Race Times, Physiology, and Statistics

I was going to write about something else today, but then the story of ‘Marathon Dad’ Mike Rossi stirred up LetsRun like a wounded Zebra wandering alone in the Serengeti.

In the unlikely event you haven’t been following the story, Rossi used social media (and traditional media) to scold the principal at his kids’ school for not going along with his decision to pull the kids out of school for three days to watch him run the Boston Marathon. The story took a dramatic twist when Internet sleuths began looking at his race results and pointed to the strong circumstantial evidence that he had cheated to qualify for Boston. The public shaming is in full stampede mode, and whatever else you think of him, he is likely to be trampled.

I refuse to judge someone I don’t know. But I also refuse to look away. I can’t help myself because there is something utterly fascinating about trying to discover the truth about someone who claims an accomplishment that seems beyond improbable. I do not wish for this stranger to suffer, but I’m just like everyone else in wanting to know whether he cheated his way to a Boston Qualifier.

What interests me most is the way in which runners and non-runners assess the probability that he ran the times he claims.

I suspect that when presented with Rossi’s running history — his previous times and his progression over several years — a non-runner thinks that it is entirely possible that he had “the race of his life” at the Lehigh Valley Marathon, where he recorded a finishing time of 3:11. A runner sees the same history, and thinks “no way.” Why the discrepancy?

Runners are prickly about times. Times are more than mere measurement; they are an indication of hard-earned status and a validation of an immense amount of commitment and preparation. A runner comes to value and know the significance of times to seconds or even tenths of second (in shorter races) and to minutes (in longer ones). When a pro football player like Adrian Peterson, who ran 10.19 in high school, claims he could leave football and become a world-class sprinter, knowledgeable runners and track fans scoff in disbelief. It would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a Nike-branded needle than for a former 10.19 sprinter to run sub-10.00 after ten years of abuse from NFL defenses.

Similarly, when Paul Ryan claimed to have run under 3 hours for a marathon, runners who knew what it meant (physically and mentally) to run a sub-3:00 marathon reacted with infuriated disbelief, and ultimately outed him for his extreme exaggeration (if I recall, his actual time was 4:05).

Non-runners do not have the same context or investment in times, and so blatantly false claims seem to fall within the realm of possibility. I suppose this is why movies that feature heart-warming stories of underdogs running marathons on pure “heart” rankle real runners so much: grit and determination go a long way, but they don’t turn a 4-hour marathoner into a 3-hour marathoner, or a 2:30 marathoner into a runner who can win Boston.

But there is no reason on earth why a non-runner should know or care about these distinctions. For a non-runner, the difference between, say, a 4:30 mile and a 4:00 mile is like the difference between Portsmouth, New Hampshire and Portsmouth, England. There is an ocean in between, but unless you’ve tried to cross that ocean, you probably won’t appreciate how different the two places are.

So this Rossi guy has been running for a few years and he has quite a few results from other races at various distances. To a non-runner, the record looks benign, but to a runner, it is damning evidence that the 3:11 marathon doesn’t add up. For example, his 10k, 10M, and half marathon times are all at a slower pace than his alleged marathon PR. This isn’t just unlikely, it is only possible in an alternate universe.

Sadly, when a runner tries to explain this to a non-runner, it never goes well. Likewise, when a runner tries to explain why they spend hours poring over race results to assemble the evidence to “prove” that a person could not possibly have run a marathon in the time they’ve claimed, non-runners just shake their heads. Why so obsessed with a few minutes this way or that way?

But ultimately my answer as a runner is that it isn’t about my particular sub-culture and its taboos, it’s about physiology and statistics. A few days ago, I ran a five-mile race at roughly six minutes per mile. That’s entirely consistent and plausible with past race results and my entire history as a competitive runner. The chances that I could run that same race at five-minute pace are not slim, they’re zero. If they were anything other than zero then everything, including my six-minute pace would be meaningless numbers unrelated to the actual world, or any other world I’d want to live in.

