How a Ragtag Crew of Almost Journalists Created Running's Most Controversial Website
For the past two decades, the website LetsRun.com has straddled the lines between gossip, investigative reporting, and hardcore training advice, angering Nike, USA Track and Field, and traditional media in the process. Charles Bethea joined them at the 2016 Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon, to figure out how they’ve managed to become the most important, and controversial, outlet in competitive running.
Last spring, a relatively unknown 33-year-old British ultrarunner named Robert Young set out to break the North American transcontinental record. The feat would require covering more than 3,000 miles from Huntington Beach, California, to Times Square in New York City. The fastest time—46 days, 8 hours, 36 minutes—had been set in 1980 by Frank Giannino Jr. Numerous attempts had since failed.*
In his memoir, Marathon Man, the dirty blond, boyish-looking Young writes of running 370 marathons in a single year since beginning to compete at long distances in 2014. Still, he would need to cover more than 65 miles a day, for a month and a half, to break Giannino’s record. He left on May 14, followed by a huge RV with his two-man support team inside. Young kept track of his mileage using two GPS watches and a binder, where he logged his daily totals. An American flag flew behind the vehicle.
After 23 days, Young was halfway through his epic plod, which fans could follow using a virtual tracker on his website. Twenty-five-year-old Asher Delmott, of Lebo, Kansas, took the tracking one step further. Delmott figured that running solo through the night would be lonely, so he laced up and headed out in the early hours of June 5 to offer Young some surprise company.
But Young didn’t appear to be anywhere near his support vehicle as it crept down Old State Highway 50 at around 2 a.m. Meanwhile, the tracker continued to show Rob’s progress, beeping along at the same speed and location as the RV. Delmott, whose father had worked as a detective, was suspicious and started a thread on the message board of the website LetsRun.com. His provocative post was titled “Robert Young fakes run across America.”
Delmott’s evidence included time-stamped screen shots of Young’s online tracker and cell-phone videos that seemed to show the RV—you can see the flag waving behind it—at those same times, demonstrating that Young was not running beside it. Delmott also obtained security footage from a car wash displaying what looks like Young’s RV slowly passing, without a runner visible nearby. His post concluded, “I am convinced that Robert is not completing all of the distance on foot, and I understand my screenshots and videos cannot definitively prove it, but I think it at least warrants a very close inspection of his attempt.”
Immediately, the LetsRun forums erupted. “Hindsight says you should have had a witness and a low-light camera,” wrote a user under the name “I was driven across America,” adding: “Why didn’t you talk to the RV crew to document it was his van?” Heavyd84 posted: “Good investigative work! Now all of us living in states he hasn’t run through yet need to go out and get more evidence. Letsrun unite!”
After two days, as the thread grew to thousands of posts, LetsRun cofounder Robert Johnson weighed in with a few questions: “Couldn’t me and a buddy prove this in the span of 24–48 hours? Why would it entail anything besides us getting a bike, throwing it in a car, and riding next to these guys for 48 hours. My buddy is a schoolteacher and is free. Maybe we’d need a third person. One rides the bike, one drives the car and one sleeps.” He added, “How much time is left in this journey? I’d rather not have to drive out to middle America right now to prove this. Can I wait until NCAAs are over? Or are there any college kids near the route that want me to pay them to do it.”
As suspicion spread online, Young and his team were forced to spend their spare time debating doubters and answering to the media. “I could have been on the other side of the road,” Young told Runner’s World. “I don’t know. I could give you fifty different reasons.” He added: “See this nose? I know it’s big, but I am not Pinocchio.”
Thirteen days after Delmott’s post, Young quit his record attempt due to injury. In the aftermath, he maintained his innocence. “The run was all done aboveboard and, above all else, truthfully,” he wrote me in an e-mail. But the LetsRun message-board sleuths kept on investigating, analyzing photos of Young and his vehicle and poring over his racing stats. As of press time, there were nearly 500 pages of comments.
Johnson, however, is no longer reserving judgment: “He cheated.”
