Inside the mystifying world of marathon cheating — where the system is hard to beat and the...


Shaving a few kilometres off of a 42.2-kilometre race might seem pretty trivial to you. The difference between running 42 kilometres and, say, 34 kilometres is immaterial, insofar as for the majority of human beings neither is any more achievable than the other.

But for the type of person for whom the sanctity of marathoning matters, though, shaving a couple kilometres is sacrilegious. For them, each of the marathon’s 42,195 metres is consecrate, venerated.

In other words, marathoners don’t really allow much leeway for cheaters, and getting caught is — no word of a lie — something that could completely ruin your life.

And yet it is almost a guarantee that, at some point during Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, somebody will wonder (maybe even just for their own curiosity) if they could get a leg up, carve out some advantage for themselves. Fans of baseball and cycling are well-acquainted with the chemical version of this conversation, but the average weekend road warrior probably won’t be interested in messing with steroids or performance-enhancing drugs. They might, however, explore the possibility of a more cartoonish, old-fashioned form of cheating, one ripped from the pages of Wile E Coyote’s playbook: taking a shortcut.

The modern marathon was invented in 1896, and virtually ever since there have been marathons, people have been taking shortcuts in them. In the 1904 Olympic marathon in St. Louis, Frederick Lorz left the course around Mile 9, rode in his manager’s car to around Mile 19, and re-entered the race in first place; in 1980, Rosie Ruiz jumped into the Boston Marathon in the last half-mile or so, and temporarily occupied the podium in place of the eventual winner, Canadian Jacqueline Gareau; in 2001, Dr. Norman Barwin (a fertility doctor who would later be accused of impregnating several women using his own sperm without their consent) cut a significant portion of the Ottawa Marathon to win his 60 to 64 age group.

Rosie Ruiz breaks into tears as she denies she cheated to become the top female finisher at the 1980 Boston Marathon.

Since the 1990s, course cutting in a marathon has become a more difficult and daedalian task. Now, timing mats are placed along the course, registering your time as you run over them. With enough of them deployed — the Ottawa Marathon places them about every five kilometres or so — course cutting becomes pretty easy to detect: miss a mat or two, and the jig is pretty much up for you.

“Let’s say we had the mats every five kilometres, and guys are running 22 to 25 minutes per five,” says John Halvorsen, director of the Scotiabank Ottawa Marathon, “if all of the sudden there’s a four-minute 5 km, we know something’s happened.” Knowing that the system will catch you seems to have been a satisfactory deterrent. “To be honest with you,” says Halvorsen, “it hasn’t happened since we had the timing mats in place.

Which is not to say it’s not possible. “We go out to Island Park and come back, but there’s nothing that prevents you from cutting across the grass, pretending you’re going to the washroom, and popping out the other side,” says Halvorsen. “There’s all kinds of options like that.”

So, you can cheat in the Ottawa Marathon, theoretically at least. In fact, If you really wanted to, you could shave about 10 kilometres. At around the 11 kilometre mark, you could cut down Island Park, following the shorter half marathon route, and rejoin the marathon route on Scott Street around kilometre 12 or 13. In an out-and-back along the river, you could turn around early and save about two kilometres. After crossing the bridge into Gatineau, around the halfway point, instead of taking a left on Boul Alexandre-Taché, stick on Rue Eddy and turn right on Prom de Portage, and you’ll save about five more. Some creative mapping could save you about two more kilometres in Rockcliffe.

John Halvorsen, director of the Scotiabank Ottawa Marathon. While it would be possible, if difficult, to cheat at the Ottawa Marathon, it’s not something Halvorsen spends much time worrying about.

Maybe a better question, though, is why would you want to do it in the first place?

“In general, I’d say there are two types of course cutters,” says Alex Hutchinson, a running journalist and author of Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance.Those who really don’t care about the race and are mostly just out for some fresh air and maybe got bored and decided to take a shortcut back to the start, and those who care way too much, usually to a degree that most people would see as highly irrational.”

It’s a task that’s so hard to get away with that many race directors barely worry about it anymore. “It’s awfully low on the totem pole, compared to all the other concerns when you design a course,” says Halvorsen. “I don’t worry about it much, let’s put it that way.”

The allure of running a fast enough race to qualify for the Boston Marathon — far and away the most revered marathon in the world — is the only material incentive to cheat, since runners need to achieve a set qualifying time to even apply to run it. “Only Boston really matters for people,” says Halvorsen. “But why do people do it? I don’t know. I mean, it’s either you’re qualifying for Boston or you’re winning your age category and want to go home to brag to your friends.”

Beyond Boston qualification, though, the spark to cheat might be more deeply rooted in the gordian knot of the human psyche. Jonathan Lasnier, a researcher at the University of Ottawa who studies sport psychology, lays out the idea that there are essentially two buckets of athletes. “Somebody can be task-oriented, and another can be ego-oriented,” he says. It’s the ego-oriented people who tend to be the cheaters. Rather than run the race for the sake of running it, “they will use other reference criteria to evaluate their competence,” says Lasnier. “They will focus more on the other people instead of themselves, and they will define success as superiority over others.”

