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.

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