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The Bandit and the Big Race

After two years of watching, tackling the Marathon

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Zoe Shei (COM’10) is running the Boston Marathon, “the great event to end my senior year at BU,” she says. Photo by Vernon Doucette

Topping out at about five feet, petite Zoe Shei looks like a very unlikely bandit. But that’s exactly what she’ll be on Marathon day.

Shei (COM’10) is running the 114th Boston Marathon on Monday, April 19, without having qualified or raised money for a charitable cause. She will be one of an estimated 2,000 bandits who make the 26.2-mile trek from Hopkinton to Copley Plaza without a bib number.

“I’d like to see it as the great event to end my senior year at BU,” says Shei, a public relations major and one of several BU Running Club members tackling the race.

The Boston Athletic Association (BAA), which organizes the marathon, publicly regards bandit running as something less than a great event. The BAA advises against unofficial running, arguing that bandits drain the limited resources provided for legitimate runners. But the number of bandit runners has been growing for decades, and race officials turn a blind eye to unofficial competitors, and spectators cheer everyone on, official number or not.

Shei isn’t worried about officials pulling her aside or refusing her drinks, medical care, or protection.

“In my two years of experience volunteering for the Boston Marathon, I have never seen anyone denied water or drinks,” she says. “Last year, I volunteered at the last mile mark, where people were helping all runners stretch.”

Boston is Shei’s first full marathon, but it’s hardly the first time she’s raced. The Long Island native ran track and cross country in middle and high school, and she took naturally to the grueling 3,000-meter event.

“I was just not into sprinting at all,” she remembers.

Shei also ran, officially, the New York Road Runners Half-Marathon Grand Prix Bronx on a muggy, 80-degree summer day, placing ninth overall among youth. And she ran bandit (escaping an $80 registration fee) with two BU friends the next summer in Nike’s New York City Half Marathon, where they weaved through Times Square and Central Park and looped down to Battery Park.

One of her most recent races was the Pretzel City Sports Half-Wit Half Marathon, set along a hilly, wood chip–covered trail in Reading, Pa. Race organizers occasionally post such inspirational signs as, “You’re going to face death.” Surviving that, she made a mental note to drop trail races.

Shei, who has wanted to run the marathon since she arrived at BU four years ago, has managed to wedge her training runs in between classes, résumé-writing, job-hunting, and other activities on the must-do-before-graduation list. One of the side benefits of her training, she says, is that her runs have brought her to many parts of Boston she might never have seen, from the Esplanade and the hills of Boston College to Dorchester and Jamaica Plain’s Arnold Arboretum.

Once, plodding along with a friend, she ran to Watertown by accident.

“That’s what’s great about running in Boston,” Shei says. “It’s so connected.”

She has few complaints about the training process (occasional hamstring tightness and knee pain aside), and she says she finds a connection between running and her spiritual life. Both give her a deep sense of peace, joy, and encouragement, while teaching her humility and perseverance through hard times.

All these lessons are necessary if she intends to conquer Boston, one of the toughest courses in the marathon world. She hopes to maintain a nine-minute-mile and finish under four hours.

She hasn’t told many people she plans to run on Monday, Shei says. For her, the marathon isn’t so much about being seen as about being part of the scene.

“There’s so much unity,” she says. “There is just so much pride in the city.”

Leslie Friday can be reached at lfriday@bu.edu; follow her on Twitter @lesliefriday.

5 Comments

5 Comments on The Bandit and the Big Race

  • Marcia on 04.16.2010 at 7:28 am

    Good luck

    As runner I too was compelled to run Boston when I came to BU. And, I am proud to say that I too have run and finished the race as a “bandit”. I have run other road races and marathons but none can compare to Boston where the energy emanating from the crowd is so incredible that it actually seems to carry you along the most grueling parts of the race course. The cheers of the Wellesley College woman immediately come to mind and are practically as famous as the race course itself thanks to the media chronicles of their annual supportive antics. But only another runner who has been driven along by the crowd can share in the more subtle aspects of the experience such as when you round the corner at the firehouse and find yourself facing the first of the notorious up hill parts of the race and realize for the first time just how tired you really are. It is then that the spirited people of the Boston suburbs who dot the sidelines of the entire course become as important as all of your training. For it is here that the first signs of fatigue become overtly apparent to the runners and the crowd and thus when the crowd first really gets to help you find the courage, strength and stamina needed to finish the race. But the power of the crowd to channel its energy into your beaten and worn body is never more apparent than when you round the corner onto Hereford Street feeling entirely exhausted from the first 25 miles of the race and perhaps even contemplating the idea of slipping into the crowd and collapsing unnoticed in a corner. It is at this point when your body is truly entirely spent and drained of all its own internal sources, with only about one mile left to the finish line, that the energy of the crowd magically enters your body to lift your spirits one last time and pushes you home.

    Good Luck

  • Anonymous on 04.16.2010 at 12:58 pm

    Banditing is bad for legit runners.

    As inspiring as this story may be it completely skips the larger issue, banditing a race truly is a drain on resource from legitimate runners. Race organizers plan for a set number of racers all along the 26.2 mile trek and increases in the number of unofficial runners only spreads all the resources thinner. People who qualify pay money to run this race and help to staff the resources that are out there, and bandit runners not only cheapen the race for themselves but for others as well. If you are really desperate to get to run Boston go out and help someone by joining a charity. I have had many friends run with charities and if you look hard enough they are easy to find. Not only do you pay your dues to the race, but you also help a noble cause in the process.

  • Kris on 04.17.2010 at 4:20 am

    Cheering for you

    Zoe Shei, why you so awesome!? To come this far and to finally be able to do what you wanted for years now, your determination inspires me. I’ll be rooting for you.

  • Anonymous on 04.18.2010 at 3:27 pm

    GOOOOOOOOOOO ZOEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE
    We will be cheering you on at the race!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Anonymous on 04.19.2010 at 5:19 pm

    Bandits

    I am so thrilled that BU is officially recognizing bandits. Personally, I have not paid for or even gotten accepted into a program at BU but now I feel comfortable that people at BU will not mind if I just “bandit” into some classes. Millions of dollars and hundreds of people are needed to produce the marathon. Attending a class I am just an extra body. The professor doesn’t have to speak louder or prepare additional material just for me. It’s all relative. So, I say, yes to BU for embracing and encouraging Boston Marathon bandits. See you in class.

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