Readers Roundtable: the Vigilantes of Cheating

running cheatsLast week, reports surfaced that the woman who finished second at Fort Lauderdale’s A1A Half Marathon, 24 year-old Jane Seo, intentionally cut the course, yet crossed the finish line in 1:21:46. After celebrating her “achievement”, she took her GPS watch and went out to bike the course to create GPS data to back up her story and cover up her cheating.

How was Jane caught? Someone noticed discrepancies in her Strava entry about the race and tipped off Derek Murphy. Murphy, who no longer runs himself, has made a hobby, perhaps a living, out of analyzing race results and using other investigative techniques to bust recreational road race cheaters.

In Jane’s case, he bought a race photo showing her GPS display at the finish line and, upon looking at it at higher-resolution, saw the distance on the watch was 11.65, instead of 13.1. Since then, the story of Jane Seo has been published everywhere from Murphy’s website to the Washington Post and now here.

Which leads us to today’s question:

Who should be investigating road race cheating and what should the consequences for cheating be?

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Salty Running boss and mother of 3 little ones with PRs of 3:10:15 (26.2), 1:25:59 (13.1) and 18:15 (5k). I love to write about running culture, mental training, and fitting in a serious running habit with the rest of a busy life.

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30 comments

  1. It’s the job of the race director and the timing people to verify that the results are recorded and cheaters are excluded from the final official results. The problem is when they don’t do this job and hence, we have race results vigilantes. For the most part, I’m glad that we have the vigilantes. Sometimes they force race directors to do the right thing when the race director doesn’t want to for whatever reason (they don’t want to bother, don’t want the drama, etc). Sometimes the vigilantes have the time to scour through results in a way that a race director doesn’t have time (especially when uncovering cheating that spans across several different races).

    I’m fine with what race results vigilantes do as long as it doesn’t cross the line into bullying (online or otherwise), inciting violence or harm against the cheater, and doing anything illegal. I think Derek Murphy of Marathon Investigation has been quite responsible in his actions of finding and calling out cheaters.

    I appreciate what Derek does because he helps with the validity of race results. We can say running is really about competing against yourself and what other people do don’t matter, but if we *really* believed this, then why bother having any race results in the first place?

      1. Derek could get it wrong; he is only human after all. That being said, he takes so many precautions both before and after he publishes an expose as his intention is not to hurt or damage the cheater. He wrote a good article on his website explaining why he does what he does and how he tries to combat publishing something that is inaccurate or too harsh. It is an interesting insight into his project.

        http://www.marathoninvestigation.com/2016/05/the-differerence-between-holding-people.html

        1. I was thinking about Derek during my last race. For many reasons I ran this race a half an hour slower than my latest Bq. The race before that I was sick and ran 15 minutes slower. Now rather than being proud that I was able to make the best of bad situations, I worry that someone is going to look at my slow time and assume that I cheated. I should be able to run some races slow and others fast and not worry that I need to explain myself. But on the other hand, I hate the fact that people cheat!

          1. Yeah that’s a really good point. When we go run a race, have we agreed to be scrutinized in this way? And what if someone accuses us of cheating on a website, but we haven’t? Or what if it was an honest mistake? Should we be shamed for our entire life for screwing something up? Should it be on the accused to have to prove that it was a mistake or that it didn’t happen? We can sue that person for defamation and maybe invasion of privacy and other claims, but that’s another burden on someone who didn’t agree to this kind of scrutiny. And who are we to say that a road race cheater deserves public humiliation as a punishment? Maybe it’s the legal background, but I have a hard time with thinking vigilantism is a good idea no matter how good the intentions of the vigilantes are. I do understand why people want to do it and I’m not saying cheating is ok by any means. Just have very mixed feelings about this practice.

  2. Cheating really sucks. I just have to say that. I think that when it comes to non-elites and people who don’t get prize money, it’s sad but RDs shouldn’t have to worry about them.
    It matters more with the winners so I think they should be checked by designated volunteers. Maybe putting more timing chips or if there is a discrepancy, evaluating GPS data. I think race bibs will continue to get more advanced and soon have a tracing chip throughout the whole race. Eventually, these technologies will help RDs catch cheaters.

    1. It’s not just about prize money though, cheating at any level is not a victimless crime. What about those who cheat for BQ times, that still might not place otherwise. They are taking a spot away from someone else who actually earned that coveted Boston spot. I do agree that more races tend to be more likely to do something about it when it comes to prize money (good), but I don’t think that is the only time that catching cheating matters.

