(Image: Scatter plot of BAA Marathon finish times by Bib number. Source: marathoninvestigation.com)
To say I have mixed feelings about modern Internet sleuthing to find Marathon cheaters is to put it mildly. On the one hand, there’s something absolutely fascinating about watching “The Internet” sift through race splits from timing mats, official race photos and videos, qualifying times, public data from GPS tracking services, and social media posts to slowly develop the incontrovertible evidence that someone didn’t run the time and distance they claimed. It’s fascinating in the same way an accident or fire is fascinating: at first you just want to see what the fuss is about, but soon you find you can’t turn away. On the other hand, is it healthy to be so obsessed with other people’s misbehavior? Of course it’s wrong to cheat, and we all want to see justice done, but is it right to feel so good when the result is that a fellow human being’s name and reputation are shamed so thoroughly in the new public square?
On Wednesday, Runner’s World posted an article about those who cheat to get in to the Boston Marathon, and those who have dedicated their time and investigative skills to finding the cheaters and bringing them to the attention of race directors and the public (Dozens Suspected of Cheating to Enter Boston Marathon).
The article describes the work of Derek Murphy, who maintains the blog www.marathoninvestigation.com, and the virtual community of those who help him track down course-cutters, bib-buyers, and other rule-breakers. The article and story have been picked up by other media outlets, including the Boston Globe, which ran its own story this morning (Literal armchair sleuth spends his time trying to catch Boston Marathon cheaters) and used it as yet another excuse to run a photo of the patron saint of marathon cheaters Rosie Ruiz.
We should be cheering this, right? This is the kind of systematic effort that we need to snag those who, like the forever disgraced Mike Rossi, quietly try to game the system to get that all-important qualifying time for Boston and then brag about it.
But wait a minute… This is about more than blatant course-cutting. The investigative net is also designed to catch those who buy (and sell) their Boston numbers, who “hire” other people run races under their name, and who find other ways around the strict and severe Boston Marathon entry procedures. According to the RW article, there’s a black market out there in which faster runners offer to run with someone else’s Bib, and guarantee any qualifying time they need.
Am I the only one who feels the need to pause at this point and ask whether this is such an awful thing?
The Boston Marathon used to have an almost-proud tradition of harboring bandits — runners who would sneak into the race numberless and run for the Hell of it. In these days of heightened security, the bandits are gone, I guess, or certainly no longer visible or tolerated. Now everyone has to be legit. And for some reason that continues to puzzle me, the demand for official entries into Boston has been rising steadily. An official number is now a very hot item, and given the limited supply, the demand has created the right conditions for people to bend the rules to get one.
For the record, I have never bought or sold or borrowed or loaned a number for a race. I have never cheated to obtain a qualifying time. (I almost wrote that I have never cut a course, but only four days ago I definitely cut the course at Doyle’s to avoid that big puddle in the road at the start, and so did several of my friends. Let me take this opportunity to publicly apologize to my friends, family, fellow competitors, and the entire running community. I know that it was wrong, and I am ready to forfeit my fraudulently-obtained 60th place finish. If it matters, I willingly gave up my beer ticket so as not to further enjoy my ill-gotten gains.) But reading the Runner’s World article, the first thought that came to my mind when I read about runners selling their services was that it seemed like a pretty benign economic transaction.
I mean, if a man or woman can run a BQ, and wants to sell the number they have earned to someone else who isn’t as fast but desperately wants a number so they can accompany their sibling on the race of a lifetime, well — what’s so wrong about that? That’s probably better money than the same fast runner could make in a year of trying to win prizes at local road races. Yeah, I know the argument about security concerns, and knowing who’s in the race and who isn’t, but that just doesn’t seem to me such a huge problem. And speaking of economics. what about Charity runners, who “buy” their way into the race by agreeing raise a certain amount of money for a good cause? I’m fine with the charity runners and the BAA’s decision to allow them in large numbers, but why is one of those economically-driven ways of getting into Boston OK and the other is not?
Maybe, for the sake of argument, the BAA should let a certain number of people qualify, and then either have a lottery for the rest of the entries (like New York and other major marathons), or auction off the rest of the numbers to the highest bidders — or simply raise the entry fees? Why not let people pay for the privilege of participating, if it’s that important to them?
If I were a more cynical person, I might almost convince myself that the BAA has constructed the qualifying process to drive up the demand for marathon entries and perpetuate the idea that nothing is as important as earning that BQ. I don’t remember it ever being such a big deal, even when the qualifying time was 20 minutes faster. In any case, I feel that the fetishizing of the BQ has inflamed the desire for the Mike Rossi’s of the world (and a lot of people who are much nicer than Rossi) to risk their reputations to get into the race.
A few years ago, I coached a girl who was not fast, but really liked to run long distances. In the spring of her senior year of high school, she ran a half-marathon (in about 2:20, if I remember correctly). The following spring, right around Marathon time, she ran 26.2 miles just to see whether she could do it. She didn’t run at Boston or at any other organized marathon, she just went for a run and used a GPS watch, and when she had run all those miles, she stopped, satisfied. Maybe she completed that run in five hours or maybe it was faster or slower. Maybe it was actually 26.1 miles or maybe a little longer than 26.2. None of that seemed particularly important to her, or took away from her sense of accomplishment.
At the time, I thought it was weird. Why not run in an official race? Wouldn’t it be cool to have a number and cross a finish line and half an official photographer snap your photo so you could display it proudly on your Facebook page and put a little 26.2 sticker on your car? Nope, none of that mattered to her.
I’m beginning to think she was on to something.