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To Catch a Marathoner

An interview with the scourge of America’s cheating runners

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Derek Murphy is the proprietor of Marathon Investigation, a blog that’s about what you’d expect: He highlights instances of course-cutting, bib-buying, and various other methods people use to cheat while running marathons. It’s a hobby. Murphy used to run marathons himself; now, he’s part of a community — larger than you might think — dedicated to exposing the seedy underbelly of distance running.

That world of scandal caught a little more light than usual Wednesday. Murphy’s investigation of a runner’s fraudulent second-place finish at a half marathon in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, picked up traction on the internet, thanks to a combination of the stakes (unbelievably low) and the level of Murphy’s research (unbelievably high). The runner, a lifestyle blogger named Jane Seo, was disqualified; and Murphy put another notch in his belt. I called him up to talk about his hobby, his methods, and the apparently huge problem of dishonest marathoners. This interview has been edited and condensed.

I gather this isn’t your day job. How much time do you spend digging into marathon cheats?

I’m a business analyst during the day. It’s kind of related: doing spreadsheets, looking at numbers. It’s kind of the way I generally attack the marathon investigation stuff. [The amount of time] really just depends on when I have time, or something hits my radar. It could be just a few hours a week, or if I get deep into one, like this most recent case with the half marathon, a little more time to dig into something specific.

Does something come onto your radar and then you decide to explore it? Or are you just pulling marathon results and then scrutinizing them?

Kind of both. I initially got attention looking for people who ran Boston using invalid qualifying times: people who cut the course in a qualifier, people who had someone run for them. [Editor’s note: Many cheaters bend the rules to qualify for the Boston Marathon, which limits its spots to runners who’ve hit a qualifying time at a number of sanctioned qualifying marathons elsewhere.] I developed a way to filter results to get those that were most likely to have cheated in the qualifiers. Starting this year, I’m trying to hit all the major races as they take place, to disqualify any runners before they get a chance to run Boston. Instead of being reactive, I’m trying to be a little more proactive and get them on the front end.

Why? What is the motivation here?

It’s kind of overlapping my interests. I’m a data nerd. I like doing numbers; it’s my day job. It falls into my skill set and my interest in running and whatnot. Part of it just started as a hobby. And then doing good. Because whenever somebody cheats to get into Boston, in particular, it’s leaving somebody out who deserves [a spot]. So with the blog, the initial point was: Let’s bring awareness to it, and maybe stop some people from trying in the future. And then it kinda grew from there. It’s almost an obligation at this point. People are emailing me like, Hey can you look at this? My friend was cheated out of a second-place [finish] because of this, or just missed Boston. People were reporting to me, and I feel the obligation to follow through when I get those kind of messages.

How many people do you think cheat on marathons?

A lot. There’s different levels … Every marathon, you find people that cheated, to some level. You’re talking thousands a year. Now, a lot of it is the five-hour marathoner who didn’t quite finish and wants to pick up the medal. The ones I focus on are the ones that qualify for Boston that cheated some way or another. My best estimate is that it’s probably 200 to 250 that, again, cheat the Boston qualifying times and then run Boston. That’s my best estimate on the samples, extrapolating out from the Boston runners I’ve been able to review.

How can you tell that someone’s cheating?

You look at their split times: Nearly all marathons have timing mats throughout the course, so you can tell how quickly they ran the first 10K, the first half, the first 20 miles, or whatever. It’s different depending on the course. So by calculating their splits for each of those sections, you can [find] variances that you wouldn’t expect. You see somebody ran the first half of a race in two and a half hours, and they ran the second half in one and a half hours. Stuff like that. And a lot of times that’s coupled with somebody missing a timing mat. That’s a red flag. If you have a missed mat along with crazy splits, or multiple missed mats and someone’s missing from a section of the course where others are photographed, that’s a red flag. Looking at all that stuff, I can come to a conclusion with good accuracy.

One of the most interesting things about this most recent story wasn’t just that you were looking at the splits, it was that you were doing the CIA thing, zooming in on and enhancing a photo. How did you get to that point?

I was clued into that runner the evening of the race, and what interested me was the cover-up. At that point she was not admitting that she had cheated. She accepted the award, she was on the podium, all that good stuff. [But] she had the manual Strava entry. Are you familiar with Strava? It’s a site where you can upload your run data. The first entry, she typed it in manually, so there’s no GPS data attached to it. And then she did another run after that, roughly 13.1 miles and along the half marathon course.

By digging into that data, you can tell that that entry was made later in the day. Secondly, along with running data she has a heart rate monitor, and it measures cadence, how fast your legs are moving. And all that suggested that she biked the course after the marathon. At that point, you can make the assumption she was doing this to try to generate some valid GPS data to present, or that after doing the half marathon she decided to bike it as well, which didn’t make any sense. We didn’t have motivation until she admitted to it.

But going back to why I checked the photos in the first place: Usually that’s part of the process. As I was writing the article, I was like, Well, why did she do a manual entry? Maybe she’s going to say she didn’t have her GPS watch with her at the half marathon. So I checked and saw she had the watch. And then I could see on the face, I could tell that it was on and the screen was visible. So I went ahead and bought the hi-res [images], and that’s where it showed her correct finish time, and it showed the distance as being less than 13.1 miles. That pretty well proved it right there.

Do you ever feel bad about exposing someone who’s just doing it to show their friends? Rather than kicking someone off a podium.

Yeah, and I post less and less of those kind of things. I don’t want that person to get completely shamed. … I don’t write articles about somebody who just cheated for the heck of it, that didn’t qualify [for] Boston time. I could write 20 articles a day about that.

Why do you think certain stories blow up? The Florida story isn’t Rosie Ruiz or anything.

This one, it was the lying and the covering up after the fact, without a doubt. She tried to cheat, she got called out on it immediately. She had a chance to say, I didn’t run the whole course, take me out. If she’d done that, there would be nothing to write. But the fact that she lied to the race director, lied to the timer, sought out the other runners that finished behind her to explain her time, went to the podium and had her friends take pictures of her, logged a fake entry, then went back and biked the course — it was the cover-up that was as interesting as anything. And the apology was a little bit hollow.

I have to imagine those interactions are pretty charged and intense, when you confront someone.

Usually not. If somebody responds to me, generally at that point they’re admitting it. One case [was] Marlon Bascombe. He was a running coach who had very questionable results at a Boston-qualifying marathon, and he ran Boston. I initially confronted him, asking, “Hey, do you have any proof? Since you’re a running coach, if I post about this I know if could affect you.” He sent me some modified GPS data that showed he ran 3-minute miles. It was obviously doctored. So I said, “Well, I’m going to go ahead and write the article,” and like two minutes later, he said he’d talked to his lawyer and he was going to sue me if I posted it. But this was all within 15 minutes; he didn’t talk to a lawyer. I get those threats.

The only other one was the bandits — runners who hit the course without buying a bib. It’s been a big thing in Boston for years. ([The organizers] were basically OK with it until the bombings.) There was a runner I posted about, and he emailed me, and threatened me. He kind of went off the rails with it: He posted my home address and said he was going to come deliver his medals to me.

OK, so why do you think people cheat?

The obvious one is they cheat to get into Boston. They can’t run the time, or don’t want to, or can’t raise the charity money. Beyond that, a lot of it is for social media: for the follows and the likes. Just for the pats on the back.