"You are never really playing an opponent. You are playing yourself, your own highest standards, and when you reach your limits, that is real joy."
~ Arthur Ashe
Last week, Republican Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan brewed a political tempest in a teapot when he was caught lying about his history of marathon running during an interview with Republican talk show host Hugh Hewitt. Ryan, a fitness fanatic, proudly claimed to have run a sub-3:00:00 marathon, specifically asserting he had run "Under three [hours], high twos. I had a two hour and fifty-something." Trouble is, Runner's World writer Scott Douglas did some research and found that Ryan's only recorded marathon time was actually 4:01:25 at the Grandma's Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota (generally regarded as one of the top ten marathons in the United States).
Ryan's campaign issued a statement admitting Ryan had not been truthful, but suggesting Ryan simply mis-remembered his time from a race 20 years ago. Although Ryan's explanation is probably good enough to satisfy the general public, among serious runners his explanation simply doesn't hold water. By asserting he had run a marathon in under three hours, Ryan was claiming to be among the elite of recreational runners. In the 2012 Grandma's marathon, only 145/3425 (4.2%) of men and 165/5788 (2.9%) overall runners cracked the three hour barrier. By contrast, Ryan's solid but unspectacular actual time of roughly 4:01:00 was matched in the 2012 Grandma's marathon by 1573/3425 (45.9%) of men and 2169/5788 (37.5%) overall runners. Ryan's boast is the poker equivalent of bragging about making the final table of the WSOP Main Event while actually busting out long before the money.
There is exactly zero chance Ryan simply made an honest mistake. Runners remember their times from their most significant races; maybe not down to the precise second, but certainly they remember whether they beat certain paces or times. For a marathon, the significant times all runners know are sub-3:30:00, sub-3:00:00, and Boston Marathon qualifying (generally between 3:00:00 and 3:30:00, depending on age and gender). Looked at another way, the pace for a sub-3:00:00 marathon is roughly 6:30 to 6:45 minutes/mile, while a 4:00:00 marathon is roughly a 9:15 minutes/mile pace. Trust me if you aren't a runner, but 2:30 minutes/mile is a big difference over one mile, and a massive (and painfully impossible) difference over 26 miles. So, breaking a significant, elite time barrier like 3:00:00 is simply not something a serious runner would forget or make a mistake about.
On the political side, Ryan's lie generated some discussion from pundits who were baffled why he would misrepresent something so trivial and so easily checked (James Fallows at the Atlantic and Nicholas Thompson at the New Yorker have some interesting thoughts on the subject). But to to frame Ryan's lie in a political context misses the point, in my estimation. In the rough and tumble of politics, Americans have come to expect politicians of every stripe to exhibit a certain casual disregard for the Truth, spinning fantastical policy proposals and unleashing outrageous attacks on the policies and character of their opponents.
But Ryan's marathon lie is not a political lie, it is a personal lie, an illusion to provide the bona fides for the legend of Raul Ryan, all-American hero. Ryan's marathon lie points to a deeper character flaw than mere craven politicking. In Ryan, we have a man who ran a perfectly creditable first marathon at a young age. Yet it wasn't enough for Ryan to be part of the proud pack of Americans who have completed a marathon in average fashion. Instead, Ryan's personal narrative required him to be among the elite of marathon runners. So, somewhere along the way, Ryan bedazzled his racing résumé.
Ryan's lie pales in comparison to some of the more odious examples of its ilk—misrepresentations of military service and honors, job experience, and educational credentials are more serious and probably more common. Even among marathon fraudsters, Ryan's lie is rather petty compared with the notorious Rosie Ruiz who cheated her way to short-lived victories in the New York City and Boston marathons, or the lesser known but more ambitious Kip Litton who was recently outed as having cheated in several marathons in a quest to break the 3:00:00 barrier in every state, going so far as to even invent one marathon entirely (hat tip to @Iggylicious for pointing out Mark Singer's excellent piece in The New Yorker).
Still, Ryan's lie is probably more disturbing to those of us who are serious runners. For the vast majority of runners, running is not about prizes and accolades, running is purely about personal growth. In an ironic twist, running embodies the Ayn Rand-infused self-made-man mythos Ryan has long demagogued. Runners start from different baselines of ability, and have different natural limits to their talent. But within those parameters, whether a runner improves is solely a function of how hard they want to work. Sure, runners will race each other, but mostly runners are racing themselves, chasing their own personal records (PRs), seeing if they can set a faster pace through a section of hills, or trying to kick a great last mile. The only way to measure improvement—the only way to "keep score"—is by stopwatch. A runner who cheats on his time insults those runners who have put in the effort, the hard work, to earn their times.
Make no mistake, marathon training is hard work. It takes dedication to stick with training in heat, humidity, wind, rain, cold, snow, and ice. It takes commitment to organize your daily routine to include two hours or more for running. It takes grit to keep pushing yourself when you've run fourteen miles and have six more to go, and your legs are burning with lactic acid and your chest is straining for oxygen. But most of all, it takes mental toughness to silence that voice in the back of your head that wants you to ease up the pace, take a walking break, cut short a workout, or enjoy an extra rest day. Paul Ryan probably had—and may still have—the physical talent to run a sub-3:30:00 or even a sub-3:00:00 marathon. But Ryan chose the easy path, awarding himself the honor of an elite time he couldn't be bothered to work for.
Maybe Paul Ryan's marathon lie shouldn't disqualify him from becoming Vice President. Of course, in my view, many of his political positions have already disqualified him. Still, if you are an undecided voter, next time you hear Ryan wax poetic about how Americans can achieve anything they want through hard work, just remember:
Paul Ryan doesn't believe that.