If you're tired of the massive crowds in your local 5K, getting kicked in the face during the swim leg of a packed triathlon, or if you can't bear to plunk down $100 (or more) just to run in the woods, a new trend in racing is emerging that might be just what you're looking for.
It's called bandit racing -- a grassroots training group that allows you to run, bike, kayak -- essentially, choose your adventure -- with others, but with a slight competitive lean. It's not exactly a race because the events aren't timed, though there's sometimes a small prize -- like a six-pack -- for the top finisher. There's usually a set course, and the goal is to simply finish or test your mojo. (Our pick for the No. 2 running trend? Minimalist or barefoot-style shoes. Read our story Should You Run Barefoot? to learn if it’s right for you.)
The other differences between bandit races and sanctioned events: No entrance fees, no insurance, no amenities like water stands or medical care, and usually, no permits -- the main issue that puts these "unofficial training sessions" under the radar.
Why bandit races? There are some places where it's impossible to go in a sanctioned way due to difficult land-use regulations, says San Francisco-based bandit organizer and mountain bike coach, Blanco, whose name has been anonymized at his request. "The permitting process can be burdensome."
Sometimes the land-use permits can be expensive, or the regulations just don't make sense, notes bandit adventure race organizer Frank, whose name has also been changed to protect his identity. "For example, I know of one area in the middle of nowhere where you're allowed to run during the day but not at night."
But researching and obtaining land-use permits is the first step to organizing a race, says David Patt, president of racedirector.org: "The permits protect the environment, the public, and even other events. If one group reserves a space for a certain day, they have the right to be there."
Still, our organizers assure us their motives are pure. "It's about enjoying the land for its intended use without impact. We always take steps to avoid damage and keep away from preserves and homeowners," Frank says. "We also make sure there are no other events." (For a plan that'll get you in shape for any adventure, check out the Abs Diet Extreme Workout -- a 12-week program that gives you 24 different three-exercise workouts.)
Bandit organizers choose which rules to break, adds Blanco. "There was one recent bandit trail run where the only illegal part was that the group exceeded the permitted limit of 20," he says. "But generally, bandit races are small and the groups disperse."
Obvious disclaimer: If you'd ordinarily need a land-use permit and you don't get one, you're breaking the law -- which is why our sources are unnamed. And by participating in a bandit race, you're also forgoing on-site medical care and other amenities entrance fees help cover, like aid stations. "Basically, it's the yo-yo policy," Blanco says. "You're on your own and take responsibility for your actions. Of course, as with any partnered activity, participants help each other out." And while our sources were all conscientious, we admit there's plenty of room for abuse by organizers who aren't so well meaning.
If you're interested in creating a bandit race, check out unsanctionedracing.com, a Facebook app that helps you chart a run and gain like-minded participants. Pearl Izumi "unofficially" provides gear to racegoers as a bonus.
You may also want to have participants sign a waiver, indemnifying you of liability if someone gets hurt. Some bandit organizers simply repurpose waivers from sanctioned races, but you can create your own at legaldocs.com. For extra security, have a lawyer review it or, even better, draw it up.
Finally, don’t forget the winner's prize. "Usually it's bragging rights and a bottle of wine," Blanco says. "Or whatever is in the organizer's basement -- on one occasion, a tin of sardines."
Of course, no race or run is fun if you're injured. Pick up The Athlete's Book of Home Remedies for a top sports doctor's advice to prevent and treat your every ache and pain.
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