On Rosie and Rossi: Cheating in Modern Footraces

A brief examination of running’s most famous course-cutting allegations.

There is a popular aphorism in the running community that single-handedly describes our sport as intense, ridiculous, and simplistic: my sport is your sport’s punishment. Evoking memories of middle school P.E. when we’d realize to our shoulder-slumping chagrin that we’d be running the mile (or as we might call it today, a time trial), this saying reaches the core of what it means to be a runner.

We run, for long periods of time, through pain, for nothing more than to continue running.

It’s not something we do because we arrived late for practice or missed a shot. It’s not something that makes us groan or paint a bright morning into an otherwise somber gray. For many of us, it’s not the stick, but instead the carrot. We run because we enjoy it and its remarkable simplicity. Yes, it’s the foundation for most exercise regimens and a crucial component in many major sports. But lacing up and jostling our heart for a prolonged period of time can be its own reward, and as we stop our watches at the end of another quality workout, we can feel both refreshed and empowered. Those of us with an intense, perhaps unhealthy obsession with statistics will relish at how remarkably easy and satisfying it is to track and quantify our development in the sport, allowing the real, tangible results to speak for themselves.

These results are crucial for many runners. We want to see that we’re either improving or at least maintaining a good level of fitness. We can do this through emotion – from primal elation or the tricky process of measuring “feel” – or by measuring split times. However, the best way to do this, I believe, is through competition. And unlike almost every other sport out there, this is the arena where everyone comes together, from the top athletes in the world to the guy who lost a bet and everyone in between. The glorious stretch of road or trail that we all tread, writing with each step a new chapter in our lives, is a communal path, a shared experience.

So why would anyone want to tarnish the experience by cheating?

Unsurprisingly, there are many reasons, along with a handful of people who do it every year. At the professional level, elite athletes can gain unfair advantages from performance-enhancing substances or oxygenated blood. Organizations such as the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) do their best to crack down on these incidents and provide deterrents to their use. Athletes obviously have many incentives to use these banned substances, such as prize money, national pride and the thrill of winning. On occasion, giants fall, with the most examples in recent years being Kenya’s Rita Jeptoo and Russia’s Liliya Shobukhova. But there has been extensive reporting on this, and it is not what interests me.

I’m more intrigued by what motivates and ultimately causes the average person to cheat in the sport because it sounds so counterintuitive. Thanks to social media, the current running boom has made the sport a meaningful source of support and inspiration. It’s an activity that challenges you to race against thousands of like-minded people, but unless you’re a gifted athlete or a budding amateur, you are competing squarely against yourself. In a showdown against your own best efforts, what can you possibly gain by cheating?

When the average runner cheats, it’s rarely done through the use of performance-enhancing drugs or blood transfusions (and if it happens, the results may not arouse enough suspicion to ever make headlines). Instead, it is usually done by taking shortcuts on the course, or bypassing entire parts of it altogether by car or bike. The intent is obvious: to appear as though one has run the race without actually having to do so. Most of the time, runners are too busy focusing on their breathing and hydration, lost in a carousel of pump-up jams and motivational signs to notice if a nearby runner slips off or on the course. Since the camera crews and pacers are mostly focusing on the lead pack, there are few witnesses who can reliably demonstrate foul play in the thousands of runners behind.

The Unwitting Champion

The most notorious case of this transgression is Rosie Ruiz. Her infamous story, which quickly became a cautionary tale, is as relevant today as it was in 1980, when she accidentally won the Boston Marathon by sneaking into the course just ahead of the eventual winner, Canada’s Jacqueline Gareau. Ruiz not only crossed the finish line first in Boston by cheating, but it was later revealed that her qualifying race in New York City the year before was also a sham.

This incident has not only made her name synonymous with cheating, it has elevated her quite possibly to the ignominious honor of being the world’s most famous marathoner. Sure, a lot of us can name drop a handful of East African superstars and fluidly comment on Olympic hopefuls from many different nations. But the average person might only know Rosie because her story is so compelling, embarrassing and timeless. To date, the world has not received a confession or apology from Ruiz, who instead asserts as recently as 2000 that she ran the entire race. If “long-distance runners [see] themselves as purists of mind, body and soul” as Neil Amdur of the New York Times describes, what would motivate someone to not only brazenly cut the course, but lie about it to this day?

Some theorize that she cut the course in New York to impress her co-workers, who then went on to bankroll her Boston performance. Faced with having to repeat or improve on her false performance for her peers, she had no choice but to cut the course again. Social motivation, as we will discuss later, is indeed very influential. But though her story is fascinating, it is still shrouded in mystery. And of course, she is not alone.