      1. I looked at his data and it turns out a significant amount of people lie/cheat to run Boston! I actually got nervous when I read how he compiles his data, because I ran a small marathon and had a 6 minute negative split to BQ and was like oh no what if he thought I cheated!! It boggles my mind because it literally never occurred to me to cut a race short. Why??? But since it is a thing, maybe funds should go to catching cheaters. I wonder if the growth of data (Garmin, strava, etc) makes it easier to harder to catch cheaters…

        1. Lauren I have totally thought that sometimes- based on how he compiles results. I mean I have quite a few larger jumps from PR to PR, and some bigger negative splits. BUT, at the same time I also know that I have the training and the time to back it up..and the garmin data to prove it. Not for anyone else sake but my own- I KNOW I earned my times and that is what matters right?

          I absolutely think that the growth of data is contributing to catching cheaters, it makes for hard facts that one can’t dispute at times. I also think the growth of social media really helps- because often than not the cheaters cannot help but put their “accomplishments” out there! They bring the attention on, where they might not have gotten caught otherwise.

          1. I wrote above how I don’t think most races have enough incentive to police themselves. I do think an independent review board is a good idea. Instead of a guy and a website, I’d like to see an organization with ethical standards, protocols and a board of people to ensure fairness would be the best solution in the current marketplace. I’d love to see Derek Murphy head something like that. He is clearly good at this and is passionate about it, but I do feel that there needs to be more accountability to ensure fairness.

  3. I think that it’s a very grey area and subject (the cheating is black and white, clearly wrong) but when it comes down to who is responsible for catching/outing/punishing the cheaters…It’s not as cut and dry. Race Directors/Timing companies are way more likely to act on potential cheating if it affects prize money, but as I commented on Ellie’s comment- that is not the only way cheating hurts others. Specifically when talking about qualifying for other races etc.

    With the many ethical issues the sport is facing these days, I have to agree with Cardamom that for the most part I’m glad there are people out there like Derek who do what they do. I know that cheating is not a life or death kind of crime, but it certainly has a lot of ways it can affect others. It can tarnish a race reputation, taking money from people who actually earned it, it can take qualifying spots, it can hurt those who are looking to place at a high enough level for sponsors etc. There are a lot of ways that it trickles down and has negative effects. At least when it comes to cheating, more “regular joes” have the ability to help the sport and raise awareness that getting caught is definitely possible. “Regular joes” don’t really have the ability to help the fight against doping as much, we can’t test athletes blood etc. We can only speculate. When it comes to cheating there is more data and facts readily available. And for those cheaters who put that data out there themselves I have a hard time feeling bad about them getting caught and outed- that is the price you pay when you post things online. Missed timing mats are not always a smoking gun, but faked strava data? Past race data? Photos? Garmin data? Yeah, that stuff can definitely make it more of a cut and dry case.

    As for Derek/MI- I think that he has done a pretty good job of only posting relevant information, and he has also made cases to help people who didn’t cheat. I could see the case be made that “he does good work, but why does he need to publish, why can’t he just pass it on to races and be done?”- but how would that help deter people from cheating in the future? How does that let people know that cheaters are getting caught and action is being taken? I’m not saying everyone’s personal information needs to be published- I don’t think that at all. But fact is, someone is taking data that is readily available online (as runners we all know how to search race results, photos, and athlinks…don’t deny that)- you can’t say they are stealing or invading privacy. Buying a photo? Mehhh definitely controversial, but I could see cases made either way.

    That isn’t to say that I wish more RD’s and timing companies were actively involved in catching cheaters- but at the same time…we also don’t know what many of them do because it’s not being publicly done.

  4. I think the responsibility falls on the race director — however, anyone who suspects someone of cheating (or realizes, perhaps, that they accidentally cheated themselves) is responsible for reporting the incident to the RD, who can then investigate. That might mean looking at race photos, social media, or — gasp! — talking to the alleged cheater directly. And I think this is an important burden that race directors should take seriously, especially for purposes like BQ or other time-based qualifiers like New York, Chicago ADP, OTQ, etc. Those races depend on the integrity of the qualifying races, and so they should all be working together. I think any support the USATF and RRCA can offer would be welcomed by race directors, but I don’t think the burden lies on those organizations. I do, however, think the USATF should pull race certification if a race doesn’t take appropriate corrective action against cheaters. (If it’s not a certified course, it won’t count for BQs, etc.)

    In terms of punishment for cheaters — DQ, obviously, and return of any sort of prize received. I think race directors have the right to prohibit that runner from entering future events, but since they’re already a known cheater, that may not matter to them! I have no problem with a little public shaming although I don’t think the cheater’s name has to be made public. But a post that says, “Due to cutting the course/wearing someone else’s bib/whatever, a runner has been DQ’d and revised results are now posted.”

    I think all racers need to be aware of a race’s rules — that’s everything from headphones to your spouse handing you a water bottle. Some races will have lots, some won’t, but as a participant, you do have the obligation to review them and abide by them.

