Derek Murphy, the 46-year-old business analyst used to run marathons himself but he slacked off after starting a family. Now he chases cheaters — armed with race data, finish-line photos, anonymous tips and an algorithm.
“I think most people aren’t aware of how much cheating goes on in marathons,” Murphy said.
The rule-breakers generally fall into two categories:
- Course-cutters, who start a race and finish it but don’t run every mile in between
- Bib-swappers who give or sell the tag with their race number to a faster runner.
The cheaters’ motives?
Some crave the Facebook likes that stack up after they post a personal best; others are desperate for a time that qualifies them to run in the elite Boston Marathon, a bucket-list race.
How many has he caught?
Since Murphy began sleuthing a year and half ago and posting his findings on a blog, Marathon Investigation, he estimates he has caught up to 250 road warriors trying to pull a fast one.
Some example of his cases
- When he crunched the numbers for the 2016 Philadelphia Marathon — one of the biggest in the nation — he quickly found 12 entrants who apparently had qualified for Boston by taking a shortcut. They had missed timing mats and their splits — the amount of time it took for them to run certain sections of the race — didn’t make any sense. In one case, a runner would have needed to make world record time in the final miles for his splits to add up.
- Murphy also found a couple he believed cheated together, with the husband running with the wife’s chip to get her a faster time. He dug into their history and found more races with peculiar results. In some, timing mats showed the husband and wife with identical splits, suggesting they ran side by side the whole way. But photos told another story: He crossed the finish line alone and she was caught on camera miles behind.
Marathon Cheating has a history
- In 1980, novice Rosie Ruiz stunned the running world when she was the first woman to cross the finish line, barely sweating, at the Boston Marathon. She insisted her win was legit, but then an investigation into her 24th place finish in the previous year’s New York City Marathon uncovered a witness who saw Ruiz, still wearing her bib, on the subway when she should have been sweating it out.
- There was a scandal dubbed “Bib-gate” during the 2014 Boston Marathon. A runner went to look up her race pictures and was confronted with images of four other people.
- Recent casualties include a Washington DC man banned for life from the Marine Corps Marathon after missed timing mats exposed his fraud, and a New Jersey running coach banned from Boston after it was revealed that she got her qualifying time by having a friend run with her bib.
So how many people generally cheat in a marathon?
Based on the work he has done, he thinks up to 5 percent of all marathon entrants may be deceptive.
It has a lot to do with timing pressure, elite race cutoff and social media.
The first question anyone ever asks when you run a marathon is, ‘What was your time?’ Not, like, ‘How was it? Congratulations! What was the experience?’ It’s, ‘What was your time?’
Let’s bring back the ethos of an ancient sport that is supposed to be about respecting the distance.