Almost fifteen years ago, I started working on a small technical team at a large company. My boss collected some personal information about me and introduced me to the team. Inevitably, one of the personal details he revealed was that I was an avid runner. This was especially relevant because one of the other members of the team was also an avid runner. We had running in common, therefore we had something to talk about, therefore we had a way to bond with and get to know each other.

The only problem was that, each time I tried to talk to him about marathon running, he hastened through the conversation without saying much. It was disappointing for me, because I heard him having fun running-related discussions with other coworkers. With me, though, he was always very brief; not curt, exactly, but brief.

After many months of failed attempted conversations, he finally "admitted" to me that he had "only" run one marathon. That didn't matter to me; I just wanted to talk to him about running. The way he told me, though, gave me the strong impression that he had been caught in a lie, as though I was a "real" runner because I had had a pretty good amateur running career, whereas he was -- what, exactly? -- something less because he had "only" run one marathon. 

It was confusing to me. I didn't care how many marathons he had run or how fast he was, or even how many miles he ran per week. So why did he?

*        *        *

I was thinking about this old coworker of mine today after reading an old post at MarathonInvestigation.com about a social media influencer who calls her self "RunGiaRun." Apparently, Gia had given her Boston Marathon bib to a friend, who ran in her stead. This is against the rules at the Boston Marathon, mostly because what's to stop me from paying Meb Keflizighi to run the Boston Marathon with my bib and chipset, therefore logging a very good time for me. I get to bask in all the accolades -- and perhaps some lucrative coaching fee income -- without having to put in the work required to actually run well at the Boston Marathon. Everyone wins, except the integrity of the Boston Marathon, I guess.

So, Derek at Marathon Investigation once again "catches" middling housewife social media influencer breaking the rules, and his work results in a lifetime ban from the Boston Marathon. Good work, I guess? An anonymous comment left at MI reflects my views on the subject (comment reformatted for readability):
I've never run Boston as I only ever ran one marathon on a lark and ran 3:18 when the qualifier was 3:11. However, I was a serious runner with PRs from 9:11 for 3000 to 56:11 for 10 miles so had I focused I'm sure I could have. 
I would never run as a charity runner because I think that is cheating your way in as well. 
All of that said… Is this really the best use of your time? Getting all worked up about 3:30 marathoners?
Throughout my dive into the world of Marathon Investigation, I've been left scratching my head over why all these slow runners care about equally slow cheats. What does it matter? Why all the vitriol? Why does the word "cheat" send these people into a sputtering frenzy of indignation? Why does all this eat at people so much?

Derek, for his part, appears to be relatively stoic about it all. That can't be the whole story, though, because he's reached the point where he owns a website dedicated to catching middle-of-the-pack road race cheats. He obviously cares about this enough to pursue it with a lot of his free time. As for the commentariat, well... sputtering frenzy.

Here's a sample of the replies to that anonymous comment:
Anon, congrats on being a very fast runner. Not all of us are as fast you apparently are. I, personally, think 3:30 is a damn good marathon time. I've hovered around the 4:00 mark. Faster runners should support slower ones, not belittle their speed with comments questioning why people are "getting worked up about 3:30 marathoners," as if those runners are not important to the sport... [ed: comment continues for a couple of paragraphs]
 Suddenly, I understood what people were getting worked up about.

*        *        *

One way to interpret this indignant response to the comment about 3:30 marathoners is to realize that Gia Alvarez wasn't cheating against the dude who ran a 3:10 practically in his sleep. No, she was cheating against the dude who hovers around the 4:00 mark. She was cheating against the runners who "think that 3:30 is a damn good marathon time." Who cares about middling marathon cheaters? Middling marathon runners, of course! They're vying for a spot that Gia Alvarez cheated to get. How dare she?

Still, though, why do they care? There are literally thousands of runners who run faster than 3:30 in any given major marathon, and tens of thousands more runners who can do it in their sleep, like that anonymous guy. I'm diabetic and haven't run a marathon in more than ten years, and I could probably do it without thinking twice. With so many people in the world who regularly run faster than that, why do these people care so much that Gia Alvarez cheated?

