The Bizarre World of Race Cheaters

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A day after the Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon, which I ran this year, it was reported that the first place woman was disqualified for an inconsistent time.

Tabatha Hamilton of nearby Trenton, GA had finished the race in 2:55:39 claiming first place.

Upon closer inspection the chip times didn’t add up. It turns out her first half split was 2:06:51 and her second half was run in 49 minutes (which is 9 minutes faster than the current men’s world record)!

Reading about his unfortunate news made me wonder how frequently cheating goes on in the racing world, specifically during marathons.

The Bizarre World of Race Cheaters

Some of the issues we’ll cover will include: taking banned substances, (otherwise known as doping), banditing (running the race without registering), running under some else’s bib, having family/friends run with you, cutting the course, and taking unofficial aid. We’ll also talk about how to have good racing ethics.

Doping and Banned Substances

Some of the biggest athletic scandals of all time have to do with doping or using banned substances. There’s an article on about the Top 10 Running Doping scandals of all time. (3)

Marion Jones photo credit: Wikipedia Creative Commons

Marion Jones
photo credit: Wikipedia Creative Commons

We won’t get into each of these examples right now but some of the drugs involved steroids (Marion Jones), amphetamines, human growth hormone, blood doping and EPO. Most of the athletes were sprinters but there was one example of a US Olympic level marathoner named Eddy Hellebuyck who participated in the 2004 Olympic Trials and was guilty of doping.

The International Olympic and anti- drug testing officials attempt to make it very hard for an athlete to cheat using banned substances. With more sensitive tests they’re able to check for substances taken months prior. An article talking about the 2014 Winter Olympics says that, “Urine and blood samples will be stored for eight years for retroactive testing, providing further deterrence to anyone thinking they can avoid being caught.” (4)

Testing can take place anytime and anyplace and usually a urine sample is required. The article goes on to say, “While testing has improved, there remains a loophole in the system: No reliable test exists for detecting the transfusion of an athlete’s own blood. Several sports federations, however, have adopted the “biological passport” program, which monitors an athlete’s blood parameters over time to detect changes that could indicate doping.”

According to Wikipedia, “Blood doping is the practice of boosting the number of red blood cells in the bloodstream in order to enhance athletic performance. Because such blood cells carry oxygen from the lungs to the muscles, a higher concentration in the blood can improve an athlete’s aerobic capacity (VO2 max) and endurance.” (5)

It seems like there are fewer cases of steroid use because of the increased sensitivity of testing measures as well as the dangerous side effects. However, drugs like human growth hormone and EPO have gained popularity. rHGH (recombinant HGH) has been on the list of banned substances since the 1990’s but it has a very short half life making it harder to detect and attractive to would-be dopers.

Human growth hormone (hGH) is a naturally occurring peptide hormone secreted by the pituitary gland. It’s thought to enhance physical performance and often used with erythropoiten (EPO) and androgens (a type of steroid). Athletes and bodybuilders claim that hGH increases lean body mass and decreases the fat mass. (6).

800px-Syringe_Needle_IVEPO is a glycoprotein hormone that controls red blood cell production. Since the red blood cells carry oxygen throughout the body it’s desirable for an athlete to have more oxygen available to muscles. It was developed to treat severe anemia that comes with certain diseases. But since EPO is also thought to enhance endurance, healing, memory and mood it is an attractive substance for someone looking to gain that competitive edge. This is the substance that was involved in the Lance Armstrong and Tour de France doping scandal. (7)

Rita Jeptoo’s reputation and past wins at the last two Boston and Chicago Marathons have recently come under scrutiny. Her A testing sample came back positive for EPO. She denies using this banned substance and testing of her B sample is underway.

According to IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federation) rules a second test of the same sample must come back positive before any action is taken. Jeptoo is the second woman marathoner this year to come under scrutiny for doping violations.

