When the Chickens Roost, Part 1: A Transcontinental Run

“If you can fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!”  -Rudyard Kipling

I used to work with a guy who claimed to have run a mile in 3 minutes. We were at a work function one evening when the conversation turned to athletics, and for the umpteenth time the coworker brought his mile time up. “Is it possible it was a half mile and not a mile?” I asked him, politely. Because 3 minutes for a mile is impossible. His response was to double down.

“Nope, definitely a mile. Listen, I was fast! And that was only in gym class. But the coach hated me so I never joined the team.”

How does one respond to such a lack of critical thought? I admired his self-belief and unwavering confidence. Imagine, though, if it were a degree or work experience he was falsely claiming. Things would of course be different–he’d have to show proof or risk losing his job. I’ll admit a part of me would enjoy witnessing such a thing. Imagine having to attempt a mile at the claimed pace, with the boss and employees track-side watching, job on the the line — a fitting punishment, in my opinion, for violating the runner’s code of honor.

We all know that person who oversells their glory days, whatever those might consist of. That might be you; it’s certainly been me.

Time has the remarkable ability to soften the rough edges of memories. Running times melt like hot butter and accomplishments grow at an exponential rate. Most of the time the boast is harmless and quickly forgotten, and yet, on rare occasions, these skewed recollections, whether ill-intentioned or not, can come back to bite us. The question- what to do then?

The first running example that springs to mind is congressman Paul Ryan and his marathon debacle. While on the campaign trail prior to the 2012 election, an interview turned to fitness talk. The potential vice presidential candidate stated he had attempted just a single marathon some 20 year earlier, and that it had been somewhere in the 2:50s. That’s a really impressive showing, but certainly not impossible, given Ryan had some natural talent and had also put in a significant amount of miles during training. For a moment Paul Ryan was the strong athlete, the leader with great endurance. This is what people look for in a politician, and the story had the potential to cement this reputation.

Photo: Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan was photographed demonstrating his workout technique at a gym in Janesville, Wis., for TIME in December 2011. This photo is featured in the Oct. 22, 2012, issue of TIME

The internet being the internet, actual results were soon tracked down, and they were anything but supportive of Ryan’s story. In reality had taken him a little over 4 hours to complete the 26.2 mile distance. The outcry was swift. If Ryan would casually lie about something as inconsequential as running, what else was he being dishonest about? However, Ryan didn’t attempt to dodge or put a spin on the issue. He immediately apologized for his mistake, and eventually the rest of the world moved on, much to the chagrin of the running community (and to think just 8 years ago a tall-tale about a running time had the potential to derail a presidential campaign–oh how times have changed).

But like Jonah Hill’s character in Superbad, two presidencies later the running community still holds onto their one-sided beef with Ryan, just like they have not forgotten the likes of Rosie Ruiz or Kip Litton. To them, these transgressions (and the financial or other advantages gained through them) represent something far more sinister: a betrayal of the very nature of what athletics represents, especially to the amateur. To complete Kipling’s aforementioned thought, a minute –or a life– filled with just, honest work is an ideal; to fill it with lies –however white they might be– is the antithesis of the whole thing.

Now this isn’t a blanket labeling of lying, cheating, or even stretching the truth as ‘bad’. Call it the East-African marathoner’s dilemma. It’s easy to be virtuous, to do things the right way while your base needs are met. But what if they aren’t– for example, imagine the winnings from a single marathon have the potential to propel not just you, but your village out of extreme poverty. Okay, so that’s a bit of an irrelevant example for most of us. But what if fudging work experience allows for a promotion, and that in turn leads to a better school for your kid? What if a company is asking for 3 to 5 years of experience for a role with entry-level pay? That’s hardly honest of the employer, and I’d expect potential applicants to prepare their resumes in like fashion; keeping in mind, of course, what a thorough background check (and FYI, extraordinarily few companies actually check references) would result in. There is no talk of morality here, only a simple risk/reward calculation and the understanding that someday the chickens might come home to roost.

To those who find themselves caught up in the aftermath of these situations, an eternal question arrives, and for public figures, it comes loudly, via incessant calls from journalists and (sadly) predictable vicious social media shaming: apologize or double down? The first is extremely painful for a moment. The second invites years of suffering. Should one rip the band-aid off and clean the wound or ignore it while it festers? The proper reaction seems obvious in this sense, and yet, an overwhelming majority –chief among them, athletes– will always chose the latter.

