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. Pierre

    Altitude tent: not fair.

    Forget about your new 200$ shoes, now the other guy spends 5, 10, 15k on a tent !

    That's about 5 to 10 more hematocrit blood value that he would usually have. That's a good increase.

    I've done 20 years in triathlon, and one reason why i've stopped is the price of tri-bikes, which were getting too expensive for my budget.

  2. Capn_Q

    All excellent comments thus far…

    I would simply add that the rules exist to ensure an even competition. Cutting the course, aid station protocol, pacers, crew and mules are all race specific and lend to each event's allure. Those rules define that experience. Break the rules and your performance cannot be compared to the field – ergo, DQ.

    Cheating by way of performance enhancing is a problem that obviously pervades much of sport. As the purses grow, the problem will grow. Test the money winners as a matter of course and the desire to go to such immoral lengths in the name of notoriety and payouts will diminish.

    I used to be one of the people defending long distance running against the charge of doping, but I now believe that is a naive stance, and I hope the sport does not suffer in the same vein as baseball and cycling.

    My $0.02 – thanks to Geoff for pushing the debate, and Bryon for hosting the forum.

  3. Tony Mollica

    I don't understand why anyone would cheat like the marathon cutting guy? Even if other people think you accomplished something good, you would know that you really didn't. I don't see how one could take pride in a fake "accomplishment"?

  4. Clark

    @Stack's list: I can only agree with PEDs (but only hardcore like EPO/'roids = if it can be bought OTC at GNC or wherever I say whatever); purposeful shortcutting (US rules); and muling (carry your own). Outside of that, I'm indifferent.

    Regarding GPS/electronics, I would argue exactly the opposite. In fact I would prefer the more difficult races to actually PROVIDE GPS units with the race course already baked in (like chip timing), it's a win win for everyone. Unless it's an orienteering event and/or Barkley, the idea is who is the best, not who can read a map the best or who has the time to pre-run the course more than somebody else. GPS units would not only help keep runners on course, but also assist the race directors/S&R in keeping track of everyone, not to mention potential real-time race tracking for fans. Think about it.

    1. Pete

      Shoot even with a gps sometimes it does not help. I ran a small 50k this past weekend and had a gps on as I always do. I use it more for info and stats then during the run. But when running i sometimes become so immersed in my running and so focused that i don't even realize I have the watch on let alone the ability to follow flags apparently. Had a chance to win and got lost. The mental battle is always there no matter what instrument is on ones wrist. I don't think a gps adds any advantage and frankly it could save ones life and help them get out from being lost badly. Obviously orienteering and barkleys have a unique set of rules so there it is different. I guess this follows along the guide line that each race has its own rules so follow them. And for christ sakes keep the dope away. Sadly though it exist every where so the only way to regulate that is by blood testing. Not even urinalyses can detect everything.

  5. KenZ

    Totally agree. Races should state the rules (yes, even if that makes them 2 pages long). Runners follow them. Most people don't want** to cheat.

    **I worked an aid station at a large (not to be named) ultra this summer. Quite a bit of switchback cutting and littering… but not by the elites. It was by (a select few) back of pack people desperate to make cutoffs. I'm only partially taking them to task; at hour 25, exhausted, desperate, you sometimes make very bad judgement calls. Should they be DQ'd (no course cutting or littering were rules)? Absolutely.

    As an aside, I generally place pretty well, but am running my own race. I personally couldn't care the less if the people who beat me are using PEDs. Not saying they should be legal, just that I personally don't care.

  6. ken michal

    Great article, Geoff! I'm glad to see this dialogue being opened!!

    Since there is no single governing body, that leaves it up to individual races/companies to make and enforce "the rules". This leaves us open to situations like Speedgoat where Karl was forced to make the right decision for the event but possibly not the best one for the sport. (for the record, I applaud Karl's decision!!)

