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Greg Pafford may be the only person who knows how he did it.
Year after year, the 58-year-old Phoenix dentist ran the Rock ‘N’ Roll Arizona Marathon, recording admirable times even though his pace for most of each race was modest.
In 2012, for example, Pafford averaged just over one mile every eight minutes on the 26.2-mile course. Yet, according to official results, he zoomed through the middle section at a startling per-mile pace of 4:49.
To put that in perspective: In breaking the world marathon record three years ago, Dennis Kimetto’s time per mile was 4:42.
During each Phoenix race from 2006-17, records show Pafford recorded at least one segment — known as a split time — at an elite speed for his age group, and three minutes faster per mile than his average pace.
How is that possible?
Pafford says he is as perplexed as anyone, and questions the validity of online data showing his marathon results.
“I never ran a 4:50 or a 5:15 pace,” he said in an interview. “I don’t know where those times come from.”
For a time last year, the Facebook page for Pafford’s dental business featured a photograph of him on the marathon course carrying a novelty toothbrush that appears to be 6 feet tall, bearing the words, “Give Kids a Smile!”
After questions about his running achievements surfaced last year, the images vanished.
And Pafford’s official results from the 2017 Rock ‘N’ Roll Arizona marathon were also mysteriously revised, from 3:08:31 to 5:00:00 — nearly two hours slower.
A partial explanation may be found at marathoninvestigation.com, a blog that reports questionable results in long distance running.
Whether Pafford’s marathon times are the product of chicanery, or whether there is some other explanation, they have thrust him into a sharp and ongoing debate over fair competition in sports, where cheating is likely as old as winning and losing.
Little financial incentive
Baseball has spitballs. Boxing has fixed fights. Fisherman exaggerate. Footballs get deflated. Golfers take Mulligans. And all kinds of contests have steroids, amphetamines, blood-doping, and bribes.
Even in a pickup basketball game, the competitive drive has a way of eroding ethics. And that tendency can be magnified for big-time athletics — from Lance Armstrong to Alex Rodriguez — with money, egos, and promotional contracts at stake.
In the amateur world of endurance running, however, financial motives rarely apply. And cheating doesn’t seem to make sense.
The United States alone has more than 500,000 marathon finishers annually. Day after day, hour after hour, they pound the pavement, enduring blisters, cramps and injuries.
They often run the first time just to prove they can, or to check an item off their bucket list. Over time, the pain becomes a salve, the rhythmic effort a meditation, the running a personal need.
Except for a few elite runners there is no money, only a sense of accomplishment in completing the course.
Yet every year in cities around the world, untold numbers post phony race results.
‘Only cheating themselves’
Derek Murphy, a Cincinnati, Ohio, financial analyst who moonlights as a researcher and author at marathoninvestigation.com, says scofflaws comprise only a fraction of any field, yet the phenomenon is as pervasive as it is unfathomable.
“They’re only cheating themselves,” Murphy says, echoing a chorus among running enthusiasts.
Moments later, however, he notes fraudulent finishers may hurt other runners. Bogus race results can secure a spot in the coveted Boston Marathon, which has become so popular it is capped at 30,000 runners.
Murphy began investigating bogus marathon results a few years ago, and soon uncovered 47 people suspected of using unethical tactics to qualify for the 2015 race in Boston.
There is a vocabulary to describe rule-breaking methods.
Some cheaters employ “bib mules” to run in their place while wearing their number.
“Bib bandits” use forged jerseys. In the Miami Marathon last year, race officials kicked 200 stealth entrants off the course.
But the most perplexing transgressors are “cutters,” who simply don’t run the entire course. Instead, they take a shortcut to reduce the distance, and time. A few catch rides.
Among the most infamous cutters was Rosie Ruiz, declared women’s winner of the 1980 Boston Marathon only to have the title stripped because, it turned out, she rode a subway for part of the race.
Ruiz was not the first to be detected, and far from the last.
In Fort Lauderdale, Florida, last year, Murphy exposed a fake time posted by Jane Seo, women’s second-place finisher in the half marathon. A fitness writer, Seo eventually admitted in a item posted on social media that she cut the course and rode a bike in a botched cover-up attempt.
“I made a HORRIBLE choice at the Ft. Lauderdale Half Marathon,” she wrote in the Instagram message, which was later removed. “I got swept away in the moment and pretended I ran the entire course, when in fact I CHEATED and should have DISQUALIFIED myself.”
While Seo is well-known, integrity lapses may be just as common among low-profile runners, Murphy’s research suggests.
Detection is far less likely, however, because few people recognize the unknowns, or care about their times.
