The Red Snakes are coming. (Photo courtesy of Kaji Aso Studio)
The following was submitted by Joe McGonegal
Gombatte! Try your best!
Among Boston’s bandits is one well-organized troupe
Though they are cheered on as much as registered runners, sneered at by purists and nearly ignored nowadays by race officials, Boston’s “bandits”—or unregistered runners—are as much a part of Boston Marathon history as John Kelley or the Kenyans.
With registration for this year’s race closing in January, there may be more bandits than usual.
But thanks to the Red Snakes, a small group of local runners and artists from the Kaji Aso Studio in the Back Bay, Boston’s bandits have felt acknowledged on race day for the past three decades.
This April 20, the Red Snakes will again target hundreds of runners in the Boston Marathon and get to them just as they cross the finish line. It’s likely that those targeted runners will be just as surprised as they are each year.
The Red Snakes will hand bandits a simple, hand-stenciled certificate that celebrates their accomplishment and congratulates them on their finish.
It began in 1971 when Kaji Aso, an art professor at Tufts University, started running the Boston Marathon in the back of the pack with his students. After a few years, he termed his group of runners “Red Snakes” because, as Aso Studio instructor Gary Tucker, 49, explained, “they’re hard to kill, and very passionate.”
In 1971, Kaji Aso, an art professor at Tufts University, started running the Boston Marathon in the back of the pack with his students. (Photos courtesy of Kaji Aso Studio)
“Encouragement was a big part of [Aso’s] persona, so this fit him perfectly,” Tucker, who was a student of Aso’s at Tufts, said of the group’s formation.
Tucker and Kate Finnegan, 52, the Aso Studio’s current director, ran the race together with Aso over a dozen times. By the late ‘70s, the group got an idea.
“That started a long time ago,” said Finnegan as she sifted through photos and memorabilia from Aso’s files in the upper room of the studio a few weeks before this year’s marathon.
“It used to be that the [Boston Athletic Association] would take down the finish line after four hours,” said Finnegan. “So we wanted a way to celebrate runners who came in after that.”
The solution: a finisher’s certificate for the bandits.
“Each year after we finish,” said Finnegan, “we rest a bit, and then we turn around and start giving these out. And people started collecting them over the years!”
At first, the Red Snakes found the demand overwhelming. “We used to make thousands,” said Finnegan. “Then, when it switched to the Hancock sponsoring [the race], they now keep the finish line open later. Our job isn’t as necessary as it used to be—we’ll print 300 or so this year.”
Those straggling down Boylston Street after six or seven hours on the course see the Red Snakes’ banner: “Welcome, Slow Runners!”
1976 Boston Marathon champion Jack Fultz, who served as elite athlete liaison for the race and now coaches the Dana Farber Team, befriended Aso and the Red Snakes early on and even sported a Red Snakes t-shirt in the 1981 race.
“They're the most notorious bandits in the marathon,” Fultz said of the Red Snakes. “But running for [Kaji Aso] was special—it was a form of meditation.”
While Fultz admires the Red Snakes, he hesitates to encourage all bandits from jumping into the race at Hopkinton. Estimated to be in the thousands each year, bandits are often criticized for draining race-day resources and clogging the already packed streets.
“You can't stop them,” said Fultz. “It's a public road. And it's a PR thing, too. You don't want to be the big old nasty organization keeping people who aren't hurting anybody.”
Finish director Tom Meagher cares less about PR than about protecting the integrity of his finish line.
“Up till the three hour mark, we’re yanking [bandits] out,” Meagher said. “I tell security, ‘get them out of there!’ We’re not going to give these people a stage. From the corner of Exeter [Street] to the finish, we yank them.”
There may be more bandits this year than usual, according to Dave McGillivray, the Boston Marathon race director. In late January, race directors cut off registration when they reached 25,000—several weeks earlier than in most years.
“People are saying all those qualifiers who didn't get in will increase the number of bandits,” McGillivray said. “My sense is that although they're disappointed they didn't get in, they have their own standards and they don't want to run this race that way.”
McGillivray “bandited” Boston himself in his teens and is less adamant about pulling bandits from the starting line on race morning in Hopkinton.
“The BAA’s position is that we certainly don't encourage unofficial runners from running,” McGillivray said, “but we recognize that it's part of the tradition that a certain number of them will show up.”
“Right or wrong,” McGillivray said, “we factor them in, too. When we order port-a-johns and water, we actually say there’s 29,000 in the race, not 26,000”—the number of registered runners. “It's a conundrum for sure. On the one hand you feel like you’re accommodating them, but it’s safety too.”
At this year’s starting line will be a dozen Red Snakes carrying on Kaji Aso’s tradition.
Asked how they get inside the secured city limits on race morning, Gary Tucker laughed.
“It’s privileged information I’m about to tell you. We meet very early. We have to leave here by six because we have to be in the Hopkinton city limits by eight. And one of our members, who owns a house in Hopkinton, hosts us until the race starts.”
As they cross the starting line, the Red Snakes chant, “Gombatte! Try your best!”
Just over 26 miles later, Tucker, Finnegan and others will raise the Red Snakes banner, turn around, and celebrate the bandits coming down Boylston Street.