Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Who's Cheating Whom?

(This is the 50th anniversary of my first article in Runner’s World magazine. All year I post excerpts from my book, This Runner’s World.)

October 1997 (retitled in the magazine). When I hear of runners cheating in a race, pretending to do what they didn’t, stealing an honor that wasn’t theirs, I’m as amazed as I am appalled. This crime is foreign to everything most runners believe. If we run mostly to improve and impress ourselves, then the person most cheated is the cheater.

Thousands of runners honored the pledge to themselves to run an honest race last spring at the Boston and Pittsburgh Marathons. A few deviants couldn’t accept the elemental honesty of a certain time over a specific distance.

A husband-wife couple “won” their age-groups at Boston, and a man snuck into seventh place in Pittsburgh’s national-championship division. John Murphy, 61, and Suzanne Murphy, 59, from California claimed to have run 2:43 and 3:12 at Boston. Scott Stakich, a 23-year-old from Pennsylvania, briefly got away with breaking 2:20 at Pittsburgh.

I could have refused to type their names, treating them as the non-finishers they were and anti-runners they are. But greater good may be done by naming them. This might shame them permanently from the sport and deter others tempted to try the same dirty deeds.

If the Murphys and Stakich really believe what they did, they have simple recourse. They can clear their names without going to court but by running another carefully monitored race and coming anywhere near their claimed time.

History says they won’t. Others caught cheating in some of America’s biggest races – Rosie Ruiz, Candy Dodge, Frank Grey, John Bell, Oscar Miranda and their ilk – all protested their innocence. But all failed to make amends in the one way that any runner would accept.

I won’t overstate the problem. Cheaters are as rare in this sport as sub-2:20 American marathoners. But one scofflaw per thousand honorable runners is too many, and surveillance must be vigorous and punishment harsh to root out that one.

When the Murphys and Stakich were nabbed, they raised further suspicions: How often had they gotten away with this before? And how many others do the same and avoid detection?

If secret on-course videotaping or computer-chip technology catch cheaters, what is fitting punishment? A lifetime ban from racing, certainly (though this is usually voluntary, since the exposed seldom show their faces at races again).

Banishment isn’t enough. My friend Geoff Pietsch, once the victim of a cheater at the New York City Marathon, says, “I’d personally favor drawing and quartering, but would settle for jail time. Why shouldn’t someone who steals another’s achievements – honors which matter far more than worldly goods – go to jail?”

Maybe the real age-group winners at Boston, Anthony Cerminaro and Susan Gustafson, should have sued the Murphys. Or maybe officials in Pittsburgh should have charged Stakich with trying to make off with $2500 that wasn’t his (including temporarily picking $500 from the pocket of the real seventh-placer, Michael Dudley).

I’d settle for the cheaters sitting down with a tough interviewer who asks how they would explain themselves to the runners they defrauded, or to their families, or to themselves. They’d have excuses, of course, that let them live with their lies. A shriveled conscience separates the short-cutters from you and me.

Imagine if you were running an out-and-back course... at night... with no other runners and no spectators in sight... no official or video camera at the turnaround... no computer chip in your shoelace. Would you turn back anywhere from a block to a mile early? No one else would know, but your knowing would be punishment enough.

2018 Update. The best catch-a-cheat story I’ve read is Mark Singer’s in New Yorker magazine, 2012. Scott Hubbard did much of the detective work that revealed runner Kip Lipton’s dirty deeds.

[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from The titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Next Steps, Pacesetters, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, Starting Lines, and This Runner’s World, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]

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