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The Numbers Game

by Hal Higdon

Within hours after The LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon reached its 37,500 cap, several procrastinating runners posted pleas to the Virtual Training forum I administer online offering to buy numbers. Simultaneously, James Yunker, an airline pilot from St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin, offered his Twin Cities Marathon number on eBay. Numbers to other popular marathons such as St. George, Marine Corps and New York City certainly also were changing hands with no one the wiser.

Selling race numbers seems a "victimless crime." To enter the most popular marathons, runners increasingly must pay early for races that an injury or unexpected invitation to a cousin's wedding may force them to miss. Several races allow you to defer your entry a year, but you still need to pay extra. Refunds are rarely allowed. "If race directors are greedy enough to take your money," Yunker explains his action, "they should have some policy to give it back."

"Scalping is an American tradition," concedes Carey Pinkowski, Chicago's race director. "Buying numbers is a compliment to the popularity of our sport." Still, Pinkowski worries that rampant switching could cause problems that include not only authentication of times and records, but also identification and liability should someone need treatment. (Try boarding Yunker's next flight with someone else's ticket.)

No-shows at marathons

That some people will not show is a fact of life, not only at marathons but also at other events and activities for which advance-purchase tickets are required. Yunker's airline probably will not refund your non-refundable ticket unless you can come up with a very good reason for not using it. Many race directors fix budgets expecting 10 percent shrinkage. Refunding fees would cost more staff time and might result in increased fees for those who do show. "For a race our size, transferring numbers would be an administrative nightmare," worries Scott Keenan, director of Grandma's Marathon.

Yet failing to provide some checks on who-wears-what-number threatens the integrity of the sport. I once ran the Indianapolis Mini-Marathon intent on battling Dick Wilson, who had won his (our) age group in that race eight consecutive years. I edged past Wilson in the last mile of the race, only to learn I placed "second" to an individual whose son ran with his number! Wilson managed only fourth behind another number-switcher. Eventually, we received our trophies and the perpetrators received meaningless suspensions from next year's Mini, but USATF does not want to waste its time policing mass marathons. Worrying about performance-enhancing drugs already occupies time best spent obtaining sponsors to improve the money base of at least the elite level of our sport. Meanwhile, would you like to qualify for Boston? Just pay someone to run a qualifying time in your name. How about buying your way into the Olympic Trials, even the Olympics? In an era where a rock singer offers $20 million to ride a Russian space ship, nothing seems impossible.

No-shows at marathons

How much of the bartering and trading of race number is for convenience, and how much of it is exploitation? Mike Backus offered his Chicago race number on eBay, attracting bids over $200 within a week after offering it. "I'm not in this to make a bunch of cash," he protested. "I hurt my knee and can't run." Russ Peiffer explains how he beats the no-transfer rule: "If you have the confirmation card, tell them you are picking the packet up for a friend. I ran the 2000 Chicago Marathon this way."

As marathons increase in popularity, this numbers game will occur more frequently. Yet despite Yunker's claim, most race directors are not "greedy." They are professionals, whose main goal is to make the Racing Experience enjoyable for all of us--otherwise we won't be back. "It's not a major problem now," admits Dan Finanger, director of the Twin Cities Marathon, "but it could become one if we fail to pay attention."