Coming to a Consensus on Cheating

A recent New Yorker Magazine story about Kip Litton, a marathon runner who presumably cheated his way to dozens of impressive marathon finishes in the past several years, got me thinking a lot this week about how and where we draw the line in terms of what is, and what isn’t ethical in the pursuit of a desired result in running. As long distance runners we do all kinds of crazy things in hopes of achieving a better result on race day. I think it’s certain that the vast majority of runners don’t do anything that is illegal or against the rules of a particular race, but certainly not everyone adheres to these mostly self-imposed standards. Furthermore, why is it that certain things are deemed against the rules while other things which may give as much or more of an advantage are not? The line gets even further muddled when you consider that many things which might be considered “cheating” in one event are considered smart running in another.

In many trail races you are required only to start and finish in an exact location, and pass through all designated checkpoints along the way. If you find ways to shave minutes between these points you will be held in high regard among your competitors. When we run these kinds of events we often scout the course ahead of time, not just to know how to follow the route, but to see if there are any places to make the route faster than the obvious way. Conversely, in the majority of races (at least in North America), it is considered cheating when we follow anything other than the obvious/marked route. Many races lay all of these things out in their rules, but many do not.

Things become even more confusing when we look at the issue of doping, and what substances/practices are okay, and which ones are not. There are some fairly universal international standards which seem to be unofficially applied to most athletic events. In this way it becomes generally understood that eating a caffeinated gel in the wee hours of a 100 mile race, or taking some ibuprofen to get those fried quads through the last 10 miles, is not considered cheating, but that getting a blood transfusion because we’re unusually tired two days before a big race is. It gets really tricky here because the vast majority of trail races do not have any drug-related rules, and many of the drugs/practices which are commonly used for performance enhancing in athletics are not universally illegal. Once again, we come back to the reality that “cheating” in trail running is largely based on our own self-imposed standards.

If you’ve read this far you might feel fairly depressed about all this. Basically what I’ve said is that cheating happens in our sport, and that if you’re creative, resourceful, and bold you can do a lot of different “unethical” things to achieve some very impressive results (i.e., Kip Litton). The good thing, though, is that I think the vast majority of people have no desire to achieve a certain result through anything that they themselves would consider cheating. Where we most often run into trouble is when one person thinks of something as cheating and another does not. In many cases race rules or laws can address these discrepancies, but in many other cases a lot of gray area still remains. Again though, I think we have the huge advantage that most people don’t want to cheat. Maybe I’m being naïve, but I think it’s in our nature as humans to get more satisfaction from accomplishing something in a manner that is widely recognized as fair and ethical, than in a manner which causes our peers to question the validity of our accomplishments. In this way all that is needed to “police” the vast majority of people is a clear understanding of what is fair and what is not.

Achieving this clear understanding isn’t something that can happen overnight, but it is something that seems to be growing as the sport of trail running matures. Open conversations among runners and race organizers seem to be advancing this conversation. Even open forums like this website, which can often get a little off track and aggressive, have been extremely valuable in moving toward a clearer understanding of what is and isn’t “fair.” Most specifically though, I think races need to make it very clear to their participants what is and what isn’t allowed. Many races are currently going the extra mile to do this, but many more seem to have no interest in doing so. Certainly I’m not a fan of long lists of rules, just for the sake of having rules, and in a perfect world we could all just line up, say go, and race away with everyone on the same page. But the problem is what you think is fair might look like a blatant form of cheating to the gal one stride behind you.

In terms of what to do about the blatant cheaters, the Kip Litton’s of the world, the blood dopers: nothing! Disqualify them when we catch them, and then ignore them. If we continue to draw a clearer and clearer picture of what is and what isn’t fair in a particular race, then those who choose to break these rules have nothing to stand behind, and become more and more marginalized, and less and less regarded for their performances. After all, this is often what the blatant cheaters are hoping for: high regard and attention for their accomplishments. Does prize money not skew this entire notion, you ask? Sure it does to some degree. It adds a whole another motivation (besides simply regard and attention) to the potential blatant cheater. In this sense, I think it’s even more important for races that offer substantial prize money to be really clear about what is and what isn’t allowed. Do we need to do more than this though? I don’t think so, because again, I believe that most people don’t want to do anything that they know their fellow competitors will think of as cheating.

