Take a Short Cut? No, Judges to Have Their Eyes on L.A.

Let's say you're running in the Los Angeles Marathon next Sunday. About five miles into the race, you hit the wall. The blister on your big toe starts throbbing to a peppy Latin tempo.

The other 10,000 or so runners make a right turn just past the Convention Center. You contemplate taking a left turn, taking a little short-cut that would knock six or seven miles off your journey. What the hell, you've already seen the Chinese Theater and the Sunset Strip. Should you, uh, accidentally stray off the course?

Forget it, pal.

Big Brother is watching you.

The people in charge of the L.A. Marathon have planted videotape cameras at several strategic spots along the route to bust cheaters. They are spending about $7,000 on this system.

They really hate to do it. This is laid-back L.A., the do-your-own-thing world capital. But there is a lot of prize money involved in these big races, and prestige and glory, and so cheating is becoming fairly chic.

"I'm sure we'll have our share (of cheaters)," Bill Burke, president of the L.A. Marathon Committee, said.

This was shocking news. Running is the purest of sports. In other games, cheating is part of the fun, part of the strategy. Cheating is the very cornerstone of baseball. Ever see an outfielder admit that he had actually trapped that sinking line drive that was ruled an out?

But running has always been pure.

"It's hard for me to fathom," Frank Shorter said when I asked him about the cheating. "The whole attraction of running is that it's a personal test, and the one person you have to live with is yourself."

Some runners, however, are choosing to live apart from themselves, which probably makes it harder to find an apartment.

I don't want to blow this out of proportion. It's not as if every runner cheats, or half of them. It's a small percentage. But growing. Some samples:

--In the 1984 San Francisco Marathon, monitored by an unannounced TV security system, eight men who "finished" in the top 100 were filmed cutting the course.

--In the Long Island Marathon three years ago, a local chief of police, a gung-ho fitness advocate, won his age-group division but was stripped of his award when it was learned he cut the course.

--In a Hawaii marathon, one runner started with the pack, veered off course and stopped for breakfast with friends, jumped back onto the route for the last few miles, and died of a heart attack at the finish line.

--In one big eastern marathon, officials stripped the winner of his title when he was accused of cheating. They reinstated the man as the winner when more evidence came in, then declared him co-champion with the runner who had finished 15 seconds behind him. Finally, they reinstated the original winner, or cheater, or whatever he was.

What we are experiencing here is a loss of innocence.

"Absolutely," said Alvin Criss of TAC. "This saddens me. It has been just that--a loss of innocence."

Most road races of any significant size have gone video, to protect the event's integrity. Most also employ spotters along the course. At the New York Marathon, each runner wears a bar code, similar to the ones you see on items in a supermarket. To make sure everyone at least starts the race legally, each runner is scanned like a loaf of Wonder Bread.

Cheating isn't new. In the first Olympic marathon, in Athens in 1896, Spiridon Belokas finished third, but was stripped of his medal and his shirt when it was discovered he rode part of the race in a carriage.

And of course there was Rosie Ruiz in the 1980 Boston Marathon.

But Rosie was more likely a victim of mental or emotional problems. The cheaters we get today seem to be mostly garden variety wimps and bush-league cheaters who take a short cut for the same reason you climb a mountain--because it's there. With these cheaters, there doesn't seem to be a lot of guilt involved, which amazes real runners.

"I might fudge on my taxes or on my expense account, but I would never cut corners in a race," said Joe Henderson, who writes for Runner's World magazine and who now stands a decent chance of being audited by the IRS.

We're seeing a new breed of runner.

"I like to think that runners are an honest sort who wouldn't do this but you have to realize as the sport gets bigger, you have a larger cross-section of society," Criss said. "Twenty years ago, there really wasn't much incentive to cheat. No one cared how anyone else did.

"Until 1977 or '78, most road races had small fields, and the people were dedicated and committed to running, more so than today's let's-go-have-a-ball-and-see-if-we-can-run-26-miles runners."

The cheaters' gall knows no bounds. Frank Shorter helped finance a runner who claimed to be attempting a record-breaking cross-country run. Now Shorter has reason to suspect the man didn't actually perform the feat as advertised. In other words, if the reports are true, this guy is the first runner ever to short-cut the United States.

Shorter is philosophical about the cheating mini-trend, saying, "It's not a loss of innocence, it's more a feeling of reality."

Who needs it?

If you can't trust a runner, whom can you trust?

The answer is obvious. Gentlemen, start your video cameras.

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