By: HPRS Owner and RD “Sherpa” John Lacroix
Step right up to the latest circus in the sport of ultrarunning… cheating.
It was at Across The Years, an event produced by Aravaipa Running in Arizona, that Kelly Agnew was finally caught cheating during an Ultramarathon. Something he was expected of for a number of years. According to race organizers, Agnew circumvented the course by completing a lap and then hiding in the toilet. He then emerged from the toilet to cross the timing mat another time, recording that lap after about 7-minutes on the thrown.
The infraction was observed and documented by incredibly well-respected ultrarunner/timer Mike Melton of MCM Timing. The observed infraction was corroborated by the timing mat at the far end of the lap, which Agnew failed to register a completed lap on…. Not once, but multiple times. After race organizers and Melton informed Agnew that he would be disqualified, “he turned in his timing chip and left without much of an argument,” according to Marathon Investigation.
Yes, even Marathon Investigation picked up the story and did some digging of their own, questioning a number of results on Agnew’s resume based on timing results from previous years. The story of Agnew cheating by hiding in a porta-potty was picked up by more media outlets than any other ultra related story in the history of our sport. Think about that..
The story was run in the NY Post, Sports Illustrated, Runners World, Backpackinglight.com, as well as news outlets in the UK, Australia and New Zealand. Kelly Agnew is now famous; but not for the various running achievements he claims to his impressive, now questionable, resume. He’s famous for being the guy who cheated by waiting in a shitter in order to skip laps, and make it appear as though he wasn’t cheating at all. Busted. In my opinion, given the full breadth of international attention this story garnered, this was an embarrassment for our sport; mostly because those of us who participate in ultras are already tasked with explaining to others not only why we do it, but how. When Agnew cheated, and it made international news, we were all cheated. Because how, now includes a story everyone heard involving the shitter.
You would think that after the public scorn Agnew received for his actions, and the sheer distance the story of him cheating travelled, would compel any would-be cheaters to think twice. It would compel those of us who honestly participate in this sport to do our due diligence to make sure we are following the rules. Yet, not but a month later there was another cheater, and this time at the Rocky Raccoon 100, The USATF 100-Mile National Trail Championships.
There is a difference between these two stories though, and is part of my impetus for writing this. When Agnew was caught cheating at ATY, we received the news of his guilt via Marathon Investigation and a formal announcement made by Aravaipa Running. We were all presented with the various facts regarding the case of Agnew, and left to chew on it, and express our disgust, disdain, and even some “who cares!”
In the case of what went down at Rocky Raccoon however; things were treated much differently. I first learned about someone cheating at Rocky Raccoon via Facebook. Patrick Wills was disqualified after failing to check-in at two different mandatory points on loops 3 and 4. Reportedly, those points had timing mats placed at the end of a pair of out-and-backs on the updated course (eye witness accounts report that timing was done by volunteers using paper and pen). The timing system initially flagged him for having run an “unusually fast” 3rd lap, which he followed up with another negative split (compared to loop 2) 4th lap.
Before I share what I am about to say, I want to be clear that I am by no means condoning cheating.
In the case of Patrick Wills, news came out of his infraction on Facebook. From there, it seems like the “ultra-army” got right to work in investigating all things Patrick. People went to his Strava, to see his various training runs (because if it’s not on Strava, it never happened), and then began to argue that “his training did not equate to the type of performance he was having” at Rocky Raccoon. Simply put, people got their pitchforks and flaming citronella candles out and were persecuting a guy for cheating WITHOUT having a single fact on the matter.
Newsflash.. my Strava doesn’t show that I was capable of running Rocky Raccoon in 20:19 in 2017 either.. does that automatically equate to my having cheated at the race? Seriously people.. I am both saddened and disgusted that so many people were quick to judge, do their own investigative reporting to criminalize a man, without anyone having a single fact from the race. Is this who we are as a community? A group of folks willingly at the ready to be judge, jury, and executioner against anyone we “heard” something bad about? My gut (and personal experience) tells me.. Yes, yes we are. And that’s incredibly sad.
It took a little bit longer than most of us would have liked, but Tejas Trails, the company who produces the Rocky Raccoon 100, issued a public statement on the matter. Their statement provided us with their factual information pertaining to Patrick’s disqualification. They also requested that Patrick produce his gps data in order to prove that he didn’t cheat. Of course, this is information that as of two weeks post race Patrick has yet to produce. Another runner, caught red handed, but thankfully this story isn’t as good as a man hiding in the shitter, because we would have another world-wide embarrassment on our hands.
