I don’t usually get nervous before races, but today is different. Even the pre-race briefing is enough to get my heart thumping in my chest. I furtively scan the faces of my fellow runners, trying to avoid eye contact. One way or another, the next hour is going to be eventful. Two possible outcomes await: a personal best and a top-five finish, or a very public shaming. And that’s because I’m about to cheat.
Not for prize money, you understand (I’m not in that league). Nor to hit a qualifying time for a flagship race. No, this is lower grade stuff. An eye-catching result, an ill-deserved boost to the self-esteem, a chance to indulge in a little online bragging. My social media network is full of runners, quick runners. Wait till they get a load of this.
Am I the only cheat here today? Probably. But I’m certainly not alone in the wider running world. Cheating among amateur runners – and amateur cheating, come to that – is an increasingly common phenomenon, statistically and, particularly, anecdotally. Numerous races report rises in anomalous results that require investigation, there’s a steady trickle of high-profile offenders, and running forums and message boards positively thrum with the issue. Blogs and websites have been set up devoted to catching, exposing and deterring this curious sub-species. Cutting the course is the most common form of cheating. Often it’s a corner for an incremental gain. Other times it’s more flagrant: jumping a barrier to cleave chunks off the course, or hitching a lift to just short of the finish before soaking up the ill-deserved glory. Then there are bib mules – those who carry two or more bibs around the course, registering bogus times for friends or even clients.
For those who keep tabs on this peculiarly modern phenomenon, the names of the most outrageous cheats trot off the tongue with the ease of a roster of Olympic champions: Jason Scotland-Thomson, the personal trainer who ran the second half of the 2014 London Marathon quicker than Mo Farah; Rosie Ruiz, who was briefly the winner of the 1980 Boston marathon before it was discovered that she’d run only the final mile; Rob Sloan, the Sunderland Harrier who was accused of hopping on a spectator bus at the 20-mile point of the Kielder Marathon, before rejoining the race and taking third. He was later disqualified.
And who can forget Natasha Argent, sister of TOWIE star James? The 26-year-old ran 3:48 in the London Marathon – not overly conspicuous until you learn that she ran the second half of the race in a miraculous sequence of sub-four- minute miles, and showed no record of passing several checkpoints. Race authorities asked her to explain the anomalies. She said she’d had a panic attack and got lost on the route.
Derek Murphy has been at the forefront of exposing a string of amateur cheats. The Cincinnati-based business analyst, who hung up his trainers when he ‘got older, got injuries, had kids’, now devotes every spare moment to catching and deterring ‘cheaters’, as he calls them, through his Marathon Investigation website.
So successful has he become that he has informal agreements with a number of events around the world. Murphy’s modus operandi is simple: relentless attention to numbers. Almost everything he needs is out there, he says. Race splits, pacing stats, historical training data. He is measured, calm, analytical – about as far removed from a bile-spewing vigilante as one could hope to meet.
‘It started with a case I discovered of a runner who cut the course in a qualifying marathon,’ he says. ‘It sent me down a rabbit hole from which I haven’t come up yet.’ He’s not sure whether runners are cheating more today, or just getting detected more often, but he believes cheats are getting ‘more creative’. ‘It’s a cat-and-mouse thing and there’s a bit of a thrill to it, definitely,’ he says. ‘You’ll be looking at a runner and there’s nothing in their history to suggest they’re capable of the time they’ve clocked. I can’t quite prove it and then when I do, it’s a bit of a rush.’
The willingness to cheat in low-stakes races is particularly baffling given that is has become exponentially harder to do so in recent years. Not only have dishonest competitors got the likes of Murphy hot on their heels, but stats are everywhere for any online amateur sleuth to pore over: from results- aggregating websites such as Athlinks, looking at a runner’s competitive history, to historical training data through public Strava accounts. Depending on the scale of race, you also might expect to find timing mats clocking your times at intervals throughout; radio communication between marshals or volunteers; and video recordings of starts and finishes.
And then there’s the photographic evidence. Big marathons will have numerous official photographers and innumerable unofficial ones (who doesn’t own a smartphone these days?); pieced together, their images make it possible to create something akin to a stop-frame film of a runner’s entire race. When pictorial gaps appear, suspicions are raised.
Beat the cheat
I encountered an understandable resistance among some race directors to discuss the issue of cheating. Few events wish to be seen as a soft target for posting false times, and there’s tainting by association. ‘It’s not really an issue we want to throw any light on,’ says London Marathon race director Hugh Brasher, adding, ‘We’re not into naming and shaming.’ The race’s policy is to investigate any anomalous results and ask for an explanation from the runner. If they’re still not satisfied, they ask for the finisher medal to be returned and ban the runner for life.
The Great Run Company, whose finishers number more than 250,000 a year, doesn’t just rely on stats to identify cheats. Increasingly it finds that its races are ‘self-policing’, with other runners contacting the organisation to draw attention to suspicious, or downright dishonest, behaviour. For communications director David Hart, cheating is an ever-present concern: ‘I’ve been doing this job for a fair time and I see cheating crop up on a regular basis. There are certain tricks of the trade and a number of serial offenders we have our eyes on. For me it’s disappointing more than anything, but I can well understand the anger of fellow competitors who see themselves being done out of their rightful place – even if that is 3,800th rather than 3,799th.’
