In April's London Marathon, 69-year-old Anthony Gaskell's time of 3:05:00 set a world record for his age group.
The only problem was that Gaskell took a 10-mile shortcut. Six weeks later, after the deception had been discovered and investigated and his time disqualified, he told reporters that he injured himself early in the race and took a detour.
Every year at marathons across the world, runners take shortcuts. Some are trying to get better times, while others are injured or tired and the temptation to abbreviate the course is too enticing. With chip-timing technology, nearly all are eventually disqualified.
At the 2009 Chicago Marathon, 252 runners' times were disqualified, most for missing two or more timing mats in a row.
"Marathon is an event of character, and the majority of runners want to run the whole thing and have an accurate time," says Chicago race director Carey Pinkowski. "The tens of thousands who do that transcend the handful of people who may cut the course."
With its looped course, Chicago is a relatively easy marathon to abridge. Instead of running west on Adams Street just past mile 13, for instance, a runner could cross the street and run south on Halsted Street, jumping to mile 17. Just one tantalizing block separates mile 4 (northbound on LaSalle Drive) from mile 11 (southbound on Wells Street).
"You can't cut across town (in Boston) like you can in Chicago," says Boston Marathon Executive Director Guy Morse. "Boston has less than half a dozen turns, so the opportunity isn't there to shave off a few miles by cutting across town." A Boston course cutter would take a train or car farther up the course, then jump back in the race.
Theories differ on why people cheat.
"There's a small percentage of people who feel compelled to do it but don't need to. It's like a wealthy person who needs to shoplift," says Bill Fitzgerald, interim executive director of the Chicago Area Runners Association, who has run 65 marathons and completed Chicago's 12 times.
"There are people who say, 'I'll give it my best and prepare as well as I can' and realize there's a degree of chance of how they'll do that day. Then there's another group with a win-at-all-costs type of policy," says Jonathan Dugas, endurance sports specialist and professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago's Department of Kinesiology and Nutrition.
(Chicago Marathon officials would not release the names of those who have been disqualified from previous marathons.)
Whatever the reasons, chip technology and on-course cameras make it hard to take shortcuts.
"I think the era of relatively easy cheating by cutting the course has come and gone because of chips on the shoes," says longtime Chicago running coach Bill Leach. "If someone doesn't show up in the data system, you have to ask why not. More often than not, they'll catch someone who's cutting the course."
Like every sport, marathon has had its share of notorious cheaters.
In the pre-chip days of the 1980 Boston Marathon, Rosie Ruiz ran less than one mile before crossing the finish line in what appeared to be a world record time of 2:31:56. Within hours, Ruiz, who hadn't been spotted anywhere on the course until the end, was under suspicion. She was stripped of her victory shortly thereafter.
In September 2007, former Mexican presidential candidate Roberto Madrazo won his age group at the Berlin Marathon with a time of 2:41:12. Chip timing showed he skipped two checkpoints and that he ran nine miles in 21 minutes — a feat never achieved by humans.
In January 2010, dozens of runners who placed in the top 100 in a Chinese marathon were disqualified for cutting the course by jumping into cars or having other runners wear their chips.
The timing chips used in Chicago are embedded in a bright orange plastic loop that attaches to the runner's shoelaces. Times are recorded as runners cross 11 mats along the course, located at the start, halfway point, finish line and every 5K point in the race. Timing mats are also placed at unmarked points to ensure that runners don't skip the farthest reaches of the course.
Chip-timing software not only records everyone's times, it flags unusual results — like age-group world records, or two runners going the same pace the entire race (indicating one person is wearing two chips.)
It's a far cry from 10 to 15 years ago, when times were recorded by hand at strategic points along the course for elite runners, and finish times were the only times recorded for everyone else.
In addition to timing mats, says Pinkowski, "We videotape the majority of the course and have 400 course marshals that are positioned at turns and remote locations who observe and communicate issues, such as an errant car on the course, medical issues, debris that needs to be cleared, a manhole cover that's open." They also have access to city of Chicago video cameras. The video is watched live at race headquarters during the event.
"The primary purpose (of cameras and course monitors) isn't to catch people breaking the rules, but safety," Pinkowski says. If a runner's in a remote area and needs help, a monitor can call it in. "We can also watch the traffic flow of the race and see where we need to have more staff or aid stations."
If records show that a runner crossed the start and finish line but skipped two timing mats in a row in Chicago, race officials spend a couple of days determining whether there was a timing error with a mat (last year one mat didn't register times for a small group of runners) or other inconsistencies "that might indicate cutting of the course or equipment error," says Jeremy Borling, a marathon spokesman.
If someone drops out before crossing the line, he or she is not officially disqualified. But like disqualified runners, the dropouts' times don't show up in official results.
"Sometimes runners will call us when they don't see their name in the results and we tell them that they missed two consecutive mats (and were disqualified). If they can explain what happened and we can verify it by other means, such as a photo or video, we will," Borling says.
Runners who cross the line without completing the race can still get a medal from volunteers, but they shouldn't do that, says Mark Remy, executive editor, RunnersWorld.com and author of "The Runner's Rule Book."
"It wouldn't occur to most runners to do that. Crossing the line means you've finished the race — or at least it should. That's what it's there for. If you haven't finished the course like everyone else has, decency says don't profane the finish line by crossing it."
Ideally, says Borling, runners should drop out at one of the 20 aid stations along the course and get a ride back to the finish area in an official runner dropout vehicle.
"Every year I'm optimistic that everyone will run the course as advertised and have a great day," Pinkowski says. "In the 21 years I've directed the marathon, technology has been a marvelous asset to the event."
Chicago Marathon cheaters: why do they do it?
In 2009, 252 runners were disqualified
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