Race Bandits

Banditing or being a “turkey” or “poacher” is where someone runs a race for which they did not register. Usually they don’t run the whole race but jump in at some point along the course. They will often not cross the official finish line to collect a medal, although some have been known to do that.

Occasionally bandits make a fake bib to look more official along the course. Banditing is most common in races that sell out quickly or those for which you must qualify to run. Boston has traditionally had a large number of bandits every year.

LA Marathon bandit runner with no bib. photo credit:

LA Marathon bandit runner with no bib.
photo credit:

Although most races are run on public roads (an excuse some bandits use) there are a number of reasons why this is not a good practice.

A Runner’s World article by Boston Marathon director Dave McGillivray lists a few:

  1. It causes a burden on volunteers, course support and other runners because the bandits were not planned for. This causes added congestion with things like parking, port-a-pots, aid stations and along the course.
  2. The race has not been able to communicate with these people so that they are often unaware of important information and rules.
  3. It can present safety issues in case of medical emergencies and take up valuable space along the course and finish line.
  4. It takes away from the accomplishment of people who actually paid to be there and earned the services from race officials, volunteers, security, etc. (10)

Bandits crossing the finish line have been known to throw off results in manually timed events which can cause a lot of confusion and time to correct. I’m sure most people who bandit a race don’t think through the issues and are mainly concerned with their own experience. But the bottom line is that it’s best to be ethical and train for a race, officially enter and run legally. This leads us into the next etiquette issue of using an illegal bib.

Illegal Bib

Wearing another person’s bib number, which allows a bandit to avoid registering and paying fees for the race, violates race rules, and impostors risk being kicked out of the marathon and banned from future events if they are caught.

An example of this is when a 19-year-old in the field gave his bib to someone five years older, and that person posted the best time in the 18-19 division. The real division winner, Joseph Keegan of Long Island, did not find out he was first until several months later. He later received his award, a Tiffany crystal tray. The winner said he wished he had known of his victory on race day when his friends and family were there to celebrate with him. (2)

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. Kara Bonneau of North Carolina qualified and ran the 2014 race. She purchased the package of race photos and was dismayed to see it filled with four strangers all wearing her bib number.

Bib Gate, runners using the same bib at the Boston Marathon photo credit: Marathon foto

Bib Gate, runners using the same bib at the Boston Marathon
photo credit: Marathon foto

Apparently she had posted a picture of her bib on Instagram the Friday before the race and these people had used the photo to make bib reproductions. Kara said it was frustrating that friends of hers who didn’t qualify weren’t able to run but these bandits did. Marc Davis of the Boston Athletic Association said the use of counterfeit bibs is something that happens every year, and the race strongly discourages it. (11)

The most famous example during the 2013 Boston Marathon was that the wife of the co-founder of Foursquare was caught wearing a fake bib. Their justification for doing so was that they wanted to run the race together. They later issued an apology. (12) Be sure that if you’re running a race in place of someone else that you make the bib transfer legally.

Unregistered and Illegal Pacers or Support

The issue of an unregistered friend or family member jumping into the race for a portion of the course is controversial. This practice would technically fall under banditing and I’d say it happens probably in every race. In fact, during the recent MCM around mile 24 a course official asked a lady to exit the course. She replied, “I was just trying to pace my friend to a good finish.”

I would say the main reason why it’s wrong to have unregistered support/pacers during a race is that it causes more congestion on the course and possibly on resources like bathrooms and aid stations. It also gives an advantage to the person with the unregistered friend.

Imagine if every registered racer had an unregistered friend running with them. It would be mass chaos. It’s great to run with a friend or family member during a race IF they’re also registered.

There may be some exceptions that races make for children, but it’s best to only run the race legally. If you want to have a family member join you at some point in the course make sure that this is okay with race officials.

Some smaller races are okay with a friend or family member joining you to cross the finish line, while others are not. During many ultra marathons it’s allowable to have your own pacer after a certain point in the race.

