I Truly Don’t Understand Why People Cheat in Running (Or Anything, Really)

running cheats

When I learned this week was #cheaterweek, I jumped at the chance to hop on my soapbox. Call me high and mighty, that’s fine. I have a lot of feelings about cheating.

There are a few different types of cheating in running: course-cutting, bib-swapping, and banditing. Some are worse offenses than others, but they’re all cheating.

Course-cutting

This is one type of cheating I will truly never ever understand. While hopping on the sidewalk to get around slower runners is technically a form of course-cutting, I don’t think it’s ever done in a way to cheat. But true course-cutting — hopping off the race course and hopping back on to make it shorter, thus making you seem faster — is unforgivable. Why run a race if you’re going to cheat? And as my mom would say, how does that person sleep at night?

Most of us are not professional (elite) runners, or even racing at the sub-elite level. So when you sign up and train for a race, you’re likely competing against yourself. If you’re in contention for a local win or an age-group award, and you’ve cut the course to secure one, it doesn’t make sense to me to take that award and go home saying you won it. You didn’t. You cheated. And in the process, you cheated the actual winner out of his or her award.

If you’re not in contention for an award, you’re running for a Boston Qualifier or to PR. So if you cut the course, you’re not actually a Boston Qualifier (and how you would toe the line in Hopkinton telling yourself you “did it!” is beyond me), and your PR isn’t actually a PR. I truly want to know: How does this make you feel good?

Maybe I’m extreme, but if I “PR” on a race course that is too short, I will let people know (and update my Strava accordingly). I wouldn’t have run that time if the course had been accurate. So I just don’t understand how people take credit for something they didn’t do.

Bib-swapping

In my experience, a bib “swap” generally happens when the registered runner can’t race so she gives her bib to someone who can. That’s against the rules—don’t do it. But when you give someone a bib to run a faster time (say, for a Boston Qualifier) for you, it’s the same as course-cutting: You didn’t earn the time. How can you walk away feeling proud of your “accomplishment?” And like course-cutting, you cheated someone out of their Boston spot.

Banditing

This is a hot-button issue, especially after a public figure in the running community came out as a bandit and didn’t apologize for it. I’ll first acknowledge that unlike swapping and course-cutting, banditing likely will not affect me personally. It won’t take away an age-group award or a Boston Qualifier spot from me. But I follow the rules. And banditing is against the rules. If you want to run the race, sign up for it just like everybody else.

Boston, the Holy Grail for everyday runners, used to “welcome” bandits. It was part of the tradition. After the bombings in 2013, it became a security risk to let non-registered runners onto the course. And it became irresponsible to ignore the rule. There are two ways into Boston: qualify or run with a charity.

In the age of social media, it seems like people feel pressured to cheat to make themselves look better. They need the likes. But if you’re cheating just so you look faster on Athlinks or in your Instagram feed, you’re running for the wrong reasons. Sure, I may look up your times, but I’m only going to judge you if you felt the need to cheat to go faster.

Help me out, please: Why do people do these things?

Runner's World editor by day, mom by night (and day, let's be honest). Sub-20 5K, seven-time marathoner, track-workout lover. Always in search of a great burger.

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8 comments

  1. I once watched someone cut the course in a looped, 100-mile race. She didn’t know I spotted her, and I never said a word to her about it. Later in the day, I listened as she trudged along, yapping on her cell phone about how hard she was working and how long it was taking to reach 100. I silently wondered how much longer it would have taken if she actually HAD reached 100.
    This particular ultra is held in a friend’s backyard. There is no prize money. It doesn’t even have a website or official results to post on the nonexistent website. It’s basically a small group of runners who get together for a weekend of mud and Ramen and miles. In an off-the-radar race like this, where is the glory in collecting your belt buckle for a distance you didn’t actually complete? Nobody is going to fault you for dropping at 88 miles if you just can’t manage those last 12. “You ONLY ran 88 miles?!? Psh. What a slacker.”
    Sure, a DNF is never easy on your own self-esteem. But how does it make you feel to snap a selfie holding your buckle with your two young, impressionable daughters by your side? What lesson are you teaching them? That you can do anything you put your mind to as long as you’re willing to cheat?

