Thursday, July 21, 2016

Facebook and the Art of Getting Yourself Disqualified

** This post has been amended at the request of one of the runners mentioned in the original post**



A funny thing happened to me in the immediate aftermath of posting the link to my latest race report (from Gold Coast 2016) on Facebook. As I mentioned in the report, I've gradually gotten to know quite a few people in the Australian marathoning scene now - my first marathon friends were almost exclusively American, thanks to my connection to the US Runners World online forums, but now I have quite a few Aussie running friends as well, which is nice - and so it seems my race reports are getting a wider audience in my homeland then ever before.

I should also mention that I tagged a whole bunch of people in that post - probably the most I've ever tagged, actually - and given the way Facebook posts spread like a virus whenever given the opportunity (see below), it's not surprising that it reached a bigger audience than ever before.

108K shares and comments from all around the world


The report included a couple of photos kindly taken by a friend which she then posted to my Facebook. I downloaded and popped them in there, thinking nothing of it really, and so my interest was piqued when a friend of a friend - someone I've met once IRL and with whom I have 7 mutual FB friends - read the blog post and commented regarding one of the other runners in the photo Prue took at 23km. The comment (which is discussed in detail below) set me thinking about something that has been on my mind for a long time - it is one of the key elements to racing a marathon to the best of one's ability - namely, how best to pace yourself during a 42.2km/26.2 mile race.


The infamous picture

The Delicate Art of Race Pacing

It's well-known that a lot of runners go out way too fast in races, even marathons. By way of contrast, my own pacing approach is to go out precisely on target pace (ok, perhaps a tiny smidge faster) and then hang on as long as possible. When it works, I get all the way to perhaps 35km or so before I start slowing down; when it doesn't, well, the slow-down starts sooner. The worst positive split (second half slower than the first) that I've run remains around 5 minutes, so clearly this approach works for me.

It also works nicely for most professional runners. If you look at the splits of the mega-elites who win major marathons - like Yuki Kawauchi, who took second in a thrilling sprint finish at Gold Coast this year - they tend to run exactly even splits, fading at most by maybe a minute or less over the second half. If you look at the splits of many amateur marathoners - even the competitive ones - it's not quite the same story. Most slow down by a fair amount in the late stages of the race; some hit the wall; some don't so much hit the wall as slam into it head-on and wind up smeared all over it. So, the end result of my own personal pacing strategy is that I tend to pass a LOT of people in the second half of large races.

I'm still sort of baffled as to why anyone would employ the crash-and-burn sort of strategy - basically set out at top speed and see how long it lasts - because it can't be a nice experience to end up destroyed and walking, surely. On the other hand, it takes a lot of training and racing to be able to gauge exactly how to walk the fine line between an appropriately ambitious pace and one that's frankly suicidal; so perhaps most of the people I see running in this manner just don't have the experience to do anything different. Who knows?

My splits from GCAM 2016; note that I passed 72 people between the 5K mark and the finish, most between 30-40K


So, back to that photo taken at 23km. The Facebook commentator - who shall remain nameless - identified by name one of my companions in the photo, namely the bloke to my right wearing a "Newcastle Flyers" singlet. The comment indicated that this guy had blown up spectacularly in the second half and finished over 10 minutes behind me, which implied he had barely managed to run sub-3. I was therefore interested (in a Schadenfreude sort of a way) to see exactly how bad it had gotten for this poor soul, who clearly has a rather limited understanding of marathon pacing.

I looked up his name in the live results but the finish time didn't make sense; also, he had run the first few 5K splits in around 21:30 so would not have been anywhere near me at 23km. I zoomed in on his bib number and looked it up - this looked more like the right splits but to my surprise the name was completely different. Now I was really confused. What on earth had I stumbled upon here?


Facebook to the Rescue

Dodgy goings-on during running races are more common than you'd think. Lately I've been following the story of Rob Young, aka MarathonManUK, who claims to have run daily marathons for over a year and recently attempted to break the World Record for fastest Transcontinental crossing of the USA on foot. He is, however, suspected of cheating - the story is far too long to repeat here, suffice it to say that an official investigation is underway at present - and I learned quite a lot about how to gather evidence from following the extremely long thread on LetsRun where his cheating was exposed.

This "run" takes place at 8,500 feet of elevation, at paces close to 3:30 min/km for over 2 hours
After 3 weeks of running 70-80 miles per day, every day (120-140km)
Yeah, right.

At one point, and after many weeks of strident demands to see his GPS watch data from the Transcon attempt, Rob Young did finally upload some of his running data to Strava - only to swiftly delete large portions of it again without explanation. The wily sleuths at Letsrun.com, however,  downloaded and took screenshots of most of it before he could erase his tracks, and the evidence has not only been preserved for posterity, it has also been forwarded to the investigators looking into his claims.