Course Cutting

Every year many runners in the New York City Marathon are disqualified for various violations of race rules. Around fifty were guilty of cutting the course. But, an untold number of runners escape detection according to marathon officials.

Longtime race director Mary Wittenberg, has said that it is shocking how many people cheat. She said, ‘“We have a duty to make sure that everyone who crosses our famed finish line earns the medal they achieve.”’

An analysis of race results by The New York Times found some are marathon first-timers cut the course because they’re apparently desperate to reach the finish line. Others cheat to secure a coveted qualification time for the Boston Marathon. The proportion of men and women who cheat was about the same.

Tom Kelley, the marathon’s director for race scoring, and several other staff members work to comb through race data and catch those who have cheated. He has been the marathon’s monitor for years, so he knows how to find cheaters in the mass of timing data. The New York Road Runners gives each runner with suspicious times a chance to explain. When Mr. Kelley is confident that cheating has occurred, he may issue a lifetime ban from the race. (2)

However, not all races have the staff or resources to devote to catching cheaters.

This year, Dane Patterson, a past contestant on the reality show “The Biggest Loser,” admitted to having hitched a ride with the show’s crew for three miles of a marathon in Arizona. NBC apologized and Mr. Patterson, who said he later went back and ran the three miles he missed, told reporters, “In my mind, I ran the full 26 miles.”

And then there is this guy . . .

Rosie Ruiz
Whether it’s a case of course cutting like the “too quick” winner of the Chickamauga Marathon or getting a ride closer to the finish line, probably the most well known example of course cutting was at the 1980 Boston Marathon.

The name Rosie Ruiz has become synonymous with cheating. She was a previous unknown who won out of a field of 448 women that year. Her story begins in 1979 when she ran the NYC Marathon, took a short-cut on the subway and then crossed the finish line in 24th place in 2:56. A reporter just happened to be riding the subway with her and was the reason her fake victory in Boston didn’t stand. Although she never admitted to cheating her name is synonymous with cheating. (13)

Rosie Ruiz! Yes, I was there – but no, I didn’t actually SEE her. I used to watch the Boston marathon from my favorite perch, a stone wall by Cleveland Circle, which is about 2 or 2 1/2 miles from the finish. Definitely don’t remember seeing her go by…but I do remember the flack that followed her DQ!!!! To this day, “pulling a Rosie Ruiz” still means something to Bostonians around my age! -Ingrid from our FB page

Unofficial Aid/Support

Another issue that I hadn’t thought much about is that of receiving unofficial aid or support during a race.

Most people aren’t aware that one of the USATF, RRCA and in the official rules for most races is a prohibition against taking any aid (water, gels, hat) from anyone other than an official volunteer at an official aid station. This may not seem like a big deal to us ordinary runners but doing so can lead to disqualification. The reason behind this rule is to level the playing field and not let any one runner have an unfair advantage over others.

Because of these rules elite athletes are careful not to do anything that would be misconstrued as them receiving unofficial aid. For that reason they might avoid hugs or high fives before or during the race. Of course the stakes are different for non-elites. “For most of us marathoning is more for fun and some hugging, high fiving and enjoying unofficial aid stations is par for the course. But elites know that taking water, gel or anything from a friend or family member could cost them hundreds or even thousands of dollars, and possibly disqualification from something bigger like the marathon trials.” (15)

When you use aid stations during a race it usually requires taking a few steps out of your way, slowing your pace and taking what’s available (usually a small amount of fluids in a flimsy paper cut). If you have someone riding their bicycle alongside or popping up along the course as your personal aid station then that would be giving you an unfair advantage. Everyone has to settle the ethics of this issue in their own minds and like I said before I’d never even thought about this before.

So it’s important to check the rules and see if a race bans unofficial aid before having a support person hand you aid along the course. For the purpose of full disclosure this is something I’m guilty of…taking aid from unofficial stations. At the Marine Corps Marathon I took candy and beer from strangers (exactly what I tell my children not to do). I guess I can justify it by saying that I in no way was close to a PR or AG placing and it was aid that was offered to all other runners as well. But still, this would be officially against the rules.