I’ve read a few other articles and blog posts written on this matter of cheating in our sport since then. I wanted to address this issue myself because I think a lot is being said that is both unfair, and unrealistic.
Race Directors Need To Be More Diligent About Creating Courses That Are Hard To Cheat
I was an assistant Race Director from 2006-2008 before finally directing my first race in November 2008; which was the first 200-mile ultra in the world. Here in Colorado, I have owned and operated the Human Potential Running Series since 2014. In all of my experience in creating race courses, I can tell you unequivocally that it is hard enough designing a course that is not only the right distance, but fits well with the mission and vision of your series, AND is capable of obtaining a permit from land managers. Now I have to make sure that my route makes it hard for cheaters to cheat also?!
How about this: Cheaters are assholes. I shouldn’t have to pour in more due diligence over the details of my event than I already do… to prevent these assholes from being assholes. Let’s think about this from the perspective of a Gas Station. Most gas stations have a variety of mechanisms in place to prevent someone from stealing. There’s a clerk, security camera’s, some have detectors that alarm if someone tries to leave the store with a stolen item, some of the items on the shelves and racks have security apparatus that requires the clerk to come and unlock for you… Yet, PEOPLE STILL STEAL.
When I design a course, which I recently just did for a new race I’m hoping to hold, someone cheating is the last thing that is on my mind. I’m focusing on the total distance of the course, distance between aid station locations, locations for aid stations that aren’t too far apart or close together, egress in the event of emergencies, and the ability to monitor all of the runners for the entirety of the event. My focus is primarily on the safety of all runners, and the enjoyment of the event. I’m not about to start throwing, “Well, someone could cheat right here if I do the course this way, so screw it… I’ll go right back to the drawing board.”
Races Need More Timing Mats To Prevent and/or Catch Would-Be Cheaters
I don’t use a single timing mat at any of my races. It’s not an expense that I have factored into my costs, nor am I willing to raise the entry fee into my races in order to pay for the service. Up until 2017, HPRS used paper and pen for our race timing. This year, we’ll be using Amazon Fire Tablets and the Ultraisgnup App for timing. But this idea that Race Directors need to place more timing mats out on the course, and at areas that could catch would be cheaters missing a section, does not consider the full scope of doing so. Are we really going to increase our registration fees, due to the now rising operating costs, to pay for these extra mats? Is the answer really to punish the pockets of all the other runners just so we can keep everyone honest? This same argument has come up in our discussions on doping and drug testing in races, and the cost associated with doing so. We don’t do drug testing because of how expensive it is, so what makes you think that we’re going to add this expense to timing mats, especially when doping is much harder to catch?
More Course Marshalls
Last year, here in Colorado, I watched as another local race series spent money on ad space on Facebook in order to try and drum up more volunteers to help produce their race. Think about that for a minute. He wasn’t spending race funds on ad’s for the race, he was placing ad’s to find volunteers. That means, we’re already struggling (and hard) for volunteers. HPRS also has a hard time getting enough volunteers at our events. Now I’m supposed to find even more volunteers to place out at some random location on the course, with a clipboard, roster, and pen.. and a hammock and a book.. so they can personally monitor for cheating? Ya know, If I have any extra volunteers, sure… I can do that. But until I have a race that has enough volunteers that I can pawn one off to course marshaling, it’s not happening.
More safeguarded Timing Areas
Again, HPRS doesn’t have a “timing area.” We have amazing courses in the mountains of Colorado, which runners are tasked with completing. I have volunteers that check runners in and out of every aid station, and I have volunteers who record runner’s times at the finish line. Maybe it’s because I could care less about the race, as for me the mission and vision of my series aims more towards the journey. One of the first rules I ever learned about ultra running was, “Run your own race and don’t care a bit about what everyone else is doing.” If someone wants to come to HPRS, race their ass off, and get some special place and time.. good for them. I don’t have a podium. I don’t have cash prizes. I don’t even have age group awards, or trophies for exceptional performances. I have the same finishers award for every runner from first to second to last, with the only special award going to the person who finishes DFL.
