September 04, 2012

In Cursura Veritas (In Running, Truth)

"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.


  1. I gather you'd also be greatly troubled then by someone who stole his own fabricated personal biographical life-story from a speech by a demagogue in the British Labor Party, forcing him out of the 1988 Presidential race, prior to actually becoming Vice President twenty years later.

  2. @ Local Rock: Boden's plagiarism indeed troubled me in 1988, my first election as an elgible voter. I did not vote for him then, nor did I caucus for him in 2008. Of course, by 2008, an additional 20 years had passed, and the plagiarism issue had receded in importance as Biden had developed an extensive additional record on which to judge his character. Ryan, by contrast, chose to make this particular lie (among many others) as he is being introduced to the broader American electorate in this particular election. I happen to think this lie matters more than many folks, for the reasons stated in my post. Others may give it little or no weight. But I think the currency of Ryan's comment certainly makes it more relevant to the present election. As they say, your mileage may vary.

    For those who want to read a contrary take on the relevance of Biden's plagiarism, start with this Slate article:

  3. No just vote for a guy because he is black, supports Gay marriage and killing babies!

  4. Read Kip Litton yesterday (bravo on the awesome article), and I still don't get the need/want/logic behind cheating on a running time.

    Social acceptance?

    Why look for that in a sport that is 99.999% solo effort (the .001% is for Team Hoyt).

  5. Americans have come to expect politicians of every stripe to exhibit a certain casual disregard for the Truth

    Politicians tell people what they want to hear.

  6. Also people put on their political blinders and hear what they want to hear from their candidates. Those that hate Romney or Obama will ignore the positives and focus on the negatives and vice versa for the candidate they love.

    The people who can objectively evaluate candidates and their stances are few and far between and will probably wind up favoring some third party candidate that best suits their own political agenda and stands little or no chance of election.

  7. I actually think it's possible he simply made a mistake. About 10 years ago I ran a marathon and several half marathons. I still roughly remember my times. I took on running with the dedication that you describe.

    Around the same time I also picked up xc skiing. I would ski about a dozen times each winter, and competed (term used loosely) in 2 or 3 long distance xc events. If I were to guess my times in those events, I would likely be off by an hour.

    Maybe Ryan treats running as I did xc skiing.

    His time supports this further. My understanding is that Ryan was always an athletic dude. An athletic and dedicated 20 year old should run 26.2 in faster than 4 hours.

  8. To be fair I'm sure you will make another post about all the lies that Obama has told. Right?

  9. Nice post, always enjoy a review from a different perspective and what it essentially means. Your post made me realize the one thing Bill Clinton had at the time of his selection, was the ability to self depreciate himself and use it to his advantage.

    Whether the marijuana statement was true or not, it resonated and it was something the average American could relate to. Clinton had the ability to avoid straight out lies even if he used language to hide behind it later in his term (definition of is, is as an example).

    I'm also not buying the favorite group as Led Zeppelin for a Gen Xer either. Like them, sure, but favorite I'm not buying it.