Race Cheats

How They Do It... And Why?

Runner's World (UK) - - Front Page - Tell us your thoughts on the is­sue of cheat­ing – email let­ters@ run­ner­sworld. co. uk or tweet us @ run­ner­sworl­duk

I dont'usu­ally get ner­vous be­fore races, but to­day is dif­fer­ent. Even the pre-race brief­ing is enough to get my heart thump­ing in my chest. I furtively scan the faces of my fel­low run­ners, try­ing to avoid eye con­tact. One way or an­other, the next hour is go­ing to be event­ful. Two pos­si­ble out­comes await: a per­sonal best and a top-five fin­ish, or a very pub­lic sham­ing. And that’s be­cause I’m about to cheat.

Not for prize money, you un­der­stand (I’m not in that league). Nor to hit a qual­i­fy­ing time for a flag­ship race. No, this is lower grade stuff. An eye-catch­ing re­sult, an ill-de­served boost to the self-es­teem, a chance to in­dulge in a lit­tle on­line brag­ging. My so­cial me­dia net­work is full of run­ners, quick run­ners. Wait till they get a load of this.

Am I the only cheat here to­day? Prob­a­bly. But I’m cer­tainly not alone in the wider run­ning world. Cheat­ing among am­a­teur run­ners – and am­a­teur cheat­ing, come to that – is an in­creas­ingly com­mon phe­nom­e­non, sta­tis­ti­cally and, par­tic­u­larly, anec­do­tally. Nu­mer­ous races re­port rises in anoma­lous re­sults that re­quire in­ves­ti­ga­tion, there’s a steady trickle of high-pro­file of­fend­ers, and run­ning fo­rums and mes­sage boards pos­i­tively thrum with the is­sue. Blogs and web­sites have been set up de­voted to catch­ing, ex­pos­ing and de­ter­ring this cu­ri­ous sub-species.

Cut­ting the course is the most com­mon form of cheat­ing. Of­ten it’s a cor­ner for an in­cre­men­tal gain. Other times it’s more fla­grant: jump­ing a bar­rier to cleave chunks off the course, or hitch­ing a lift to just short of the fin­ish be­fore soaking up the illde­served glory. Then there are bib mules – those who carry two or more bibs around the course, reg­is­ter­ing bo­gus times for friends or even clients.

For those who keep tabs on this pe­cu­liarly mod­ern phe­nom­e­non, the names of the most out­ra­geous cheats trot off the tongue with the ease of a ros­ter of Olympic cham­pi­ons: Ja­son Scot­land-thom­son, the per­sonal trainer who ran the sec­ond half of the 2014 Lon­don Marathon quicker than Mo Farah; Rosie Ruiz, who was briefly the win­ner of the 1980 Bos­ton marathon be­fore it was dis­cov­ered that she’d run only the fi­nal mile; Rob Sloan, the Sun­der­land Har­rier who was ac­cused of hop­ping on a spec­ta­tor bus at the 20-mile point of the Kielder Marathon, be­fore re­join­ing the race and tak­ing third. He was later disqualified.

And who can for­get Natasha Ar­gent, sis­ter of TOWIE star James? The 26-year-old ran 3:48 in the Lon­don Marathon – not overly con­spic­u­ous un­til you learn that she ran the sec­ond half of the race in a mirac­u­lous se­quence of sub-four­minute miles, and showed no record of pass­ing sev­eral check­points. Race author­i­ties asked her to ex­plain the anom­alies. She said she’d had a panic at­tack and got lost on the route.

Derek Mur­phy has been at the fore­front of ex­pos­ing a string of am­a­teur cheats. The Cincin­nat­i­based busi­ness an­a­lyst, who hung up his train­ers when he ‘got older, got in­juries, had kids’, now de­votes ev­ery spare mo­ment to catch­ing and de­ter­ring ‘cheaters’, as he calls them, through his Marathon In­ves­ti­ga­tion web­site.

So suc­cess­ful has he be­come that he has in­for­mal agree­ments with a num­ber of events around the world. Mur­phy’s modus operandi is sim­ple: re­lent­less at­ten­tion to num­bers. Al­most every­thing he needs is out there, he says. Race splits, pac­ing stats, his­tor­i­cal train­ing data. He is mea­sured, calm, an­a­lyt­i­cal – about as far re­moved from a bile-spew­ing vig­i­lante as one could hope to meet.