News outlets occasionally study the phenomenon. Stories from Runners World to the New York Times ask why, only to flail at answers.
Social scientists have conducted little research on run-of-the-mill cheating, and don’t seem to have an explanation.
Jack Lesyk, past president of the Association of Applied Sports Psychologists, offers a hypothesis while admitting, “it’s not an area we know a lot about.”
Lesyk believes athletes generally have either intrinsic or extrinsic personalities. The former are motivated by a sense of personal accomplishment, so falsifying times seems nonsensical. But for the latter, gratification comes from external strokes. And, while finishing a marathon may elicit praise, doing so in impressive times gets even more.
For that athlete, Lesyk says, “Whatever rewards he’s experiencing (from cheating) must outweigh whatever regrets he may have.”
When deception is exposed, however, positive reinforcement quickly spirals into condemnation.
Murphy says he gets a steady stream of tips, and indignant comments are posted beneath every online report.
Critics treat running as an exercise in discipline, a personal ethos. The idea that someone would tarnish that experience is anathema, and worse if it qualifies the cheater for a premier event.
“It’s definitely a morality kind of thing,” Murphy says.
‘A promotional tool’
No one knows whether cheating has increased in recent years, or modern technology is simply better at catching violators.
During a race, runners wear electronic chips that are tracked by strategically located timing mats. Some courses have closed-circuit video systems. And spectators line streets by the thousands, posting time-stamped images on social media.
Those tools are employed not just by race officials, but also by self-assigned sleuths who can publish data for a little-known dentist in Arizona.
At marathoninvestigation.com, Murphy devised an algorithm to identify suspects.
He analyzed Pafford’s split times, pacing and results for a dozen Rock ‘N’ Roll Arizona marathons. And he put the charts online.
In each race from 2006-17, they show at least one segment with a dubious time.
In 2017, for example, Pafford purportedly completed the course with a time of 3:08:51.
To accomplish that, he needed to run the 26.2-mile course at an average pace of 7:12 for each mile. For the first quarter of the race, records indicate roughly 10-minute miles — typical for a casual, middle-age competitor. For the remaining distance, records show Pafford ran at a 6:27 clip.
Afterward, the dentist’s Facebook page announced Pafford had received a Rock ‘N’ Roll “Legacy Award” for completing 15 straight Arizona marathons.
“He is using this as a promotional tool,” wrote Murphy. “In my opinion … Dr. Pafford cut the course.”
‘I’ve never cut the course’
Pafford says he runs for the joy of it, and to raise money for philanthropic causes.
He is past president of the Arizona Dental Association, and once was honored as the state’s dentist of the year. He also is a former president of the Arizona Dental Foundation, and led its Give Kids A Smile drive for a decade, providing free care for children who didn’t have access to a dentist.
Pafford never professed to be an elite runner, just a consistently accomplished one.
Then, in 2017, someone tipped off Murphy about a 57-year-old Phoenix man who finished first in his age group. Murphy analyzed the results and published his findings.
At that point, Pafford says, he contacted Rock ‘N’ Roll officials because he realized there was some kind of mistake: “I told them, ‘Hey, this isn’t right …'”
An official inquiry led to an agreement that Pafford’s time of just over three hours would be revised to five hours.
Officials with Ironman, which recently acquired the Rock ‘N’ Roll events, declined to comment.
Pafford says he cannot explain what caused the error.
During the race, he not only carried a giant toothbrush for a short distance, but mingled briefly with family and stopped to sing a Cheap Trick song with one of many bands along the route.
Maybe, he suggests, leaving the course created a technology glitch.
What about abnormal split times in his earlier Phoenix races?
Pafford says he does not know the source of data on marathoninvestigation.com. (The times are published online by Rock ‘N’ Roll Arizona.)
In any case, he insists, “I’ve never cut the course … I don’t get anything out of this. It’s a stress release for me, and now it’s become stressful.”
Pafford says he ran the Boston Marathon only once, and didn’t need to qualify because he entered as a charity volunteer. “I raised 10 grand (for the American Lung Association),” he says, “and that’s how I got into it.”
Pafford says Murphy’s blog posts were so embarrassing he spoke with libel lawyers, but decided against filing a defamation suit.
“I feel horrible about this whole situation. It’s very hurtful,” he adds. “Ask anybody who knows me: I’ve done more charity work, and I’m a nice guy.”
This January, Pafford registered to run another Arizona marathon. He says he was sick on race day, and Rock ‘N’ Roll officials advised he would still qualify for a Legacy Award if he completed the half-marathon.
So he switched, and finished with a time of 2:37:47 — a pace of more than 12 minutes per mile.
If he ran that speed for a full marathon, the time would have exceeded five hours.
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