As long as we don’t get to a tipping point in which so many people are pushing these boundaries of fairness, that things which are currently regarded as cheating become accepted as fair because so many people are doing them (i.e., the recent doping situations in MLB and professional cycling). And once again, the best way to avoid this is to create a very clear understanding of what the boundaries are, and that it’s absolutely not fair to cross them. Do we also need stringent testing, increased course marshalling, etc? No, I don’t think so, but we will eventually if the sport continues to grow the way it is and we don’t take the opportunity in the next few years to more clearly define the boundaries of what is fair, both within the sport as a whole and within individual events.

What can we then do, you ask? Talk about these things with your fellow competitors. Make sure you are all on the same page about what’s ethical and what is not. If you’re running a race that doesn’t clearly define something that is important to you, ask the race director to address this with you and the other racers. When you see or hear of someone doing something that you don’t think is ethical, speak up. Not necessarily in an accusatory way, but in a constructive way. A conversation will arise which will hopefully result in much more clarity going forward. With this type of collective effort we can assure a fair, pure, and thriving sport for decades to come, something I think we all have an agreed desire for.

Call for Comments (from Bryon)
It would be great to hear your thoughts on Geoff’s article. In contemplating the topic as well as drafting and publishing a comment, I ask you to (1) not make any unfounded accusations and (2) treat everyone (both commenters and those not present on the website) with the respect you would give someone if you were running on the trail with him or her. [Editor’s Note: Thanks to the first 8 people who commented in a thoughtful and constructive way. Let’s keep that up!]

So, what runs/standards need to be defined on a sport-wide or individual race basis?

There are 50 comments

  1. Mikey J

    People are cynical because unfortunately there is no utopian society that exists where the vanity of man doesn't rear it's ugly head. There may be a certain immunization for the majority of trail runner just by the nature of the sport and those drawn to it but anywhere you find man I guarantee you his/her frailties are not far behind.

  2. Mikey J

    Agree, I just attended my daughter's first XC meet today and it made me think how would I feel if someone cheated against her? I'm sick of the moralizing that goes on, there should be absolute as a way to ensure fairness.

  3. Mikey J

    Agree the human ego is allure & power enough, vanity and pride, some people don't care if it's empty because if they can't come across it naturally they seem to feel they still deserve it, think ever spoiled person you ever meet.

  4. Mikey J

    The world we live in largely and glaringly celebrates celebrity so much that it doesn't matter anymore if it's infamy or nobility, only that it's celebrity and that is the problem with moral relativism, there will always be apologist for you if you achieve a certain level of fame or popularity.

  5. Jim Tinnion

    All very intersting, but most of the thread seems to be dealing with trying to draw a line in a very grey area of sand (pardon me for mixing my metaphors).

    My attitude is that it's a question of personal ethics. Of course you must follow the race organiser's rules, and the rules of the governing body licensing the race/event (USATF, UK Athletics), but what an athlete choses to do within that is up to them.

    Personally I don't see anything wrong with using an altitude tent (I wouldn't becuase there are other priorities in my life for the cash), or the odd buprofen, cup of coffee, etc., but I wouldn't ever want to use something that I felt could have helped me finish ahead of someone else unfairly. I just wouldn't feel comfortable in myself crossing the line.

    I'm not too bothered about what other folks do really, it's not my place to judge: I just want to be able to hold my head up and be pleased with my individual result and proud of the achievement.

    1. Fabienne

      Excellent article Geoff.!

      I concur with Jim, I think that within "the rules" of each race, we have to focus on our own achievement in each race and as a runner. Indeed there needs to be some regulations as the size of races move away from the more informal races we used to see in trail and ultras. Growing pains I guess! The thing is that as much as the rules are meant to make the race fair, there is a limit to the fairness provided by trying to make things even given the fact by our mere intrinsic differences , some of us will be at an advantage from the get go! And add to that each runner's geographic home location etc… And some advantages are bound to play in their favor. I try to look at it as what makes the race an even more interesting challenge . Everyone brings in their "prepping for the race" box to the race and hope that they put in the best combination.

      Although I certainly agree that we should try to agree as participants in this sport, to keep blood doping and drugs recognized as enhancing (versus ibuprofen for example) and fight against cheating, I think a large part of success at keeping cheating out of the sport will come from the participants through peer cohesiveness and peer intolerance of cheating. I have always felt that the trail running community set itself apart in many aspects and this is one of them.

  6. Josh

    Does anybody know if the current pattern in ultrarunning mirrors that of cycling, track & field, etc.? By that, I mean, were the participants in large numbers expressing concern about money & growth and the potential downsides as this group has? Perhaps the triathalon/ironman circuit?

