Today, I became aware of a website called MarathonInvestigation.com, and I'm experiencing a flood of emotions.

The website, which is independently run and appears to be funded by the voluntary PayPal contributions of its readers, investigates claims of cheating in road races. Many of these races are, of course, major events like the Boston Marathon, but not all of them are. Many of the runners being investigated - in fact, most of them, as far as I can tell - are not race winners. Many of them aren't even age group winners or frontrunners. A lot of the people who are investigated, and generally confirmed as cheaters, are just average people who are middling or even bad runners, but who somehow end up cutting their races short and then claim later to have run the full race.

This is a mentality that I cannot understand. On some level, it makes sense for an athlete to attempt to cheat in order to win. I don't personally believe in cheating, but at least I can reason out why someone would cheat in a bid to win a race. But I cannot even begin to understand why someone who had no hope of winning would pretend to have finished a full race.

First of all, if you try your hardest on race day, there's no shame coming in second, third, or even last place. Disappointment is certainly understandable from anyone who ended up performing worse than they wanted to. But there's no shame in it. It's not shameful to run poorly, it's not shameful to run slowly, it's not shameful to finish last, it's not even shameful to drop out of the race. It is shameful to cheat. No one should be so afraid of a bad day at the races that they would be willing to cheat to avoid it.

Second of all, unless you're a professional runner in a major race with real prize money attached, there isn't much at stake in the average road race. Many major races won't even let someone collect prize money unless they are registered as an elite racer in the first place. No one actually cares if you finish the race or not. Your spouse will give you a hug and take you out for pizza to cheer you up, your colleagues will politely ask you why you had to drop out, and then everyone will go back to living their lives. Finishing a road race doesn't actually impact anyone.

So, why are people cheating?

One explanation involves stealing bibs. I only learned about this today, but it is apparently possible to make a little money by fabricating race bibs and then selling them online. You put up an ad that says, "Oh, I registered for this race, but now I can't run it. I'll sell it to someone who wants it." I don't think re-selling a legitimately purchased race bib is morally problematic even if it is against a particular race's rules, but making phony bibs and selling them is obviously a form of fraud and a type of stealing. In many cases, people who purchase these illegitimate race bibs know they're buying fakes, and do it anyway, to save money on the race or to gain access to the extras that races often make available to participants: t-shirts, coupons, freebies, swag, and the like.

So, that explains people who steal bibs.

Another explanation is that many people who cheat appear to have a strong social media presence and sizeable community of followers and friends. If I enter a race and find that I can't finish for some reason, all I have to do is stop running; but if I were running to benefit a major charity or to advertise for a business venture, logging a DNF ("did not finish") might be a problem. If people essentially paid you to do a thing, and you couldn't finish the thing, you might feel obligated to give them their money back. Pretending to have run the whole race anyway enables you to run away from that particular issue.

I'm sure there are also people out there who are either too poor or too stingy to pay the registration fee. They cross the starting line, run the full race, and then the expectation is that they step aside near the finish line, without crossing it, so as to make clear that they are not official race participants. In the past, I have jokingly referred to these folks as "race bandits" or "race pirates." I've never seen any of them steal participation medals or pretend to have registered. Most of them, in my experience, are people who want to do a time-trial but don't want the pressure of real competition. Or sometimes they only heard about the race the night before and wanted to jump in to get a faster trial time, but didn't want to bother with proper registration and wanted the option of canceling at the last minute without losing their registration fee. I myself have never done this, but I've also never considered it morally problematic. As long as you step out of the race before you cross the finish line, and don't ruin anyone else's race while you're there, I don't see that you've committed any moral infraction.

This last point puts me a little at odds with the people who run the website. Apparently they, and probably lots of other people, consider this kind of "banditing" unethical. I think, big deal. As long as someone doesn't help themselves to race freebies and amenities, they're only really cheating themselves.

…And I guess that's one my strongest reactions to this whole concept. People who cheat in fun runs and road races, especially when there's nothing important at stake and they have no chance of winning, are only really cheating themselves out of a legitimate race-day performance. If they care about tracking their performances over time, cheating in the race gives you, at best, an asterisk. It's a data point you'll always have to ignore, knowing that it doesn't accurately reflect your performance.

Then there are people like this guy. This guy apparently ran a legitimate Boston Marathon in 1996, and clocked a 3:05, which is a very respectable time for a recreational runner. Good for him. For years, though, he's been re-using his 1996 race bib to run the marathon, cross the finish line, pose for photos, and collect swag. Why would he do this? Marathon Investigation discovered that the man is a graduate of the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT. So he is a good runner, a smart person, likely very successful in life. Why would a guy like that steal Boston Marathon entry year after year? What's going on with that guy?

There's another side of this that has a big impact on me. As far as I can see, Marathon Investigation is run by just one person, who appears to have made a hobby out of outing road race cheaters. On the one hand, this is a valuable service to race organizers who want to minimize theft and fraud and improve the reputations of their races. On the other hand, what kind of person spends his free time outing race bandits? It is definitely pathetic for a person to cheat on a fun run when there's nothing at stake; but spending your hard-earned free time basically tattling on pathetic people who cheat at pathetic things is… weird. Wouldn't you rather spend your free time with your friends or your family, or writing a novel, or making music, or watching a movie, or having a beer, or… What is the mentality of a person who makes it his hobby to get riled up by petty race fraud and diligently report on it?

The last major emotional pull I experienced from discovering this website was reading the story of a woman who won a marathon, but in order to do so, had to almost come to blows with another racer. The other racer kept "boxing her in," not letting her pass. When she tried to pass, she'd get run over of blocked, and when she finally made it past, the offending woman shoved her hard in the back.

I had an emotional reaction to this because it reminds me of an experience I once had. The story quotes a USATF (USA Track and Field, the official governing body of major race competitions in the United States) rule that expressly prohibits this kind of behavior. You're not supposed to obstruct other runners, and of course it goes without saying that you're not supposed to run them off the course or physically accost them.

During my senior year of high school, I competed at "regionals," where all the high schools in my region got together and had a track meet. Going into the 3200m race, I had the second-fastest time in the region and was a favorite to win. I had a plan to beat the first-place-seeded runner, and I felt fresh and confident. The weather was gorgeous. I was ready. When the race started, though, two slower runners deliberately boxed me in and prevented me from passing them. Then they ran a deliberately slow race. Frustrated, I moved over to the third lane and sprinted past them. I successfully passed them, but used all my energy to do it. I blew it and ended up taking third or fourth, I'm not sure which.

A lot of people were disappointed in my decision. They wanted me to hang back with the people who were blocking me, and then maybe out-run them in the final lap. But I was already over 100 meters behind the first-place seed when I blew the race, and the obstructionists were pushing me further and further behind. I could have placed second, but not with a respectable time. It would have been pointless for me to run a race like that. I may have blown it, but at least I went out trying.

But I've never seen that USATF rule before, and USATF rules applied to my high school track and field career. In other words, I just discovered this morning that one of the great "failures" of my running career was actually a case of other runners violating USATF rules in order to beat me. In short, they cheated.

I don't really know how I feel about that. I've spent many years feeling stupid about that race and wondering how I could have overcome their "strategy." It never occurred to me that I didn't have to overcome it in the first place, because they broke the rules in order to beat me.

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