Runners' privacy at odds with race security

October, 21, 2013
10/21/13
3:55
PM ET
Man, that Hugh Jass can move.

According to results available online, someone registered as Hugh Jass has run in at least 26 road races in seven states since 2006, including the Cleveland and Chicago marathons.

But the idea of runners using fake identities (go ahead, sound out the name above), or remaining anonymous for whatever reason, is suddenly at the center of a seemingly immovable conflict: growing sensitivity about names, ages, hometowns, and times being posted forever on the Internet, versus heightened event security.

Many race directors say that even if they once let runners conceal their identities, they no longer can.

No one can compete in a New York Road Runners event, for example, without his or her name, hometown, age, and time being reported publicly -- not even celebrity runners -- a spokeswoman says. "This information is considered to be part of the public record," she says, and runners are required to sign a release agreeing to it.

The Marine Corps Marathon has historically, if rarely, let people run under pseudonyms, but only after they supplied the event with their real names, spokeswoman Tami Faram says. If they don't, she says, they're disqualified.

Other rules make it almost impossible to be anonymous, including requirements that runners meet qualifying times, as for the Boston Marathon, or provide photo identification to pick up their bibs.

But the ID provision isn't always enforced, and that has allowed at least 41 people to register for road races since 2005 as Bruce Wayne, including for the Philadelphia and New Jersey marathons; five as Tom Collins' 16 as Art Vandelay (the alter ego of Seinfeld's George Costanza); and 13 as Kermit Frog.

Faram says she thinks many runners in the Marine Corps Marathon do this because the event falls close to Halloween. One Kermit Frog has run the Marine Corps Marathon actually dressed as Kermit the Frog at least three times; another (judging by his different age and hometown) has managed to enter the Chicago Marathon. And Mephistopheles Prince of Darkness successfully registered for the Marine Corps race.

There's a long history of runners using phony or misleading names, for good motives and bad. Kathrine Switzer registered for the Boston Marathon as "K.V. Switzer" in 1967, before women were allowed to enter (though she says she commonly used her initials and wasn't trying to deceive anyone).

Last year, a man named Rob Sloan was discovered having entered the Great North Run in the United Kingdom under a friend’s name after being disqualified from a previous race for allegedly cheating. (He said he "didn't want questions asked.")

But in the wake of recent disclosures about the National Security Agency's Internet surveillance programs, there are other serious reasons runners may not want their information posted publicly, says John Simpson, director of Consumer Watchdog's Privacy Project. Potential criminals can search through hometowns on lists of registered runners, and know when people will be away from their houses, for example.

"People are starting to become aware of the great extent of information that's available about them online, and there's growing concern about it," Simpson says. "The whole Edward Snowden incident has really heightened people's awareness of how much data is available about them online, and we are definitely seeing more concern being expressed about it."

There are some mundane reasons runners want to be anonymous.

"There's no way I'll be able to run under my PR and I don't want anyone to know I've raced," one runner wrote on the LetsRun.com message board, asking fellow users to come up with "a good alias to race under."

Others may have causes that are more pressing.

"Maybe you're a woman who's being stalked. It seems that's a legitimate concern," says Simpson. "You don't want your stalker to know you're at a race."

But race directors say they have their own worries. Lowell Ladd, who organizes marathons and other races in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, says he won't allow runners to register anonymously not only because of security issues, but for medical reasons.

"If that person collapses on the course, I don't know who they are, who their emergency contact is, what allergies they might have," Ladd says. "You can go for an anonymous training run any day of the week."

Jeff Darman, race director of the Capital Challenge in Washington, D.C. and owner of a sports-marketing company, says privacy fears are at odds with current-day reality.

"While I sympathize with the desire for privacy, one need only go on the Web and see the ads tailored for individuals surfing, suggested friends on Facebook, LinkedIn, phone-tracking, to know privacy as we knew it is long gone," Darman says. "Taking sensible precautions is fine, but being extreme is just that."

Alan Fielder, a triathlon director in Illinois who also operates a timing company for triathlons and running races, notes that he's required to supply finishing times to USA Triathlon, though he says he would honor requests to post results anonymously while keeping gender and age-group data intact so the results are not affected.

That seems a reasonable compromise, says Simpson.

"I can understand the security concerns of having to demonstrate who you are to the race organizers," he says. "But if people want to run anonymously, it would seem to me there's a way to accomplish both things. It should be very easy to accommodate the request that once you're properly identified, your name does not get posted.

"I can understand, particularly in light of the Boston Marathon bombings, the need to have identification when you enter a race, and prove who you are," Simpson continues. "But I don’t know that it's necessarily the case that you need to have the results up there forever."

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