Cheating in Marathon Running

Story of Julie Miller, who cheated in multiple triathlon races:

The difference between cheating in 1980 and cheating today is that it’s much harder to get away with now. What trips up contemporary cheaters, Empfield said, is their false assumption that the only thing they have to worry about is their timing chip, the device they wear that records their time at various points along a course.

But the use of additional technology ­ especially the ubiquitous course photos taken by spectators and professional photographers, which provide a wealth of information about athletes’ positions and times throughout a race ­ makes it difficult for people to cover their tracks after the fact.

“What these people don’t understand is that the photos contain so much data ­ they don’t know that this exists,” Empfield said of cheaters. “They think that if they hide in the bushes and re-emerge or take the chip off or whatever, they’re in the clear. But the problem is that people can now forensically recreate your race.”

Reminds me of this 2012 story about marathon cheating.

EDITED TO ADD (4/27): An update with proof of cheating.

Posted on April 14, 2016 at 6:44 AM26 Comments


Clive Robinson April 14, 2016 7:55 AM

Maybe it’s me but…

As far as I can tell “cheating”, “gaining an edge”, “putting one over”, etc, etc is part of the human condition, as much so as the need for secrecy, which arguably cheating is part of (ie deceit).

Nearly every where we look we find it, even where there is no advantage to doing so. It’s almost as though the cheat is doing it to see if they are smart enough to get away with it.

Perhaps the really daft thing is when people know some one is a cheater, they let them carry on and in a way become complicit.

Now I can not say if people “always get caught” I would infact assume not. But I do question the sanity of those who do cheat for what is a meaningless gain with potential devistating long term loss if caught…

Sasparilla April 14, 2016 7:57 AM

Found this a fascinating read, the fact that this lady had apparently been doing this with triathlons and bike races for years was pretty surprising.

Pervasive surveillance by design or (as shown in this article) by accident is here in many ways.

B. D. Johnson April 14, 2016 8:26 AM

The 1904 Olympic marathon deserves a mention here:

The first-place finisher of the 1904 Olympic marathon traveled 11 of those miles by car. After 9 miles, he hitched a ride with a pace car and only ran the final 6 because the pace car broke down.

The second-place finisher barely survived to cross the finish line because his trainers had given him two doses of rat poison (with a brandy chaser) and then strychnine.

Fourth place went to a postman who ran in street clothes and got sick during the run because he detoured to snatch apples from an orchid and they made him sick so he took a nap.

Ninth place went to an African tribesman who had to run 6 miles out of his way to avoid an angry dog.

Andrew Edwards April 14, 2016 8:28 AM

Another really great example of using the full forensic toolkit to bust a cheater is in the LetsRun investigation of the “Philly Marathon Dad” who ran Boston a few years ago.

The full sordid story is here:

But the most compelling data point is: “Every single finisher of the 2014 Lehigh Valley Marathon was photographed out on the course except for Mike Rossi.”

de La Boetie April 14, 2016 8:29 AM

What I find more astonishing is the extent to which people lie and cheat on the most brazen way in plain sight and apparently get away with it.

I refer of course to public officials who lie to Congress with impunity, senior bank managers and watchdogs who deny both knowledge and responsibility for the fraud on their watch, who have squirrelled away the ill-gotten bonuses resulting from the fraud, and topically, the rich justifying their tax havens on the basis that it’s all legal.

The problem being not the evidence of the cheating, but the rule of law – at least with races, the organisers and vast majority of the contestants abhor cheats, but in the cases I mention, the organisers are the cheats.

Ralston April 14, 2016 8:58 AM

|….. => @Clive Robinson


“Dukenfield’s Law” (of Incentive Management):
“If a thing is worth winning, it’s worth cheating for”

Designers of control processes for human based systems… ignore Dukenfield’s Law at their peril.

The reliability of a given initial Quality Control/Audit process for a human based system declines as the value of the system output (winnings/prize/reward, etc) increases. Incentives & Disincentives matter.

Yet audit functions systems are typically treated as afterthoughts in system design. We see this most aspects of human activity— from sports to government to hacking big time computer management/data systems.

pjm April 14, 2016 10:02 AM

Related story on a guy who analyzed Boston Marathon results and found at least 47 cheaters (i.e. not people who cheated in Boston, but who cheated to get to Boston):

The systems in place for timing and verifying road races are largely present to ensure fair competition between athletes, but as running has exploded in popularity the vast majority of race entrants are competing only with themselves. So the shortcomings of the systems enforcing fair competition aren’t evident until the “competition” is on a different level: competing for spots in the Boston Marathon.