After Rosie, Boston beefed up its checkpoint system, all but ensuring that a repeat performance like hers would be impossible, if not incredibly difficult. As we move closer to present day, we’ve seen races institute chips that record times as runners pass over various timing mats distributed throughout the course. Large races also feature photography stations, which are meant to provide runners with mementos of their hard-earned run, but also serve as photographic evidence that they did, in fact, run. Cutting the course today would mean orchestrating and executing a meticulous plan that involves starting the race on time, registering times at multiple checkpoints and posing for photographers, all while not actually running the full distance. Some have even suggested that because of the logistical plan involved, cheating a result at a major marathon might even be tougher than running the race itself.

And yet, it happens. With the advent of the internet and vigilante journalism, the running community has become a hive-mind of sleuths, investigating aberrations in race results nationwide. Such devout scrutiny has yielded numerous cheaters and more than one cult figure, none more famous than Michigan’s Kip Litton.

The Race and Runners That Never Existed

A dentist by trade, Litton sought to run a marathon in under three hours in every state, an incredibly ambitious and impressive goal by any stretch of the imagination. However, as chronicled in mesmerizing detail in a 2012 New Yorker feature, the enterprise eventually drew suspicion when Litton began placing very close to the podium without ever being seen on the course. He would start much later than the majority of the field, appear in different outfits across the same race, and cross the finish line in strange positions. Over time, the case against Litton became an obsession on the internet, with multiple amateur detectives collecting images, data points, and tidbits of anecdotal evidence to try and disprove or at least cast doubt on his finishing times. There was even one race, the West Wyoming Marathon, where he won the race outright. But thanks to the archival permanence of the internet, a few investigations began to pick away at what seemed like a house of cards.

The result has transformed Litton from another aspiring 50-states marathoner to a legend at best, the subject of a tireless blog at worst. Like Ruiz, Litton stands by his integrity to this day, offering explanations of questionable veracity to explain the bizarre circumstances that have made him the target of all these accusations. Whether you believe him or not depends on how easily you can swallow the conspiracy theorists out there who posit that he not only cheated in a large number of marathons, some of which, like the Boston Marathon, included photographers and timing checkpoints, but also fabricated the West Wyoming Marathon, its entire roster of participants, all while acting as its race director under a pseudonym.

It almost sounds like running a three-hour marathon would be easier.

What is certain is that Litton’s case is fascinating and ripe with peculiar details that beg investigation, none of which definitively prove any wrongdoing. But as tantalizing as it is to speculate about how Litton managed to avoid providing his critics a smoking gun, why he would be driven to cheat is just as intriguing. From the start, he chronicled his countrywide marathon exploits on worldrecordrun.com, a site that has since been re-appropriated to track Litton’s activities. The internet and social media have allowed runners to participate more deeply in the running community by sharing success stories, articles, tips and pictures of the running experience. With more participants every year, it may seem like running a marathon is no longer the singular life achievement that it used to be. Perhaps many of us, Litton included, want to reach that next level and have something to show for our added efforts. Worldrecordrun.com might have been just that – a public outlet for personal fulfillment and gratification. But when the grueling regimen required to run under three hours for the marathon in every state proved too much, a shortcut was needed.

The Burden of Performance

According to Jack J. Lesyk, PhD, the director of the Ohio Center for Sport Psychology, “[people] who thrive on measurable achievements and the reactions of others – racking up titles, medals and accolades in the hopes of impressing friends and family – are more likely to cheat.” In this case, it could have been that Litton’s desire for praise and recognition was strong enough to override the “purity of mind” that is often associated with long distance running. He might have felt beholden to his public goal, enough to break the rules. Almost by definition, cheating discards matters of morality – if you’re going to cheat, you probably don’t care too much about right or wrong.

Dr. Maria Kavussanu from the University of Birmingham thinks differently. She suggests that framing a situation in terms of right and wrong before cheating has occurred has the potential to dissuade athletes against any malfeasance. Kavussanu published an article in Sport, Exercise and Performance Psychology that demonstrated that athletes, when asked to write a story about themselves that explicitly involved morality, were “significantly more likely to experience guilty feelings if they engaged in anti-social behavior during a game and therefore significantly less likely to engage in such behavior when compared to athletes in the control group.” The feasibility of scaling this initiative to combat cheating at the professional level remains to be discussed.

But I keep coming back to the maddening question of “why” by way of utility – what does someone actually gain from cheating? At the professional level, this isn’t really much of a question. An unfairly obtained competitive advantage is, as South African distance runner and confirmed doper Hezekiél Sepeng states, “a shortcut” (and the fact that this word literally describes how the average runner cheats in a marathon is not lost on me). This shortcut, meant to improve performance, can lead to higher earnings, greater visibility in the sport, bigger and more lucrative endorsements. If you’re an East African trying to escape poverty, a magical ointment could literally change your life.

If former World Anti-Doping Agency chairman Dick Pound is to be believed, then there are five fundamental reasons why athletes cheat: to win at all costs, for financial gain, national pressures, individual pressure from coaches or sponsors, and the belief that they won’t get caught.

