Derek Murphy operates marathoninvestigation.com.
Cheating in the Boston Marathon on Monday will be much harder than it was in 1980 when an unknown runner named Rosie Ruiz slipped onto the 26.2-mile course less than a mile from the finish line and won the women’s division with a blistering time — while barely breaking a sweat.
As suspicions about Ruiz increased and the marathon’s organizers searched for evidence, witnesses emerged saying that they’d seen Ruiz run onto the course. After eight days, her victory was nullified.
But cheaters are going to cheat, and although race organizers have instituted plenty of measures since 1980 to try to catch them — or at least to make cheating less tempting — it still happens.
Four years ago, I became fascinated by the case of a runner named Mike Rossi. He had gained Internet fame for defending taking his children out of school in Rydal, Pa., so they could watch him run in the Boston Marathon. Soon, other runners began analyzing how Rossi had qualified for Boston at the Via Marathon in Lehigh Valley, Pa., the year before by posting a time not even close to his usual, slower results. Though Rossi denied it, the evidence — he appeared in Via race photos only at the start and the finish — strongly suggested he had cut the course.
At the time, I had completed 10 marathons (I’m no threat ever to qualify for Boston), and I wondered how common course-cutting is. I examined race results for anomalies such as Rossi’s and quickly found either a course cutter or someone who had suddenly acquired superhuman powers. The closer I looked, the more cheaters I found. Now I operate a website called marathoninvestigation.com, and I’m never short of material.
Road-race organizers have responded since the days of Ruiz with a variety of anti-cheating security measures, including implanting electronic chips in runners’ bibs that will register their “split” times as they cross sensor mats laid down at various points along the route. Most races have photographers stationed along the course, taking photos for runners to purchase as mementos, but also providing time-stamped evidence to show that a runner was on the course, to determine pace and to verify identities.
The uploading of splits data to websites is helpful in detecting course cutters. But there are other ways of cheating, and other ways to catch it.
Some runners don’t plan on cheating in the Boston Marathon, but they will cheat to try to qualify for it. One technique is “bib muling” — when runners who want to qualify for a big event recruit a better runner to wear a bib registered under their name and run at a less prestigious event, recording a time that will qualify for the race they really want to run. A 60-year-old male runner qualified for this year’s Boston Marathon by turning in a solid 3:28:25 at the 2018 Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minn. Except he did it by putting his bib up for sale online and choosing as his buyer an athletic woman in her 20s, who didn’t realize that she would be his unwitting accomplice. He was later banned for life from Grandma’s, and he no longer appears on the list of the accepted entrants for Boston.
Bib mules or bib swappers are sometimes caught by other competitors, who notify me. Frequently, the cheaters provide evidence against themselves. Beyond trying to gain an undeserved marathon qualification, cheaters have plenty of other motives, ones that can then trip them up. Some are seeking trophies or ribbons, but others just “cheat for likes” on social media, posing with a medal for finishing a race they didn’t run so they can share it on Instagram or Facebook. When a slow runner posts online about qualifying for the Boston Marathon, or about an age-group victory, someone in their social media audience may well report them to me or to race organizers.
The public impression may be that runners’ cheating is on the rise, but I don’t think that’s the case. News about people being caught may make it seem that cheating is epidemic, but my sense is that chronic, blatant cheaters are now being caught and disqualified. Many of them have given up cheating — or given up running.
Some say most cheaters are hurting only themselves, so leave them alone unless they’re cheating to win. I disagree. All cheating matters. Even if someone who is course-cutting or using a bib mule isn’t doing it to steal a podium spot or qualify for Boston, they’re still showing contempt for all the runners out there who are running an honest race.