    1. +3 on organizations should pull course certifications if appropriate actions aren’t taken for cheaters. I also think that for BQ/OTQ courses…there should be a certain number of timing mats that is mandated. Maybe a few known mats (the usual 10k, half, 30k, whatever), and even potentially 1-2 mats that aren’t known to the runners ahead of time.

  5. It is great that there are people out there like Derek. He is independent, has no stakes in who finishes where apart from making sure the races are clean.
    I don’t think an official governing body could do such a good job. Organisations can be manipulated. Price money and qualifications for further races are big consequences.
    Races could do a better job of monitoring the results though.

    1. That’s a really good point about him being an independent with no stakes. As much as we want things like USATF to be unbias etc, the deals (Nike) and issues in the past few years have shown us it’s not that simple.

  6. Many races, marathons, half marathons and shorter races are organized less as an athletic event and more as an entertainment event. With many race’s resources allocated to entertainment, etc. I wonder to what extent that impacts the average race’s incentive or ability to deal with potential cheating. Hmmm.

    Ultimately it should be on the race to have clear rules and to enforce those rules. But, if there is no incentive to do that, because really why should the average marathon RD care if 2 out of it’s 5,000 finishers cut the course or had their faster friend run them a BQ? It’s potentially bad publicity for the race and won’t otherwise impact the bottom line.

    I am concerned about someone taking it upon themselves to be the race police. I’d classify my feelings as mixed. On one hand cheating is obnoxious and someone who does it at road races when the stakes are relatively low must have problems. I think getting caught can be a good thing to hopefully be an impetus for the cheater to get their shit together. And of course people who do it should have results and awards stripped. But publicly shaming people, even if not intention is often the effect, seems icky. I also think it’s generally a good thing to shine a light on the problem generally and start conversations about it. And there are no ethical standards at work for vigilantism. Sounds like Derek Murphy is generally well-intentioned and trying to be ethical, but is that enough when someone’s reputation or even mental health might be negatively impacted? I’m just not sure. It’s a very interesting question!

    1. I think it’s a little bit of both, at least in my head. Like, the smoking gun was right there…and he decided to pay $30 for it. Which, he probably made back in donations and page views.

      But also, buying a strangers race photo? I think that her cheating could have been proven otherwise even without the photo (figuring out that the strava data was on a bike etc.)

  7. You know, what really disturbs me is that there are people politicizing this and saying all sorts of nasty things about her because, as a Daily Mail commenter said, “nice bod but not pretty.” Oh wait, that’s not the correct comment… here’s the right one: “Let me take a wild guess (haven’t read the story yet) 1. Probably vegan promoter 2. Pro abortion 3. Has very strong negative view of Trump 4. Loves Hillary to bits 5. Pro climate change, we must all die to save earth 6. Thinks every should boycott Ivanka Now am going to read the story”

    What the hell is with these trolls, and why are they using some sad girl who caved to social pressure to try to make political commentary?

    #JaneSeo is a hashtag on Twitter now, and the tweets are disturbing. People are calling for Jane to be fired, saying she cheated her way into Harvard, saying all kinds of nasty things. And if you’re a nerd enough to remember Mike Rossi and his Boston Marathon cheat scandal, well… Philadelphia Magazine did a follow up on him, and his life isn’t pretty in the aftermath: http://www.phillymag.com/articles/mike-rossi-boston-marathon-aftermath/

    And okay, I know that Derek says his intentions aren’t to hurt or damage the people he’s shaming, but the fact remains that what he’s doing is hurting them. And while I do think Jane’s kinda sad and needs to work on herself, I don’t think this is worth ruining her life over. But that’s where it’s heading.

    And yes, there is an argument that these cheaters hurt themselves. I also understand that. But… Is it really necessary to put them in the proverbial stocks in the town square of the Internet? No. No way. How does that help anyone?

    1. Cheating makes my teeth grind together. I’ve been racing for 9 years. I came to running late in life. My first experience with it was a local tri coach cutting the course at IM Florida and subsequently losing his business and his reputation. I was so naive and equally shocked. I continued to be naive when I found out that a couple who used to coach a friend and I was using her husband to run half marathons for her. Getting her times that were obviously not possible for her. She ended up beating my friend out of her AG win at the RNR Half in Philly 2 years ago. Then proceeded to send a smiley text to my friend kindly congratulated her. Looking a the pics you can see she was no where to be found when her chip crossed the line. The last few thoughts about cheating have to do with doping and course cutters in Ironman racing particularly in my AG which are quite frequent. I say hell yes expose them. No I don’t think it is ridiculous to out these people. I am grateful someone is paying attention. This Jane Seo RODE HER BIKE TO FIX HER GARMIN FILE. That was no whoopsee I made an error in judgement that was straight up planning and subterfuge. Sorry I have zero sympathy.

