Running cheats

I ended last week’s post with a question to all you runners out there: have you ever cheated during a race?

Our society frowns on cheating while also encouraging it at the same time. Think I’m wrong? All you have to do is go to the grocery store check-out line to see that we have a warped relationship with cheating. Hollywood star cheats on starlet: details inside! Or how about this one: Cheat on your diet and still lose the weight!

Cheating is rampant in any number of areas in our lives: school, work, taxes, marriages, the world of academics, politics and sports.

Those of you who follow this blog know by now that I’m an avid track and field fan. I hate cheating in the sport, and most likely, if an athlete has been banned for a drug violation at some point in the past, I (and many others) will not readily forget. It’s hard to cheer for someone who cheated once upon a time, and it’s hard to cheer for those whose physique suggests there’s some illegal enhancing going on, even though they haven’t been caught … yet.

If you have to cheat to win, you don’t deserve to win. And not only that, you take away the glory from a clean athlete who finished behind you.

Clean athletes like Adam Nelson, for instance, who just recently received the gold medal for shot put from the 2004 Athens Olympics because the Ukrainian who originally bested him (in a tie-breaker) got busted for performance-enhancing drugs. It took until 2012 to catch the cheater and strip him of his medal. And it was sweet and bitter to watch Nelson at a recent meet where he was recognized as the gold-medal winner from nine years ago.

The structure of testing within elite track and field organizations exists to catch cheaters. But what about the regular folks out there running and racing? Who catches the cheaters among the rest of us?

Cutting the course
Last summer, The New Yorker published a fascinating story about a suspected cheater in the world of marathon running: a dentist from Michigan named Kip Litton. He’s suspected of cutting courses short (lots of them), thereby cutting his times, too. Why on earth would a dentist from Michigan feel the need to cheat in marathons? What drives a normal person to think this is okay?

Sometimes it’s easy to cut a course short by accident. There’s no marking or volunteer at a critical turn. You’re following the runners in front of you, trusting they know which way to go. A course turn is marked incorrectly. I’ve done it by accident before. I’ve also run a course long by accident for the same reason.

But to cut a course on purpose? And still cross the finish line pretending I had run the whole race? I can’t imagine feeling good about myself after that, and I can’t imagine the need to win being so much greater than the need to be honest that I’d cheat to get a better place. But I guess for some, a hollow victory is better than a clear conscience.

An honest mistake, or a true cheat
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because of a small race I ran in recently. My husband ran the 10K race, while I ran the 5K. When he finished, he looked behind to see who was finishing after him, and he said, “Several of the guys in my race cut the course.” They did it accidentally, one of those combinations of a brand new race course and lack of volunteers to tell runners which way to turn. Fortunately, he and those who finished in front of him had run the full course. So he could feel good about his place in the results. (I’m sure he would have felt even better if he had won the race. Smiles.)

My 5K didn’t have any confusing intersections, and other than turning around too early, it would have been hard to cut the course. So that wasn’t the problem. But a man walked away with a trophy for the third place overall female finisher. He wasn’t just picking up the trophy for a wife or girlfriend or sister who couldn’t stay for the awards. He simply accepted a trophy that shouldn’t have been his.

If you’ve ever run a road race and stayed around long enough afterward for the awards, you know that the awards ceremonies afterward can border on chaotic. The folks in charge of timing and results scramble as fast as they can to sort out the finish order and the age group awards, and the race director hands out the awards as quickly as possible.

At any point in the process, human and computer error can insert themselves and indicate that the wrong person should get an award.

I don’t know where the mistake first happened in the race in question. Maybe a volunteer keyed in the gender from the man’s entry form wrong, or maybe he actually registered as a woman. But his accepting the trophy compounded the mistake and put a damper on an otherwise pleasant race.

The 24-year-old woman who should have won the trophy may not have even realized there was a mistake. The only reason I knew of the problem was because the 5K and 10K courses overlapped enough that my husband passed me headed in the opposite direction as I was running back toward the finish. He had counted the women ahead of me, and I kept track of how many women I passed after that and how many passed me. So I knew how many women should have been ahead of me in the results. But when the results were printed, there was an extra “woman” ahead of me. I paid extra attention during the awards.

I’d like to think the guy took the award not realizing it was for the third female finisher. He might not have been paying attention to the race director until he heard his name. But then, I’d like to think Olympic-level athletes wouldn’t resort to drugs to gain an unfair advantage, too.

To all the cheaters out there, I say “Shame on you.” For those tempted to cut a course and still claim an award, or those pretending to be the opposite gender or a different age to get an award more easily, and for those elite athletes facing the decision to take drugs or not, this Bible verse might be a good reminder not to: “You were running well; who hindered you from obeying the truth?” (Galatians 5:7).

Here’s to obeying the truth and feeling good about your efforts, even if they don’t bring home any trophies.