Tag Archives: cheating

It’s Sad, and So Damn Pointless

Running is usually such a positive and uplifting sport that the occasional sad story gets, I think, an unusual amount of attention. Not just in the running community, but even in the national news.

In the “sad” category I include runners who die during an event, or leave us too early due to disease (R.I.P., Gabriele Grunewald), and also those who are disqualified or banned due to cheating. I include cheating because while it’s a human failing as opposed to a physical one, it’s just as pointless in the end.

The most recent example is Dr. Frank Meza, who was disqualified from this year’s Los Angeles Marathon after evidence surfaced that he’d cut the course. The story is doubly tragic because shortly after his disqualification, he was found dead in the Los Angeles River. The cause is not official as I write this, but it may have been a suicide.

This story baffles me. Dr. Meza was 70 years old, a lifelong runner, former high school track coach, and mentor of Latino students. People who knew him speak of the positive effects he’d had on them and the community. In his sixties he began to run marathons in under three hours – a mark of prestige at any age – and at the 2019 LA Marathon he finished in 2 hours 53 minutes, a record time for his age group. By all accounts, a real “feel good” story, right?

Except he may have faked it. And not just at this marathon. His 2015 finishing time was also under investigation, and the California International Marathon disqualified him twice, then banned him. He denied all allegations of cheating, and agreed to run a future marathon with an official monitor. But his death ends any chance to clear his name.

I don’t know if Dr. Meza cheated, or if he did, at how many races. But the preponderance of evidence suggests he was not as fast as his finishing times indicated. If so, I have a simple question that we may never know the answer to:

Why?

Cheating is as old as competition. I get that. The prestige that comes from winning can tempt people to reach for it any way they can. But Dr. Meza wasn’t attempting to win the marathon, qualify for the Olympics, or get sponsored. We’re talking about an age group award, which comes with nothing other than a hearty handshake and maybe a paperweight or similar tchotchke. Even setting an apparent record age group time wouldn’t have meant lasting fame or fortune.

Some of my more notable age group awards. (Yes, that is a roll of toilet paper on the right.)

Was it worth exposing himself to the scrutiny that would inevitably follow a record time? Was a fleeting mention buried somewhere in the LA Times worth risking his lifetime reputation of community service and inspiration to others? Was his ego that fragile that he couldn’t accept being anything but a champion?

For an amateur runner like Dr. Meza, or me, I find cheating to be especially pointless. For the real competition is not against others, but ourselves. Even with the support of crew, coaches, or other runners, in the end your performance is based on your own training, ability, and desire. It’s wanting to know how good we can be, or to break through what we thought our limits were, that keeps us going.

Sure, cheating hurts others if you take away an award or recognition that rightfully belongs to someone else. But mainly you cheat yourself. Even professionals do. Does Lance Armstrong ever wonder how good he could have been if he’d raced clean? I bet he does. But no one, including him, will ever know. And that’s a shame.

Perhaps Dr. Meza’s wife, even if inadvertently, summed it up best. “Running was very important to my husband,” she said, “and now unfortunately he won’t run marathons anymore.”

And that’s sad.

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My Goals for 2013, and Why I’m Not Setting Them

SETTING GOALS IS GOOD, RIGHT?

We all grew up with the idea that setting goals is a great way to become better at something. It provides motivation and a reward for achievement, even if it’s just personal satisfaction. I set a lot of goals last year for my fitness activities, had fun pursuing them, and achieved most of them (see my Quest 2012 page). So why shouldn’t I do the same thing in 2013?

2011 goal: Run a marathon. Accomplished! (Finish line, 2011 Chicago Marathon.)

2011 goal: Run a marathon. Accomplished! (Finish line, 2011 Chicago Marathon.)

Well, 2012 was a special year I’d planned all the goals for specifically, and although I will continue running, cycling, Aikido, etc. this year, I will be adjusting the frequency and intensity of those activities. But an article by Peter Bregman in the Harvard Business Review blog also got me thinking. Titled, “Consider Not Setting Goals for 2013,” it points out that focusing overmuch on goals can lead to counter-productive behavior.

The authors of a Harvard Business School working paper, Goals Gone Wild, reviewed a number of research studies related to goals and concluded that the upside of goal setting has been exaggerated and the downside, the “systematic harm caused by goal setting,” has been disregarded.

They identified clear side effects associated with goal setting, including “a narrow focus that neglects non-goal areas, a rise in unethical behavior, distorted risk preferences, corrosion of organizational culture, and reduced intrinsic motivation.”

In other words, the benefits of setting a goal can be lost if you focus only on the goal itself and not how you get there. You may do unhealthy or dishonest things to “make your number” rather than work on improving your skills. Peter is referring mainly to business-related goals, such as sales targets, but I think his points apply equally well to any kind of activity.

Ethical? Depends on whether he's trying to get an A, or a date.

Ethical? Depends if his goal is to get an A, or a date.

Consider Kip Litton, a Michigan dentist who has a son with cystic fibrosis. He’d set (and announced in a blog) a goal to run a sub-3-hour marathon in all 50 states to raise money for CF research. Did he become a better runner, or better person? Apparently not. Instead, he cheated in the races he ran, and even invented a marathon, listing himself as the winner. Having set a goal he could not meet with his training level and talent, he chose to fake the results rather than put in the work required or adjust his goal to something more reasonable. He wound up getting a lot of attention, but it wasn’t the kind he’d been hoping for, and no money was raised. You can read an excellent account of his sordid tale here, in this New Yorker online article.

Another problem with goal setting is relying on things outside your control. Should I set a goal of winning my age group in the Road Ends 5 Mile, a local trail race I run each year? Based on past race results, it’s possible. But my chance to win in any particular year depends not only on my fitness level, but who else in my age group shows up. I ran the 2011 Road Ends four minutes faster than in 2010 – and I finished in sixth place both times. I did win it in 2012, and I expect to run it even better this year, but my goal will be a time improvement, with winning a nice bonus if it happens. Meb and Ryan can go ahead and set goals to win races; when I have a fat Nike contract, maybe I’ll rethink my position.

All that said, I do have some new running goals:

  • Run a mile in 6 minutes or less (current PR 6:16)
  • Run a half marathon in 1:30:00 or less (current PR 1:36:59)
  • Run a 50 mile ultramarathon (current longest race: 50K, 31.2 miles)
2012 goal: 50K (31.2 miles). What's another 18.8?

2012 goal: 50K (31.2 miles). Did it! So what’s another 18.8?

Only the 50-mile race is a firm 2013 goal, set for September at Run Woodstock. My coach agrees it’s doable, if I put in the training this spring and summer. I want to achieve the other two at some point. She’ll put together a training program that will improve my speed, I will continue the strength workouts also needed to get faster, and we’ll see how it works out in race results.

So hopefully I have set challenging but achievable running goals, and they will help me continue to improve as a runner. For Aikido, on the other hand, I will also work on improvement but will not be setting goals this year. I’ll explain why, and what I’m going to do instead, in an upcoming post.