A middle-aged marathon enthusiast has virtually no shot of making an Olympic team or earning a significant payday by winning a major race. So of the five reasons above, I’d say only the first and the last apply to the average person, but with caveats. If the aim is to win at all costs, we confuse things a bit because the average person doesn’t “win” the race (hence lending some truth to the old saying, cheaters never win). If “winning” simply means “breaking a PR by any means necessary” then you have an unrepentant cheater whose motivations are simple but unexciting. If the average person isn’t aiming to win the race (unless they commit the same error as Ruiz, which a young woman in St Louis unwittingly did as recently as 2015), simply getting away with it is juvenile and again, uninspiring. Then there’s the third reason, which only applies if the “pressures” come not from coaches or one’s country, but from our peer groups and environment.

I won’t discard or even underestimate the heavy burden of social pressures. Despite how openly accepting and loving the running community is, fear of failure is a powerful motivator. It’s very difficult to walk away from a goal, especially if its progress has been carefully documented across social media networks and blogs. If friends and family are supporting us, the thought of letting them down might lead us into uncharted territory. Some of us have just the right combination of traits to make cheating more tempting. According to Maurice Schweitzer, expert on behavioral decision making at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, “a combination of personality traits particular to high-achievers and external pressures can lead to unscrupulous behavior.” One might wonder if high-achievers have also been conditioned to “come out on top,” which can exacerbate a fear of losing, or in this case, disappointing one’s peers or coming shy of expectations.

It is all compounded when we factor in the rise of social media. After all, our online avatars are merely representations of our real lives, manipulated and curated to showcase our best qualities. Some might say there’s just a veneer of truth to our digital selves, so aside from the minute chance that someone will put on their finest deerstalker and begin asking questions, what’s the harm in a little white lie? And does one fraud’s sense of self-worth justify the cost of installing additional timing mats? Recruiting more volunteers who can spot potential cheats? Hiring more photographers?

For some race directors, it’s not even worth the pain. “A lot of times, the race directors just don’t care,” says Josh Stern, owner of Split Second Timing. “They don’t want to have a scene.”

Regardless, these are still difficult questions to answer because they involve complex emotional conflicts. Unless we conduct exhaustive and psychologically taxing interviews on everyone with mildly suspicious checkpoint splits, we simply have to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. Since we don’t do this, we have to assume that cheating happens a little more often than we think. An investigation by Runner’s World suggests that in 2014, about 0.1% of the field at the New York Marathon, or roughly 50 people, were removed from the results page because of suspicious times. If the evidence is substantial, a race may even ban a runner outright.

Anyone who has trained hard for a race and come up short, either from injury or bad luck, knows how gut-wrenching it is to not achieve a big goal. We would never want to let down our support group or our charities, and we certainly don’t want to disappoint ourselves. For 0.1% of us, cheating may be a real option.

And yet, there is one very real, tangible and tempting reason for your average, everyday runner to break the rules and the course, and that is to earn a coveted Boston Qualifying Time. The ever-tightening standards of the world’s most prestigious marathon, coupled with a booming running community ready and willing to fill each and every spot, has made it increasingly challenging to stand at the starting line in Hopkington. Runners are faced with two options: train with all your effort and spirit to improve your marathon time, or maintain your current PR until age 65 (assuming the standard doesn’t get faster by then).

Of course, I wouldn’t be writing this article if there weren’t a third option. This brings us to the most recent target in the online community’s witch hunt: Mike Rossi.

Peaks and Valleys

Rossi reached middling levels of internet prominence when he took a stand against his children’s school principal, who reprimanded Rossi for their unexcused absence from school. Rossi had brought them to see him run the 2015 Boston Marathon as a learning experience and posted a defiant letter to the principal on Facebook. The letter and incident soon swept the internet and he quickly became a viral sensation worthy of television interviews and multiple Facebook Likes.

It wasn’t long before he became the next Kip Litton. Possibly motivated by Rossi’s pontificating tone in the letter, the feverish members of Letsrun.com were quick to pull up his running history and allege that his recent running times did not indicate that he could have qualified for Boston in the first place. What followed was a series of accusations leveled against Rossi so detailed and thoughtful that it defied belief. From finding previous race times archived at athlinks.com to contacting the LeHigh Valley Marathon where he earned the BQ in question, to actually cross-referencing each and every single individual who ran the race with professional race photography shots, the investigative effort was mind-boggling. Much like the Reddit community’s crowd-sourced efforts to (incorrectly) identify the 2013 Boston bombers, the famous race had once again sparked an internet collective into action. It was both a testament to the fierce loyalty of the running community and a disturbing reminder of the internet’s slithery, yet powerful tendrils.