Frankly, 42-year-old identical twins Robert and Weldon Johnson can’t write that well. This is notable, since the pair, who go by RoJo and WeJo, write, edit, and oversee LetsRun, which covers the colorful characters and serpentine subplots of competitive running for a million unique visitors every month. The Johnsons are—and often won’t dispute being—disorganized, mumble-mouthed, and a tad prideful. But 15 years ago, the BroJos, as they are known, created the most obsessed-over site in competitive running, one that has advanced reporting on some of the biggest—and smallest—scandals in the sport over the past decade.
At a press conference during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, while traditional media outlets demurred, WeJo pressed three-time medalist Carmelita Jeter until she admitted her close relationship with Mark Block, a coach who’d been suspended for providing PEDs to athletes. In 2015, the site published a police report that described John Capriotti, Nike’s VP of global marketing, allegedly threatening to kill Danny Mackey—a former Nike employee and the head coach of the Brooks Beasts, the latter shoe company’s team—at the 2015 USA Outdoor Track and Field National Championships. Last summer, LetsRun shined a light on 800-meter runner Boris Berian’s feud with Nike—the apparel behemoth sued him for breach of contract after he inked a deal with New Balance—and Nike subsequently dropped its lawsuit. It’s not always pretty (the site looks a little like Craigslist), but LetsRun may be the most effective watchdog—and cheerleader—for an increasingly dirty sport relegated to the margins of media coverage. Trouble is, even the BroJos aren’t sure if they’re journalists or not.
“Weldon and Robert’s work has qualities of journalism,” says Tim Layden, a senior writer at Sports Illustrated. “But their best quality is that they don’t give a shit about offending people. They just fire away at perceived injustice or wrongdoing, and they have a pretty good sense of the aggrieved little guy.”
In early July, I spent four days crashing at a rented cottage in Eugene, Oregon, with the BroJos, their two full-time LetsRun staffers, and a college cross-country coach and BroJos bud I’ll call Coach. They were covering their sport’s Burning Man: the U.S. Track and Field Olympic Trials, at Steve Prefontaine’s old stomping ground, Hayward Field.
When I arrived midway through the 11-day reporting marathon, the group was sitting in a slouched semicircle in the cottage’s comically quaint living room amid discarded soda cans and a stranger’s bric-a-brac, cobbling together a story about a men’s 1,500-meter heat that most media would ignore.
“Is unmitigated a word?” Robert asked.
RoJo looks like a Texan Hugh Grant. He’s chatty and twitchy, and can get debilitatingly hangry. He writes much of the site’s commentary and travels to places like Bydgoszcz, Poland, and Guiyang, China, to cover some of the world’s most remote cross-country meets. For exercise, RoJo pushes his French bulldog in a stroller around his neighborhood in Baltimore, wishing he could remind eye-rollers that he once paced an Olympic marathoner for half her race (Catherine Ndereba in 2001). He has an economics degree from Princeton but still needs a bit of help from his coworkers.
“RoJo is the worst speller,” says Steve Soprano, from a couch in the cottage.
A short, shaggy, 29-year-old distance runner with an eye on the 2020 Olympic Trials, Soprano joined LetsRun in 2011. He’s the site’s workhorse, often staying up until 4 a.m. to collect a dozen noteworthy running links from the far reaches of the Web—Japan Running News, for example, and “a couple good Jamaican ones”—which he posts along with a running quote of the day. He sometimes writes comment pieces, too. “I can make fun of Russian dopers and race-walkers,” he said.
“I edit twenty typos in RoJo’s pieces,” added Jon Gault, a tall, pale, bespectacled young man sitting across the room, frowning.
Meticulous and peevish, 25-year-old Gault was born outside London but largely raised in Boston. He is in possession of the LetsRun team’s lone journalism degree, and he wields it mightily. Earlier this year, Gault published a 16,000-word, three-part oral history of the 2012 Olympic Trials women’s 5,000-meter race.