So now the original commenter on my blog post was telling me he was going to delete his comment, not wanting to stir up suspicion. Thinking on this I quickly took screenshots of the two results - for the identified runner's bib number and also the official (rather different) result under his name - before doing some more digging. And what I turned up was interesting indeed.

It wasn't too hard to look up the two names - the one from my photo and the one whose bib he appeared to be wearing - among the commentor's FB friends and a very interesting story started to emerge.

The person from my photo has asked me to remove his Facebook profile pic from this blog post (well, he asked but also sent me a slightly threatening legal-style letter about it) so I have complied, but since he has subsequently changed his profile, the original is here:

http://imgur.com/a/NC4Xu


This is the FB profile of the person who was identified in my photo at 23km, and unless he's changed the photo today, he's helpfully wearing the same kit as he did at Gold Coast! Nice shirt, by the way.

Since he doesn't like having his photos on here, here is the link to the race photos of this person - well, the bib #6020 who is the person running near me at 23km - from Gold Coast. 


You might notice that the name associated with these photos is not his. It's the same one as on this result below (which is publicly searchable and not his private property.





Yes, this is the race result associated with that bib number. The half split was similar to mine - slightly faster, in fact - so this is definitely the person who was running near me at 23km. But the name is wrong; so who exactly is Richard?

You have to love Facebook because I found him quite easily on there; in the interests of keeping his public Facebook profile picture private (*removes tongue from cheek*) here is the photo via Imgur:


Looks like he is a runner - the chick in the photo is apparently known as Marathon Barbie - we have a lot of mutual FB friends and he's friends with the bloke who rumbled this whole gig too. The plot thickens. Let's check whose bib he is wearing in the marathon.


Yep, that's him in the race photos too. Looks like he's having fun - doesn't seem like he blew up at all - unless that's a grimace of pain and despair rather than a smile, of course. Let's check the public results for that bib number shall we?


I'm not sure he's going to be happy with that time though.

In summary: John and Richard swapped bibs and ran as each other. Elementary, my dear Watson!

But the million dollar question is, why? I'm sure people are reading this and thinking, "So what if they swapped bibs? What's the big deal?" Some are likely thinking it was probably just  a silly mistake, and no harm was done so why even bother caring?

Well, this year at Gold Coast everybody had their name printed on their bib. If you zoom in close to 6020 (John)'s bib, it says "Richard"! right above the number. So, not a simple mix-up. These dudes did this on purpose. You may still be wondering why this is any sort of problem for anyone (except them), but there's another hidden reason that explains why bib swapping - unless done officially with the approval of race organisers - is just not on.

Before I proceed I will add a disclaimer that I was contacted by one of these fellows (via FB - oh, the irony) and he is adamant that no cheating or deception was intended; it was a spur-of-the-moment decision and meant in large part as a joke on another runner. Seems that person would not want to see one of their names ahead of his in the results, so they swapped to make sure this would be the case. He claims neither of them - not his mate who is an experienced runner and marathoner, nor any of their running club who knew about the swap - knew it was against race rules to swap bibs. They did not mean to cheat and it was not premeditated. Make of this what you will......and please keep reading.

Bib swapping - why it's a NO NO

It's a scenario you can easily imagine: your friend is injured, they can't run a race they have already entered, so they offer you their bib. If you don't think too much about it, it seems simple - just run the race, record a time and there you go. It might show up on their stats but unless they're a seriously competitive racer, they probably don't care, right?

The problems start when the ring-in runner turns in a performance that is quite unlikely or even impossible for the original runner. Like the (short-lived) winner of the F55-59 year age group this year at Gold Coast, who turned out to be a guy running with a bib belonging to someone called Judy. Whoops. That sort of thing isn't very fair to the rest of the F55-59 AG, who just got beaten by a 30-something bloke. Understandably, that guy got himself disqualified pretty quickly.

"Judy Bell"  F55-59

Then there's the bigger question of qualifying times for larger races. In Australia this doesn't really apply - we have no marathons for which there is a qualifying standard - but in the USA it's quite a big deal. New York is one example (there is a lottery but you can circumvent that by running a qualifying time for a guaranteed entry) but the biggest fish of all is Boston. Unless you're willing to sell your soul raising money for a charity bib, you can't really get in to run Boston marathon unless you qualify by running a marathon under a certain time. For some runners this is no big problem; for others it is a struggle and one that can become a mild obsession.