Since the accusations were hurled at Rossi, nothing tangible has come of the ordeal. Both sides have lobbed the burden of proof back and forth, and the fight eventually migrated to Twitter, where Rossi received many vitriolic messages from strangers. Just when you thought the ordeal couldn’t get more hyperbolic, Letsrun.com offered up $100,000 to the embattled runner as prize money for reproducing a similar qualifying time, which has gone unclaimed. In hopes of lowering the bar, the website also offered $1,000 to Rossi’s charity of choice just for a confession. Rossi has vocally stood by his innocence, and neither the Boston nor the LeHigh Valley marathons have disqualified or nullified his results. As is the case with Kip Litton, it is surprisingly difficult to prove an act of cheating in a marathon when the evidence is only an absence of evidence. Without a picture of Rossi in a car at the time of the race or sneaking into the crowd, race organizers prefer to give him the benefit of the doubt.

And yet, why the outrage? If race directors don’t seem to care too much about it, why should anyone else?

In this particular case, Rossi’s accusers would say it’s less about someone’s sense of pride or fulfillment or a debate between right and wrong, but more about him wrongfully taking a spot at the Boston Marathon that should have gone to a runner who earned it. Getting into Boston gets tougher every year, independently of the qualifying standards, which are likely due for a revision soon. To qualify for the 2016 running, applicants had to run 2 minutes and 28 seconds faster than their standard to even register. This means I would have had to run a 3:02:32 last year to satisfy the BAA algorithm that sorts the lucky speedsters from those who just barely made the cut. Naturally, we have to ask ourselves if this will mean a corresponding increase in wrongdoing.

Run Honestly

Pride, ego, bullheadedness. There are many other selfish reasons to cheat through a marathon, either by cutting the course, or showing up just at the start and finish to register a time. But although the act is often overlooked and fails to register any meaningful effect on anyone’s life, it still denigrates the otherwise inspirational running event. I’m not saying that someone’s act of cheating devalues my honest marathon achievement, because I run against myself and my own expectations. But whenever a top athlete is exposed as a drug cheat, it casts a grey pall on the sport in general, tempting unwanted speculation to question everyone else, even if there has never been cause for suspicion. Part of what makes running so popular and confusing to outsiders is its raw honesty. Any breach in that honesty, no matter how trivial, chips away at the sport’s integrity.

Cheaters make headlines. Be it brazenly, habitually, seemingly by accident, questionably so, or done with premeditated intent, cheating happens and will continue to happen. Race directors can either invest in smarter chip-timing technology to lower the likelihood or keep things as they are, writing off the occasional course-cutter as collateral damage. There will always be those who choose shortcuts over the daunting task of battling through 26.2 miles with little else but grit and determination.

But ultimately, the rest of us have to respect the sport by honestly giving it only our very best. This means backing down in the face of serious injury, cutting our losses if the weather doesn’t cooperate, or simply accepting that everyone has bad days. We can’t give into that urge to “outsmart” the system or furtively circumvent the rules just to gain an artificial accomplishment, even if that means training just a little harder as an insurance policy against potential interlopers taking our prized spot on Patriot’s Day.

I remember participating in a Big Wheel race in Kindergarten. It was held in the parking lot of my school on a blustery day, my parents and sister watching from the sidelines. The distance was an afterthought – a quick thirty yard dash to a turnaround, then back to the starting line. Though I was only five or six, I had a distinct sense of pride about how fast I could go on my Big Wheel. I knew I would win that race, even though I had never really competed with my neighborhood friends.

Almost because I refused to lose, I spun the handlebars before the turnaround, cutting the distance by just enough to make it back to the finish line first. Though I was a wee lad with an undeveloped sense of justice, I was somewhat aware that I had broken the rules. If my nascent ideas of right and wrong weren’t guiding me, my parents laughing at the blatant course-cutting confirmed it. This being Kindergarten, I still received a trophy (though it’s possible that every child did).

I lost that prize not long afterward. It probably got swept away during a move or a seasonal purge of household items. But I know that if I had won the race honestly, I would have kept it and featured it prominently among my stuffed animals and Ninja Turtle action figures. It would have meant something to me. But since I cheated, it fell victim to the gales of time, blown away forever. But I still remember the event, I remember the decision, and I’m sure anyone who has ever cheated at a sporting event knows what they did, even if they keep it buried.

Because it’s one thing to admit wrongdoing, but another to injure a sport that only asks that you honor yourself by doing the best you can.

End of Year Recap (2015)

2015 began with one singular, driven purpose: to qualify for Boston at the Berlin Marathon. I put everything I had into the quest, attacking it with a balanced combination of aggression and caution. In addition to re-tooling my approach to training, I tried my best to avoid signing up for races just to scratch the itch. Berlin became my singular focus, and with it came a powerful, if not familiar surge of motivation. I became reacquainted with what it meant to train specifically for one event, months away. As my legs would tire during intervals, I would remind myself, this is for Berlin. As the soft tendrils of my bedsheets would threaten to keep me away from my early morning runs, I’d quietly murmur the mantra, this is for Berlin.

Recap_2015

I hadn’t felt this committed or excited for a race since my first ultras in 2013 and my first marathon in 2009.