“Who writes better, Robert or me?” WeJo asked, then answered: “Jon does.” Jon generally fields Journalism 101 questions, like “Can I write that a source told me she was crying her ass off?” (Jon: “Yes, but rephrase.”) “I’d take any sports-journalism job I could get after school,” Jon told me. He didn’t get a Denver Broncos online internship and instead joined LetsRun in 2014. “I love what I’m doing now,” he continued. “I get to attend the Olympics and interview guys like Matt Centrowitz”—the 2016 1,500-meter gold medalist—“but if the Globe said, ‘We’ll pay you eighty grand to cover the Red Sox,’ I’d take it.”
WeJo is 25 pounds lighter than RoJo and resembles Willem Dafoe in Birkenstocks. He’s probably best known for running a 2:18 marathon while pacing world-record holder Paula Radcliffe during the 2002 Chicago Marathon. He could claim to be LetsRun’s CEO—the site is technically based in his Fort Worth home—but no strict hierarchy exists. Equanimity is also important to WeJo. “I don’t want us to be hot-headed, self-righteous pricks like some Deadspin guys,” he said.
WeJo earned an economics degree at Yale and spends more time managing the site than writing. His rationality tempers the often whimsical RoJo, who claims to suffer from “ideaphoria.” (“I’d be a billionaire if someone implemented all my ideas,” RoJo told me. One of them: a “how to be an adult” website.) Not that WeJo is without quixotic goals. “I want my dogs to break the 100-meter world record,” he said, referring to his two Vizsla mutts, Millie and Hershey, who’d driven with him from Texas to Oregon. “Bolt would get out faster, but Millie would crush him over the final 50.”
Just then, Millie was humping Hershey in a corner. Jon watched gravely. RoJo took a slug of Dr. Pepper and kept typing.
“If the BroJos were one person, they’d be president,” said Coach, who was tagging along to help write race recaps. “But they’re not. It’s like two ten-year-olds ran away from home.”
The twins grew up comfortably in Dallas. After running a successful mail-order clothing business, Dad worked for governor and then president George W. Bush. Mom was in the State Department. Neither parent was terribly athletic. In elementary school, the boys took the presidential fitness test and discovered that they were runners: in the 99th percentile for their grade. Which twin was better shifted throughout adolescence, with WeJo finally pulling ahead, running a 4:29 mile as a senior. WeJo walked on to Yale’s track team but never qualified for an NCAA meet. “I sucked in college,” he told me.
But he kept running. He won the Marine Corps Marathon in 1998, then clocked a 2:19 at Chicago the next year, qualifying for the 2000 Olympic Trials. He also qualified for the 5,000 and 10,000 meters, becoming one of just five American men to run all three events at the Trials. He quit his job and moved to Flagstaff, Arizona, where he trained, occasionally sleeping in his SUV. In his spare time, he and RoJo launched a website with an inviting name: LetsRun.com. Recognizing the Internet’s potential to find an audience for anything—and track and field’s struggle for Americans’ attention—they hoped that reclusive running geeks would gather en masse to talk training tactics and race results.
At the 2000 Olympic Trials, WeJo finished 25th in the marathon and 17th in the 10,000. He led for parts of the 5,000 but ended up last. The silver lining: he wore a LetsRun singlet. In no time, the site became known as a place to “wax philosophical” about the sport, as Runner’s World put it in 2001.
Young wannabe pros like Nick Willis, the 2016 1,500-meter bronze medalist, were hooked. “It gave me a ton of inspiration,” Willis says. “LetsRun is one of the primary reasons high-quality coaching and training have improved in America, and it’s showing in the results. The site spreads wisdom.”
One of the earliest “employees” was George Malley, a former professional runner who helped moderate the site’s message boards for free. There was no content-management system until 2013, and even today the BroJos don’t employ an accountant or a lawyer, and they have no strict budget or designated offices. “We’re lean,” WeJo told me. “We just make it work.”
LetsRun generally uses ad networks to make money and has had only one down year. “We’ve built the most influential running audience,” WeJo says. “We’ve got the fastest in every community and the coaches. If we keep bringing in a million upper-income, educated people monthly, we’ll figure out how to best monetize that traffic.”
LetsRun is a private company, and the BroJos declined to share specific financial data. Profit, though, has never been the point. “There are those who want what’s best for the sport,” says Willis, “and there are those who want what’s best for themselves. Robert and Weldon care more about the sport than the success of their site.”