Their mentality seems to be this: “when winning is everything, it is worth doing anything to win,” says Lasnier. But surely, not everyone who is motivated by ego and vanity is given to cheating? Surely there are some moral narcissists out there?

Lasnier says that it comes down to more personal factors. “I think it depends on your identity as an individual,” he says. A hypothetical: “Let’s say you’re an athlete and your identity is solely based on the fact that you are an athlete, and you want to perform and want to show competence toward others, because it’s the only thing in your life that’s supporting your identity. I think this can be dangerous, in a way.”

What deters most ego-driven people might be the fact that when it comes to their stance on course cutting, the marathoning community are among the world’s most priggish defenders of the rules, almost to the point of absurdity. “There’s a very active vigilante-style cheater-outing community on the message boards,” says Hutchinson, the running journalist. The community revolves mostly around “this website” — — which is “run by one very obsessed guy” named Derek Murphy. (Murphy, arguably the world’s expert on the subject, did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.)

There’s a case to be made that cheating in a marathon, especially if it doesn’t cause you to win the race, is a victimless crime. “In a perfect world, they should feel remorse for what they did,” writes Jessica Sebor, in an article titled In Defense of the Running Cheaters. “But no one can force them to experience that emotion.”

In the absence of any other checks against it, the wildcat justice metered out by a running community that plays judge, jury and executioner tends to do the trick. Between 2010 and 2012, a mob of amateur sleuths homed in on Kip Litton, a dentist from Michigan, scrutinizing his then-prolific marathon record, and accused him not only of cutting the course in dozens of marathons, but even of inventing an entire race that never happened. (This investigation culminated in an investigation by The New Yorker’s Mark Singer, titled “Marathon Man.”) Just last year, Jane Seo, a young runner from New York who was also a blogger for the Huffington Post, was caught by Murphy after he noticed that her GPS watch displayed a distance less than the 13.1 miles of the half marathon in post-race photos.

“The attention brought by these cases has led a lot of race directors to be more vigilant about where they place their timing mats,” says Hutchinson, “and to look more carefully at the results to weed out obvious cases of course-cutting.”

“For some people, to run a 4:30 marathon is important to them, so they frown at someone who cheats and runs a 4:00 marathon, even though most people would think ‘who cares, it’s a 4:00 marathon’,” says Halvorsen. “I think they’re right to be upset, because at the end of the day running a marathon is a lot about personal accomplishment … I understand the perspective of the guy who hears or sees somebody cheat, even though in reality it doesn’t impact you.”

Dr. Norman Barwin, in the early ’90s. After the turn of the century, Barwin found himself embroiled in controversy after allegations were made that he had cheated at both the Boston Marathon and the Ottawa Marathon.

It’s very hard to accurately diagnose what it is that makes a cheater cheat. Some prolific cheaters, like Litton, have never confessed to the things they are accused of. Others, like Barwin and Seo, say they only cut the course because they weren’t feeling well. Or their legs hurt. Or they wanted to finish alongside a friend. The list of excuses for cheating in marathons is about as long as the list of marathon cheaters in the first place. Most who are accused just want to put it behind them; attempts to reach out to multiple people who have been accused of cheating went unanswered.

For sport psychologists, a concrete answer to why people cheat in marathons remains fairly elusive. “Given the prima facie moral wrongness of cheating, it is remarkable that so little has been written on the subject,” writes Maartje Schermer, a professor of medical ethics at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, in a paper titled: “On the argument that enhancement is ‘cheating’.” Even Lasnier admits that in his years as a sport psychologist, nobody has really ever asked him why cheaters cheat before.

For most people, it is apparent that the only reward of running in a marathon is that you actually ran a marathon; someone who cuts the course isn’t so much cheating as simply running a different race. “A question from me to them is, ‘Why are you doing the marathon, then?’ If you want to do it, you want to do it like, completely,” says Lasnier. “Maybe people could do this because they really don’t care about sports or running, but at the same time, I don’t know — deep down, you want to be authentic, right?”

This is all to say: the arguments against cheating at any marathon are likely greater than the arguments for cheating at the Ottawa Marathon. But you may look at the course map, ahead of the race, and start daydreaming about the possibility of beating the system. Even that could seem like its own form of reward. Every year, someone somewhere, in some marathon, has that exact thought. Judging by the constant stream of exposés posted by Murphy, that people decide to act on it is not all that uncommon.

Maybe, suggests Lasnier, when it comes to understanding the mystifying rationale of a marathon cheater, the only answerable question is not why one cheats, but what one takes.

“It’s like you’re robbing time,” he says. “It’s like you’re devising a plan to rob time.”

And in a sport of measurements, what else would you steal?

The Ottawa Marathon takes place this Sunday, May 27, at 7:00 a.m.