    The funny (and sad) thing is that I can't think of many races offhand (including ones put on by my company!) that have a written policy on PED's, Doping, etc!! Without a rule to enforce, are we saying that these things are allowed? How far do we need to go? Most of this stuff seems like common sense but unfortunately, common sense isn't that common… As the sport continues to grow, I'm sure we'll see more and more people bending the rules. Somewhere along the line, clear rules and guidelines will need to be drawn. We'll need rules against PED's and even rules against throwing rocks at competitors (sounds funny now but I'm sure it will happen someday)! Until these rules are standardized and accepted, this is more a moral issue than cheating.

    The spirit of ultra running, to me at least, is pushing yourself against really difficult challenges. I can't think of a better character building experience and character building is the best reason to run ultras that I know!! I choose to stick to a very rigid set of self imposed rules. I want to wear my buckles with pride and not let anything tarnish them! If the rules are so vague now, when do we reach a point where morally sound athletes have to resort to things like doping because "everyone else does it"? I pray that day never comes but seeing the examples of baseball and cycling doesn't give me hope!

    As a community, we need to celebrate the heroes of our sport who compete with honor and integrity!!! Folks who embody the spirit of ultras will definitely come out on top one way or another, even if they're not winning races! Hopefully, people like Jose San Gabriel will continue to get as much attention for sneaking in a minute under the cutoff as Timothy Olson did for smashing the CR at WSER! Just as our current system of "rules" follows the spirit of ultras, I hope competitors will be drawn to the same spirit! This is the true victory in ultra running!!

    All Day!

    ~Ken

  7. Morgan Williams

    Meghan

    Here is the other one I know of:

    Elisa Desco failed her B test and eventually had her placing and medal removed. This also affected the team position and GB, I recall, made up a podium place as a result.

    Morgan

  8. Alex Beecher

    Having just paced for my first 100-miler, I'd suggest that the role of pacer should not be eliminated, if only because it's such a valuable learning experience. At 24, I've run marathons, 50Ks, and 50 milers, but nothing was as instructive or inspiring as running miles 69-100 behind someone determined to make the cutoff. Furthermore, when he did, it was more satisfying than any race I've run myself.

  9. Billy

    I don't know Clark, i would like to think that the sport of trail running continue to test skills other than just being the fastest guy out there. GPS as an orienteering tool flattens the odds too much and some of the most interesting elements of the sport are taken away. I like the fact that going too fast and not paying close attention can be punishing. And by not giving everything away up front makes those great runs on those hard courses that much greater. Keep it pure as long as possible.

  10. Anonymous

    Regarding altitude tents and in this case houses, I remember Nike had a house built in Portland for there top athletes to "train low, live high". The whole house was a altitude tent, tell me that is not awesome! Then I heard they shut it down partly do to pressure from governing bodies.

    Does anybody know the whole/real story?

    1. Anonymous

      Also just wondering not that I could afford it but, how much is a altitude tent, do rent, lease, buy? Tried finding stuff online but very few sites post prices which always leads me to believe it is WAY out of my league.

      1. Bryon Powell

        Hey Anonymous,
        As a number of factors suggest you are a regular commenter on iRunFar, I’d encourage you to publish with a (consistent) name even if it’s a pseudonym. It’d make following conversions (multiple anonymous commenters) easier and make your presence on iRunFar more tangible.

        Thanks for your consideration,
        Bryon

        Ps. Nothing wrong here… I’ll be generally encouraging this these days.

  11. Ultrawolf

    I used to compete in the Skyrunning World Championship 2010 in Premana/Italy. I was picking up my race number when some guy came along asking directly if I want to purchase EPO. When I told him that I don´t do drugs he didn´t believe me, claiming that everyone here´s doing EPO. I should tell him how much I pay for mine, he´s sure to go under the price. He left me only alone after I told him to #### off. I certainly don´t believe everybody there´s doing drugs but if a dealer´s talking streight to a strange, well, that suggests a lot…..

    If there would be more tests – out of competition tests like in cycling – there would be far more positives and not only the two mentioned before by Meghan and Morgan.

    You asked before not to mention "I know X did and Y might have done that" but can´t help pointing out that one of the two cheat´s partner is a famous runner as well but of course never came up with "Oh honey, what are those seyrings for we got in the fridge ? Olive oil for the salad I believe ?"