‘It started with a case I dis­cov­ered of a run­ner who cut the course in a qual­i­fy­ing marathon,’ he says. ‘It sent me down a rab­bit hole from which I haven’t come up yet.’ He’s not sure whether run­ners are cheat­ing more to­day, or just get­ting de­tected more of­ten, but he be­lieves cheats are get­ting ‘more cre­ative’. ‘It’s a cat-and­mouse thing and there’s a bit of a thrill to it, def­i­nitely,’ he says. ‘You’ll be look­ing at a run­ner and there’s noth­ing in their his­tory to sug­gest they’re ca­pa­ble of the time they’ve clocked. I can’t quite prove it and then when I do, it’s a bit of a rush.’

The will­ing­ness to cheat in low-stakes races is par­tic­u­larly baf­fling given that is has be­come ex­po­nen­tially harder to do so in re­cent years. Not only have dis­hon­est com­peti­tors got the likes of Mur­phy hot on their heels, but stats are everywhere for any on­line am­a­teur

sleuth to pore over: from re­sult­sag­gre­gat­ing web­sites such as Ath­links, look­ing at a run­ner’s com­pet­i­tive his­tory, to his­tor­i­cal train­ing data through pub­lic Strava ac­counts. De­pend­ing on the scale of race, you also might ex­pect to find tim­ing mats clock­ing your times at in­ter­vals through­out; ra­dio com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween mar­shals or vol­un­teers; and video record­ings of starts and fin­ishes.

And then there’s the pho­to­graphic ev­i­dence. Big marathons will have nu­mer­ous of­fi­cial pho­tog­ra­phers and in­nu­mer­able un­of­fi­cial ones (who doesn’t own a smart­phone these days?); pieced to­gether, their images make it pos­si­ble to cre­ate some­thing akin to a stop-frame film of a run­ner’s en­tire race. When pic­to­rial gaps ap­pear, sus­pi­cions are raised.

Beat the cheat

I en­coun­tered an un­der­stand­able re­sis­tance among some race di­rec­tors to dis­cuss the is­sue of cheat­ing. Few events wish to be seen as a soft tar­get for post­ing false times, and there’s taint­ing by as­so­ci­a­tion. ‘It’s not re­ally an is­sue we want to throw any light on,’ says Lon­don Marathon race di­rec­tor Hugh Brasher, adding, ‘We’re not into nam­ing and sham­ing.’ The race’s pol­icy is to in­ves­ti­gate any anoma­lous re­sults and ask for an ex­pla­na­tion from the run­ner. If they’re still not sat­is­fied, they ask for the fin­isher medal to be re­turned and ban the run­ner for life.

The Great Run Com­pany, whose fin­ish­ers num­ber more than 250,000 a year, doesn’t just rely on stats to iden­tify cheats. In­creas­ingly it finds that its races are ‘self-polic­ing’, with other run­ners con­tact­ing the or­gan­i­sa­tion to draw at­ten­tion to sus­pi­cious, or down­right dis­hon­est, be­hav­iour. For com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor David Hart, cheat­ing is an ever-present con­cern: ‘I’ve been do­ing this job for a fair time and I see cheat­ing crop up on a reg­u­lar ba­sis. There are cer­tain tricks of the trade and a num­ber of serial of­fend­ers we have our eyes on. For me it’s dis­ap­point­ing more than any­thing, but I can well un­der­stand the anger of fel­low com­peti­tors who see them­selves be­ing done out of their right­ful place – even if that is 3,800th rather than 3,799th.’

South Africa’s Com­rades Marathon, the old­est ul­tra in the world, is less ret­i­cent about its cheat­ing prob­lem. At the elite end, it holds the un­en­vi­able record for pos­si­bly the most elab­o­rate race fraud, when ninth-placed Ser­gio Mot­soe­neng swapped bibs with his twin brother, Fika, mid-race in 1999. They were caught when pho­to­graphs emerged of Ser­gio’s watch on a dif­fer­ent wrist – and a scar mirac­u­lously ap­pear­ing on his left shin.