With a newfound thirst for success, I mapped out nine months of training, each with its own goals and milestones. In the spring, I narrowed the gap to my goal in Fargo with a 3:16 PR, and in the summer I stayed strong through warm temperatures, signs that a BQ was not only possible, but almost inevitable if I could only maintain my progress.

And maintain that progress I did. I earned PRs at the 5k (18:52), 10k (40:12), and 10-mile distances (1:06:36). I ran long runs at paces that I couldn’t believe and no run was finished without a confident smile or an overpowering enthusiasm that convinced me I was on my way to greatness. My date with the Brandenburger Tor was to be the culmination of nine months’ worth of planning, dedicated training, and execution.

0125_mediamiami 15And then, halfway through the Berlin Marathon, things fell apart, the center could not hold.

Fortunately, I did not follow the Yeats poem with its successor line, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. Instead, I ate delicious food, drank full-bodied beers, took a few weeks off and then got back to what I love to do. I was concerned that Fargo had been a fluke, a magical moment of perfect confluence that I might never again replicate. So, I did what I swore I wouldn’t do all year, and impulsively signed up for another marathon.

Only seven weeks removed from Berlin, I ran a 3:17, 0215_lostdutchman 30just a minute shy of my PR, in a course with four times as much elevation change. The race didn’t get me any closer to my goal of running a marathon in all 50 states, nor was it a bucket list event on everyone’s list. Instead, it was for personal assurance, a validation of trial through fire, that I hadn’t overestimated my progress. That race showed me that I had indeed moved the chains in the right direction, that 2015 would indeed be another year of progress and improvement.

As for the actual, raw numbers? Thanks to my meticulous stat-tracking – which I learned in 2015 was unusual at 0509_1_fargomarathon 01best, psychotic at worst, even amongst my most diehard running friends – I know that this year I laced up 177 times for a total of 1,433 miles, or an average of 8.09 miles per session. I ran for 7 days, 18 hours, 54 minutes and 22 seconds, which means an average yearly pace of 7:49.

I know that my fastest 10th mile was at the Fort 2 Base 10 Nautical Miler (6:42), my slowest month was June (average 0705_correcaminos 26of 8:14 per mile), it took me only 20 days to run 100 miles in August, and I placed in the top 1% of racers at 3 different races.

Will any of these stats actually help me become a better runner? Maybe. It all depends on how I use them to plan for 2016. Running goals are, pun fully intended, a moving target. Because while I didn’t achieve my goal of running under a 3:05 for the marathon and earn a Boston qualifying time, I’m not necessarily sticking squarely to that goal for the new year. Instead, I am returning to an old goal, one I did not accomplish back in 2013, and has since remained the only unsightly DNF in an otherwise 2015-0719-rnr-teamchance 01clean sheet: the 50-mile distance.

It truly was another banner year, even with the surprising meltdown in Deutschland, one that I will etch into memory as the one where it all came together: speed, distance, audacity and care.

That doesn’t mean I will abandon fast marathon ambitions in 2016. As I train for distances absurd, I will continue my speed training and stick to the 80/20 training philosophy that I adopted this year to achieve my best big10kever fitness, all without a single injury. Thanks to my unwavering focus on Berlin, I only added one state to the map in 2015. I am hoping to run more than that over the next twelve months.

But most importantly, I will aim to run as many of them in the company of good people. Race stats and chip times are worth very little if they’re not part of a fun and increasingly social sport. Every year since I joined the running masses, I have tried my best to rope others into the movement and 2015 was no exception. Thanks to wonderful friends and family members, the vast majority 2015-08-23 11.35.58of the bibs I pinned had companions.

Because every result, whether scratched on a calendar or inked in a labyrinthine spreadsheet, is a continuation of everything that has come before it. No run or race exists in a vacuum, but instead relies on the staggering distances whose sum has written the story of our struggles and aspirations.

And so, with my sights set on the many adventures to come, I look to 2016 with a buzzing mix of eagerness, trepidation, and ambition. Though my plans aren’t completely 2015-0823_fort2base 06set in stone, I hope that whatever path my trail takes, that I will share it with fleet-footed travelers of all dispositions, from starry-eyed newcomers to ragged veterans. We’re all searching for the same thing, so we might as well enjoy the company.

Happy New Year!

Loops and Troops: 2015 Veterans Marathon

As I waited for the cannon to boom in the tiny town square of Columbia City, Indiana, I forced warm air into my gloved hands and slapped my hamstrings to keep them from shaking. Although a cloudless sky surrounded the rising sun, it was just below freezing and I had already shed the hoodie Steve had given me earlier that morning. As a veteran of the US Armed Forces, my father-in-law had decided to join me for the Veterans Marathon and Half Marathon, but a bone spur aggravated by running both the Chicago and New York City Marathons relegated him to strict spectator duty this chilly morning.
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2015-11-14 07.51.07After a moment of silence in memory of those killed in Paris the night before, the organizers gave thanks to the veterans in the crowd, who gathered to greet and salute each other just ahead of the start line. The town’s cherubic mayor gave a few words of encouragement and the starting cannon thundered through the air, releasing about 450 runners into the town’s sleepy streets.
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The race was a 13.1-mile circuit that began in the town square and cut between plots of farmland. Marathoners would run the circuit twice, so I was treating this first lap as a preview. In between, we would run past a few country homes, barns, and grain silos. It was the exact opposite of my most recent marathon, the massive, machine-like Berlin Marathon, where every turn was a raucous celebration. Today, I was treated to the exact opposite … and it’s strange to say, but I enjoyed it almost as much, probably because it allowed me to zone out, to stop thinking.

