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How Online Vigilantes Take Down Cheating Runners

You can run, but you can't hide from the Internet. Photo: ZamoraA/iStock

How Online Vigilantes Take Down Cheating Runners

LetsRun.com's web vigilantes are some of the Internet's most tenacious sleuths. Cheat at your own peril.

Last month, the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., issued a lifetime ban to a suspected serial cheater. The accused was 61-year-old Gregory Price, who had run the race every year since 2011 and whose timing chip had mysteriously always failed to register at both the 25 and 30-kilometer checkpoints. 

One didn’t need to be Detective Poirot to suspect something was amiss. As race director Rick Nealis told the Washington Post, “You’re telling me the chip doesn’t work in the same spot only for this guy? Every year? . . . Either there’s some spaceship that’s beaming down something just on him or something is up.”

It wasn’t a spaceship. 

Not long after the race, Price, whose time of 3:17:47 had garnered him second place in his age group and a coveted Boston Marathon spot, confessed that he’d been shortening his route in recent years. (He didn’t specify how, but it isn’t too hard to figure out when you look at the course map and convert kilometers to miles.) His name was subsequently excised from the race results as well as the Boston 2016 entry list.

“I messed up. There’s no reason to do that,” Price told the Washington Post. “There’s really nothing else to say. There’s not a good explanation. I apologize to all the other runners.”

Twenty years ago, Price’s infractions very likely would have gone unnoticed.  But with more and more races featuring sophisticated run-tracking systems, as well as course photographers and spectators, life is harder for potential cheaters. There’s another reason why those who might consider taking a shortcut ought to think twice: the message boards on LetsRun.com

LetsRun was founded in 2000 by brothers Weldon and Robert Johnson. Its mission statement reads: “LetsRun.com is dedicated to covering and promoting the world’s greatest and purest sport.” Recent doping scandals have challenged that purity somewhat, and LetsRun has made a priority of addressing issues that threaten pro running’s integrity. The site has, for instance, consistently argued that current IAAF president Seb Coe should not be receiving an annual six-figure salary from Nike while heading the international governing body of athletics. (Coe ended his brand ambassadorship with Nike last week.)

If part of LetsRun’s editorial aim is to call out those who might tarnish the reputation of professional running, the site’s message boards have become a platform for vigilante justice seekers in the world of amateur road racing. 

It was on the message boards that an anonymous poster first brought attention to Gregory Price’s dubious results at the Marine Corps Marathon

“I think I have found a serial cheater at Marine Corps Marathon,” Sometingwong wrote on November 11.  “Like how do you miss the same timing mats for 5 straight years?” This prompted a deluge of replies, and Price’s times, and race photos, were subjected to mass scrutiny. Nine days later, Price’s confession appeared the Washington Post.

Price’s case is only the most recent discovery. It was largely thanks to the LetsRun sleuthing that Kip Litton, the elusive Michigan dentist with the goal of running a sub 3-hour marathon in every U.S. state, briefly became the most famous marathon cheat in the country. (How many professional runners do you know who were profiled in the New Yorker?) Litton, who had a knack for appearing in race photos at the start and end of marathons, but not so much in between, is the subject of hundreds of LetsRun threads which, taken together, paint a portrait of a pathological fabulist. Crowdsourcing the investigation of Litton’s vast race history led to the astonishing revelation that the one race he allegedly had won outright, the West Wyoming Marathon, never actually took place. Litton had, in a sleight of hand worthy of Keyser Söze, created a race website and entire cast of fictional participants. 

While it took some time for Litton’s story to come to light, LetsRun backlash has proved swifter for celebrity runners who, intentionally or not, fudge their race results. When Paul Ryan’s alleged sub 3-hour marathon was cast into serious doubt during his ’12 vice-Presidential campaign, the message boards erupted with speculation that the young congressman was not telling the truth. This skepticism proved well-founded.

“For the most part, if there’s smoke there’s fire,” the site’s co-founder Robert Johnson told me. “Some people complain about the nature of the message board, but I’m still waiting for an example of a high profile case where people have been speculating about something and it’s been way, way off base.” 

Few cases of late are more high profile than that of Mike Rossi, a father from Pennsylvania who gained national recognition after taking his kids out of school so they could watch him run the Boston Marathon earlier this year. After Rossi’s story became widely publicized, a thread on LetsRun suggested that he might have cheated in his qualifying race, the Via Marathon. His time of 3:11:45 was way faster than he had ever run and there were no photos of him on the course, except at the finish. 

LetsRun’s founders looked into it and were quickly convinced that Rossi had indeed cheated. They presented their case to the Via Marathon, but the organizers of the race replied that, lacking hard evidence, Rossi could not be disqualified. This caused LetsRun to take it a step further.  The website has offered Rossi $100,000 if he can repeat his 3:11:45 performance within 12 months. (Although he still has a few months to do it, Rossi hasn’t indicated that he will be accepting the challenge.) 

LetsRun’s willingness to put its money where its message board is might strike some as a garish publicity stunt. From the perspective of those making the offer, however, it reflects a passionate belief that cheaters, at any level, should not be allowed to get away with it. 

As the website states:

For us at LetsRun.com, the integrity of our beloved sport is at stake here, and we and a lot of our visitors have devoted a lot of time on Mike Rossi and the evidence is conclusive – Mike Rossi did not legitimately qualify for the 2015 Boston Marathon. The Lehigh Valley Marathon may be a charitable endeavor, but it is first and foremost a race, and it should reverse its course and disqualify Mr. Rossi.

But “integrity” can be a slippery concept. Is there a more concrete reason why the amateur detectives who post their findings on the LetRun’s message boards care so much about busting people like Mike Rossi?

Robert Johnson thinks there is. 

“The more I think about it, it makes sense. Running is important to the people who come to our website–these people work really hard at it . . . I think it’s an affront to them to see cheaters.” 

 

Filed To: Road Running, Fitness, Culture

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