Sorry You’ve Got The Wrong Number

Lakeland Trails feet

‘Does anybody have a number for x race I can buy?’. ‘I’ve entered this race but I can’t do it now – does anybody want my number?’. We seem to be seeing this more and more, probably because races are getting increasingly expensive and hard to get into. Some races do have a transfer policy, but many don’t. But running on somebody else’s number is a victimless crime, right? Wrong!

‘But I’ve paid for it, I’ve bought a place. It’s up to me what I do with it.’ I’ve got four words for you: entries are not transferable. If you signed up to a race and accepted these terms and conditions then you need to abide by those rules, just as you need to abide by all the other rules of the race. This is for very good reasons, which we will come to.

This weekend it was the Grizzly, which is a fantastic hilly, muddy race down in Devon. Entry is via a ballot and places are sought after. The Grizzly allow you to transfer your race place right up until the morning of the race and their policy is very clear – you must complete and submit a ‘change of runner’ form. This means they know exactly who is running with each number for safety reasons. It’s a clear policy.

However, I’d also argue that another race which took place at the weekend, The Big Half, had an equally clear policy: “Entries are non-transferable. You must not use someone else’s number, nor let someone else use yours. This is for safety reasons in case there is a medical emergency. People may have their own unique medical requirements and a misidentification of someone during an emergency could cause serious issues as well as severe distress or anxiety to family and friends. Using someone else’s number could result in you being banned from all London Marathon Events.” Did that very clear policy stop people swapping bibs? No. Just as an example, somebody was clearly posting on social media a few days before the event “if anyone has a spare bib for The Big Half let me know, would love to buy it off you”. And yes they did get a bib, and yes, they ran under somebody else’s number. And they happen to be an influencer, which is why we’re using them as an example, because they’re saying to thousands of followers ‘this is ok’.

So why don’t some race organisers allow bib transfers? Firstly and crucially for the reasons The Big Half states above. If a runner has a medical condition that the organiser doesn’t know about and they need treatment, that’s not good. Similarly, if a runner gets into distress (and may be unconscious) and the organiser needs to contact their next of kin, they may not have the right information. You can snort and say that it’s really unlikely, but we never expect anything to go wrong and unfortunately sometimes it does. There are stories of runners who have collapsed in marathons and the organisers haven’t been able to contact their family for hours. And stories about the wrong families who’ve been informed that their runner is really ill.

Secondly, it messes with the results. If you’re a woman aged 60 and you give your number to a man aged 22, it’s possible that he may end up with an age group prize and therefore deny another runner of this award. This happens all the time. It’s happened to me and also to a slightly higher profile runner, the legendary Kathrine Switzer. In the 2017 New York Marathon Kathrine finished 2nd vet 70 but was bumped down to 3rd by a woman who looked closer to 20 than 70.

Just this weekend there was a city 10k where the women’s results were compromised because one of the runners who finished in a podium position was running with somebody else’s number. The organisers weren’t aware of this and had even written the prize cheque! The race director described it as ‘traumatic and embarrassing for us as organisers and no doubt upsetting for the lady who actually did finish in the podium position.’. This illustrates perfectly how swapping numbers can have a big, albeit unintentional, effect on a race.

Thirdly, there are a lot of practical reasons why race organisers can’t allow the transfer of numbers. For a start, they have better things to do than answer hundreds of emails from us and change all the details. Many races are organised by charities and volunteers and they have to prioritise. Also, there may be aspects like the printing of names on numbers or even the number of different sizes of t-shirts ordered to consider. If it can’t be done as an automated process then there’s a lot of admin time involved. It may also be a race that had a ballot or a qualification standard, in which case it makes it unfair if people are just allowed to swap numbers.

So it’s not a victimless crime. The best case scenario is that you skew the results and the worst case scenario is that somebody else’s next of kin gets a phone call to say that their runner is in a medical tent. Or you get disqualified and banned. If you look at the excellent website Marathon Investigation you can see what a massive problem it is in the US, with hundreds of bib swaps estimated to take place at bigger races.

There are many races which allow numbers to be transferred (and deferral for injury or pregnancy is usually a separate point), but those that don’t allow transfers generally have very good reasons. You can argue that races should make more effort to put in systems which allow transfers safely and legitimately. But If we sign up to race which clearly states that entries aren’t transferable, we need to respect their rules.