    While most ultra runners are clean – I certainly believe in that – there are without any doubts some which violate the WADA Code knowing quite well there will never be consequences.

    Me, I´m far from being a world class athlete but at least in my home country Austria one of the best ( the best ? ) in Trail Ultras. Occasionally it happened that people came up asking what stuff I´m on since they can´t imagine running some 100 kilometers in the mountains. ( Usually those are the people which can´t even manage to lose 5 kgs or stop smoking )

    Hard to prove you´re innocent when never tested so I came up with the idea of signing a declaration, if I should ever violated the WADA´s anti doping rules I had to donate a year´s salery to the SOS Kindedorf (=an organization for orphans). Needless to say, married with two kids I could never afford that. So what better prove than you economical existence ? Would be great to see the real stars of our scene doing the same but I doubt all would.

    ( for those interested, you can find my declaration under http://www.wolfgangzingl.com/en/anti-doping.html . Apart from that my webside´s not really up to date, I´m a bit lazy prefering to be on the trails than in front of the computer )

    Best wishes

    Wolfgang (who´s not a native speaker so appologizes for his bad wording)

  12. KenZ

    I am but if they fire me, I'll not only get severance, but more time to run!

    (But no, your corollary was not lost on me. Point well made.)

  13. KenZ

    I don't recall offhand, but I did contact two of the manufacturers, and I recall that one of them would rent at what I considered pretty darn "reasonable" prices; something like $3-500/week (??) Yeah, that's a crap ton of $$$, but so is taking 2-3 weeks off of work, flying to Silverton early, and renting a car and room.

    If/when I get into Hardrock (fingers crossed), I will be seriously looking at that. On whether or not that constitutes cheating, here's my take:

    A. Yes, it is in some ways not "fair" due to the price

    B. It is also not "fair" that I don't live at elevation in Colorado.

    C. It is also not "fair" that I can't pre-run the course ad-nauseum. Don't tell me that Karl doesn't have a bit of an advantage there (and more power to him).

    D. I am not a contender for any significant place at Hardrock. Seeing as I expect that anyone around me couldn't care the less if they're at 31st vs 30th place because some dude rented an oxygen tent, I'm not too fussed by it.

    E. I would rent it not to place better, but to be able to enjoy the event more.

    1. KenZ

      PS- I think the one thing that a race like Hardrock needs to rule on (and I haven't seen it for HR if they have it) is GPS devices. As stated before, a guy like Karl has a distinct course "advantage" having run it so many times. But… that is leveled a bit if newbies get to use a GPS. But seriously, is a GPS within the spirit of Hardrock? That's an article in itself. I do think things like that need to be spelled out by RDs. (if someone knows the GPS answer on HR, do speak up).

      1. OOJ

        Good point…but reading the Hardrock rules, in seems like the "spirit" is truly, "use whatever the hell you want" (e.g. skis, poles, and other ridiculous, tongue-in-cheek things)…

        But clearly, in a race that prides itself on self-sufficiency and minimal route guidance, a GPS unit would seem enormously "performance enhancing" beyond the spirit of the race…

  14. KenZ

    1. I love your first post. It's my favorite so far.

    2. Yes to the discussion of tents. I've never used one, but definitely would. I think it would need to start with the science discussion, then followed by the ethical debate.

  15. OOJ

    Good discussion on real ETHICS of sport. And with ethics – whether or not rules are concerned – it is always a grey area and a sliding scale.

    In football, there's no black-and-white between offensive holding and defensive pass interference. You do as much as you can to not break the threshold: be it with officials, competitors, or your own values.

    I've done rule-stretching: having a pacer carrying my bottle/pack in the last two miles of a race…but not then using said pack… It was advantageous to not drop it, and I was ethical enough to not then re-use the pack.

    I've also "littered"…by dropping a cup a couple feet beyond an aid station trash bin, hoping that AS crew would be "understanding" enough to pick it up. Is it littering in the spirit of the rule? Sort of…but not really…

    What I like about Geoff's writing is that he's stuck to an interesting theme: the many ways in which the sports may/will change as it grows. The bigger it gets, the more explicit these rules issues must become.

  16. 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.

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