Columbia City, Indiana

Columbia City, Indiana

I was completely focused on my stride, my breathing and energy levels. I didn’t have to worry about sidestepping past slower runners, quickly reading clever signs, or absorbing the cosmopolitan sights around me. It was just about running until you were done. Over the years, I’ve come to enjoy this straightforward, unencumbered approach to the sport, whose apotheosis is the endless desert run. But every now and then, something would shake me out of my reverie.
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“Ugh,” I said aloud as the air around me took on the acrid smell of manure. I caught up to a runner with a bandana and had locked in with his stride. “Makes you want to run faster just to stop smelling this, right?”
His reply, which was a grunted “yeah,” hinted that he wasn’t available to talk.
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I rounded the bottom of the race, which looked like a coat hanger, and sped back north to the finish line. This portion of the race, like almost every other stretch, was surrounded by yellow farmland and patches of forest shedding the last of their autumn colors. I passed a couple who I had been tailing for over a mile and hadn’t stopped talking the entire time. As I slowly passed them, the young woman noticed me.
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This is what most of the race looked like, except with a clear, blue sky

This is what most of the race looked like, except with a clear, blue sky

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“Man, I’m so jealous of that stride,” she said, her friend laughing.
“It’s all in these legs,” I replied and took a few leaps for effect. “But if you were to sit down next to me, we’d be very similar heights.”
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It’s true. My body doesn’t exactly follow the divine proportions, unless god is a mosquito. At some point in my development, my legs and arms stretched out more rapidly than my torso, and I’ve had these stilts ever since. Some days I regret not becoming a runner sooner, as I technically have had this lanky frame since high school. I often wonder if I am destined to struggle as a swimmer on the day I inevitably tackle a triathlon. It was a lot to think about ten miles into a marathon and thinking is usually reserved for afterward.
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2015 Veteran's Marathon Google Earth Rendering

2015 Veteran’s Marathon Google Earth Rendering

For example, I do a lot of it after a race doesn’t go my way.

I sulk for a bit, and let me head droop just enough to give me a dull ache in my neck. I try and tease out what I did wrong during training or what I could have done to guarantee a strong performance. Through all the excuses, I pick one or two and render swift judgment. I didn’t do enough long runs, or I should have cross trained more often. Surely these two culprits are to blame; next time I will make sure they don’t hamper my path to speedy victory. After a sensational implosion at Berlin, where I missed my target time by 26 minutes, I had plenty to consider. Ultimately, I decided that it was jet lag, combined with a hubristic first half that I couldn’t keep up.
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Halfway done

Halfway done

But there was also that unnerving voice in the back of my mind that I couldn’t quite tune out. It was a frightening perspective that asked, in a sober and defeated tone, what if I’ve hit my limits? What if my standing marathon PR, which I earned in Fargo this May, was a complete fluke? What if my ambitions are too far beyond my abilities? Is this as far, or as fast, as I go?

I had signed up for this race wanting to silence that voice. Although I spent the week after Berlin with Steph in Munich and later Brussels, happily eating sugar-cratered waffles and full-bodied Belgian brews, I knew I hadn’t lost all of my fitness. I built it back up in aggressive fashion during October and chose this tiny race as an act of vindication. As I ran over the timing mats of the first loop, I passed Steve and threw two happy thumbs up. I left the only crowd of the day behind me as I ventured back through the path already taken, determined to prove something to myself.
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I ran past the now familiar landmarks; the warehouses, silos, and manure-caked fields were right where I had left them. Though I’ve run two other double-loop marathons, I don’t like them. There’s something paradoxically challenging about knowing exactly how far you have left to go. Even if you have a watch and it tells you how far you’ve run down to the hundredth of a mile, visualizing it makes it worse. Seeing “23.2” on your watch can become a hieroglyphic, a meaningless symbol that simply changes over time. However, zooming through that mental course like a hawk only to return to reality’s deteriorating plod can really leaden your legs.
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Train tracks, then the poop fields, coat hanger, big hills, neighborhoods, and then we’re done.
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Oh man, that’s a lot.

