An independent investigation finds it implausible that the British ultrarunner completed the attempt without outside assistance
A report released today investigating Robert Young’s attempt to break the trans-American running record concluded that he spent large portions of his journey riding in a support vehicle.
The British ultrarunner began his attempt last May in Huntington Beach, California, but soon came under scrutiny after a post on the website Letsrun.com accused him of cheating—specifically, taking occasional breaks in his van as it continued moving at the pace of a runner.
Drawing on data from Young's two smartwatches, the investigators identified discrepancies between his pace and his running cadence, or the number of steps he took over a certain period of time. According to the report, nearly half of his running sessions had a cadence which corresponded to a slow walk, rather than a jog, even though, at times, his watch indicated he was traveling faster than nine minutes per mile.
“It is unequivocally impossible for a runner to maintain a pace of 9 min/mile or faster with cadence values this low,” the investigators conclude. “The data strongly suggest that the TomTom watches cannot have been worn by a runner during these sessions—they must have covered the distance without the taking of steps, which implies inside a vehicle for all or part of the logged session.”
Additionally, using the pace and cadence data, investigators calculated his step length and found that during 82 individual run sessions, it would have been greater than two meters. For comparison, a marathoner running at three-hour pace would have a step length between 1.3 and 1.5 meters, according to the report. What’s more, his step length was greater than 20 meters at least 35 times.
Young cooperated with the investigation—which was commissioned by Skins, the running apparel company that sponsored Young’s attempt—providing an interview and turning over his watches, tacking data, and handwritten logs. Investigators Roger Pielke Jr of the University of Colorado’s Center For Sports Governance and Ross Tucker, a professor of exercise physiology of the University of the Free State, began their research in July.
Tucker and Pielke also noted that after the Letsrun.com post, Young's data suddenly moved back inline with what would be expected of someone attempting the run: his step lengths and cadence returned to normal. His pace also slowed considerably. They conclude this rules out the possibility of watch malfunction.
Young, for his part, is steadfast in maintaining his innocence but admits mistakes were made.
“There were times the watch was inside the vehicle where I forgot to put it before heading back out,” he says, although he contradicts himself on this point in the report, maintaining that he wore a watch every time he ran. “But everyone in that vehicle was tired. We all made mistakes, but it was all made in good faith.”
As a result of the investigation, Skins has dropped Young as a sponsored athlete, saying in a press release that the company wants to remain consistent with its “values of championing the true spirit of competition.”
Young plans to attempt the record again, this time with more independent observers—people with “a lot of clout behind them,” he says, adding that he must first win back some good faith and plans to start by running the six-day Sri Chinmoy race in New York next year.
“I think I have to prove myself,” he says, “and I don’t think it can happen with just the one race. It will take a while.”