South Africa’s Comrades Marathon, the oldest ultra in the world, is less reticent about its cheating problem. At the elite end, it holds the unenviable record for possibly the most elaborate race fraud, when ninth-placed Sergio Motsoeneng swapped bibs with his twin brother, Fika, mid-race in 1999. They were caught when photographs emerged of Sergio’s watch on a different wrist – and a scar miraculously appearing on his left shin.
Sixty-six runners were caught cheating in the historic 90km race last year and, says race director Rowyn James, that number is ‘definitely climbing’. He’s not surprised. ‘The Comrades is a very well respected achievement throughout South Africa. We sometimes get contacted by recruitment agencies. They’ll be checking that a candidate has indeed done the Comrades as they’ve stated. Sometimes they haven’t.’
Comrades has six cut-off points, with timing mats. But to stop runners simply driving between these at an even pace so as not to arouse suspicion, there is an additional measure designed to root out cheaters. ‘We put out two undisclosed mats every year,” says James. ‘We have got to take tangible action to catch and discourage cheating because it could get out of hand. If you don’t take action, runners start to see the event as a soft touch.’
All of which is playing on my mind as my race gets under way. My cheating debut is well planned: I’ve chosen a smaller race, one without timing mats or a squad of photographers, and with a course that handily doubles back on itself. I’ve got a pre-identified hiding spot, a costume change (conspicuous to bland), water to spray over my head in lieu of sweat, and an anguished finisher’s look that I’ve honed through many a (genuine) marathon and ultra marathon. All the pieces are in place.
As I take up a steady pace I can’t help but ponder the motivation for amateur running cheats. Like many modern-day ills, the finger is readily pointed at social media: running, for so long a solo, private enterprise, has now become a public performance. What races you’ve done, what times you’ve clocked – these are badges of honour but also tokens of acceptance to clearly defined social groups.
‘It’s far easier, and more acceptable, to brag about things today and I think that has infiltrated running, too. I think people have always cheated – there’s just more incentive now.’ This is Robert Johnson, the 44-year-old co-founder of LetsRun, a US-based running website that has a million unique users per month. On the issue of cheating, its forum resembles an amorphous, less restrained version of Derek Murphy – identifying and hounding out cheats remorselessly. The site’s tagline is ‘where your dreams become reality’. However, for anyone who’s suspected of cheating, it’s more of a nightmare.
Ask Rob Young from Richmond, west London. In 2016 the self-styled Marathon Man was attempting to break the record for the fastest crossing of the United States on foot, but his unrealistic daily mileages and paces quickly drew the attention of LetsRun and the scandal took off. Eventually, his sponsor, Skins, ordered an independent investigation. Some of the GPS data submitted revealed that his cadence was suggestive of strides close to 50m. The only conclusion? That he spent long periods either travelling in, or on, his RV support vehicle.
Young has since all but vanished from public view and he proved impossible to contact for comment. He’d written on his website: ‘I respect the conclusions of the investigators...I admittedly made mistakes with the data management and recordings, but never did I cheat.’
But isn’t amateur cheating a victimless crime? Is it really any worse than bragging about the number of pints you drank the night before? Indeed, given the way running has supplanted boozing in many people’s leisure agenda, isn’t it merely the modern version of same? As one post on the LetsRun forum put it: ‘I mean seriously, does anyone really care? People cheat at work, at play, and in competition. If a guy at the office isn’t passing off your work as his own, then somebody else is jumping the queue. There’s bigger fish to fry.’
Derek Murphy would disagree but is aware he’s not universally loved. Most in the running community seem to admire his assiduity, but there are plenty of others who see it as misplaced, or even self-serving. One comment I found online said: ‘In many ways you are no better than a cheater, and actually worse because you try to profit off it.’ [Murphy asks for contributions to cover expenses.] A vocal supporter of that view is Chicago-based lawyer Scott Kummer. A podcaster with a running show called Ten Junk Miles, he describes himself as ‘quite possibly the most painstakingly average runner known to man’. But get him started on this subject and he’s off at a bracing pace.
He sees the public shaming tendencies as a throwback to the days of the stocks and is disturbed by the zeal with which people turn to social media to identify alleged offenders – rather than to race directors or the individuals themselves. ‘The notion that we’re going to put these people on social media, where millions of people are going to see it, that’s scary,’ he says. ‘We’re not talking about Paula Radcliffe or whomever; they are public figures who should have to take this kind of stuff. This is often just some 4:30 marathoner, an accountant or something. It’s Schadenfreude Inc in my book.’
His views have been hardened by the plight of a friend, 35-year-old Meghan Kennihan. She ran a small 50km race near her home in La Grange, Illinois, called Earth Day Race. This year they changed the course and she ended up cutting a corner unintentionally. Not a lot – her Strava later showed it was around 0.15 miles.
