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Marathoners round the corner into Kenmore Square beneath the landmark Citgo sign, less than one mile from the finish line of the 2008 Boston Marathon.
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Patriot’s Day. For most people, it’s that odd Massachusetts holiday we get off from work, a time for barbecues, beer, (hopefully) nice weather, and of course, the time-honored tradition of running bandit in the Boston Marathon.

Running bandit, for the uninitiated, is the practice of running the marathon, or some fraction thereof, sans registration. Why? In order to gain the privilege of running the entire 26.22 miles with a number on one’s chest and an electronic ID tied to one’s shoe, competitors in my age group must run an official time of under 3 hours and 10 minutes in a previous marathon, plus pay the $100+ registration fee. Neither I nor my partners in crime were capable of this feat.

Bandit runners, despite their long history (the first acknowledged female runner ran as a bandit in 1966), incite anger in some of the officially-registered competitors. One need only Google “marathon bandit” to read page after page of vitriolic, elitist screeds on various message boards. The basic argument (minus abundant grammar and spelling mistakes) boils down to this: “You loser, why can’t you qualify and pay up? Stop stealing our water and Gatorade! If I knew you were running bandit, I’d trip you and kick you into the woods.”

So, before you all fire up your computers and begin crafting indignant letters to the editor, I will clarify the following points: We did not steal. We did not trip or block anyone. We started late enough in the day so the top 15,000 runners had already gone by. We did not gorge ourselves on free packets of disgusting power ooze. We wore Mexican wrestling masks.

Of course, neither I nor my compatriots could actually run 26.2 miles and survive to write about the experience, so we settled on a more moderate distance: the last seven miles of the course. Some might call this “cheating.” Under other circumstances this would invariably be the case. But our intent was not to cross the finish line pretending we had run the whole way. Our goal was simply to amuse the crowds and the runners who would most certainly be passing us, and maybe have a little fun along the way.

Armed with only a set of keys, a tiny 35mm rangefinder camera, and two rolls of film, I found myself standing with my team and the crowd of spectators at Commonwealth Avenue. It was already two hours into the race, and the road was still packed with runners. The edges of the course were gated, and Boston and state police stood guard at every intersection. Soldiers in full camouflage uniforms patrolled the course.

Suitably intimidated, we creep up the course, looking for an opening in the onlookers away from the security. We spy a lull in the passing traffic, lunge through, and we’re underway. Spectators and a pair of uniformed Boston police officers point, laughing.

Two things are immediately apparent. First, despite the fact that every runner in our vicinity had already covered some 20 miles, we are no faster than they are. Second, it’s really hard to breathe through a wrestling mask.

The crowds on both sides of the street have been cheering for hours. The smell of barbeque wafts across the street; residents are grilling on their front lawns. Near the watering stations, where armies of volunteers offer cups of water and electrolyte drinks, the street is wet and slippery. We crunch carefully through a carpet of discarded green Poland Springs cups. Everywhere, runners have slowed, watching their footing.

Two miles in, our legs are still fresh. I’ve been offered a can of Bud Light, two Twizzlers, and an orange slice; I’ve slapped countless hands and endured repeated shouts of “Nacho Libre!” and “Viva Mexico!” from inebriated fans. There is laughter and pointing on every block. Our mission partially accomplished, the amusement is palpable. Only a few recognize the owners of the masks we wear and call us by our rightful names.

Exchanges with runners are terse and direct. Some pass us, perhaps feeling the pull of the finish line. Others are walking on the sidelines. “Keep it up, almost there,” is the runner’s mantra. Numbers and registrations are now irrelevant. Placing one foot in front of the other and escaping from beneath the blanket of fatigue is the only thing on anyone’s mind.

And then suddenly, inexplicably, we round a corner and the Boston skyline swings into view. We’re only a mile or two out, but the pain is beginning to set in. Another lesson: heat does not escape from one’s head when one’s head is wrapped in a mask.

We pound past Lansdowne Street and Fenway Park without even noticing, climbing the overpass above I-90. The spectators crowd the course, leaning over the guardrails, encouraging everyone to take every step. The cheering and screaming is deafening, more powerful than any drug; nobody is walking anymore.

The last mile passes as a blur, my vision narrowing to a dark tunnel. The air is full of tension and excitement. We climb a short hill and swing a sharp left onto the home stretch, Boylston Street. The finish line is right there. Everyone is reaching for the energy they no longer have, and yet the distance closes glacially. The sidewalks are packed, standing room only, and heads lean from every window on every story.

And then we’re through. The staff at the finish line is smiling, congratulating, aware that we didn’t run the whole course but welcoming nonetheless. After all, where would the marathon be without the occasional strangely-dressed bandit? I have no doubt that Bostonians would still watch until the end, but the marathon would lose its character.

Wrapped in shiny foil blankets, we painfully part company for our apartments. I am sure that we will all run the Boston Marathon again, but perhaps from the starting line next time.