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But again, I was trying not to think. I was keeping my head up, staring ahead and waiting for the next turn. The more I thought about the road ahead, the heavier my legs felt. The hills were far worse this time and every glance at my watch revealed a slow drop in pace. I couldn’t feel it in my legs or lungs, but running had officially become hard. Two out of three participants had stopped running at the half marathon mark, so I had no one to chase. With five miles left in the race, I was far from done. It was time to simply survive, the chorus of Symphony X’s “Legend” playing on repeat in my head:
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“Rise and fall, although I fight like hell
There’s just no certainty …”
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Just shy of the finish line

Just shy of the finish line

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There were a few people I could chase, notably the first female. She was wearing a bright pink fleece zip-up, which made her an easy beacon to follow. We seemed to be losing energy at the same rates though, as she stayed just about a third of a mile ahead of me for the rest of the race. I slogged up the toughest hills and through the remaining bouts of déjà vu before reaching Columbia City’s small town square. With City Hall visible, I tried to keep going at an aggressive clip without my calves buckling. I saw Steve again as I reached the town plaza, but this time I didn’t have any positive gestures. I had just one loop around City Hall to run before earning a finisher’s time. Though my second loop was a few minutes slower than the first, I was proud of my 3:17 finishing time, my second fastest marathon ever, just a minute shy of my all-time best.
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It was a great run, though not perfect. I had to struggle to keep an 8-minute pace for the last 10k after cruising at a 7:19 for the rest of it. I began to lose steam right around mile 21 as a product of running a maximum distance of 18 miles in the interim between races. Maybe I need to do more 20-milers at marathon pace, or expand my interval distances to 2-mile repeats. There might be some use in stretching my progression runs to 10 miles or beyond. More hill runs, that’s a must. Maybe I could take a crack at strength training …
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veterans-marathon-medalAnd before I knew it, I was back to overthinking the result without really savoring the fact that Berlin had been a fluke, not Fargo. Despite the hills and short ramp-up, I ran within striking distance of a time I had suspected was an outlier I might never again approach. But now I’ve added a new time to the sample, adding a companion to the statistical improbability. Maybe the 3:17 is my new normal, like 3:26 was three years ago or 3:40 in 2011. Sure, it wasn’t the BQ I had declared I would earn at the start of the year, but it is an indication that I’m moving the standard in the right direction. My goal is still to achieve that Boston mark, but it won’t be done in large, magical improvements, but instead with steady, incremental change.
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With my Indiana-shaped medal hanging in my collection, the Veteran’s Marathon has brought the 2015 long distance season to a triumphant close. With my 2016 goals still unannounced, it’s time to rest, relax, and nurse these proud, aching legs. Onwards!

Auseinanderfallen: 2015 Berlin Marathon

I walked calmly through the Berlin Tiergarten, a large, horizontal park that rests in the middle of the city, headed for Corral D and the start of the 2015 Berlin Marathon. There were runners around me but not as many as you would assume for a race that would soon have over 41,000 finishers. I was twitching a little, more from cold than nerves, though there were plenty of nerves. This was my target race for the year, the event that had dominated my workouts and preparation. All roads led to Berlin, and the event name itself was the mantra I would whisper whenever I felt tempted to skip an early morning workout. After a banner year full of personal bests and absolutely no injuries, I was ready to dominate the course. Friends and family were tracking my splits, some even staying awake well into the night to watch my progress. My first international marathon and third World Marathon Major had been hyped up considerably, and I was in no mood to disappoint anyone, least of all myself.

 
A giant bubble of yellow balloons marked the start of the race. They rose into the faultlessly blue sky and disappeared over the trees of the Tiergarten. Just past the starting line was the Siegesäule (“Victory Column”), a large structure with a golden angel perched atop, around which we ran to the sounds of many spectators. We had about eight lanes to explore and jockey for position, but only one lane would occupy the streaks of blue painted earlier to indicate the tangents, or the quickest route possible. This was, after all, the world’s fastest course, where new world records are notched with astounding regularity. I quickly found these intermittent streaks and followed them, as if they were the footprints of favorite and eventual winner Eliud Kipchoge.


In those first miles, I felt like I was running from pack to pack, nudging myself into the folds of a group of runners only to slowly part them by exploiting the human instinct to keep some personal space. It wasn’t long before the width of the course was halved and I became acquainted with the impressively international field (though we would later debate whether 90% of it was made up exclusively by Germany and Denmark).

Aid stations came and went without much fanfare, which was one of the many subtle differences between this race and its American brethren. Big-city races portend imminent aid stations by loudly announcing them a few blocks early, with descriptions of what to expect. Here, I glanced right and realized I was mistaking a crowd of spectators with an aid station and immediately dashed to grab a drink.


In fact, it was this unassuming character that led me to accidentally drink a mouthful of warm sweet tea, mistaking it for an energy drink. I don’t know what was more surprising, the unexpected flavor and temperature or that I really enjoyed it. Uncle Greg, who was a few corrals behind me, would later admit to mistaking the caffeinated beverages for warm apple juice before drinking four of them.