In Eugene, the BroJos, Jon, Steve, and Coach spent 12 hours a day watching, discussing, and writing about Trials runners, often loping, between heats, from their nosebleed seats at Hayward Field to the media tent. There they pressed themselves against the fence between reporters and racers and tried to nudge a fifth-place finisher over to the side for a scoop.
Often there was none. After the women’s steeplechase final, RoJo grabbed his computer and backpack and ran his own steeple down four flights of stairs, through the rain, to the media tent, in loafers. Still panting, he thrust his recorder in the face of a crying non-qualifier, Ashley Higginson, who had just lost her Olympics bid to women she tearfully described as “so blond and pretty and fierce.” RoJo filmed her crying. “I always feel bad,” he told me after. “But it’s part of the drama.”
Thirty minutes later, RoJo shared with Jon a bit of prose he’d produced about the race: “In the last six hundred meters, you saw the spectacle we call the U.S. Olympic Trials in all its glory.” He paused for effect. “Unscripted drama at its finest.”
Jon nodded mute approval.
“Thank you!” RoJo exclaimed. “The master in journalism thinks I wrote a good sentence!” The story was posted that night.
The next day, the group drove 75 minutes to a hammer-throwing qualifier, held at Western Oregon University. A few dozen spectators would be there, at most. No other media. But the BroJos were excited to have finally put a LetsRun logo on WeJo’s truck, which he took to the event. A few drivers honked and waved. But the excitement faded as they got lost and fell behind schedule.
“Oh, my God,” Jon said. “We’re not gonna make it. Why were you so late leaving the house, RoJo?”
“I was editing your 5,000-word article.”
“Yeah,” WeJo said. “That’s important.”
“Is that sarcastic?” asked Jon.
WeJo, ignoring Jon: “I knew we wouldn’t make it. Give me the phone, Robert.”
RoJo, exasperated: “The GPS didn’t tell me to turn!”
Jon, sarcastically: “Call the organizers and tell them to delay the competition if they want media coverage!”
RoJo: “Turn here! We have to get to western Oregon and we haven’t gone west yet!”
They arrived a few minutes into the competition. As expected, there was no other media, just a half-dozen massive hammer throwers—guys named Kruger and Rudy with big beards and bellies—and a scattering of husky family, friends, and coaches looking on with pride and amazement as each man entered the little circle and gave the 16-pound hammer a grunting swing.
“I don’t know much about the hammer, to be honest,” said Jon, taking notes on the sideline. “But I think that’s pretty much par for the course here.”
After it was over, team LetsRun went for tacos. “Nobody writes detailed hammer and steeple recaps,” RoJo boasted, “except us.”
RoJo staggered into the living room on day eight, wearing an Orioles shirt and pajama bottoms. The reporting grind was wearing on the crew, as were the presumed cheaters everywhere. “I woke up thinking about Rob Young again,” he said. “There’s just no way!”
“We figured out pretty quickly,” he continued, after getting some Dr. Pepper in his system, “that Mike Rossi cheated, too.” Rossi, a 48-year-old Pennsylvania dad, ran what appeared to be a 3:11:45 at the 2014 Lehigh Valley marathon, qualifying him for Boston. Afterward, when his kids’ principal scolded him for taking them out of school to watch that race, he bragged in a Facebook post, which subsequently went viral, about how much more they learned watching him run than they would have in school—despite a great deal of evidence, outlined in a 5,000-word LetsRun article by RoJo, casting doubt on his qualifying time. (The BroJos offered Rossi $100,000 to run his 3:11 at any point in the following 12 months; he hasn’t pursued the offer, which they renewed this year.)
Chasing cheaters has won LetsRun fans. But not everyone’s impressed. Says Scott Douglas, a contributing editor at Runner’s World, “One problem I have with the site and the Johnson brothers’ presentation is a willful lack of distinction between something they did—broke a story or advanced a story—versus something somebody posted on the message board that becomes ‘LetsRun broke this story!’ ”
Indeed, by “we figured out,” RoJo really meant posters like gatorade&vodka who did much of the early legwork on the Rossi story. (That thread stretched to more than 1,200 pages.) A similar narrative played out with Rob Young’s run across America and the scrutiny of the unlikely marathon résumés of Michigan dentist Kip Litton and repeat Marine Corps Marathon finisher Gregory Price, of Washington, D.C.
