On your mark, get set, cheat!

When the California International Marathon returns this weekend, dozens of runners will cross the finish line under a cloud of suspicion

Competitors line up for the 2011 California International Marathon.

Competitors line up for the 2011 California International Marathon.

Photo courtesy of brian baer / creative commons

The California International Marathon starts at 7 a.m., Dec. 8 on Auburn-Folsom Road next to Folsom Dam. For viewing areas and road closures, visit runsra.org.

The California International Marathon allows participants six hours to officially finish the course from Folsom to the state Capitol. But every year organizers face another endurance challenge that takes weeks to complete—identifying the cheaters.

At least several dozen runners who cross the finish line on Sunday, Dec. 8 will have to prove their times are legitimate, or else return the medals hung around their necks. The reasons are plentiful: Runners use performance-enhancing drugs, cut courses, swap their bib numbers or get assistance from unofficial aid stations. It’s all prohibited—and regularly practiced.

The amended official results, including qualifiers’ times for the Boston Marathon, are released about a month after the marathon. Capital Road Race Management in Sacramento, the marathon’s timing company, and the Ohio-based marathoninvestigation.com are responsible for policing the results. But CRRM’s owner says that’s no easy task.

“You want to line up at starting line knowing the outcome of the event is going to come from your training and your DNA and that’s it,” said Rich Hanna, an accomplished runner in his own right. “So many weird things can happen on a course. But as a competitor, you want to know who has an illegal edge. Unfortunately, we don’t know that anymore, not even in local fun runs.”

Cheaters don’t always prosper

Contested on a slightly downhill course that meanders through Sacramento suburbs, the California International Marathon is a fair-weather haven for runners trying to get a fast enough time to qualify for the Boston Marathon—the sport’s epitome of achievement. But the sport has also been in its most dubious spotlight in years.

On July 4, Frank Meza, a family physician in Pasadena and a national age-group record-holder at age 70, committed suicide. He jumped into a river while on a training run near his residence. Four months earlier, Meza was disqualified from the Los Angeles Marathon for cheating. He was also disqualified, and then banned, from CIM after cheating in its 2014 and 2016 events.

Four days after Meza’s death, Rosie Ruiz, the most infamous marathon cheater, died at age 66. Her 1980 women’s title in the Boston Marathon was rescinded when race officials announced she hadn’t completed the entire course. “Doing a Rosie Ruiz” is now part of running’s lexicon.

In October, Alberto Salazar, 61, the four-time winner of the New York City Marathon and a renowned coach at the Nike Running Project in Oregon, was suspended for four years by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency for trafficking testosterone infused with a prohibited amount of the amino acid L-carnitine—a performance enhancer.

While prestigious marathons in Boston, Chicago, London, Los Angeles and New York get the most attention, cheaters thrive in regional marathons where prize money is offered and organizers lack elaborate timing systems. Slightly more than 800 marathons were held in North America last year. As the country’s ninth-largest marathon, CIM had about 7,800 finishers last year. Cheating is so prevalent in endurance sports that skepticism abounds when outstanding performances are achieved.

“It’s human nature,” said Jenny Hitchings, the Sacramento region’s most accomplished runner. “I do it, too. I see a finisher’s time and think, ’How did they run that time?’”

The 56-year-old Hitchings has set five American age-group records in slightly more than a year. Hitchings’ 10-kilometer effort at the 2018 Run to Feed the Hungry in Sacramento eclipsed the mark of Joan Benoit Samuelson, the 1984 Olympic marathon gold medalist. Last month, Hitchings won the 56-60 women’s age group at the New York City Marathon and also broke the former record held by Samuelson.

Hitchings has run the CIM for many years. In 2006 at age 43, she finished in 3 hours, 2 minutes and 54 seconds, according to the event’s official results. Last year, at age 55, she was timed in 2:51:50 and won the 55-59 age group. She was also randomly selected for drug testing for the first time in her career and passed the test.

With her faster times, Hitchings has received national media attention and vast praise. But she also has skeptics who bombarded an internet running forum with scathing accusations.

“It’s OK to scrutinize. What is not OK is to place blame without proof,” said Hitchings, who began running competitively in her late 30s. “What I have learned from all of this is that it doesn’t really matter what you say. I’ve worked hard. There’s nothing I can do to prove myself to people that I am a clean runner.”

Like other elite athletes, Hitchings has also been a victim of cheating. She says she witnessed a competitor receiving illegal aid during a race. And she’s reported a man for wearing a women’s bib number.

Post-race drug testing by USA Track & Field, the sport’s governing organization, is administered to top professionals in some marathons, including CIM. It’s also conducted randomly among leading age-group finishers.

“The integrity of the results is No. 1,” said Cynci Calvin of Auburn, who has completed more than 60 marathons and is part of CIM’s results committee.

Since the majority of marathoners are recreational runners, cheating occurs more prominently because of vanity, said Hanna, Capital Road Race Management’s owner.

“People want to impress their workmates they ran a marathon or did a certain time or they’re trying to qualify for Boston,” said Hanna, 55. “It’s the biggest thing when it comes to cheating. People still think that’s the be-all of running.”