- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 19, 2006

It may have been the JeansMarines fiasco at last October’s Marine Corps Marathon that prompted the powers that be in the long-distance running community to weigh in.

JeansMarines, a charity partner of the race, was banned from being a partner next year after it was learned the organization’s coach helped runners cut a portion of 26.2-mile race.

Racing leaders responded recently in a letter sent across the country to “Our runners, clubs and event directors,” which was signed by officials of Running USA (President Allan Steinfeld and Executive Director Basil Honikman), Road Runners Club of America (President Bee McLeod and Executive Director Jean Knaack) and USA Track & Field (President Bill Roe and CEO Craig Masback).

“We applaud the commitment and effort of all those who legally participate in and complete long distance running events,” the letter read. “We also recognize the great community and charitable contributions made by training groups around the world and the millions of dollars raised for their worthy causes.

“However, recent reports of participants cutting marathon courses and thereby not completing the full distance of an event — yet claiming they have — disturb us greatly. This is particularly troubling when finishing has certain rewards, such as finisher medals, and the recognition of being called a ‘marathoner.’”

Of course, the Big Three appealed to all participants to play fair and not cheat.

But there isn’t much more the sport can do.

If racing had an international database like Interpol — with listings of everybody who ever cheated in even a neighborhood 5K somewhere on the seven continents — officials could flag runners and bar entries of those who have been exposed for cheating.

Racing has a good shot at policing the professional athletes in the sport, but little chance to regulate the rest of the pack of millions upon millions. Unless of course a runner become notorious such as Rosie Ruiz, who won’t see another Boston Marathon bib number under her current legal name.

What drives people to cheat in running is the same characteristic that drives people to cheat in the workplace and everywhere else in life. We live in a society that awards highly successful people, through financial incentives and public recognition. We live in a society that way too often stresses and rewards the win-at-all-cost philosophy.

JeansMarines is a program out of Toronto created to take out-of?shape women off the couch and train them to complete a marathon in less than a year. In many cases, it worked. But in many other cases (they do admit on their Web site that at least eight cheated at Marine Corps), the program only set up good-intentioned people for failure. The group admitted guilt — after they were caught, of course. But I give credit to the leadership for realizing now that it was not just the cheating that was wrong, but that the culture of their program was flawed.

The group’s Web site now states: “… We think we need to make a change to our culture. We continue to believe that it is possible for many women to move ‘off the couch’ in January and cross the finish line of a marathon in October. However, in the future we will be less insistent on that as the sole goal of our training program. Already, we know that lots of JeansMarines train to do a half marathon in their first year and a full marathon in their second. Or a 10K. Then a half. Then a whole or whatever. So we will communicate those other options more clearly and more often to the new crop of JeansMarines.”

I beg all the other similar training programs — be they through local running clubs, running shops, national and local charities and others — to adopt this stance.

It is our culture that has done great good by getting sedentary people into motion through the marathon yet it also has put undo stress and failure on many in our society, especially those who spend their entire lives chasing after the next great thing that society holds up as the Holy Grail.

Last week, a prominent local attorney and self-described plodder with a wife, two young children and a practice that keeps him in the office most nights during the week told me out of the blue he wants to run a marathon this year. Why not set your sights on a half marathon this year, I ask.

Does completing half a marathon make you only half a person?

L.A. Story — Alexandria resident Chris Banks and Heather Hanscom are among the favorites at today’s City of Los Angeles Marathon. Banks (2:17:06 personal best) comes in as the second-ranked American to Steve Moreno while Hanscom (2:31:53) is ranked second to Magdalena Lewy Boulet. For the first time in 21 years at Los Angeles, prize money of $5,000, $3,000 and $1,000 will be awarded to top Americans. Hanscom also could pocket a time bonus for running sub-2:34.

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