Must Reads: Is this 70-year-old marathon runner from East L.A. a record setter or a cheater?
It wasn’t until Frank Meza checked the internet that he realized so many people were talking about him. Hundreds of strangers from across the country had posted on message boards, branding Meza a liar and a cheat.
“All kinds of allegations were being thrown at me,” he says. “It was pretty traumatic.”
To that point, the retired physician had forged a different sort of reputation. Soft-spoken and gray-haired, he had mentored Latino students while working to provide healthcare for low-income patients throughout Southern California.
Meza was also a devout runner who, late in life, began entering marathons. The problems began there.
Though he ran mainly around California, eschewing bigger races across the country, his unusually fast times for a 70-year-old caught the attention of the long-distance community.
Runners grew skeptical when he was twice disqualified for irregular splits, the times recorded at various points along the course. An impressive finish at the recent Los Angeles Marathon prompted officials to look closer as doubts erupted into online vitriol and a series of articles on a website called MarathonInvestigation.com.
Derek Murphy, an amateur sleuth who operates the site from Ohio, looked back at numerous races, compiling an array of data, photographs and video that he considered incriminating.
“At this point,” Murphy says, “I have no doubt.”
Marathoners can cheat in various ways: taking shortcuts, grabbing a ride along the way, or having someone else carry their numbered bib for a portion of the 26.2 miles.
But none of this is easy to catch amid the hordes jostling down city streets, and none of the allegations against Meza point to a specific method, which leaves him in a tough spot.
Accusers don’t believe him when he denies cheating, nor do they accept his explanations for incongruities in his race times. Meza suspects the only way to redeem himself is by having an official observer accompany him at his next marathon.
“I don’t know what else I can do,” he says.
In the meantime, his story offers a glimpse into the curious world of long-distance running, where, even at the recreational level, a history of fraud has fostered widespread distrust.
Running was always a central part of Meza’s life, dating back to his teenage years in East L.A., growing up as the son of Mexican immigrants.
A member of the Cathedral High track team, he took a break during college, then reconnected with the sport by serving as an assistant coach at Loyola High and helping with the Aztlan Track Club, which sought to nurture young athletes in the neighborhood where he was raised.
“I coached thousands and thousands of kids from grammar school to college,” he says. “It was fun because I got to run with them.”
Lalo Diaz, a longtime friend and fellow coach, notes that Loyola has produced a string of state champions, including Robert Brandt, Elias Gedyon and David Torrence, who later competed at the college and elite level.
“So when Frank is training with them, he’s training with some of the best runners Los Angeles has ever seen,” Diaz says. “People ask who he is running with … that’s who.”
Former Loyola athlete Scott Dominguez, now an L.A. County deputy district attorney, recalls that every day at practice in the mid-1990’s, “Dr. Meza would lace them up and run with the varsity … running at the front of the pack.”
For many years, Meza focused on 10Ks and trail runs. Around age 60, as his medical career grew less demanding, he shifted to longer distances, never expecting to be fast.
“I got better because I started running almost twice what I was used to,” he says. “I just increased my mileage.”
Marathons had become high-tech by then, with chip-implanted bibs that can be detected by “timing mats” at a half-dozen or more spots along the course. Sometimes a bib fails to record, but, for the most part, race officials can create a rough picture of every runner’s progress from start to finish.
Data is preserved online, creating an archive that can be analyzed after the fact.
Records show Mesa took about 3 ½ hours to finish marathons at first. His results began to improve in 2014 as he dipped below three hours, a mark of distinction among runners of all ages.
“You know, this was kind of a fun thing for me,” he says. “But I guess I took it seriously with my training.”
A 2:52 result at the 2014 California International Marathon in Sacramento earned him recognition by Runner’s World magazine but, unbeknownst to much of the community, officials at that race had noticed something odd about his pace over the final miles.
They approached Meza, who offered no explanation for the timing equipment recording him at such a fast split.
“I don’t run that kind of time,” he says. “I actually told them, if you disqualify me, I won’t protest. I don’t want any doubts to be there.”
It was the first of two disqualifications in that race, which eventually banned him. There were additional suspicions.
When Meza recorded another fast time in warm temperatures at the 2015 L.A. Marathon, officials lacked evidence to take action but requested he run with an observer the following year.
Meza agreed but ended up skipping L.A. in 2016, entering the Oakland Marathon instead. The track team at nearby UC Berkeley had three Loyola alumni on the roster that season.
“I wanted to run with them,” he says.
Brandt, who transferred to UCLA where he became an All-American in cross country, was one of those runners. He declined to comment for this article.
In 1980, Rosie Ruiz slipped onto the course near the end of the Boston Marathon and crossed the line as the apparent winner. A week passed before officials determined she had cheated.
“Pulling a Rosie Ruiz” became part of the vernacular and, perhaps, contributed to a hyper-vigilance among runners.
Years later, another controversy at the venerable race inspired Murphy to become the sport’s unofficial policeman and, eventually, build a case against Meza.
A business analyst and admittedly slow runner — “plodding” is the word he uses — Murphy was scanning a popular message board in 2015 when he came across the story of Mike Rossi, a man who had pulled his children out of school to watch him run the Boston Marathon.
