What is cheating when it comes to running? We’ve all seen the reports of runners who’ve tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs and we’ve been rightfully disappointed in the leaders of our sport who’ve let us down. There are also the crazy stories of runners who ‘skip’ parts of a race in order to get a better result. (The two craziest stories that spring to mind are the woman who took the subway for part of the NYC Marathon and the woman who ‘won’ the St Louis marathon, qualifying her for Boston, when it turned out she cut the course, crossing the finish line before the lead pace bikes even got there.)
Pausing Your Watch in Training
However, if I’m doing an speed intervals or hill repeat workout and I need a little more time on recovery, I won’t pause my watch if I’m taking an extra 30 – 60 seconds on the walk/jog section. I know there are runners who think the only important part of one of these workouts is the actual repeat when you’re running hard, but in my mind, if you need extra time recovering, you’re either running your repeat too hard, or you’re not recovering enough with your easy runs and rest days. Either way, having a record of it in your training log will help you recognize when your performance is affected.
Is it Cheating? If it is, you’re only cheating yourself.
Rounding Down Your PR
There are two ways to round down a PR – skipping the seconds from your result (e.g. making a 3:59:59 marathon result just a 3:59), or rounding down a little more significantly (like making that same result a 3:55). Originally, I was going to suggest that the former is not cheating. But is it? Maybe it depends. You’re one second off having a ‘4’ in front of your PR…but you fought hard for that second, right? I think in a case like this when you’re so close to the next minute, it’s fairer to say “Sub 4 hour” rather than the hours and minutes only.
The latter example, rounding down by minutes, is definitely cheating. If seconds can count for so much in a race, I think we can all agree on what a huge difference a few minutes make when it comes to any length race. Be proud of the time you did run, don’t fake the time you wish for.
Is it Cheating? Yes, if you’re taking off more than the seconds.
Running the Tangents in a Race
When I started racing, I thought the reason I was running a quarter mile or more longer than the race distance was some kind of glitch with my watch’s GPS. More likely, when you hear the mile alert way before you see the mile marker, it means you’re not running the turns and corners on the race route efficiently. The USATF measures a course distance by the shortest possible way a runner can navigate the course without risking disqualification. So if you’re weaving around runners at the start, taking corners wide, or veering off to high-five spectators, those are all adding tiny increments to the total distance you will run beyond the official race distance.
There are ways you can run the tangents in order to make the distance closer to the exact course that’s been measured. Try not to weave at the start – pick a side of the course to run and call out to runners ahead of you as you approach so you can pass them. If you call out “On your left!” the runner will move to their right and vice versa (unless they are wearing headphones or get confused, in which case you may have to do a last-minute detour!). You can also run the corners using this method, to cut out any extra distance navigating the turn.
Is it Cheating? No, not unless you’re deliberately taking a short cut instead of running the race route.
Say what?! Yes, I’m including this on the list because in nearly every race, the official rules state that you are not permitted to use headphones while racing. And there are racers out there who believe that listening to music gives you a mental advantage.
My opinion? So long as the race website indicates that you are still allowed to use them, even if they’re technically against the rules, then I don’t see the big deal. (The official rule is that they’re discouraged, but the USTAF leaves the decision on whether runners can use them up to race directors, for non-championship events.) Yes, racing is a competition, but usually against ourselves. I don’t care if the woman in front of me is listening to the Rocky theme song or not. And I think that for the added mental boost it may give a racer, think of the muted cheers they hear that non-headphone-wearing runners benefit from.
Is it Cheating? Nah.
Using Someone as a Wind Shield
If there’s a head wind in your race, it can several seconds to your pace per mile. Tuck in behind a runner in front of you, though, and the wind no longer becomes an issue. You actually see this when you watch elite runners racing – they run in packs and usually take turns to have a leader. (Check this article out for other ways running in a pack benefits you in a race!)
Of course, unless you’re running with people you race with regularly and everyone’s aware of the strategy, then you’re basically using an unwitting runner to positively affect your performance. In this case, however, you’re not negatively affecting their, or anyone else’s performance.
Is it Cheating? No, it’s smart racing strategy.
Buying Someone’s Race Bib, or Selling Your Bib
Well, it’s definitely breaking the rules. Unless it’s sanctioned by the race organizers (and I’ve never run a race where they allowed this), you’re most likely going to suffer some consequences if you get caught. NYRR, for example will disqualify you and ban you from subsequent races for buying or selling a race number.
Is it cheating, though? I think it depends on your motivation. If you desperately want to run a sold-out race, or you signed up and then realized you had double-booked yourself, then buying or selling the bib is only done to give someone else or yourself the opportunity to run the race. However, if you deliberately sell your bib to someone faster than you because you know it will give you a PR you didn’t have to run yourself, then yes, you are cheating. Remember, whoever’s name is on the bib is the one who gets the results recorded as their performance, so people will definitely abuse that.
And if you’re selling a race number at an inflated price, then I hope you get caught.
Is it Cheating? Only if you’re doing it to get a better time recorded to your name.
Running as a Bandit
A bandit is someone who runs a race without a bib – they haven’t paid or signed up, they just take advantage of the race course and amenities to basically race for free. While their results are obviously not recorded, they’re having the same race experience as everyone else who has paid money (sometimes quite a lot of money) to enter.
My initial reaction was this is always cheating – you’re cheating the race organizers who spend their time and money organizing the race, getting permits, sponsors, volunteers etc and you’re cheating the other runners whose course size is inflated by bandits, as well as the unfairness of some people paying and some running for free.
However, what if someone runs bandit as a form of protest? Katherine Switzer was NOT a bandit when she was famously almost forcibly removed from the Boston Marathon course by race organizer Jock Semple. Women were not permitted to run the Boston Marathon at the time, but Switzer signed up using only her first initial so she could get a bib. There were plenty of women who did run Boston as bandits before they were finally granted entry in 1972. In a case like this, where a group is being discriminated against for entry, I say more power to them! Without women like those Boston bandits proving that women could run the marathon distance without their uterus falling out (that’s truly one of the reasons women were considered unable to run long distance, by the way), we wouldn’t have the option to line up at long-distance races now.
Is it Cheating? Yes, if you’re doing it just to avoid paying for races.
Unlike straight up cases of doping, or of someone not even running part of a race for which they get credit, there are more grey areas in these examples of potential ‘cheats’. Maybe you’ve done a few of them yourself – maybe not. But everyone will have an opinion and I want to hear yours!
Which of these do you definitely consider cheating?
What are some other ways you think runners can ‘cheat’ without realizing it?