How to have Good Race Ethics and be a Knowledgeable Consumer

The bottom line is that you should have good race ethics by knowing and following the race rules. It’s also important to be a knowlegable consumer.

Make sure the event is reputable before you enter. There have been some race series that have cancelled at the last minute without any explanation or refunds. Here’s some great advice from the RRCA Guidelines:

  1. Look for events that have been run before.
  2. Look for events that are USATF certified. That means the race director has gone through the steps to host a serious event.
  3. Look to see if the website has a local address or phone number for the organization putting on the race. If not, Google the company to make sure it’s reputable.
  4. If it’s an inaugural (first time) event make sure that there is plenty of information on the race website, including safety information and details about reasons the race might be cancelled.
  5. Use the internet to research out of town events: check Marathon Guide, Runner’s World, and their Facebook page. Multiple negative comments are a red flag.
  6. Look at the pricing, especially for new events. The national average is $25-30 for a 5k, $35-40 for a $10k, $45-$60 for a Half Marathon and $60-$100 for a marathon. (16)

If you’re worried about losing out on race fees because of injury you can often purchase race insurance or only run races with transfers or deferrals to the next year or another race. Remember when signing up for a race that in the fine print it will clearly define how the fee is non-refundable and the conditions in which the race may be cancelled.

Be aware that certain items may be banned on the course- headphones, jogging strollers, roller blades are among those items that may not be allowed. Be sure that you know the rules and pick another race if you can’t agree to uphold them. For example, the Rocket City Marathon has a policy stating that it can disqualify runners using headphones, although it wasn’t being enforced last year when we ran it.

Study the course in advance. If in doubt during a race ask a race volunteer which way you should go. Wear a GPS watch to prove you ran the entire distance.

At the end of the day a cheater is mainly cheating themselves. For those of us who work hard at our running goals we sometimes experience success and occasionally don’t reach our goal. But ultimately the motivation to continue comes from within…not what anyone else things about us.



Also Mentioned in this Episode

Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon Race Recap

City Coach – website and blog of coach Jonathan Cane, cheater catcher extraordinaire.

6 Responses to The Bizarre World of Race Cheaters

  1. bruce December 8, 2014 at 9:09 am #

    Of all the cheating stories, this guy is the best. Not only did he cheat in multiple marathons, he even created a fake marathon with a fake website to win! Just think guys all the training you could save yourself.

    • Trevor Spencer December 9, 2014 at 2:49 pm #

      Thanks Bruce. You’re right. The bizarre story of Kip Litton amuses me to no end!

  2. Raymond Nguyen December 9, 2014 at 7:33 pm #

    Is it ok to bring your own water and gels for the race?

    • Trev December 9, 2014 at 9:30 pm #

      Certainly! The unofficial aid rule is mainly for elites who are getting paid the big bucks to do these races.

  3. Amanda December 10, 2014 at 2:45 pm #

    Great blog topic! Back in the late 80s and early 90s I use to walk over to the top of Heartbreak Hill with my Papa and his brothers with cartons of oranges all sliced up the night before. I can’t remember when it was banned from doing so, but I love the memories … I’ll never forget the faces of all the runners who conquered the toughest part of the Boston Marathon. Growing up near the route and having that family tradition I’ve walked the route several times for a local charity. And I swear every single time it baffles me how Rosie cheated! Side note, I think my Papa new the officials which is why we got away with it.

    • Angie Spencer December 10, 2014 at 4:48 pm #

      Thanks for sharing this Amanda. Sounds like some wonderful memories were made watching the Boston Marathon. I think many races don’t worry about the unofficial aid stations and I’m sure the runners enjoyed those oranges.

      It seems like as much work goes into cheating during a race than actually running the whole thing. Maybe we’ll never know how Rosie pulled it off since she still claims innocence to this day.

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