Chasing a "BQ" (Boston Qualifier) is a pursuit that drives many marathoners and in fact one of my American friends spent so much energy and time on it that she ended up writing a book about her experience. I met her this year in Boston and it was awesome seeing how happy and proud she was to be there, wearing her jacket and taking in the experience. Another of my good friends was there for her second time after spending a number of years narrowly missing out on a qualifying time, so it is not lost on me how lucky I am to be able to qualify easily.


All these awesome ladies worked hard to get to Boston; that's Elizabeth in the middle, next to me

Of course not every runner who aspires to run Boston has the grit and determination to put in the hard yards and actually run a qualifying time, or putting it better we might say that not everyone who runs Boston has the honesty to qualify legitimately. In the era of the Internet - where everyone's race results and pictures and Facebook profile are right there for anyone to see - it is becoming increasingly clear that quite a few people who run Boston have cheated on their qualifying race, either by cutting the course or getting someone else to run a qualifier for them. There's even a guy who devotes considerable time to exposing this sort of thing - he has a blog that you can find here - and every year he finds cases where runners have done something shady in order to get to Boston.

Perhaps the most infamous example lately was the so-called "Marathon Dad" Mike Rossi, who took his kids out of school to watch him run Boston in 2015. When he subsequently received a letter from their school principal chiding him for the "unexcused absence" of his children that week, Rossi's response went viral and he was hailed a hero for his defence that by taking that trip "they learned about dedication, commitment, love, perseverance, overcoming adversity, civic pride, patriotism, American history, culinary arts and physical education."


He left out the part where they learned that cheating is okay: it was subsequently discovered - once again by the LetsRun sleuths - that Rossi had without a doubt cheated in his qualifying race for Boston! I'm willing to bet that Mike regrets his moment of Internet fame, which unfortunately led to a far more durable infamy in the general running community.


photo credit: www.phillymag.com

So what about NotJohn and NotRich

I still haven't gotten to the part where this becomes relevant to our two bib-swappers from Gold Coast, but I'm trying. It comes down to the WHY - for what possible reason would two runners swap bibs when they are both running the same event and there is no tangible advantage to doing so? There are no official corrals at GCAM; you self-seed and line up when you're ready, although the earlier the better in most cases. A different bib number won't get you closer to the front. So why would Rich want a faster time (run by John) although by rights it should have been at least 10 minutes faster than it was in the end?

John claims it was just a joke and that the faster time was meant for a bet or something . That is what he has told me and he says he is being honest, so I'll believe him (although some might not). What follows below is the only other scenario I could think of, as a competitive runner who runs marathons for themselves and not to play jokes on others. 

There's only one reason I can think of, and it is this: Rich needed a faster time to use as a qualifier somewhere else. 3:33 is not fast enough for a 35 year old male to enter Boston, but 2:59 is. Similar situation for New York, and although I don't have a clue whether Rich aspires to enter either of those marathons (and it's entirely possible that he doesn't) there's no other plausible explanation.

Or there wasn't until John clarified it for me - and I still don't understand why he would be fine with his own result being credited to another person. It clearly wasn't the sort of time he *should* be running; he should be a lot faster. I'm in possession of - but will not publish here - a photo of him running at a half marathon elsewhere in Australia and he recorded a very fast time, I think he came 3rd overall. So for him, 2:59 is not very impressive - yet he was happy to go on record with a 3:33? Right, okay.

For clarity, what I initially suspected of these two runners is a practice known as using a "bib mule" - someone faster wears your bib, runs you your BQ and off you go to run Boston (believing you got away with it, or perhaps that it's not that big of a deal) - and it's more common than you think. Our mate on Marathoninvestigation.com uncovered a running club where a single runner was found to have run BQs for 3 other club members (all of whom ran Boston in 2016): you can read about that fascinating story here.

above are 3 of Wild Mountain Running club's members at Boston
below is the guy running their qualifiers for them

It's not hard to figure out who might have cheated in order to qualify for Boston: you look for people who ran Boston significantly slower than their qualifying race. Maybe they were injured, or they ran for fun, or blew up at mile 20. But the Wild Mountain dudes all ran so much slower - from 2 hours to over 3 hours slower - that they were flagged for review and their deception was uncovered. I wonder how proudly or fondly they will remember their day in Hopkinton now that they've been banned from the Boston marathon forever?


In conclusion

It turns out that John and Richard did not intend to cheat, or so they say. Indeed, running with your friend's bib might seem like a silly or funny or crazy thing to do. If you run identical times then there's probably no harm done. But the consequences can be far worse than you'd imagine - so if you're planning to use someone else's bib, get it transferred to yourself officially. Or, all jokes aside, you may end up with a result that nobody can be proud of.


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