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.