Sixty-six run­ners were caught cheat­ing in the his­toric 90km race last year and, says race di­rec­tor Rowyn James, that num­ber is ‘def­i­nitely climb­ing’. He’s not sur­prised. ‘The Com­rades is a very well re­spected achieve­ment through­out South Africa. We some­times get con­tacted by re­cruit­ment agen­cies. They’ll be check­ing that a can­di­date has in­deed done the Com­rades as they’ve stated. Some­times they haven’t.’

Com­rades has six cut-off points, with tim­ing mats. But to stop run­ners sim­ply driv­ing be­tween these at an even pace so as not to arouse sus­pi­cion, there is an ad­di­tional mea­sure de­signed to root out cheaters. ‘We put out two undis­closed mats ev­ery year,” says James. ‘We have got to take tan­gi­ble ac­tion to catch and dis­cour­age cheat­ing be­cause it could get out of hand. If you don’t take ac­tion, run­ners start to see the event as a soft touch.’

All of which is play­ing on my mind as my race gets un­der way. My cheat­ing de­but is well planned: I’ve cho­sen a smaller race, one with­out tim­ing mats or a squad of pho­tog­ra­phers, and with a course that hand­ily dou­bles back on it­self. I’ve got a pre-iden­ti­fied hid­ing spot, a cos­tume change (con­spic­u­ous to bland), wa­ter to spray over my head in lieu of sweat, and an an­guished fin­isher’s look that I’ve honed through many a (gen­uine) marathon and ul­tra marathon. All the pieces are in place.

As I take up a steady pace I can’t help but pon­der the mo­ti­va­tion for am­a­teur run­ning cheats. Like many mod­ern-day ills, the fin­ger is read­ily pointed at so­cial me­dia: run­ning, for so long a solo, pri­vate en­ter­prise, has now be­come a pub­lic per­for­mance. What races you’ve done, what times you’ve clocked – these are badges of hon­our but also to­kens of ac­cep­tance to clearly de­fined so­cial groups.

‘It’s far eas­ier, and more ac­cept­able, to brag about things to­day and I think that has in­fil­trated run­ning, too. I think peo­ple have al­ways cheated – there’s just more in­cen­tive now.’ This is Robert John­son, the 44-year-old co-founder of Let­srun, a Us-based run­ning web­site that has a mil­lion unique users per month. On the is­sue of cheat­ing, its fo­rum re­sem­bles an amor­phous, less re­strained ver­sion of Derek Mur­phy – iden­ti­fy­ing and hound­ing out cheats re­morse­lessly. The site’s tagline is ‘where your dreams be­come re­al­ity’. How­ever, for any­one who’s sus­pected of cheat­ing, it’s more of a night­mare.

Ask Rob Young from Rich­mond, west Lon­don. In 2016 the self-styled Marathon Man was at­tempt­ing to break the record for the fastest cross­ing of the United States on foot, but his un­re­al­is­tic daily mileages and paces quickly drew the at­ten­tion of Let­srun and the scan­dal took off. Even­tu­ally, his spon­sor, Skins, or­dered an in­de­pen­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Some of the GPS data sub­mit­ted re­vealed that his ca­dence was sug­ges­tive of strides close to 50m. The only con­clu­sion? That he spent long pe­ri­ods ei­ther trav­el­ling in, or on, his RV sup­port ve­hi­cle.

Young has since all but van­ished from pub­lic view and he proved im­pos­si­ble to con­tact for com­ment. He’d writ­ten on his web­site: ‘I re­spect the con­clu­sions of the in­ves­ti­ga­tors…i ad­mit­tedly made mis­takes with the data man­age­ment and record­ings, but never did I cheat.’

But isn’t am­a­teur cheat­ing a vic­tim­less crime? Is it re­ally any worse than brag­ging about the num­ber of pints you drank the night be­fore? In­deed, given the way run­ning has sup­planted booz­ing in many peo­ple’s leisure agenda, isn’t it merely the mod­ern ver­sion of same? As one post on the Let­srun fo­rum put it: ‘I mean se­ri­ously, does any­one re­ally care? Peo­ple cheat at work, at play, and in com­pe­ti­tion. If a guy at the of­fice isn’t pass­ing off your work as his own, then some­body else is jump­ing the queue. There’s big­ger fish to fry.’

