In early April, the St. Louis Go! Marathon disqualified the female “winner”. In the last few days, a certain Boston Marathon participant has been called into question. The races of those two bear some similarities to the race of an amateur athlete whose name has become synonymous with course-cutting, Rosie Ruiz. While these are amateur athletes, usually professionals grab the headlines, i.e., “Deflategate,” to cite the most recent example. Cheating in sport results in infamy – we immediately associate that accusation upon hearing certain names: Rita Jeptoo; Ben Johnson; Lance Armstrong; Barry Bonds – all accused of PED use. In NASCAR, as the saying goes, if you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’.
What is cheating’s common denominator in professional and amateur sports? Cheaters are motivated by monetary gain or ego, or a combination of the two. You’d think a professional athlete would be motivated only by money, but in many cases, this is not the sole explanation. For instance, a baseball player who has a guaranteed contract securing independent wealth for life has no monetary incentive to cheat. Those who do so risk voiding that contract by using or continuing to use PEDs. The drive of ego, narcissism, or pride have driven both professional and amateur athletes to cheat since the dawn of sport. Ego and money are driving both amateur and professional marathoners to cheat. So, what pressures or temptations lead to cheating and what can be done about it? I’m a recreational runner, and I have a psychology degree, so I’m qualified. #sarcasm.
Every recreational distance runner who competes in timed events eventually realizes that there is such a thing as the exclusivity of the Boston Marathon. Even people who don’t run marathons or don’t run at all have heard of Boston. It is without question America’s – perhaps even the world’s – premier marathon. Not only is the race a competition among professionals at the highest level of the sport, but it is a restricted entry race for amateurs. Qualifying for Boston, a “BQ,” is a difficult, but achievable goal for amateur runners. It takes some effort – few if any can roll out of bed, register the day of a race, and BQ. As a result, the prestige of the race has likely been a temptation to the unscrupulous amateur runner. This person realizes that he or she is not prepared to reach that goal, but still wants to be perceived as a successful runner in the social circles in which they orbit. The kind of runner that would consider cheating in order to achieve a BQ is someone who is more motivated by how others perceive them. The runner who would never consider cheating is someone who is more motivated by the personal satisfaction they gain from reaching a goal.
A race is by definition a social event. Yet, anybody who participates in a race for the gratification gained from the approval of spectators is going to be disappointed at all but the biggest races. At my age, the reasons to compete against others by racing are manifold despite this. You have a definable goal at the end of a process that takes several months. You can use the small group pressure of other runners to push yourself harder than you would if you had simply decided to press “start” on your Garmin some crisp April or October morning and then “stop” after 26.2. However, with the advent of social media, the recreational runner’s ability to broadcast their achievements to their circle of friends and acquaintances has increased a hundredfold. Twenty years ago, no one would dream of printing up flyers and posting them around their neighborhood to tell everyone about their latest race (much less their morning workout), or taking out an ad in the newspaper to congratulate themselves. However, that is a component of what we (yes, there is an “I” in “we”) do every time we post our race results, photos, or blog about a race. That’s not to say there aren’t modest reasons for writing about your own individual running, but I don’t want to get all defensive on you.
For cheaters, this self-indulgence is so addictive that they want to eat the dessert first. This is what happens when a recreational runner decides to cut a course to BQ. Let’s say you’ve told all of your friends that the Boston bombing has inspired you to start running, and that you’re going to run the Boston Marathon. Yay you! You dive in, posting your training runs, blogging about your latest race – accountability is good! You sign up for a marathon and start telling your circle that you’re going to do it, you’re going to BQ! Then, reality sets in. You figure out “what it takes” – the pace, the improvement that can’t be gained overnight. Uh-oh. Everyone you know is expecting you to qualify at that race coming up next week. What do you do? That depends on who you are. If you’re honest with yourself and others, you give it your best, and try again if you don’t succeed. If you’re a cheater, you start lining up your co-conspirators, or public transportation, or your Uber app.
I have personally witnessed a cheater in a marathon, at least that’s the conclusion I drew. I didn’t report the guy. I’ve only spoken about it to a few friends (guys, please don’t post any more details here!) I’ll omit most of the really descriptive details such as the race, but there are some parallels to recent events. (1) A person on the course caught my attention – they were attempting a pace beyond their fitness level (he was anaerobic, trust me) at a place in the race where you shouldn’t be. (2) Completely by chance, I saw that person cross the finish line later on, at a time inconsistent with my previous observation (and other factors). (3) It made such an impression that I vaguely noted his clock time, and curious (ok, incredulous), I found him in the finish line pictures. With that, I typed in a bib number for more pictures and splits, but he had no more pictures, and no chip results whatsoever. (4) It almost stopped there, but while reading an article about the race, I ran across considerable media attention focused on the person before the race centered around their first marathon. (5) With that, I also found some follow-up media attention where he claimed to have achieved his goal (finishing, not BQing). I think things just got out of hand for the guy, and one thing led to another, and before he knew it he was knee-deep. I suspect he eventually fessed up and a few follow-ups got canned.
So, solution time. Eventually the good folks at Garmin will innovate some GPS race bibs that RDs can buy for less than a dollar. Problem solved. Until then, we’ve got this: more timing mats and increased scrutiny on both ends of the Boston equation. Anyone who’s run more than a few timed races might raise an eyebrow upon learning that various Boston qualifying races have no checkpoints. In a perfect world where everyone is honest, and the data is just for you, that’s fine. However, we’re in an age where Boston matters to people, and it matters enough to some that they’re willing to cheat to get there. If Boston matters to you, it matters if the one man and the one woman who BQ’d but missed the cutoff this year by one person lost their spot to a cheater. So, for starters, a mat at the halfway point ought to be a minimum part of the “Boston Qualifier” course certification standard. The B.A.A. would have to mandate it, and there would be a hardware cost for RDs and/or race timing companies. I have no idea if the systems in use can be modified to add another mat or if that would require a complete system upgrade. There’s an alternative though. At smaller races, which have fewer resources to devote to timing tech, all it takes is a pair of people to call out and record bibs and splits at halfway (or better, some undisclosed location not known pre-race). That’s what they do at the Heart of America Marathon (good job, guys!) The second half of this equation is what’s done with that information after it’s collected. At the St. Louis race, they investigated and DQ’d the BQ. However, as I recall she had finished in the top ten the previous year, and wasn’t DQ’d that year. I don’t think she finished in the money, although she might have collected an AG prize of some sort. Personally, I don’t expect the RD to scrutinize every participant with a missing split. I’ve read that those chips in the bibs and the shoe tags work to a 99.xx%+ efficiency ratio, so perhaps just a few people in a race of thousands (if even that many) are going to be missing a mat split time. Anything man-made can fail though, so of course the chip, the mat, or the transfer of that data can all fail. Imagine how crushing it would be to BQ and be missing a split if that rendered your BQ ineligible! The final piece of the puzzle is the B.A.A. I can’t say enough good things about the race they put on and their desire to preserve its integrity and tradition. I don’t know what their review process is, but I hope they have implemented or are considering increased scrutiny such as checking submitted times for the presence of splits, and giving runners an opportunity to submit supporting information (e.g. race photos, GPS data) if they’re absent.
Pumpkin eaters, get out of my sport!