Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Would your cheat in a race?

I've just read an interesting article in the August 6 issue of The New Yorker.  Thanks to Emily for pointing it out to me.  "Marathon Man" by Mark Singer chronicles the story of Kip Litton, a Michigan dentist on a quest to complete a marathon in all 50 states. (Hmm, that goal sounds familiar.)  More people summit Everest than complete their 50th lifetime state during a year.  Kip Litton has run a running website (that all sounds familiar too) and is supporting the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation since his youngest son suffers from the disease.  He dropped 30 lbs when he discovered running.  (Check.  Been there.  Done that.)

And he seems to be a fantastic cheater. (Now that, happily, does not sound familiar.)

You can find an abstract to the article in the following link, and subscribers should be able to find the article in full via their web account or iPad app.

In brief, Dr. Litton appears to have been faking a number of race results showing him finishing under the magical 3 hour mark.  In fact, he has been disqualified from various marathons and nearly dq'ed from others.  His fraud came to light because he was listed as the winner or a top finisher in a few marathons, but the people "behind" him have no recollection of him passing them.  His times are fast for a 50 year old, and a smoking gun is that he does not seem to appear in photos early in the races.  Yet, he tends to hit the timing checks on the course meaning he is present at the race when mid-run times are recorded by the electronic systems.

He even faked a marathon in Wyoming going so far as to put up a website, list other runners (29 total, and of course winning the race).  He later admitted to creating the race and the fake race director but actually running the "race" that day.  Yet he also faked a post on reviewing the race.  The blogosphere has bashed him about, and he claims ignorance (making the wrong turn here, starting late there) as reasons for his "cheating."

Most aggravating to the writer of the article and others online is that they cannot figure out how he is doing it in both small and big (The Boston Marathon) races.  How does he cut the course and not been seen?  Is there a double?  (His clothes change between parts of the race.) Dr. Litton is not saying and will not talk about it - although he admits to being cut from the finishers' lists as being the right decisions by the directors of those events.

I urge you to read the article for more information and details.

Two elements of this fascinate me; a third saddens me.  Like Mr. Singer, the author, I feel stymied in my attempt to understand the motivation.  Dr. Litton pays for these trips; he actually travels to these races.  He plans ahead.  He seems to be an upstanding member of his community and long married husband and father, yet this 50 state quest (in less than 3 hours each) has pushed him to do something that is beyond the pale of reason.  No medal is awarded for running marathons in all 50 states unless you pay for it.  There is a website that tracks such things, and like my running group,, a lot of the information is user posted.  That being said, the membership committee of the 50 state club requires hard copy documentation of the 50 state finishes. So, to be a member, even if by cheating, you need to have "proof."

Yet there are other running goals one may have.  If Dr. Litton is truly cheating, he is probably still running a half-marathon or so.  There are sites that track running these in all 50 states.  And why even care about being under 3 hours?  Would anyone reading this really be dismissive of someone who ran a marathon in 6 hours in every state?  I met someone the airport last week that has walked a marathon in 43 states so far.  (I will feature him in a future blog post.)  This guy has walked 100 mile races too.  Run it or walk it, that's a long distance as is a 26.2 mile marathon.

In the end, a marathon for anyone other than the elites is a personal challenge.  I have won two marathons - one had 5 people and the other 7.  I have finished in the top 10 of some larger marathons. I was happy with a top 1,000 in LA this year.  But I will never hit lofty finishing results in any major race.  In fact, my emphasis has shifted entirely to peak endurance instead of peak performance.  Perhaps this shift was done in my brain because I cannot hit a 3 hour marathon.  And I do not even want to train for that speed and limit my marathon running to a few a year.  It's all about goals, and I'm writing the achievement list.  Dr. Litton seems to have written a great goal without the intent of personally completing it.  Isn't the joy in completing the goal?

But that brings me to the other fascinating point and what I think is a consequence of this story.  When I post on my blog or Facebook or tweet out an accomplishment, I have never been asked if I really did what I said.  Inherent in all of this is an element of trust.  You all trust me; you think I am insane, but you do not doubt the validity of my claims.  For that I am grateful and happy.

Now along comes a potential poser, and doubt gets cast in all directions.  People asked Dr. Litton to allow people to verify him at the next race, yet he has not shown up at races he has signed up for.  (For the record, everyone is invited to run a marathon with me should they so desire!)  Is this the case of a bad egg or a bad dozen eggs?  When doubt enters the equation, no one wins.  This episode causes a shift in thinking about personal goals and sharing them.  If they are truly personal goals, why do I write a blog?  We not talking about doping in the Tour de France.

At the same time, I am saddened by the reaction of the people online about this situation.  Singer's article quotes some of the ugly comments posted online.  Dr. Litton, albeit with questionable credibility, states his tires have been deflated and his house egged.  Does what he may have done really matter that much?  I guess it does to the person who "finished" just after him in a race, particularly with results in the top 10.  But does one set of thoughtless actions necessarily beget violence (physical and verbal)?  In a strange sense, the motivations of Dr. Litton could be core human desires to be important and noticed and to feel special.  His story is not evil; it is sad and pathetic.  Yet the people who have found him out have slipped into hostility.  Has their marathons runs gotten better because of this investigation?  The true crime here is that our base emotions can be easily uncovered and brought to the forefront.  In striving to be more than we can be (something most marathoners suggest they do), we have found out we often can be less than we should be.

And that feels like the real tragedy of this entire episode.