Their principal objected and the incident went viral, causing people to examine Rossi’s previous results. Questions soon arose over whether he had legitimately qualified for Boston.
“I started thinking about how many more people might be doing this,” Murphy recalls. “I deal with numbers. It was kind of a puzzle for me.”
The process he developed started with perusing split times from races throughout the nation. Where anomalies popped up, he checked the route map for potential shortcuts.
Race officials often place time-lapse and video cameras along the course; this visual record occasionally shows a runner mysteriously disappearing for a stretch or inexplicably leap-frogging ahead.
“You look for something that really jumps out,” Murphy says. “If someone’s throwing down a five-minute mile in the middle of a marathon, that catches your attention.”
His Marathon Investigation site began documenting allegations against scores of runners. The California International Marathon pays him for his work; he says other race directors have made contributions to his site when it uncovers fraud.
“I’m not going to write about the average person who runs a six-hour marathon and cuts the course at the end so they can finish and collect their medal,” he says. “It’s mostly runners who affect other runners; are they taking prizes away or keeping someone else from qualifying for Boston?”
Marathoners send tips to Murphy via email, and race officials ask his advice. Amby Burfoot, a Boston Marathon winner and former editor of Runner’s World, says: “Derek is very good at what he does.”
None of the data he collects can answer an essential question. It might make sense to cheat for a Boston Marathon victory, but why cut corners in smaller, less-important races with no prize money or fame at stake?
“I wish I knew,” Murphy says.
The self-proclaimed “World Famous Message Boards” at letsrun.com can be unforgiving.
On March 24, the day Meza set an unofficial record for his age group at the 2019 L.A. Marathon, several people offered congratulations. Within 24 hours, the posts turned accusatory.
“This should be a big deal,” someone wrote. “Why isn’t there more press on this?”
Discussions on LetsRun.com can be frantic, with accusations answered by strident counterattacks. Some comments are calmly analytical, others bellicose. Almost everyone uses a pseudonym.
In Meza’s case, the back-and-forth quickly multiplied on the way to more than 3,000 posts. Tipped off by friends, he visited the site.
“I didn’t even know it existed before then,” he says. “I was shocked.”
Some posts questioned why a successful doctor and benefactor in his community would bother to cheat for age-group records that went unnoticed by most of the world. Critics answered with the name Kip Litton.
About 10 years ago, Litton began publicizing his quest to run sub-three-hour marathons in all 50 states. The Michigan dentist was making impressive progress toward this goal while also saying he was raising money for cystic fibrosis research.
But when race directors and other runners began to dissect his results, they found reason to believe he had not only cheated on a regular basis but also listed at least one finish in a nonexistent event.
“It’s weird stuff,” says Burfoot, the runner and journalist. “There seems to be this tendency for middle-age males who are very successful in their careers to start cheating at marathons.”
In 2017, another dentist came under suspicion at a Phoenix race and subsequently had his finishing time revised from 3:08 to 5:00. Fairly or not, some posters on LetsRun.com have added Meza to the list.
“With them, he is guilty until proven innocent,” Diaz says. “The burden should be on them to say this is irrefutable, this is what you did and we caught you. Why is the burden on him?”
Long before the explosion of accusations, before Burfoot and other runners even knew Meza’s name, Murphy was on the case.
The online investigator began tracking Meza about two years ago, studying results from marathons dating back to 2014. Last week, he published his series of articles.
The stories cited questionable splits, the California International Marathon ban and suspicions regarding a 2019 marathon in Phoenix.
Murphy calculated when Meza should have crossed in front of an official video camera stationed around the 22-mile mark for that Arizona race. He wrote that Meza “did not appear in the video. The only reasonable explanation is that he did not run this section of the course.”
After reviewing evidence from other races, Murphy added that wherever Meza shows up in photos or video, “his pace is significantly slower than his official splits.”
For this year’s L.A. Marathon, the investigator studied photographs that showed Meza emerging from the sidewalk to rejoin the pack along Hollywood Boulevard.
Race officials started looking at the same images weeks ago. They are in the process of disqualifying Meza but have not finalized the decision, according to a person with knowledge of the situation who was not authorized by the marathon to speak to the media.
In a public statement, officials said: “The Los Angeles Marathon takes any allegation of misconduct very seriously.”
Meza reiterates he did not cheat, saying he needed to use a restroom and wandered for some time, just off the course, before finding one. As for other allegations, he says critics are asking him to prove a negative.
How can he verify that he never left the course? How can he confirm that he never passed his bib to someone else to run a section for him?
“My take on all this, it was supposed to be fun,” he says, returning to a familiar theme. “Obviously it’s not fun anymore.”
People close to him point out that he has never trumpeted his accomplishments on social media or tried to profit from marathons. Diaz says: “It’s disturbing because he is so respected in our community. … You look at Dr. Frank Meza, could this have happened? I don’t see it.”
The controversy has left Meza wondering what to do next. His love of running burns strong, as does a desire for redemption. He speaks of finishing his next marathon in a fast time, with an observer by his side.
As the allegations pile up, he knows there is much to prove.
“I’m kind of losing sleep over it,” he says. “Obviously your mind is going to run wild. … What happens if everyone starts believing this?”
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