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How an Online Community Jogged Paul Ryan's Memory About His Marathon Time

BY David Parry | Thursday, September 6 2012

Photo: Gage Skidmore / Flickr

David Parry is Assistant Professor of Emerging Media and Communications at the University of Texas at Dallas and a close observer of how technology is changing society and culture. He spoke at PDF 2012 on "Protecting the Internet Public."

The Paul Ryan marathon story hits the trifecta of interests for me: politics, the Internet, and running. Appealing both to my academic interests and my personal obsession I have followed this story with perhaps at times too much focus, reading all the reactions, analysis, and even comment streams and discussion boards. But beyond the question of "what does it mean" that Ryan lied about (misremembered?) his marathon time is an important story about how politics changes with an Internet enabled public, and equally as important a lesson about both the potential and current limitations of this kind of Internet enabled political engagement.

In what is now a well known story, Ryan claimed in an interview with Hugh Hewitt that he had run a "two-hour fifty something marathon." To the non-running listener it seems as if Ryan had run an impressive race, but to the knowledgeable runner, this was a rather bold claim, one that just on the surface seems questionable. In fact Ryan's marathon time was 4:01:25, more than an hour slower than the time he claimed.

Not to get too "sports science" here, but to understand this story it's important to contextualize the significance of a sub-three-hour marathon. The difference between a four-hour marathon and a sub-three is a Grand Canyon of athletic training. It's the difference between somebody like Lance Armstrong (whose first marathon was a 2:59) and Sean "P. Diddy" Combs (4:18). Even established athletes have trouble breaking the three-hour mark. Apolo Ohno only managed a 3:25 when he ran the New York City marathon. Most men under 40 who are in moderate shape with some sort of history of running can, with 20 weeks of training, run a four-hour marathon. But to run a sub-three requires a serious amount of training, years. Most sub-three-hour marathoners I know ran cross country in college and run 70 miles a week. A "two-hour-fifty-something" marathon would require running each mile in under 6:50 per mile, whereas a four-hour marathon only requires running each mile at 9:00 per mile. Indeed in many races a four-hour marathon for men under 40 is below the median, whereas breaking the three hour mark puts you in rarefied air. Or put another way, claiming to run a sub-three-hour marathon when your time was over four is akin to saying your were a senior partner in a law firm, when in actuality you were just a summer intern.

Now again to the non-dedicated runner this might not be totally obvious. But to established runners a claim to run a sub-three is fairly significant. And this is where the story gets interesting. On August 30th, eight days after Ryan made his claim, a user going by the name "Bill Walker" posted to the LetsRun discussion board asking about Ryan's marathon.

To understand what happened next, it's important to explain a bit about LetsRun. LetsRun is one of the oldest running communities on the web, dating back to 2000. The LetsRun community is primarily made of "serious runners" covering the elite side of distance running in an in-depth way that appeals to only a small segment of runners. Importantly though, in addition to the news and information about elite running, LetsRun has its "World Famous Message Boards." These boards are your typical discussion forum. While primarily focused on running and training, they also contain threads on everything one could imagine, such as "should I break up with my girlfriend," discussion of "the best one hit wonder," and "what Halloween costume people are planning on wearing." LetsRun allows anonymous posters, which certainly shapes the ethos of the community. Comments can range from the honest, to the snarky, to the downright rude and vulgar. Think of LetsRun as at times bordering on 4chan for runners (albeit a little more safe for work), a large collection of often Internet-savvy, rabid running fans. (It's also worth mentioning that the site tends to lean right, although not always, and community members run the political spectrum. The two co-founders are decidedly conservative, and frequently express their political leanings.)

If there is one thing that the LetsRun community hates, though, it is cheaters: Drug cheats, people who cut courses, and those who lie about their accomplishments. The LetsRun community sort of sees itself as the judge, jury and sometimes executioner of distance running. This includes policing elite runners suspected of doping and covering people who cheat at local races. Less than a month before Ryan's brag, the New Yorker ran a piece about one serial cheater, Kip Litton, and how the LetsRun community pored over marathon records, photographs, and race reports obsessing over outing this fraud.