I really feel that staying away from prize money, and staying away from aggrandizing the talented few… that HPRS avoids having glory seeking cheaters from even coming here. I’ve taken away the incentive to cheat. Perhaps instead of treating races like ways of earning a living, or awarding the top performers with hefty sponsorships, or their faces on the cover of magazines.. maybe that’s a viable option for ending the cheating epidemic instead. Taking away the incentive. It’s as good a suggestion as all the other’s I’ve heard.
More RD’s Analyzing Data
At the completion of a race I write a detailed report to my land managers. This report is an after event debrief which details what went well, what needs improvement, and proposed changes for future years of the event. I sit down and ensure that the results are placed on Ultrasignup within 48-hours of completion of the event. I also take every single table, water cooler, utensil, pots and pans, etc.. and scrub them clean. It takes me a week to set a race up, and a week to clean it up. Now I’m also supposed to pour over all of the data from my event, every runner’s aid station checks, finish times, everything.. and go on a witch hunt by calling out runners who’s times we may have missed? This is a PR nightmare in the making. Sure, having timing mats prevents errors of volunteers writing down the wrong times; but the cost is not something I’m willing to spend, nor am I willing to penalize my runners by raising prices to prevent assholes from cheating. No one is going to sit down and pour over data with the myriad of things we need to accomplish to complete an event.
Look, people have been cheating in ultra running for as far back as most of us can remember. Cheaters, if you haven’t figured it out by now, are assholes. If I catch someone cheating at an HPRS race, you bet your butt that they’ll be put on blast, publically shamed, and embarrassed for cheating us, and our runners. But I’m not about to penalize the countless runners who are honest, by raising their entry fees so I can have timing mats. I’m not about to readjust my courses, and beg for more volunteers, to try and prevent someone from cheating. Someone who wants to cheat will find a way.. regardless of the safeguards we put into place.
Just last year, I watched as a number of runners missed a turn at the Wasatch 100, at around mile 6. Instead of returning to the spot where they lost the course, and continuing on from there (which is the rule across our entire sport for runners who go off course), I watched as about a dozen runners just ran off trail down the mountainside to cut back into the race where they could see runners from above. Over a dozen runners, who missed a turn, and corrected their error not by running back to where they screwed up, but by just cutting down the mountainside and rejoining wherever they please. THIS IS CHEATING. But no one reported them, and no one was disqualified. Should we have had course marshals out there? Maybe another timing mat? How about the RD goes back to the drawing board and redesigns that course so that no one misses that turn in future years…
Here’s the answer. Stop being assholes. Everyone is watching now, and I’m sure that this year, more than any other year, I’ll get more reports of course cutters and cheats than I’ve ever had. I’ll gladly accept the reports of my runners, and I’ll take care of the situations as they arise. One thing is certain though, we need to stop publically persecuting runners without first getting ALL of the facts. We need to stop placing all of the onus on Race Directors to prevent cheating; because it’s not fair or realistic. We need to understand as a sport, that cheating happens a lot more than we think; both on purpose and on accident. I truly believe that the answer is to get back to our roots, celebrate everyone as equals, get rid of the prize money and glorification of the elite.. and focus on EVERYONE. If you take away the reasons for the narcissists to gain fame and “fortune,” there is no longer a reason for them to cheat.
According to some.. this makes me a lazy race director who doesn’t care that much, and therefore no one should come and run my races because obviously my only mission is to get as many registrations as I can. Trust me when I say, that if I catch someone cheating at my events there will be a confrontation and one that those who know me know.. I’m not about to shy away from. Of course I care, but I care more about the runners who came here to do the right thing, than I care about giving my attention to the cheaters. We’re shifting our attention away from so many amazing people, and countless inspiring stories, to focus on a few assholes. Cheating happens all the time, on many fronts, both on purpose and on accident. It’s as common as the sun rising in the morning and setting at night. That’s a reality, and none of the proposed safeguards I’ve seen, will prevent it.
Gary Cantrell said, “There is zero value to guaranteed success. I really do not understand the idea that failure will destroy someone’s self esteem. I think it more likely that guaranteed success would destroy self-esteem. What is there to build a sense of accomplishment, if there is no failure to overcome?” At HPRS we are about the adversity as part of every experience or every “race.” If you have an easy race, you are not living up to your full potential. Adversity, difficulty, and the potential failure of any endeavor is the reason why we raise our hands to the sky at the end of a success. Cheating cheapens the experience. A cheater may guarantee a finish, but does not guarantee them personal growth. With that in mind.. they won’t “get it” at HPRS.