  2. I definitely don’t understand it and I agree, how do they sleep. I know not everyone has the same set of morals but still baffles me. If/when I accomplish things I wouldn’t ever want there to be a seed of doubt from anyone or anything, I KNOW what I put into things(or don’t) and I like it that way.

    The thing is, these people get caught it may take time but they do. You want to brag about running Boston or a qual time, or something? Chances are at some point you are going to run into someone who knows more than you about it, or knows enough to figure out your story doesn’t add up. At some point, they brag to the wrong person. What I am almost ‘sad’ about at times is the people who brag about it on insta where MANY people know more or know enough to question but still continue to fangirl or follow. If they didn’t get the attention and validation….they might second guess it (but not always).

  3. I ran an 8k a few years ago that was laughably short… like maybe a 6k? I knew my GPS was reading short, but when I got my little print-out at the end I was “lol k no I did not run like a minute faster per mile than planned.” I plastered “SHORT COURSE IGNORE DIS TIME” all over my Strava and Athlinks and wherever else I discussed my race because 1) anyone who ran that course knew it was short and would know I was taking credit for something I didn’t do (embarrassing); 2) anyone who didn’t run that course is seeing a completely abnormal race result and scratching their head (embarrassing); and 3) I didn’t want to pull up my times in a year or whatever, forget the course was short, and measure myself against an inaccurate goal (needlessly discouraging/not helpful).

    I can’t even fathom cutting a course or using a mule’s number – what’s the point? It’s just sad. And where it impacts someone else’s glory or paycheck, it’s self-centered and gross.

  4. The day I got my Boston Marathon photos and half of them were of some other woman wearing the same number as me…. was the day I got jaded about cheaters. It is one thing to jump into the back of a marathon without a bib and take the risk of getting pulled off the course (it is still taking resources away from people who paid and worked really hard to get there, so not ok in my book)…. but it is quite another thing to manufacture fake credentials. It is not a victimless crime. It puts other runners at risk, as well as the first responders and everyone else who is there to keep runners and spectators safe and the event running smoothly. I have no time and no patience for it.

  5. I am so new (only ran two full marathons) that some of these terms are completely new to me 😉
    Don’t cheaters know that the 1st person they fool is themselves?
    I don’t and can’t understand cheating in running as there is no Guage to rate your personal efforts.
    As you mentioned: how can people sleep at night?

  6. My basic thought on people is that when they lie about something small, something not essential, something they had no reason to lie about … not only does it have me slack-jawed wondering ‘why?’, it speaks to the core of their character.

    Maybe it is because I have been running for 30 years but didn’t run my first race until 23 years after I started running, but for me running is about the joy of running, first and foremost. I get up every morning and run – it is part of who I am. I am not terribly fast, I am just me. I have run a small number of races most of the last 6 years, never won an award and really don’t care if I ever do. I set my own race goals, try to challenge myself, and most of all to have fun.

    I cannot imagine what would make someone cheat. But then again I cannot imagine why someone lies or is unfaithful or steals and so on.

  7. Most long-term dedicated competitive runners I know run because they enjoy it, they like challenging themselves, and they find joy in trying to beat yesterday. No one runs every day at crazy early times or in bad weather for the glory and attention. I’d bet that those cheating are temporary and fair-weather runners, and cheating is a way to increase glory and recognition. If you’re in it for the wrong reasons, the wrong things get you to your goal faster. Those of us who are in it because we love the sport wouldn’t gain satisfaction from breaking the rules like those cheating do.

    In regards to banditing, though, sometimes people do it to help pace a friend. I’ve paced friends in small local races on several occasions without entering the race, but I’ve ALWAYS asked the race director for permission beforehand. The race directors have never hesitated about saying yes, so I encourage others in this position to do the same. It’s not going to fly at Boston or New York, but smaller local events may allow it to increase satisfaction of participants like the friend you are pacing.