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for the past thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. About a dozen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past eight years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, MA. I've been writing for as long as I've been running. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and after a two-year hiatus, began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. In my experience, writing about running is way harder than running itself. I also still have a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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14 Responses to Race Times, Physiology, and Statistics

  1. I read this yesterday, and expected 60+ pages of comments when I came back to check this morning…

  2. jonileigh says:

    I have found myself addicted to this thread – checking back far more frequently than I should for any new evidence or analysis, and wondering why I feel so compelled by it. I have come to the same verdict that most have, perhaps because not to do so would be to challenge the very foundation of why I train and race – that there are physiologic limits to what I am capable of, but with a steady regimen of work, I can push those limits further.

    Unlike most areas of our lives where progress is subjective or unquantifiable, in running and racing, we can meticulously track our progress, to see if our attempts as self improvement is having the desired effect, and make adjustments if it isn’t. You don’t have to be a professional runner, or even a mid-packer to take joy in this process of pushing the limits of your own abilities. And while the seasons best, PR or victory over a local rival gives us great pride in the proof that we have pushed the limit of our ability just a little bit further, it is during the hours of intervals around the local track, sprints up snow covered hills and Sunday mornings spent running through trails with our favorite running buddies that those limits are actually increased.

    The more I reflect on the thread and the situation, the more sad I feel for Mr. Rossi. He clearly got caught by the running bug. According to his cached blog, he ran his first race in 2013. Almost immediately, its seems he set a target of running in the Boston Marathon. It is an ambitious target for a new runner, but he probably didn’t know how ambitious it was, and even if he did, there is nothing wrong with having a dream goal to work toward. Mr. Rossi set out immediately in pursuit of his target – he entered a marathon the following fall, and a number of half marathons, 10 milers, and 5ks along the way. Like many new runners, he started feeling good and quickly increased his mileage – resulting in injuries and set backs. The problem for Mr. Rossi, is ultimately, he didn’t want to GET better, he wanted to BE better.

    When this all blows over, I hope that Mr. Rossi is able to return to relative anonymity and road racing. I hope that he can take joy in the process of breaking down muscles one fiber at a time, of getting stronger and faster, running longer and trying to best his previous PRs. If he did cheat, I hope he comes clean. Not because I want or need to know, but because I want him to be able to experience the pride of seeing days and weeks and months and years of efforts rewarded with a time that is faster than you ever thought you were capable of, and I want him to be able to share the joy in that accomplishment with the people who love him. There’s nothing quite like it.

  3. jonileigh says:

    Also, thanks to this controversy for unearthing some fabulous performances by NNHS grads at the 2014 Via Marathon; Congrats to Ben Chebot (1st place overall, 2:40:56) and Dan Chebot (5th place overall, 2:45:43)!

    http://www.racephotonetwork.com/QPPlus/Proofs.aspx

  4. Jon Waldron says:

    Joni, your comment says it much better than I did. I think the way you put it — “he didn’t want to GET better, he wanted to BE better” — is spot on, as well as wise and generous. Thank you so much.

  5. What an excellent and reasoned post. You did a wonderful job avoiding the vitriol that’s in many of the posts I’ve seen about this while still explaining why runners might have a strong reaction to this story.

  6. Jon Waldron says:

    Thank you, David!

  7. Kevin Y says:

    Like others, I find myself reading the LRC thread and watching for updates on RW, though nothing significant has emerged for days. Your post is the best summation of what most of us are thinking. I don’t have strong feelings about his viral letter to the principal and bear no ill will against this stranger. But it’s like my runner brain just can’t compute his 3:11 at the Via Marathon and wants to reconcile the inconsistencies.

    Having spent a good six months sacrificing sleep, family time and socializing to focus on training for a PR at Boston last month, it’s hard for me to understand how some people – and even some novice runners – can’t fathom why it matters. You said it so well here: “Runners are prickly about times. Times are more than mere measurement; they are an indication of hard-earned status and a validation of an immense amount of commitment and preparation.”

