Running's dirty little secret -- cheating -- is out of the closet and currently fodder for chat rooms, bloggers and other pontificators around the world. It all stems from an incident at last month's Marine Corps Marathon, when about eight runners from JeansMarines, a Toronto-based running group, cut about four miles off the 26.2-mile course in order to reach the 14th Street Bridge and the 21-mile mark before the 51/2-hour cutoff time.

That what those runners did was wrong is beyond cavil. Husband and wife founders Jean Marmoreo and Bob Ramsay have, after some initial equivocation, admitted as much and offered apologies. Marine Corps Marathon race director Rick Nealis has banned the group, although not the group's 240 blameless individuals, from participation next year. Last week, most of the cheating runners, including Marmoreo, returned their finishers medals.

What is less clear is the reaction from some of the leaders of the sport, as reported by Amby Burfoot and Runner's World online. Boston Marathon race director Bob McGillivray sees the infraction as a victimless crime, and London Marathon director Dave Bedford told Burfoot that those runners were just cheating themselves.

Not to parse bromides, but isn't a crime, even one without victims, still morally reprehensible? And doesn't the name Rosie Ruiz resonate more with casual sports fans 25 years after her notoriety far more than does Lel Martin, last year's winner in London?

To err is human, but to condone cheating is to undermine the sport.

Far worse than the eight JeansMarines who cut the course at Marine Corps are the additional 320 or so runners whom Nealis has disqualified from this year's official results, up from the 180-200 that he says is the norm. Runners wear transponders that are recorded at timing mats throughout the race, so catching cheaters is fairly simple. And Nealis has already said that next year he'll add more mats to further discourage shortcuts.

Still under investigation is the possibility that hundreds of Team in Training runners also cut the course with the aid and encouragement of team organizers. Some bloggers defended such action as justified because the runners were raising money for charity.

Of the nearly 19,000 finishers at Marine Corps, 320 cheaters is nearly 2 percent. "Is 2 percent cheaters the norm for society?" Nealis asked. "I don't know."

* NEWS YOU CAN -- READ: How about that bombshell last week in the Archives of Internal Medicine, finding that people who exercise regularly live up to four years longer? Guess it goes without saying that they look better, feel better and lead more productive lives.

* GET OUT: On Thursday, more than 7,000 runners will work for their dinners at Turkey Trots in Alexandria, Centreville, Bethesda and the District. Get up, get out and set the example at your Thanksgiving day dinner table.

-- By Jim Hage

hagejim@hotmail.com