The first time I heard about Marathon Investigation (MI) was on the Human Race Podcast from Runners World. The episode explored MI and getting it right and getting wrong and what that means to us normal runners, and focused on a runner who was unjustly accused of cheating by MI.
The second time I heard about them was earlier this year when they quickly “exposed” a runner who had cut a course at a half marathon, then used a bike ride to replicate the GPS data online, before finally admitting their lie. This story blew up so huge that my wife, who doesn’t follow news in the running world, found it on Yahoo or somewhere and brought it up in conversation.
Most recently MI came up posted by one of the leading online running community’s official accounts asking to discuss the “exposure” of Kelly Roberts’ “career of banditing”. Kelly had just been featured on the cover of Women’s Running Magazine’s Body Issue. I guess MI wasn’t happy about that.
I’ve followed Kelly online for a few months after listening to her on a podcast, and really loving what she’s bringing to the running world. She’s a regular woman who started running. After struggling with some issues identifying as a runner and not achieving the runner’s body that she was striving for, she ended up coming to terms with who she is as she is and recognizing that the runner’s body is any body a runner has. She’s sending that message out into the world to the point of being featured on a magazine cover in a sports bra just as she is.
I often wonder why I, as a man, relate so much to these messages. I recognize what society and media and everything does to our self image, especially for women. I feel it too, a bit. We’re made to feel like we’re never enough as-is, so that maybe that next diet book or outfit or gym membership or soda or magazine or yogurt or whatever the next thing we can buy will make us enough. It’s well plotted by marketers and editors, and it’s insidious. It creates impossible standards to live up to, to just want to feel normal. I have a background in punk rock and skepticism and rebelling against normalcy and trying to give some critical thought to what we’re being sold. I want people to recognize this marketing as what it is. I want people to question and rebel against the status quo. Kelly’s inspired many people, especially women, to do that. That’s powerful and amazing and important.
Kelly also bought a race bib on Craigslist once. This is called “Banditing” in the race world. You didn’t actually register as yourself for a race. You bought someone else’s registration. If you’re not familiar, there are couple of things attached to your race bib: your personal information and emergency contacts, most specifically. So there are obvious moral and safety issues that arise when someone sells their bib to someone else. This is something that happens, usually it’s cheaper than the entry fee or the race is sold out, and someone wasn’t able to run and wants to recoup some money. I’ve not come across it too often, but I have seen it. Kelly wasn’t completely aware of the issues when she did it. She has since acknowledged that it was wrong to have done, and apologized.
The other things “exposed” by MI was pictures of Kelly running with friends at races where she was not officially participating. Marathon Investigations also considered this banditing. I can’t imagine what’s so wrong with this, really. Streets are public; Even during races, they are usually open. She didn’t have a fraudulent bib or make any claims about a race performance that wasn’t true. Nonetheless, Kelly has again acknowledged that this was wrong and will not be doing this again.
Still this Marathon Investigation piece goes viral and Kelly Roberts is persona non grata in the running community overnight. She faced massive amounts of online abuse. Luckily, she’s strong and she’s done so much good that she has a lot of support through this, but the abuse is completely ridiculous. What wrong she did was out of ignorance. She was made aware of the wrong and tried to make it as right as one can after the fact. She didn’t, in the end, put anyone in danger. She didn’t make any false claims. She didn’t fraudulently win an award or qualify for a bigger race. She didn’t hurt anyone else, but she is running community enemy #1 for a week or two. I don’t understand it. I don’t understand the anger directed at someone, even if they did something wrong, if it doesn’t affect you in any way.
I can’t help but point out that the three times that something from Marathon Investigation has gone viral enough to come to my attention have been posts about women. I know they don’t specifically investigate women. I don’t care. I don’t follow them. I think their work goes too far. I don’t mind cheaters being found out, but, again, only ⅓ of the times I’ve seen one of their exposés was it justified. But 100% of the time that they post something, it drums up a furor in their audience. An audience who, the vast majority of, are not affected by the cheater in anyway. That furor boils up, people face a backlash of thoughtless online vitriol. Occasionally it boils up high enough that even those of us who don’t follow MI see it, and, like a lot of awful things in our society, the women get the worst of it. I don’t necessarily think it’s a conscious reaction. It’s an underlying thing in our society and our minds. It’s something we have to actively work against. Women get more online abuse and less benefit of the doubt, even from each other. Even women who are just trying to show the world that you don’t have to be posed and flexed and lit and photoshopped to unnatural perfection to move your body and to show your body and feel good and be strong and proud just as you are.
The best way to stop cheaters is to not cheat. Be a positive example that the goal is in the work, not the achievement itself. If you see something fishy at a race, let an official know. You see a friend do something wrong, speak to them about it as a friend. That’s how to make things better. However well-intentioned Marathon Investigation may be, the public shaming that results isn’t good for anyone.
We’re all flawed. We all make mistakes. We’ve all done something wrong; on purpose, even. No one is immune. Do we need to be judged by others for everything we’ve done wrong? Is this the world you want to be in? I much more want to be in the community that welcomes everyone as we are, encourages everyone to embrace ourselves honestly and to go forward to find the strength we didn’t realize we have. More support, More positivity. Less judgment. Less criticism. Again, just as the best way to stop the cheating is to not cheat, the best way to build a positive, welcoming, encouraging community is to be positive, welcoming, and encouraging. Take the lead Kelly, I’ll fall in with the squad behind you.