Derek Mur­phy would dis­agree but is aware he’s not uni­ver­sally loved. Most in the run­ning com­mu­nity seem to ad­mire his as­siduity, but there are plenty of oth­ers who see it as mis­placed, or even self-serv­ing. One com­ment I found on­line said: ‘In many ways you are no bet­ter than a cheater, and ac­tu­ally worse be­cause you try to profit off it.’ [Mur­phy asks for con­tri­bu­tions to cover ex­penses.] A vo­cal sup­porter of that view is Chicago-based lawyer Scott Kum­mer. A pod­caster with a run­ning show called Ten­junkmiles, he de­scribes him­self as ‘quite pos­si­bly the most painstak­ingly av­er­age run­ner known to man’. But get him started on this sub­ject and he’s off at a brac­ing pace.

He sees the pub­lic sham­ing ten­den­cies as a throw­back to the days of the stocks and is dis­turbed by the zeal with which peo­ple turn to so­cial me­dia to iden­tify al­leged of­fend­ers – rather than to race di­rec­tors or the in­di­vid­u­als them­selves. ‘The no­tion that we’re go­ing to put these peo­ple on so­cial me­dia, where mil­lions of peo­ple are go­ing to see it, that’s scary,’ he says. ‘We’re not talk­ing about Paula Rad­cliffe or whomever; they are pub­lic fig­ures who should have to take this kind of stuff. This is of­ten just some 4:30 marathoner, an ac­coun­tant or some­thing. It’s Schaden­freude Inc in my book.’

His views have been hard­ened by the plight of a friend, 35-year-old Meghan Ken­ni­han. She ran a small 50km race near her home in La Grange, Illi­nois, called Earth Day Race. This year they changed the course and she ended up cut­ting a cor­ner un­in­ten­tion­ally. Not a lot – her Strava later showed it was around 0.15 miles.

But the wo­man she beat (by a mar­gin) into third, got wind of this and headed straight for the 3,000-strong Facebook group they both be­long to. ‘It was the most ridicu­lous thing in the world,’ she

re­calls. ‘She was hash­tag­ging her posts about me with #cour­se­cut­ter and #cheater. I chal­lenged her, say­ing why didn’t she con­front me di­rectly. It was par­tic­u­larly bad as I’m a per­sonal trainer and a run­ning coach and a lot of peo­ple find me through these groups. This could af­fect my liveli­hood.’

Ken­ni­han re­turned the plaque and medal she was given and wrote a blog ex­plain­ing the er­ror (the race di­rec­tor later ab­solved her, ad­mit­ting that a marshal who should have been di­rect­ing the run­ners was on a toi­let break). But, like an un­wanted tat­too, it’s hard to get rid of a dig­i­tal foot­print, par­tic­u­larly one car­ry­ing the hash­tag #cheat.

Why bother?

Few or­gan­i­sa­tions have done as much to pop­u­larise run­ning in re­cent years as Parkrun. Around 130,000 run­ners com­pete in 500-plus events across the coun­try ev­ery week­end, and with its free en­try, re­liance on vol­un­teers, and its fam­ily-friendly whole­some­ness, it’s the em­bod­i­ment of the am­a­teur ethos. So has cheat­ing be­come an is­sue?

‘I have never given any thought to this, to be hon­est,’ says a spokesman. ‘I can’t re­call any­one ever be­ing ac­cused of cheat­ing. I sup­pose our model dis­cour­ages it (al­most pre­vents it) be­cause Parkruns aren’t races. Par­tic­i­pants only re­ceive a time – there are no win­ners. So if you did cheat, you’d only be cheat­ing your­self.’

That’s not strictly true. I’ve run one Parkrun – Alice Holt For­est, in Sur­rey – and my re­sult was texted and then emailed to me within a few hours. ‘Your time was 21:59. You fin­ished in 25th place out of 326 Parkrun­ners. You came sev­enth in your cat­e­gory VM40-44.’ This looks like a race to me – not only against ev­ery­one present on the day but also, through the age grade per­cent­age (mine was 62 per cent), ev­ery­one in your age group around the world.