In May of 2016 Robert Young, a British ultrarunner, set off to cover the United States by foot. His goal: to cover the country West to East in just 45 days, a mark that would knock a full day off the long-standing record. Young took off at a scorching pace, ripping off ridiculous 70 and 80 mile days like clockwork as he moved East. By The end of May he had already crossed deserts and battled his way up and through the Rockies, and as of the first week of June Young was passing into Kansas, nearly 1900 miles into his run. The record ‘only’ required 67 miles per day, and what Young was doing was unheard of in the history trans-continental run.

However, the way in which Young was going about the attempt was drawing a significant amount of critical attention from the ultra-running community, many of whom were already familiar with Young and his extraordinary endurance claims. In his auto-biographical book, ‘Marathon Man’, Young had previously boasted of massive undertakings, many of which lacked proof. Running 377 miles without sleep and completing a marathon a day for 420 days (and during that stretch, 370 in just one year) were just two of them.

And then there was Young’s body. It is difficult to keep up with caloric demands during multi-day ultra events, and for extended trips such as the Appalachian trail or trans-continental attempts –especially record attempts– it is virtually impossible. Take a look at before and after pictures of Appalachian trail through hikers, for example. The pictures are hardly the same person- the first shows a normal, healthy looking human. The second photo finds them brown and weathered, with deep stress lines throughout their face, and sporting an emaciated body. They appear to have aged decades in just months. Young, on the other hand, was extraordinarily pale and fresh looking, showing no signs of accumulated stress or nutritional depletion. He was also carrying a decent amount of extra weight in his midsection, and this is something that simply does not mesh with nearly 2000 miles of nonstop running.

Among the curious observers was Gary Cantrell, the infamous Barkley Marathon Founder. Gary, better known as ‘Laz’, couldn’t believe Young could have the time or energy to be gambling at casinos, hitting tourist sites, and doing handstands in the road during photo-ops, while also running previously unheard, body-destroying amounts of mileage. Now if you know anything about the legend of Laz (check out the Netflix documentary of the Barkley Marathon if his name is unfamiliar to you) you know he doesn’t half-ass things.

Along with a few running friends, Laz decided to drive out West and shadow Young day and night while he ran. Later, he would write of his doubts in a fascinating blog posted on ultrarunning.com:

 For people who had personal experience with running 70 and 80 mile days, the “Marathon Man UK” showed none of the telltale signs of high mileage. I have to admit, the antics grated me the wrong way, as well. I know all too well what it is like to run a multiday. There is only time to eat, treat physical issues, and sleep…and insufficient time for all of them.

Young had multiple sponsors on board, including a performance apparel company named Skins. Skins supplied an RV to accompany Young as he ran, and they also made public live GPS data from Young’s watch. This served two purposes: first, to verify the potential record, and second, so that followers could track his progress or even join in.

On June 7th a runner named Asher Dermott set out to support Young as the GPS tracker passed through Asher’s hometown of Lebo, Kansas. As Asher pulled up next to Young’s RV around 1 am, he noticed something strange. The vehicle was rolling at a slow pace along the side of the highway, as might be expected given it was escorting a runner, except there was no runner in sight. After attempting to contact the driver of the RV several times, the RV accelerated away from him and took the next exit. The RV later returned to the same spot (Dermott was still following Young’s live GPS data) and resumed rolling at a walking pace. Yet again, there was no runner visible. However, according to the live GPS data, Young was somewhere in the vicinity of the RV. This time Asher took a video of the unaccompanied vehicle. Dermott’s story and video were uploaded to the running website Letsrun, where they would spur a lengthy thread (it would hit 10,000 posts) analyzing the journey.

These threads focused on analyzing Young’s uploaded GPS data. What they found was a highly suspicious cadence, along with erratic running paces. Some sections were also clearly bicycled, and then there were hundreds of miles that featured a cadence between 35 and 40 per minute. That number might not mean anything to you, but this stride frequency would correspond with nearly 5 meter long strides at Young’s average pace. There were also long stretches of impossibly fast running for an athlete of Young’s caliber. One result in particular, among 50 suspicious stretches of running: 6:40 per mile pace for 24 miles at 5000 ft while also gaining 1500 ft of elevation. The calculation I’ve heard used in the past to account for elevation gain is something like 6% slower per mile per each 100 feet, and this renders the pace virtually impossible for even the world’s best runners, let alone a runner like Young with a recorded personal best in the marathon of over 3 hours (Young’s 3:07 marathon averaged out to 7:10 miles).

His support team acknowledged the bicycle data–the explanation given was that during a few stretches a pacer had worn Young’s watch as they cycled next to him. The team was also adamant Young had never been inside the RV while they drove. Young usually ran directly behind the RV, they said. However, they could not always observe him while he ran, especially at night, when he usually covered most of his mileage, and the reason for this was that he had plastered over the rear window of the RV with posters drawn by his fans.