      1. I agree with you. It sucks and I don’t have sympathy really either, other than wondering what kind of sad ego issues drive a person to do this. There’s no question that it’s completely ridiculously hopelessly wrong to do this. So I get the need to do something about it, but I have real concerns about relying on “some guy” on the internet to mete out justice. Even if he has the best intentions, we’re in the Wild West here.

  8. No question in my mind, Seo’s exposure was appropriate and not undeserved.

    First of all, please remember that she was not a private individual. She held herself out as a food and fitness blogger, and maintained an instagram with _thirty thousand_ followers. Celebrity is a sliding scale, and she clearly chose to maintain a large public presence.

    Second of all, she didn’t make just one ad hoc poor choice. She affirmatively lied again and again, only coming clean after being confronted with irrefutable evidence that she had cheated.

    Were she a private individual, who made one poor choice and then immediately recanted, this would not have made the news anywhere. She created this situation herself.

    One point that does concern me: I see a lot of sympathy for Seo. Sympathy that I did not see for Mike Rossi, or Kip Litton, or Paul Ryan (and I think Paul Ryan’s misdeed was much less significant than Seo’s). And I wonder how much of that sympathy is gender-based – stemming from an implicit assumption that petite women need to be emotionally sheltered in a way that men do not.

    That’s the point I find most disturbing in all of this.

    1. Jane Seo is 24. I know what you mean, but if anything I think it’s that she’s young and seems to have got caught up in a quest for internet fame. She also copped to it almost immediately and didn’t continue to lie about it as Mike Rossi has done or use it as a point of personal awesomeness in a quest for public office. I would feel the same way about a 24 year old man and certainly some amount of sympathy for anyone who was contrite upon being caught. It’s real hard to feel bad for Mike Rossi who is belligerent and continues to lie about it to this day. Paul Ryan doesn’t need my sympathy :)

      1. I have to gently correct. :) She did NOT cop to it almost immediately.

        She finished the race. When it was noted that she had missed the timing mat at the turnaround point, and had really suspicious splits, the race timer noted it to the race director. The director DQed her before the awards ceremony, but she then insisted that she had run the time, and the director relented and let her collect her award.

        Later that day, she posted the Strava report, but it was clearly manual. When asked to provide the actual running data, she then went out (several hours later) and biked the course to falsify the data, before providing that as proof.

        Even after that data was challenged for the clear issues with it (wrong time of data, strange cadence, strange HR), she still claimed she ran the race until it was pointed out to her that she had a clear motive – trying to make her team’s elite standards. Then, she finally caved.

        She really went to great lengths to cover it up, with lie after lie. It was only after presented with a ton of proof that she finally admitted it.

  9. I’m pro-derek and pro-vigilantes, because they fill a much-needed gap. Runners of all levels cheat, and their actions impact the sport’s integrity. I cannot believe that Seo is generating any sympathy whatsoever. She certainly doesn’t have mine. She took several actions to perpetuate her cheating, including accepting a finisher’s medal, defending her time to the time keeper, begging the race director to honor her results, accepting her second-place award, lying on Strava, and then biking the course and lying on Strava again. The amount of time, thought, and planning that she dedicated to this charade illustrates how important the ruse was to her. This wasn’t an accident. Her actions should absolutely be made public: a person who shows that level of cunning deceit and total lack of integrity will SURELY lie, cheat, or steal in other areas of life, and that’s information that employers need to know about her. Harsh? I think not. It’s the consequences of her decision to cheat, and honestly, I think it’s a risk she weighed when she chose to cut the course. She estimated the odds wrong. She lost this one, and now she has to endure the embarrassment she brought on herself.

    1. Sure. Someone who would do this clearly needs a wake-up call if they want to live a healthy productive life and, you know, not enrage many people along the way. It’s not inconsistent to feel sorry for someone or have sympathy and believe they must suffer the consequences for their bad decisions. I just don’t think she (or any of the well-known cheaters) is a black hearted evil person who could never ever get their shit together and live an honest authentic life. Maybe she won’t. Maybe she’ll lie and cheat forever, but I do hope she sees the light and uses the fall-out as an impetus to change her life for the better.

  10. I understand the psychology between what she did. Her adrenaline was pumping after being exposed, and that caused her to make a lot of bad decisions, get defensive, go on a 13 mile bike ride.

    That being said, this act was clearly premeditated….she planned on cheating from the start to illegitimately enter her club’s elite team. This was cheating and deception of layers upon layers, and much of it was made with a calm mind. There are also records of her cheating in other runs.

    While we’re all guilty of white lies and minor lies, cheating on this scale definitely reveals something about her character…. I think the only people capable of supporting her are those who are cheaters themselves or those who are so passive that they would let people like her walk all over them with a smile.