And it’s Alice Holt For­est through which I’m now run­ning at a se­date eight-minute-mile pace, pre-emp­tive guilt cours­ing through my body. As my cho­sen spot ap­proaches I slow to a walk, hands on head, then veer off into the for­est feign­ing ex­haus­tion/ ill­ness/a call of na­ture emer­gency (my act­ing skills aren’t quite ad­vanced enough to dif­fer­en­ti­ate). By the time I’ve fin­ished not hav­ing a wee, most of the field have passed.

I strip off my flu­o­res­cent top and red cap to re­veal an an­o­dyne grey vest, and look at my watch: seven min­utes have elapsed. I’ve got around 11 to kill. Sun dap­ples the for­est floor; it’s a warm sum­mer’s morn­ing and rather pleas­ant. Soon I hear a foot­fall and pant­ing, and a wiry chap in a green vest bounds past. A hun­dred me­tres be­hind him is an­other run­ner – he’ll cer­tainly know he’s sec­ond. A pause, and three more. Time to make my move. I inch nearer the track, keep­ing my­self con­cealed, then empty my wa­ter bot­tle over my head and set off up the hill around 20 feet be­hind the sixth-placed run­ner.

He’s strug­gling. I’m cer­tainly not. I pass him, pant­ing the­atri­cally, and emerge on to the crest of the hill and the gaunt­let of vol­un­teers mark­ing the fin­ish line. ‘Great ef­fort!’ says one, as I pass, faux pain etched on my face. I stop the clock at 20:06 – around two min­utes quicker than my per­sonal best – and go to get my bar­code scanned. Slightly il­log­i­cally, I’m dis­ap­pointed not to have bro­ken the magic 20-minute mark.

I don’t hang around, walk­ing back into the for­est and then loop­ing round to walk down the track I’ve just run up. The trickle of fin­ish­ers is now swelling and I get to see the vast ma­jor­ity of the 300 or so run­ners pass. Beam­ing young­sters; dads with prams; a cou­ple of 70-some­thing ladies hold­ing hands as they chuck­le­gri­mace their way up the hill; and, right at the back, a good three or four min­utes af­ter ev­ery­one else, a proud mum with her very young daugh­ter – no more than four or five. ‘You’re do­ing so well, my love – al­most there,’ she en­cour­ages. I can’t meet their eyes. I feel grubby. This should be the plight of all race cheats, I de­cide. To walk the course in re­verse or­der, to see the whites of your fel­low run­ners’ eyes.

My of­fi­cial re­sults ar­rive a few hours later, when I’m sit­ting at home feel­ing un­sat­is­fied; run­ning for just eight min­utes doesn’t suit me. I post the fol­low­ing on my Twit­ter and In­sta­gram ac­counts: ‘Smashed it in my 5km Parkrun this morn­ing – took 2 min­utes off my per­sonal best, with 20:06. That tan­ta­lis­ing “break­ing 20” is within reach, it seems.’

I get five likes, two retweets and a sarky com­ment from a col­league. Pretty small re­turn for my in­tegrity. I post again a few days later. ‘I’ve got a con­fes­sion. I cheated in my Parkrun.’ A far greater buzz this time. Derek Mur­phy, whom I’d fore­warned, gets in touch. He thinks my mar­gin of im­prove­ment would have been just about within the realms of the plau­si­ble. ‘It is pos­si­ble the guy that fin­ished right be­hind may have de­cided to look at your his­tory, but short of an eye­wit­ness, I think you would have got away with it.’

I take lit­tle pride in that. I do in­deed feel like I’ve cheated my­self. But, also, strangely, like I’ve cheated the en­tire sport of run­ning and, by as­so­ci­a­tion, any­one who laces up their train­ers to pit them­selves against oth­ers for lit­tle more than the fun and sat­is­fac­tion of do­ing so. [Dun­can con­tacted Parkrun prior to pub­li­ca­tion to ex­plain what he’d done, and his time has been an­nulled.]

Robert John­son puts it best: ‘The av­er­age per­son that runs gets into the sport for a sim­ple rea­son: the harder you work, the bet­ter you get, by push­ing your body to the limit. Peo­ple who cheat in these am­a­teur races – they’re openly mock­ing that. ‘So if you ask me whether I have a prob­lem with other run­ners go­ing af­ter them, I’d have to say…ab­so­lutely not.’

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