Not all marathons are created equal. While to us non-runners all marathons might seem the same — grueling, lengthy, and out of the question — to seasoned runners, some are better than others. And then there’s Boston.
The Boston Marathon is the race to run if you’re a marathoner. The exclusive race accepts only about 30,000 runners, and participants need to meet a certain qualifying time from a previous marathon of a certain caliber. Unlike other races where you can simply sign up and show up on race day, at Boston, you have to be fast.
“Preference is given to those who have run the fastest under their age and gender qualifying standard,” according to Runner’s World.
Even those who do meet that mark, though, don’t always make the cut. For last year’s race, almost 5,000 qualified runners didn’t get bibs since the number of entries was so high. Qualified runners have been rejected for the past three years.
Cheating to get into the race, then, is all too common among Boston hopefuls, marathon investigator Derek Murphy said.
“When someone cheats to get in, it leaves someone deserving out,” Murphy said. Business analyst by day, the running fan also posts daily on his own website, Marathon Investigations. Murphy is committed to catching runners who try and game the system by analyzing their GPS data, running times, maps, and more.
“When I first started, I was looking at historical data and trying to see how many people were cheating to get into Boston,” Murphy said. “People ran Boston much slower than they qualified, and I wondered why.”
Murphy has been running his site for two years now, but didn’t really start to gain traction until he covered running blogger Gia Alvarez of RunGiaRun, who got banned from Boston after giving away her bib to a friend and then using that friend’s time to qualify for the race the following year. He went viral, though, after investigating Jane Seo — a Huffington Post lifestyle blogger who cheated in a half-marathon.
Seo cut the Florida course and ended up in second place. She entered her time and data into the run tracking site Strava, but it was done manually instead of from a GPS (the way most run data is submitted). She later made another entry, this time with GPS data that showed she did the whole course. After doing some digging, Murphy concluded that the pace of the later entry was more consistent with a bike ride rather than a run. Turns out, the blogger cut the course after claiming she didn’t feel well, but proceeded to bike the whole course again in the afternoon to try and cover her tracks.
If the blogger had actually run her times (instead of cutting the course), she would’ve sliced her mile times by two minutes for the second half of the race — an unheard of feat for running.
“I knew this story would get some attention, but I didn’t think this much,” Murphy said. The story of the cheating runner has been picked up by The Washington Post, USA Today, Bleacher Report, Deadspin, The Daily Mail, and many other publications. Thanks to his investigation into Seo, he’s now garnered more than one million views to his blog.
Murphy draws clicks and views to his site by calling out runners and coaches, which usually leads to them getting banned from races and teams. However, his ethical approach to the matter helps him steer mostly clear of backlash from the subjects.
“When I first started and I didn’t feel like anyone was looking, I kept the names in,” Murphy said. “I try and contact who I’m writing about, give them a chance to come clean.”
If they seem genuinely sorry and come clean about it, Murphy said he does his best to make sure his posts are vague and can’t be tied back to them.
He has uncovered some crazies, though. One notorious Arizona couple has cut courses multiple times — when the husband qualified for Boston with his cheat time, his wife photoshopped his bib onto hers. They were disqualified and banned so many times that they even started using aliases in races.
While most cheaters don’t go to that extreme, course-cutters and time-fixers are all too common, especially when it comes to snagging coveted Boston spots.
“Everyone has kind of seen it happen,” Murphy said. “Even though it doesn’t really matter in most cases, when someone cheats to get in, that’s leaving someone deserving out. Within the running community, it is a big deal.”