    At face value, it doesn't seem likely … especially given that cycling & track & field are simply much older and there weren't internet forums. Perhaps the triathletes?

    Point being, I wonder if there are critical differences between ultrarunning and these other sports that will lead to different outcomes? Awareness of the potential problems being one factor. Beyond that, however, money is always likely to be less. You have the difficulty bringing the races to TV in their wilderness environments, the many many hours that a 100 mile race lasts, the wilderness ethic/spiritual nature of many ultrarunners, etc. Less money = less fame = less motivation to go thru the effort of doping. Granted, I'm sure there will always be a presence of PED's, etc. I'm just wondering to what extent …

  7. Scott S

    I don't think that it is anybody else's business what people put into their own body. I do know that there are many groups of people that feel that they do have a right to know and that many groups have imposed their will on others in this regard, but I don't think that it is right. Using PEDs is a stupid move in my opinion, but one that should be left to the individual.

  8. tenting up

    I think that's the key thing for me whether so and so method is unethical. If nothing changes at all no working your body harder to breakthrough and its as easy as you just have to pop into bed inside a bubble. Its the ease of it. If you do performance enhancing drugs, almost everyone will call that cheating since what is easier than injecting yourself and going back to training exactly as you were, and boom significant performance enhancement. If you imagine two routes to a PR, one in which you do harder and longer training and get the PR or having to suck wind at altitude, as opposed to training the same sleeping in a tent and getting the same PR.

    Having said that who knows if altitude tents really work, it may be just be a money maker and people with lots of money, I'm leaning towards it may actually work, the olympics being a big eye opener for me. For now though you just have to treat it like the bellyputter in golf. As long as its legal "I'll keep cheating with the rest of them" like ernie els says.

  9. Tyler

    In short…I was in a trail race in which I caught a fellow runner cutting through the woods on a part of the trail where there was switchbacks.He in turn was right behind me,I PR'D that day it was very motivating.In my head I was thinking…Im gonna make this guy work for his placement! Anyway why as trail/ultra runners would you cheat yourself,in a sport mostly devoted to pushing ones own limits?

  10. Nanna

    I recently witnessed pacing in a 100 miler race where pacing is banned. I reminded the pacer of the race rules when sighted at the following checkpoint. The competitor placed in the top 3. I was disgusted that someone could stand there proudly accepting the award when they knew the race rules. Some must win at any cost but they are only cheating themselves.

  11. stack

    ran a small local church run 5k on christmas eve… 2 loops on trails and I'm sitting 5th as some guy flies by me holding his race # in his hand. I had just passed my buddy and nobody should have passed me so soon except maybe my buddy bc we had a 45 second gap to the next group behind us. the guy looks way too fresh and is flying asking what place he was in. it just didn't seem right so after I finished my buddy confirmed he came out of nowhere and all the sudden passed him then me.

    long story short I had to say something bc they were only awarding top 3 overall and this joker 'placed' 3rd beating out a 7th grade kid (who ran 19 min 5k on the trails btw). 2nd place finisher said he saw the guy walking the opposite direction of the races at one point in the race.

    the guy eventually fessed up one the RD approached him and said they believe he cheated but his response was 'i got here 3 minutes after the start but I didn't cut that much off the course'. after the awards he (30 something guy) goes up to the kid (7th grade) and says something along the lines that 'i probably would have beat you anyway'.

    i like to think this is a very small population of runners and an even smaller population of trail runners (and of course even smaller among ultrarunners) but its just scary that people will justify it in their mind.

    as far as the Kip Litton thing… i have runner friends here in CLT who have had run-ins with the guy and helped prove he cheated here at the marathon in CLT. Kip seems to be one of these guys that somehow justifies the cheating in their head… sad.

  12. phil jeremy

    I did a difficult 33k trail race in December and at one point there was a 2 kilometer stretch of soft, wet sand, which was tough to run on after 4 hours….and just 2 feet above it was a concrete path(easy). Not a single runner took the path, everyone ploughed through the wet sand, the rules didn't state which was right or wrong, it was just obvious. I think if you run trails or ultra's, if you can't abide by the spirit then don't bother turning up….simple.

  13. Dmitry

    Cheating is not a big problem in trail running until there are no big money in the sport. if there are money cheating will be a problem. Look at Comrades (probably the highest prize ultra in the world) – there were quite sophisticated attempts to cheat. Cheating to get prize money is a kind of "reasonable" (obvious value). Cheating to win is pointless, there is no self-satisfaction is winning that they (no value).

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