Frank Meza And Ideal States

In April, I blogged about the website MarathonInvestigation.com.

It seemed so strange to me that ordinary people would cheat in road races, even with nothing on the line. For example, some people cheat just to be able to say they finished a race; they're not good runners, and they're not earning a top place, not even in their age group. Others cheat just so that they can "qualify" for the Boston Marathon, as though running the Boston Marathon itself is the accomplishment, not qualifying for it in the first place. Others cheat for no other reason than to collect their finisher's medal and have their photo taken at the finish line. Such small stakes, and yet people will cheat.

It also seemed strange to me that so many people would become emotionally invested in the fact that other people cheat for meaningless accomplishments. Don't get me wrong, I'm against cheaters, but I cannot fathom the mindset of a person whose hobby it is to pore over GPX files and race photography in search of evidence of cheating. In my spare time, I like to actually run, rather than prove that someone else didn't run. Or, I like to play music, or kiss my wife, or play with my daughter, or go on a bike ride, or do literally anything other than trying to figure out if some Instagram poster actually finished the race she claims to have run.What an odd hobby.

Well, the latest scandal in the world of cheating at road races is the strange case of Dr. Frank Meza, or Mezza, a retired physician and boys track coach, who was recently disqualified from the Los Angeles Marathon. Here's an LA Times article that neatly summarizes things. I won't rehash the whole thing here, but the basic synopsis of it is that Meza has spent the last ten years posting increasingly better marathon times while running one marathon about every three months! That's astounding in its own right, and his most recent time - the time for which he was disqualified - was an age division world record. No 70-year-old had ever run as fast as that before. Of course, the best evidence suggests that Meza cheated, not only in the most recent LA Marathon, but also in many previous marathons over the years.

People will naturally have a wide variety of reactions to this. In my reading of internet comments, I have found the overwhelming majority of people seem to be either outraged that a man would cheat at all - and the more you cheat, the more terrible a person you are - and smug gloating over the fact that Meza was finally caught.

To be perfectly honest, I cannot understand either of these reactions. I think cheating is wrong, and I think low-level cheating of the sort that Frank Meza is alleged to have done is pitiful. To waste anger on such a pitiful thing is, to me, equally pitiful. How pitiful must a person be to squander time and emotional energy on being angry at some loser for cheating his way to the top of 70-year-olds? And to gloat over something so pitiful is... really nasty. It's pathetic to revel in someone else's shame; and the more pitiful that person is, the more we debase ourselves by reveling in their downfall.

Have these people no dignity? It's understandable to want a cheater to be caught and to be passionate about doing the right thing, but when you see someone like Frank Meza - who is by all accounts an upstanding member of his community and a good mentor to young Latino boys - hit rock-bottom in such a pitiful way, the time for gloating is over. In the end, Meza's downfall is sad, not satisfying. What kind of person would be satisfied by that at all?

Although I can't locate the link now, one of the stories I read about Meza included some quotes from the current world marathon record holder for Meza's age group. He said it would be too bad if Meza cheated, because he was looking forward to racing against him. That's a healthy perspective. It's disappointing that Meza cheated, if that's what happened, and it's sad that it all came to this. Sad and disappointing, not outrageous or satisfying.

During times like these, it's elucidating to ask oneself, "What would the ideal resolution of this look like?" Many commentators on the Meza case hope that Meza is banned, panned, reviled, and that he just goes away. But I don't think that's an ideal resolution.

In my ideal world, Frank Meza would train hard and try to post a great marathon time. Maybe he'd come close to the times he's been posting. Maybe not. Maybe he'd find that running a genuine marathon is more satisfying than cheating. In my ideal world, Meza would humbly attempt to regain his dignity, the running community would forgive him, stop gloating, stop making a spectacle of him, and we'd all go on about our lives - happily.

What surprises me about all of this is that for many people, the ideal resolution to a situation like this is one in which a lot of people still feel really badly.

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