While most news organizations routinely publish stories originating from civilian tipsters, it’s standard practice for that raw and often unreliable information to be vetted by the journalists those organizations employ. With LetsRun, that extra step is not always taken. In the case of Rob Young, RoJo and WeJo didn’t speak with him in person or closely monitor his run. Nor did they fully crunch the numbers to authenticate or debunk some of Young’s claims. Instead, their eventual conclusion—Young cheated—relied pretty much exclusively on the amateur work of the message-board posters who’d first suggested the possibility of Young’s fraud and then looked into it themselves.
Because the site is home to both a large and active posting community and original reporting by its founders—and because the line between the two is often blurry—LetsRun as a whole can sometimes shade from journalism into witch-hunting. “Many of the people behind these allegations are anonymous posters on a notoriously biased and sensationalist website,” Rossi told Runner’s World as his story was being picked apart in the forums.
“There is a distinction between the community and the editorial side,” WeJo insists. “‘LetsRun’ can refer to both, but we try and give proper credit on who is doing what. As to whether that distinction matters, I’m not sure. I’m glad cheaters get exposed.”
(In early October, an independent report, commissioned by Young’s primary sponsor, Skins, determined that he did cheat in his cross-country attempt. The report credits Asher Delmott’s post on LetsRun as a catalyst for catching Young, who continues to deny any wrongdoing.)
Of course, the subjects of the exposés usually aren’t thrilled. The site has been sued, or threatened with a lawsuit, at least five times, according to the Johnson brothers, who say that no damages have been awarded.
A month after leaving Oregon, WeJo and Jon were in Rio de Janeiro covering the Olympics. The men’s marathon is one of the most important events to the site’s readers, and on the final day of the games it didn’t disappoint. Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge won in 2:08:44, arguably cementing his case for being the greatest marathoner of all time. Galen Rupp, the American middle-distance runner competing in just his second marathon, took bronze, becoming only the second American man to medal in the event since 1976. Kipchoge’s and Rupp’s performances were both big stories that, WeJo figured, would be the focus of one of the final press conferences of the Games. He and Jon attended, despite the unlikelihood of anything newsworthy being said.
Then the first hand shot up. It was Jon’s. He asked Feyisa Lilesa, the Ethiopian silver medalist, why he had repeatedly made an X sign with his arms as he was coming down the course’s final straightaway.
“I’m five feet from Jon,” WeJo recalls. “And we’re both working on three hours sleep. I’m thinking, What the hell? Jon hasn’t asked a question this stupid during the entire Olympics. But I know Jon doesn’t ask stupid questions. Before I can rationalize the question in my head, Lilesa says that the Ethiopian government is killing his people, and he could be killed or detained for protesting, but it was something he must do.”
“Oromo is my tribe,” Lilesa told the scrum of international journalists. “Oromo people now protest what is right, for peace.” He went on: “Maybe I move to another country.”
Lilesa’s X quickly became one of the biggest and most enduring stories of the Rio Olympics, picked up by The Guardian, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, and giving voice to a conflict in an often overlooked part of the world.
“It was the moment of the Games for me,” WeJo says. “Running was suddenly very unimportant.” It was LetsRun at its best. They had broken a big story with a question that had come straight from the message board. “A few guys were saying ‘What a poor sport’ after Lilesa threw up the X,” WeJo says. “But then someone said, ‘He’s not being a jackass—it’s a political statement.’ Robert saw this back home and texted Jon and me to ask about it. I didn’t see the text when the conference started.” But Jon did.
“There is a chance someone else would have asked about the X if he hadn’t,” WeJo allows. “But I can’t be certain of it.”
Correction: After publication, the trans-America record was broken by 29-year-old ultrarunner Pete Kostelnick, in October 2016. He ran from San Francisco to New York City in 42 days, six hours, and 30 minutes.