You may not know it but they are there. In your tent, on the trail, toeing the line with you. The cheaters. They unfortunately are in our sport and are bringing it down. I am not talking about those who may inadvertently drop a piece of trash along the way. They may be oblivious but it is usually not deliberate. Nor am I talking about someone who abused a perk by taking an extra long time in the cyber tent. They are plain rude. I am talking about those who intentional break the rules in order to gain an advantage over others.
While this blog may appear harsh, its aim is not to condemn the whole sport nor the few individuals that do not embrace fair competition. Rather it is intended to shed some light onto the subject and hopefully present some solutions that can help minimizing cheating and its impact.
Why do people cheat?
Having observed many stage races both as a competitor and as a volunteer it is obvious that cheating in stage racing exists, just as in any other sport. Personally I do not understand why people cheat but they do. There may be many reasons but they all boil down to how the competitor feels about and rationalizes their situation.
Culture: I have seen competitors that literally believe rules only apply to others. I have also seen some that feel cheating is an art form and is held in high regard. For them cheating is not bad, just a tactic to be used.
The Situation: There may be a lot riding on finishing or winning a race for some and that may be reason enough to cheat. Others might not have a “respect the race” attitude and thus feel that cheating has little impact.
Winning is Everything: The super competitive individual will take all kinds of risks to be on the podium. Their identity is formed around winning and thus winning is more important than morality. It is not the finisher award, it is the trophy they are after along with the bragging rights (I assume).
Fairness: Some may rationalize cheating as just making it “fair” based on their own (perceived?) disadvantage (physical ability, equipment, etc.) The “everyone else is doing it” approach also falls under this category.
Exhaustion: During a stage race every competitor is under extreme physical and mental stress. Compounded this by nutritional limitations and it is even worse. When in these weakened states some will be more likely to do what they want than what is right in order to get by or diminish the suffering.
Social Media: Too many appear to be overly driven by their appearance on social media. You can see this desire in the rush to get a blog or a Facebook post out at the end of the day so all ones “followers” can see just how well (or better than the competition) they are doing. The pressure of this self imposed stress drives some to ignore the rules in order to up their standings in this alternative universe.
Compounding the above is the fact that all who cheat are taking a short term view of their actions. They are not concerned with the long term implications else they most likely would not break the rules. What would happen to a sponsorship or your clientele base if it was known that one cheated to get where they were? What about your standing in the community in general? Cheating is a slippery slope that is not easy to get off of. It is easy to damage one’s integrity but much harder to repair.
How do they cheat?
Stage racing while similar to regular ultra events offer some unique ways to cheat. Many are hard to detect and can give huge advantages. Having an understanding of what is going on beneath the radar is important to combating it.
Course cutting: This is an obvious one. From cutting a switchbacks to following an easier, parallel path this happens regularly. Some courses are set up to preclude this but for others it is plain impossible. Course marshals can be employed to discourage cutting but due to distances and limited personnel this may not be practical. GPS trackers/live tracking can help identify gross offenders but these have technical limitations.
Mulling: This is basically carrying someone’s load for them. This occurs more in the front of the pack and usually centers around extra food doled out over the event. This has similarities to the cycling world where a domestique would bring up food/water to a lead team mate or give up equipment if there was a crash or flat. Mules will also sometimes carry extra clothing such as a jacket to be used at night. This is very hard to detect since it is deliberate and planned.
Scavenging: This is just a informal application of mulling and is unique to self-sufficient stage racing. A competitor drops out and hands out their remaining food to tent mates. Unused food is tossed into the trash and retrieved by another competitor. This is obviously an unfair advantage – much needed extra calories that the perpetrator did not carry. This is most likely the biggest area where cheating occurs. I guess hunger is a huge driver for people to lower their moral standards. Now, I must state that I do not consider an occasional taste test to be an unfair advantage especially if you reciprocate! Rules relating to the disposition of excess food (turn over to race officials) will minimize this.
Outside assistance: This can occur but is unusual. This typically takes the form of a back of the pack participant getting some extra water between aid stations from a local or a sympathetic race official.
Doping: We all know what this is about but there is more to this than just the sensational headlines. Drug testing in stage racing is a rarity/non-existent therefore it will occur. Additionally, there is an increase in older athletes running up against doping compliance with common hormonal replacement therapies. There is much controversy out there already on the subject and I will not go into it further here.
What can be done about it?
I personally believe that there are solutions to minimize cheating. These may have varying degrees of impact but taken in total can root out most cheats. For race directors and commissioners these suggestions may appear overbearing but in the long run will be more palatable than the grief that cheating brings with it.
Extensive and explicit rules with harsh penalties for cheating: Let everyone know up front that cheating is very bad and if caught the penalties will be severe.
Zero tolerance when enforcing rules relating to cheating: Have no pity. Don’t give into the rationalization by the accused. This undermines credibility and dose not have the deterrent effect necessary for future cheats. You obviously must have a very strong case against a cheat, not just hear-say.
Deal swiftly with cheating: While there should be due process to address an issue, it needs to be done quickly. This enables the parties to have a clear recollection of what happened without the festering that can occur.
Post penalties daily along with results: Public shaming can have positive results. Penalties could also be uploaded along with the final results as a record for the world to see.
Enlist the racers: Race officials can not be everywhere all the time to catch a cheat in the act. Your best force multiplier is the other competitors. In order for that to be effective you need to have a willing portion of the event participants speak up if they see something. This can be contentious and some my feel like a “snitch” and refuse to cooperate. While some races have a “code of conduct and safety” clauses that cover cheating, a more effective method would be intolerance of cheating among all competitors. The US Military Academy Cadet Honor Code comes to mind.
“A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.”
If most all competitor had this attitude cheating would be reduced. Reporting is no longer snitching, it is intolerance of cheating.
Do away with winning: This is extreme but if there is not placings than some would not be tempted to cheat. Various events take this approach including the Petite Trotte à Léon (PTL). There are no final rankings, you either finish or you don’t. If there is a need for some type of ranking then perhaps grouping into finish time blocks (under 20 hrs, 20-25 hrs, 25-30 hrs, etc.) would be sufficient. I guess stage racing could be re-branded to stage running.
Do not accept entries from known cheats: Do not let the bad apples into the barrel to begin with.
In the end dealing with cheating is a messy and unpleasant experience. Feelings will be hurt and falling outs will occur. It is unfortunate but integrity is important not only for an event and the sport, but for all competitors.
2 thoughts on “The Cheats Among Us”
A thoughtful article. I hadn’t thought of the idea of not having a winner but it does kind of make sense. So many of us ordinary ultrarunning people run for the sense of achievement from completing, the experience of being so long in nature and outside of the demands of everyday life.