But the woman she beat (by a margin) into third, got wind of this and headed straight for the 3,000-strong Facebook group they both belong to. ‘It was the most ridiculous thing in the world,’ she recalls. ‘She was hashtagging her posts about me with #coursecutter and #cheater. I challenged her, saying why didn’t she confront me directly. It was particularly bad as I’m a personal trainer and a running coach and a lot of people find me through these groups. This could affect my livelihood.’
Kennihan returned the plaque and medal she was given and wrote a blog explaining the error (the race director later absolved her, admitting that a marshal who should have been directing the runners was on a toilet break). But, like an unwanted tattoo, it’s hard to get rid of a digital footprint, particularly one carrying the hashtag #cheat.
Few organisations have done as much to popularise running in recent years as parkrun. Around 130,000 runners compete in 500-plus events across the country every weekend, and with its free entry, reliance on volunteers, and its family-friendly wholesomeness, it’s the embodiment of the amateur ethos. So has cheating become an issue?
‘I have never given any thought to this, to be honest,’ says a spokesman. ‘I can’t recall anyone ever being accused of cheating. I suppose our model discourages it (almost prevents it) because parkruns aren’t races. Participants only receive a time – there are no winners. So if you did cheat, you’d only be cheating yourself.’
That’s not strictly true. I’ve run one parkrun – Alice Holt Forest, in Surrey – and my result was texted and then emailed to me within a few hours. ‘Your time was 21:59. You finished in 25th place out of 326 parkrunners. You came seventh in your category VM40-44.’ This looks like a race to me – not only against everyone present on the day but also, through the age grade percentage (mine was 62 per cent), everyone in your age group around the world.
And it’s Alice Holt Forest through which I’m now running at a sedate eight-minute-mile pace, pre-emptive guilt coursing through my body. As my chosen spot approaches I slow to a walk, hands on head, then veer off into the forest feigning exhaustion/ illness/a call of nature emergency (my acting skills aren’t quite advanced enough to differentiate). By the time I’ve finished not having a wee, most of the field have passed.
I strip off my fluorescent top and red cap to reveal an anodyne grey vest, and look at my watch: seven minutes have elapsed. I’ve got around 11 to kill. Sun dapples the forest floor; it’s a warm summer’s morning and rather pleasant. Soon I hear a footfall and panting, and a wiry chap in a green vest bounds past. A hundred metres behind him is another runner – he’ll certainly know he’s second. A pause, and three more. Time to make my move. I inch nearer the track, keeping myself concealed, then empty my water bottle over my head and set off up the hill around 20 feet behind the sixth-placed runner.
He’s struggling. I’m certainly not. I pass him, panting theatrically, and emerge on to the crest of the hill and the gauntlet of volunteers marking the finish line. ‘Great effort!’ says one, as I pass, faux pain etched on my face. I stop the clock at 20:06 – around two minutes quicker than my personal best – and go to get my barcode scanned. Slightly illogically, I’m disappointed not to have broken the magic 20-minute mark.
I don’t hang around, walking back into the forest and then looping round to walk down the track I’ve just run up. The trickle of finishers is now swelling and I get to see the vast majority of the 300 or so runners pass. Beaming youngsters; dads with prams; a couple of 70-something ladies holding hands as they chuckle- grimace their way up the hill; and, right at the back, a good three or four minutes after everyone else, a proud mum with her very young daughter – no more than four or five. ‘You’re doing so well, my love – almost there,’ she encourages. I can’t meet their eyes. I feel grubby. This should be the plight of all race cheats, I decide. To walk the course in reverse order, to see the whites of your fellow runners’ eyes.
My official results arrive a few hours later, when I’m sitting at home feeling unsatisfied; running for just eight minutes doesn’t suit me. I post the following on my Twitter and Instagram accounts: ‘Smashed it in my 5km parkrun this morning – took 2 minutes off my personal best, with 20:06. That tantalising “breaking 20” is within reach, it seems.’
I get five likes, two retweets and a sarky comment from a colleague.
Pretty small return for my integrity. I post again a few days later. ‘I’ve got a confession. I cheated in my parkrun.’ A far greater buzz this time. Derek Murphy, whom I’d forewarned, gets in touch. He thinks my margin of improvement would have been just about within the realms of the plausible. ‘It is possible the guy that finished right behind may have decided to look at your history, but short of an eyewitness, I think you would have got away with it.’
I take little pride in that. I do indeed feel like I’ve cheated myself. But, also, strangely, like I’ve cheated the entire sport of running and, by association, anyone who laces up their trainers to pit themselves against others for little more than the fun and satisfaction of doing so. [Duncan contacted parkrun prior to publication to explain what he’d done, and his time has been annulled.]
Robert Johnson puts it best: ‘The average person that runs gets into the sport for a simple reason: the harder you work, the better you get, by pushing your body to the limit. People who cheat in these amateur races – they’re openly mocking that. ‘So if you ask me whether I have a problem with other runners going after them, I’d have to say...absolutely not.’