One wonders if the same degree of cheating is present for the next level of qualification-only race, the Olympic Trials marathons.

Darron April 14, 2016 10:13 AM

@Clive Robertson:

I strongly recommend the book “The Unfair Advantage”. The publisher wanted an autobiography by Mark Donohue, and he wanted to write a book about cheating in auto racing.

They both got their wish, and the reader is the winner.

MR Fan Club April 14, 2016 11:25 AM

What made the Mike Rossi story so much more interesting was all the twists and turns AFTER it had been established the guy cheated his way into Boston.

Boston Athletic Association didn’t care and apparently still doesn’t that runners are cheating into the qualifying times. The organizers operating the Boston qualifiers don’t care that runners are cheating.

There is zero integrity in any of it. Just pay your entry fees. It’s American exceptionalism run amok.

Randy Stegbauer April 14, 2016 2:03 PM

I say simply let her compete, but watch her like a hawk and see what her time is?

My bet is that she’ll come up “injured” so she won’t have to compete or have an official time.

Slime Mold with Mustard April 14, 2016 3:37 PM

So how does one pull this off?

First, I’m thinking passing the chip to confederates on the course could fool the chip readers. The trick here is knowing where the readers are. As they are RFID chips, the check points can be detected . This would require having people check the entire course, not only just before the race, but just before the first competitors get there. Switching check locations would just be basic security.

The second issue is cameras. It would seem the program officials have not thought to film at the check points. Prepositioned security cameras (municipal business, etc) will need to be mapped, and a few of them that give clear face shots might need to get knocked a few degrees out of position or otherwise made to malfunction. The spectators over such a long course tend to gather at certain points. These are actually semi-predictable. Obviously points are where the transport modes are switched. Places that provide shade, refreshment, bathrooms. Studying crowd distribution at a few such events should provide sufficient data. Our ringer doesn’t have to appear at every one. Photos of previous races will tell us and our impostors what colors and styles to wear, as they face the pavement (cover your number with your arms).

I am not certain how the swimming event is laid out. If it goes near land or boats, it’s vulnerable. If not we could get ridiculous .

Finally, the other runners. Our ringer, sliding in and out of the competition, can make a couple of spectacular stumbles, or get kissed by a spectator or what ever. With the chip and photographic evidence, who cares what they say anyway?

Then Bruce can change the blog to “Schneier’s Ironman Security”

albert April 14, 2016 4:23 PM

@Slimey, Clive,,

Then it’s time to switch to an active system. Look at the way Formula One (F1) races are handled. All cars are continuously monitored, from the time the engines are started (IIRC, in the garage), to the time they are shut off. Every conceivable parameter is transmitted by telemetry.

Active devices on runners would be trivial to implement. Pedometers, GPS coordinates, heart rates, breathing rates, blood pressure…with the added bonus of early detection of sudden health problems.

It’s a win/win for everyone….but the cheaters.

. .. . .. — ….

Pathological Liar April 14, 2016 4:30 PM

Anyone find the 2012 story funny where the guy keeps going on and on about how his son will not do any medical procedure in front of anyone but family members? The guy’s obviously a pathological liar to keep cheating on so many races, and such liars probably lie about other things too… so why the elaborate explanation about the son? Maybe the son doesn’t have CF after all and he’s trying to head off challenges about it, offering an explanation when nobody was even questioning it (yet)?

Matt Crocker April 14, 2016 4:32 PM

I remember the incident the article mentioned at the 2012 Keilder Marathon in the UK as I was just behind the guy who allegedly cheated to get 3rd place. In his case he was partly undone by numbers: he was the only competitor out of more than a thousand who’s chip indicated they’d run the second, hillier, half faster than the first.

It would be a really interesting experiment to take spectators’ photos, suitably time- and location-tagged, from a race, apply a bit of ANPR technology on the bib numbers and to compare them with official results.

Slime Mold with Mustard April 14, 2016 5:05 PM

@ Matt Crocker

I sorry to hear that you were robbed of your title (was that ever corrected?).

Your mention of using spectators’ photos inspires me to add that to my scheme: Several time stamped photos provided by “casual spectators” “proving” that Bruce “Ironman” Schneier passed us by at 50 km/h 😉

Daniel April 14, 2016 6:28 PM

Now there is something I don’t read everyday, an article that makes Fox News look fair and balanced. What a hatchet job! I don’t think winning a few races makes one a public figure and so the article treads close to the line of defamation. Lots of gossip and slander, short on any convincing evidence. Maybe there is convincing evidence but that article does not have give it to us.