If Young’s support team was telling the truth, and the GPS data was accurate, and the back window was covered by stickers…well, it all points to a bizarre, somewhat comical conclusion. It’s highly unlikely Young had been running, or even sitting comfortably in the RV as it made its way slowly East. Rather, Young may have been spending long nights perched upon the thin rear bumper of the RV.

The watch-reported cadence is trickier. For this data, perhaps Young was swinging his arm to simulate a running motion or maybe hopping off from time to time for a few steps.

Days later, Laz and his team of  fellow dedicated ultrarunners, ‘The Geezers’, as they called themselves, arrived to document Young’s progress. So confident was Young’s Skins team in their athletes’ progress, they had originally offered to pay any critic’s way. That offer was rescinded, however, after Laz told them he wanted to observe around-the-clock for at least a week, rather than for just an hour or two.

By now various media outlets including Sports Illustrated and Runner’s World had also begun to document the strange specifics of the quest.

Back to the eternal question. Apologize or double down? Young, like so many before him, had chosen the latter. Now he set out to prove to the world that he was actually running. Imagine going from running little –if at all– to attempting to cover three consecutive marathons a day in the heat of summer (he switched to mostly day running after the Letsrun post) while being observed by the world. This must have been absolutely hellish. Robert’s GPS data prior to Laz arriving, but after the Letsrun post, had him covering around 30 miles per day at nearly walking pace (although some of this was still questionable data). This was down from the nearly 80 miles a day at breakneck speeds he had averaged before the Letsrun post. When Laz showed up, Young upped it to 50+ miles of running for three straight days, but the effort it took him was clearly unsustainable (and it’s possible, given the GPS data, these were his only real days of running so far). Laz’s blog offered a fantastic glimpse into Young’s physical state when they encountered him on day 4, after three days of observed running:

It took a full hour for Young to cover that first mile. He did not appear to be warming to the task, but we went up another mile anyway. This time he ripped off the distance in about 40 minutes, but he was struggling when he finally came into clear view. A mantra that had begun to run through my mind during the low points of the past few days was in full chorus now. “Pull the plug. Pull the plug. Pull the plug.” It had been increasingly apparent with each passing day that the expedition was doomed to failure. To continue just seemed like heaping abuse on Young’s shattered body for no good reason. Whatever had gone on out West, there was no denying his sheer toughness, and I hated to see him suffering needlessly.

A few hours later Laz ran into Young again, and things were more dire this time:

[Young] made his painful way to a grassy spot under a nearby tree and collapsed to the ground. The driver, Dustin Brooks, parked next to him and hurried over to see to his charge.

I shut off the car and Sandra and I went over to check on the RY team. Robert was a shocking sight. His face was covered with blood, and both eyes appeared to be black. While Dustin tenderly sponged the blood off Robert’s face, he filled us in on what had happened.

Shortly after we had left them at the last stop, Robert had just pitched face down, onto the pavement. By the time Dustin had exited his vehicle and rushed to Robert’s aid, he found his charge was sound asleep.

Amazingly, Young didn’t quit. He was limping now, sleeping around the clock, and his daily mileage was severely reduced, but he kept at it. Laz and crew stayed around, but now it was less about record-keeping and more out of concern for Young’s health. Laz was worried Young was literally killing himself to prove them wrong. Young, it turned out, was also a really, really nice guy, and this is something that everyone who has encountered the guy has echoed. It is traditional for most race cheaters to have an insatiable ego or need for attention, but by all accounts Young was remarkably humble and selfless, and remained so even during this spirit-breaking stretch with the Geezers.

A few days later the quest finally came to a halt when Young ended up in hospital and was forced to bow out of his cross-country attempt. He had a broken toe, a dangerous case of cellulitis, and severe sunburn.

Since the failed attempt, Young has been mercilessly crucified online, particularly by the aforementioned Letsrun crowd. Is such abuse just? Other than not acknowledging the cheating, Young certainly took his punishment on in honorable fashion. He had every right to quit, to go home with his tail between his legs after getting called out. Instead, he doubled down and went for it.

Imagine attempting to string together 30 to 60 mile days of running during the brutal dog days of a Midwestern summer. How long could you carry on alongside a lonely highway, even if you had trained for it? I ran a marathon off little running back in 2011 — and here I probably shouldn’t be using the word ‘run’, seeing as I spent upwards of 90 minutes stuck in a cycle of jog slowly/cramp/sit down on a curb/stretch/walk again– and afterward I could hardly walk for a solid 10 days– and this puts Young’s multi-day effort into perspective for me.

Serial scam artist or not, for at least five straight days in 2016 –and I think Laz would agree with me here– Robert Young was truly an ultra-runner.

Part 2: Rumors of a world-beating high schooler

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