The course itself was difficult to describe without giving a description of each mile. Whereas most races have discrete sections, Berlin felt like it would weave in and out of different parts of the city with a few unique stretches. Its course changed effortlessly from residential, tree-lined roads to large plazas with uniform architecture in just a few blocks. Large churches and museums would pop out as if from nowhere and with very few exceptions, all around us was the calming comfort of tree canopy.


It wouldn’t be until the last 2 miles that the course experienced a material change. It kept its parks and city landscape so consistently that it would be very easy to lose one’s self in the race and simply watch the approaching trees and spectators. Once in the heart of the city, the course zigged and zagged through wide lanes until the Brandenburger Tor filled my sight, and from there it was a quick quarter mile to the finish. Spectators and loudspeakers tore through the streets with shrieks so piercing they could have pushed a dead man to the finish.

Which was great, because I had been riding the struggle bus for a good ten miles by now.


You may have noticed that I hadn’t said a word about my performance until now. The reason is, Sunday, September 27 was not my day. Despite a picture-perfect training cycle, I could not convert my peak fitness into a peak time. Maybe it was the Friday evening arrival, or the time on my feet Saturday, or the fact that I only slept 10 hours over three nights. Or, more likely, I picked a goal time (3:04) that was too ambitious, too far beyond my lactic threshold to convert to a winning time. I had even etched the time on the Abbott World Marathon Majors wall at the Expo the day before, quipping “BQ or Bust” underneath.

And what a Bust it was.

The first sign of trouble was literally half a mile in, where a tiny stitch in my stomach emerged to complain. It went away in a minute, but it gave me pause as I ran around the Siegesäule. Eight miles later, I ran past Steph, her sister Janine, aunt Mindy and uncle Scott, feeling confident and fast. But just two miles after that confident display, I came to the unfortunate realization that I was trying too hard. Ten miles into a marathon, you should still feel good, but I was increasingly gassed. Five miles later, I was on my last gear, which I don’t ever have to tap until miles 18-20.


As I ran through the last miles, I had to choose which muscles to calm. If I ran, then my calves would seize up, but if I walked, then my lateral back muscles would tighten up into a fist of nerves. For large stretches of road, I had to run with my hand on my head, my elbow pointing to the sky. Later, my forearms would begin to generate the same high-voltage tension. It seemed that my muscles had decided to take on the shape of all the pretzels I had eaten in days prior.

By the time I reached the finish line, I was almost thirty minutes late for my date with 3:04. I had suffered through a spectacular bonk, one I had not experienced in many, many marathons. I unraveled completely, from my energy levels to my individual leg muscles, such that the world was a shimmering haze for much of the walk from the finish line to gear check. Although the race winner Eliud Kipchoge had to deal with his insoles falling out of his shoes around the same time that I bonked, his 2:04 world-leading time showed that he was able to convert the challenge into  a formidable victory.


And yet, it was not a complete disaster. I did finish, after all, earning a medal for my first overseas marathon, and in a respectable 3:31 time if you don’t see the laughably enormous positive split. And though my body was buzzing with tightness and fatigue, I wasn’t at all injured. I had given myself a few blocks during the race to mope about the situation. It baffled me that I couldn’t run at this pace for a marathon despite all indications suggesting I could, and I wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of starting all my responses to “How’d it go?” with “WELP …” But at the end of the day, I was in Germany with family, and I had to make up for the many beers I skipped during training.

Plus, this was my 30th marathon. Over the years and that many races, I’ve learned to accept the cold fact that from training, to the taper and race-week nutrition, anything can happen. Sometimes it’s magic, sometimes it’s tragic. But I always find that, with a few exceptions, every finish line crossed is an accomplishment. And when just beyond that finish line is your loving wife with two beers, bratwurst and sauerkraut, then all memories of miles 18-24 vanish.


As I write this post on a train headed to Munich, I feel emboldened by my shameful slog through Berlin. The world’s fastest course opened its arms and streets for me, but I couldn’t make it happen, though not for lack of trying. It had been years since I had felt such a takedown over this distance and it reminded me of what it was like to try big, courageous things again. I didn’t play it safe, I didn’t ask for a small improvement, and that impudence forced me to confront once again that which all marathoners have to accept:

Respect the goddamn distance.

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For the first time in many years, I don’t have any pending race registrations. My future running plans are a blank canvas, ready to be filled with the next big goal. Maybe fast Majors aren’t my thing. I seem to do better in smaller races, where I can chase someone a block away and not have to constantly weave in and out of crowds. Or maybe that’s me making excuses again. The point is, there is another race out there, one that will get me that BQ, or at least nudge me closer to it. I just have to choose it, and tweak the master plan a bit to ensure that I stay strong and fast over every stride.

As for Berlin, I loved it. Every grimace, expletive and muscle spasm across the course was worth it. It annoys me that if I ever want to run it again, I have to subject myself to a lottery or pay through the nose for a packaged tour. But that is a problem for another time. For now, I have places to see and many delectable morsels of food to try. Ausgezeichnet!