Not, its not you. It is important to remember that in our evolutionary history that we were once a prey species. It’s one of the reasons hide and seek remains a kid’s game. The ability to hide was once necessary for survival. Whether it is still necessary, on merely an example of evolutionary neoteny, I’ll let other wits debate.

r April 14, 2016 8:55 PM

@rfid chip passing,

I thought heart rate was a unique identifier? That’s what the fitbit threads were about.

Lydia Romero April 14, 2016 10:21 PM

“…the use of additional technology ­ especially the ubiquitous course photos…”

But the most compelling data point is: “Every single finisher of the 2014 Lehigh Valley Marathon was photographed out on the course except for Mike Rossi.”


Mozzarella April 15, 2016 6:32 AM

This article reminds me of the Boston Marathon Bombing, which happened exactly three years ago today. Looking at the footage, I find it very hard to believe in the official account.

The first explosion generates a lot of smoke, but doesn’t seem to cause any extensive damage. An elderly runner falls down, but is unharmed. The second explosion seems to be more serious, but I don’t see how these two explosions can account for the 264 injured people mentioned on wikipedia.

But there are things that are more disturbing. The footage shows a woman dropping what seems to be a purse at the exact location the bomb went off. This makes her a prime suspect in my eyes, and casts serious doubt on the official story.

Mike Barno April 15, 2016 9:25 AM

Not only does FISA (Formula One’s overseeing body) monitor telemetry from all engines, as @albert noted, but — more to the point about cheating during races — for this year they added a strict limitation on what could be said over voice radios. Teams had been telling their drivers how to block competitors, and other info that helped drivers do things considered unsportsmanlike. If they simply banned certain message content, then teams would prepare code words that would give driver the intent without explicitly saying the disallowed things. So FISA announced a list of about ten permitted message types, and set penalties for saying anything else over the radio to the driver.

This is like an online communication protocol limited to a short list of predefined commands, in order to prevent hacks such as SQL injection, fetching and executing malware from untrusted outside sources, or jamming the channel by forcing the recipient to attempt to parse complex confusing message content.

albert April 15, 2016 11:41 AM

@Mike B,
Indeed, the whole point of the radio link limitations is to take driving strategy out of the engineers hands (who know -everything-), and place the onus (back) on the driver (who knows what he -sees-). Which is, after all, the point of auto racing.

Despite the rhetoric, the point of racing is winning. The F1 radio regulations would be akin to your coach giving you instructions by radio in a marathon. I don’t know if this is permitted.

I still think active telemetry is the way to go.

. .. . .. — ….

wumpus April 15, 2016 1:55 PM

@pjm, from the Washington Post article of Marine Corps Marathon cheater Gregory Price was taken off the lists for the Boston Marathon. Comments in the article implied that there was a high bar (if the accuser didn’t run a marathon as big as the Marine Corps’, he wouldn’t take action). I’m sure it helped that he hadn’t run Boston under 4:00 or so for a long time, while regularly qualifying at least a half hour faster.

@albert. As far as I know, your golfing coach has always been able to coach you during any tournament. All he has to do is carry your clubs (caddies are allowed unlimited advice)… This almost never happens, and non-caddies are not allowed anywhere any other spectator isn’t allowed.

Triathalons (which presumably lead to this article) are at even greater risk now than marathons ever were. Disqualification of cyclists found with motors is now happening
This isn’t exactly elite levels where you might expect access to “unobtanium”, and I’d expect the Mike Rossis of the world to be able to afford such a bike sooner or later. Note that a triathalon is already notorious for being a bicycle race with added pain (you need to do all three parts, but it is won and lost on the bicycle), so adding a motor will drastically change the results.

Mike Barno April 19, 2016 8:27 PM


There is an article in the April 18 New York Times about hidden motors in race cycling, and ways to detect this cheating. Two types of cheat systems are available: a 250-watt motor turning the crank axle between the pedals, or a 25-watt smaller motor within the rear axle. (For scale, a pro sustains 250 watts of effort over a road race, according to the article.)

The only disqualification came in cyclocross, a niche of the sport, but the French TV network that leads Tour de France coverage used thermal cameras to find a bike with a hot rear hub in a pro race in March. The governing body looked into thermal, X-ray, and ultrasound, but settled on magnetic resonance imaging pre-race checks. A builder of hidden-motor systems is quoted as saying carbon-fiber bikes may block MRI.

The article doesn’t mention scoring chips, or other methods from the running controversy that started this thread. But videos are studied for things like bikes that keep cranking after a crash.

Mike Barno April 19, 2016 8:55 PM

Sorry, I meant the April 19 New York Times for that bike-motor article. No link because I read the print version.

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