It starts to make sense when you see their indignation for what it really is: painfully sharp jealousy. Envy.

These runners would love to be able to run faster than they run. For whatever reason -- lack of time, lack of understanding about what it takes to get faster, lack of proper coaching support, whatever -- they're unable to crack the 4:00 marathon mark, and certainly unable to qualify for a major marathon like Boston.

It's not that they want to be as fast as Gia Alvarez, it's that they want everything that comes with it. They want the social media following, and the appearances in fitness magazines. They want the glamorous social media photos...

They want to be what my old coworker was before I arrived: The person everyone in their circle associates with running. When someone cheats against the top-down rules of a game, it doesn't really matter much. But, when someone cheats against the identity you wish you had, that's much more serious. That is, in fact, a narcissistic injury, fueled entirely by the envy of middling people who wish they were more than middling.

I don't think Derek at Marathon Investigation really gets this. I think he probably sees himself as someone who is protecting the integrity of road racing. I don't think he puts two-and-two together when it comes to paying attention to his audience is.

If you provide content for a bunch of sputtering rage-mongers who wish they were Gia Alvarez, it might be pertinent to ask yourself why your content appeals to so many people like that. You can tell a lot about your own thoughts by paying attention to who they resonate with. Aspirational marketing and social media influencing are the kind of activities that appeal to society's envy. Road race cheating is the other side of that same envy.

I, personally, can't fathom the thought processes of people who dream of being Gia Alvarez, rather than Deena Kastor. If you have dreams, why not dream big? If you wish you were someone, why not wish you were someone genuinely amazing? What is it about Gia that makes her life more envious than Deena's?

I think it's because, if you're Deena Kastor, you don't stand around the water cooler giving your coworkers tips on how to run or telling them stories about the zany cheats in the Boston Marathon. If you're Deena Kastor, you spend your time with other great athletes, or you write articles or give TV commentary to news agencies like ESPN. Gia Alvarez, by contrast, probably gives a lot of advice at the water cooler, or the PTA meeting, or wherever it is she gives advice. She lives an attainable sort of fame, the kind you wouldn't have to try very hard to get.

Except, of course, that you do have to try hard to get it. You have to spend your time cheating in the Boston Marathon. What a mess.


  1. A couple of comments:

    1. Maybe the explanation for the motivation to pursue cheaters is not envy, but an innate desire for fairness (https://www.nytimes.com/2003/09/18/us/genetic-basis-to-fairness-study-hints.html). For a quite funny video of this in a monkey experiment: https://youtu.be/meiU6TxysCg .

    2. This post is an interesting juxtaposition with the one about the photographers in Iceland. Maybe part of your objection is that it doesn't seem fair that those photographers are being credited with more of a wilderness experience than they actually had?

    1. Regarding 1, the reason I think there is more to it than a mere desire for fairness is the vitriol associated with the responses. It's not a sense of fairness that drives someone to hound a man until he commits suicide. A desire for fairness might be innate, but flying into a rage upon the mere mention of someone cheating their way to the back-of-the-middle-of-the-pack is way too weird to be a mere innate sense of fairness; although I don't doubt for a second that such an innate sense exists.

      Regarding 2, you're probably right, but there's also something more. So first, I want to acknowledge that you were very perceptive in seeing that, even if I myself had not fully grasped it. But second -- especially when it comes to my beloved running -- it bothers me that the image-conscious runner has taken over the "running narrative," if you will. Running, like traveling to Iceland, becomes more about the "trappings" than about the authenticity of the experience. In my opinion, this is the major difference between running today versus running 20 years ago. It has slowly eroded the parts of the sport that I love most -- the solitude, the communion with nature, the respect for speed and personal accomplishment -- and has replaced it with something that looks from my vantage point like a shallow pursuit of external validation. I feel passionately about the idea that internal validation is more valuable and can make the world a better place than external validation. It's been a constant theme for most of my blog over the years.

      Whether there is a deeper-seeded sense of fairness driving this pursuit in me, however, is actually a really interesting question that I'll have to spend time thinking about. I thank you for raising it.