Why Do Runners Cheat?

To clarify, this post is not about athletics and doping. There's a possibility I'll post on that some other time but today is not that day. I'm not currently talking about athletes at their highest peak using chemicals to push artificially higher.

No, I'm interested in the all together more standard runners, those that lie about their times, or that physically cheat in races to gain a better one. From Ruiz through to 2014, there have once again been allegations of cheating in marathons. So I took to Google in interest and was shocked to find out just how completely common this is.

It seems to be by far the most common in marathon distance races, possibly because of the media reporting, possibly because of the emphasis of the marathon in running culture, possibly to Boston qualify, possibly because its hard to fit a course cut into a 10k or skip the few timing mats.

Cutting the course is very popular, apparently. Particular common on out and backs for obvious reasons. Chicago has two spots where its possible to jump from mile 4 to 11 or 13 to 17. However people have also taken buses, cars and even the subway.

The resulting race times are bloody stupid in some cases- a runner in London somehow had the arrogance to stand by his claim that he ran the second half faster than Mo Farah. One runner in a Singaporean marathon even non-intentionally won the national category, making sure his cheating was noticed very very fast. He however did not accept the winners status, unlike some historical cheats. He said he just wanted to run the finishing bit. Forgivable if true but it seems comically naive. A woman at the Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon cheated in a way that meant her second half was a world record time, 3 minutes under the half marathon women's record.

The other options require an identical twin, or a team-load of people willing to take your number and run with it (har de har de har).  People have even done statistical analyses of Comrade course time data to spot these cheats using good old mathematics (specifically Mark Dowdeswell).

Swapping numbers doesn't actually seem too bad till I have a proper think about it. Definitely doesn't seem bad within an age group, as long as the aim isn't to cheat the system. However, there have been plenty of cases of someone running in someone else's spot and getting them a guaranteed age or gender place for the next year. Someone else estimated that there had been 3 age group prizes lost to true contenders in one year of Chicago due to bib swaps. Worth thinking that bib swapping also means that if anything should go wrong for you, there's no information about who you are or how to contact your ICEs.

Then there's the much weaker lying about times. Paul Ryan being the famous example of this. But everyone knows someone. Fudging your times, which even I'm guilty of. When someone asks how I did and I don't want to say, I divert and say something like "Well enough." or "Not as bad as I thought". I get why people do this: shame, embarrassment, self-disappointment.

People react strongly to race cheats, and for good reason. People who have sweated and wheezed and cancelled dates and dinners for their race times don't appreciate those who have faked their way to an achievement. Runners on my twitter feed suggest the motives are to beat specific others, because they are lazy, because they lack the concept of training for race profit, because they haven't done the training, and therefore drop out. Words used included, "lazy", "disgust", "cockwomble", and "fucktrumpets" (those last two from the excellent vocabulary of Autumn (Tiny Runner)).

Some of course will be compulsive liars, but that's a small psychiatric population indeed. Others could be genuinely uncaring- a winner takes all type strategy. Some will be casually convincing themselves they did nothing wrong, particularly the estimated large percentage of cheats at the back of the pack. At the end of the day you're cheating yourself. Even I am when I mumble and divert. If you can train for it, and push in it, own what you got. Dale on my twitter feed said it well "The biggest adulation you can get is from yourself, knowing you slogged your guts out and can give no more. That's achievement".


So whats your opinion? How do you feel about cheats?

And WHY do you think they do it? The Psychologist in me needs to know!


  1. As I regularly say to the fully grown adults who purposely cut all of the corners/go on the inside of the clealy marked route or cones......"You're only cheating yourself!". I really don't know why people cheat, but I'd love to know the answer.

    1. I guess the praise? Boston certainly has a lot to answer for in terms of time cheats. There's unfortunately not any studies on it. I guess for that you'd need some self admitted cheats.

  2. Great post! It really is chesting yourself! How can you hold your head up high if you're claiming to be or have done something that you haven't! And if you're taking away the prize and title from someone who genuinely earned it, it's no different to stealing!

    1. Absolutely agree :) I really wish that there was more on the Psychology of it though. And why some people are just so dumb with it...