadn’t changed.
“Whether it be then or now, what does an unofficial runner have to show for it at the end of the day?” he asked.
Of course, there are a few important exceptions to Fleming’s point.
Boston’s toleration of bandits for decades provided opportunity for those who were officially told they could not run.
In 1966, Roberta Gibb wrote to the BAA asking if she could officially register.
“I got a letter back that said women are not physiologically able to run marathon distances,” Gibb said. “Furthermore, it’s a men’s division race and women aren’t eligible.”
Though she never saw herself as a bandit — she would have registered if allowed — Gibb recognized it as “a chance for me to make a social statement.”
“I wanted to change the rules,” she said. “I wanted things to open up for women because I figured if I could prove this misconception about women wrong, it would throw into doubt all the other misconceptions about women that have been used for literally centuries.”
Gibb, famously wearing her brother’s Bermuda shorts and a pair of boys’ running shoes, found “to my great delight, the men in the race were friendly and supportive.”
Seeing the reaction from women in the crowd, Gibb knew it was “a pivotal moment.” By 1972, the BAA began to officially allow women.
In 1981, a similar story emerged when Rick and Dick Hoyt completed the first of their 32 Boston Marathons. Gaining widespread recognition as the beloved “Team Hoyt” — with father pushing son in a wheelchair — they were denied registration for two years before their popularity (and impressive speed) led the BAA to allow the duo to officially participate.
Eventually, the practice of banditing became increasingly untenable. The surge in official participation in 1996 marked the first time the number of runners exceeded 10,000, and it hasn’t dipped below that since. Since 2003, the total has never fallen below 20,000.
“When the race was a thousand people in 1970, it was really spread out,” Fleming said.
With more official participants, less and less space existed for bandits to safely coexist on the course.
And following the 2013 bombing at the finish line, security around the marathon increased exponentially. Starting in 2014, the BAA formally asked unofficial runners to stay away.
Most former bandits seem to have heeded the message.
Both Canedy and McGowan said they would never try it now, and Fleming noted, “The numbers have been low since 2014.”
But bandits forever will hold a legacy as varied as their costumes. The “unofficial runners” from a different era helped shape the modern marathon.