    After all of that commitment and preparation, most of us when questioned about whether a PR was valid would not only rush to open up our training logs, GPS files and race splits – but do so with glee. The race result is the culmination of all of that work done in obscurity. This is one of the main reasons I can’t understand why Rossi went into hiding if his 3:11 was valid. I know if it were me, I’d share with anyone who’d listen what I did for months in training to achieve a massive PR.

    Thanks again for your well-reasoned post. I look forward to reading your blog on a regular basis.

  8. Mai says:

    I agree with others that you eloquently explained the situation without resorting to vitriol. I am a mid-pack hobby runner, but I certainly know the work it took for me to shave one minute, or heck even 30 seconds, off my pace for a 5k or 10k. Doing so for 26.2. takes even more work, which is probably why Mr. Rossi rubbed so many hard core runners the wrong way.

    Thanks for a great post and glad to stumble upon your blog.

  9. In the overall big picture , it doesn’t matter ….., but a lot of people on LR have convinced themselves it does . As stated in this article , the average person who isn’t a runner will have no comprehension , nor care if Rossi ran 3:11 or 4:11, or an other number . Whatever decision to DQ him or not DQ him ( 8 months after the fact I will add ) it will not effect Rossi in anyway at all . WHY ? ….. because the general public in whole as a majority does not care or pay attention to running. Therefore , the public shaming , or miserable “after Boston ” life that the LR posters are all frothing at the mouth for will not resonate with the general public. What do these people think they’re going to do ? Be recognized for the congressional medal of honor? Win a free trip to Disney / I can just see them all at their local watering hole, Walmart , or Cineplex : ” Hi , I’m Mr/Ms LR blogger who exposed Rossi as a cheater at VIA …. Mr/Ms General Public : ” Who’s Rossi , and what is VIA , and why do i care ?……..again once more ….none of this matters.

    • Jon Waldron says:

      Hi Jennifer, thank you for your comment, although I have to disagree with your sentiment.

      “In the overall big picture, it doesn’t matter” – That’s true, I suppose, but I think that the overall big picture is a misleading guide to how individuals choose to act and what they choose to care about.

      J. M. Keynes famously wrote, “in the long run, we’re all dead,” but not to imply that short-term concerns don’t matter, but rather that if we only pay attention to the big picture, we set ourselves too easy a task.

      For most runners, training matters — a lot. For a variety of reasons, it’s a very real and important part of our lives to train hard and fight for a few seconds here or there, even if we never win an Olympic medal, qualify for Boston, or even impress our non-running relatives who think we’re wasting our time. I think that’s why we care about Rossi’s cheating.

      As to what non-runners think of this, I decided to ask my wife, who is a complete non-runner and has a long track record of putting me in my place when my running enthusiasm gets out of control. I asked her what she thought of Mike Rossi and about the fascination that runners feel for showing that what he did was not possible. Her response was that the rules are there for a reason, and if he cheated, then bringing that to light mattered.

  10. newrman says:

    Very well written. It’s strange for me, I am 49 and have been running again only for about 2 years and have run 2 marathons in that time (as well as a number of other races). I train hard and follow my plans and logged almost 1500 miles last year training. My PRs are almost identical to Mike Rossi’s, 22 minute 5K, 1:40 Half and 3:47 marathon and the chances that I could rip a 3:11 in any marathon (except being dropped from 26.2 miles and falling to the finish) as nill, absolutely zero.

    I ran Philly last Fall and finished 3 minutes behind Mike, yet supposedly this guy, who is the same age group as me, all the same PRs (except marathon, where his is about 3 minutes better than mine) and trains much less than me ran a 3:11? NFW….

    Some day I am hope to run a BQ, and as I just passed 50 the BQ times are meeting me in the middle a bit, but if and when I do it will be because I earned it.

  11. Jon Waldron says:

    Thanks for the comment, newrman. If you have only been back to running for two years, then that 3:25 is not out of reach. Good luck!

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