And this is where Ryan unwittingly created a problem for himself. Claiming to run a sub-three-hour marathon might only raise an eyebrow or two when it comes to mainstream journalists, but it certainly caught the attention of the LetsRun community, which instantly became interested in establishing what race he ran, and indeed what his time really was. The first few pages of the discussion thread "Paul Ryan's marathon" mostly features posters expressing not-so-polite skepticism at his time, pointing out all the reasons Ryan is not to be believed. No runner who breaks three hours doesn't know his Personal Record (PR) by heart. Seriously. Ask any of your serious running friends and they will rattle off all their PRs.

The original discussion starts at 1 p.m. on Aug. 30. By that evening, the speculation and investigation is in full gear. The discussion as a whole now encompasses 32 pages and over 600 posts, and still growing. Knowing the races, and the running world, community members start pouring over race records, trying to establish what marathon Ryan ran. Familiarity with the races allowed them to narrow down the list to a few races. When records are not available online — older race results aren't always available — several members start emailing race directors asking for copies of older race results, while some members unearth their own personal copies of race records from when they ran the races in question. By noon the next day Runner's World, the leading mainstream running website aimed more at the casual runner than the elite runner, runs a story and begins its own investigation. Although Runner's World doesn't credit LetsRun with first investigating the story, it's pretty clear that this is what happened. There is a long history of stories first appearing on the LetsRun discussion boards only to later appear in Runner's World. And although Runner's World won't mention LetsRun, later many other media outlets including the New Yorker and the Atlantic will. (Keep in mind that those at the New Yorker are familiar with the investigative capabilities of LetsRun as just earlier that month they had run the Kip Litton story.) It also appears that the New Yorker story is the one that takes it from a discussion on running websites to the mainstream media. As a small side note, when the original LetsRun discussion post was down for a short time (only available as a Google Cache), speculation among the community was that the founders (who remain one of the few voices defending Ryan) had deleted the thread. But after some protest the thread reappeared.

Now the problem for Ryan here is he made a specific claim, a sub-three-hour marathon, coupled with doubling down on that claim. LetsRun loathes fake bragging. In the original interview, Hewitt says, "holy smokes," to which Ryan responds, "I was fast when I was younger." The sub-three-hour marathon is an easy claim to prove or disprove — all it takes is a bit of desire to pour over records and have access to said records. LetsRun provides the desire, and the open nature of marathon records provides the access. While not universally available, the LetsRun community and other running reporters knew how to easily get these records and check Ryan's claim. And so once the real result is found it becomes a much bigger story than just the Hewitt interview, and Ryan has to try and walk back the claim ("I misspoke.") Lesson: Don't cross a well established Internet community, and making a claim that is so easily fact-checked is a dangerous proposition.

Compare this with the 2004 election, when Kerry claimed to have run the Boston marathon. In an interview with ESPN Kerry said that back in 1980 he ran the Boston Marathon. When no record could be found of him registering, Kerry said that he ran as a bandit (an unregistered runner), something that occurred frequently before the marathon boom, so certainly possible, but still more than likely a lie. The LetsRun community at the time also quickly called BS but was unable to prove that Kerry lied, so the story really went nowhere outside of the conservative blogs that used it as evidence that Kerry was untrustworthy. But imagine Kerry were to make that claim of a more recent Boston Marathon. Why would that matter? Because now there are photos along the route, with cameras that capture every finisher as they cross the 26.2 mile mark. So one could imagine the LetsRun community poring over every single photo looking for evidence of Kerry, and sufficiently demonstrating that he isn't in any of the finish line footage, and thus didn't run. One needs two things here, both an invested community and data, in Kerry's case there was no data. And so although the LetsRun community, and most people, believe Kerry was not telling the truth, nothing much became of it.

So contrast this with Ryan where not only does it became a significant story, covered and carried by mainstream news outlets as well as the larger Internet. Around the web people started piling on. Mocked on Twitter, Paul Ryan marathon became something of a meme (it was trending for a while). Search on Google for Paul Ryan and the third suggested auto-complete is "Paul Ryan Marathon," right after "Paul Ryan" and "Paul Ryan speech," not something the campaign is probably particularly happy about. Reddit users started a thread documenting the questionable fitness accomplishments of Pual Ryan.

And in true Internet fashion you can now calculate your "Paul Ryan Running Time." Created by a PhD student at John Hopkins who is also a legitimate sub-3:00 marathoner, the site allows you to adjust your time according to Paul Ryan math and discover how close you are to setting a world record. And perhaps most damning for Ryan is the way this is leading to other attacks. Progress Now in Colorado is now questioning whether or not Ryan actually climbed 40 of the state's peaks, and running a campaign tying that to how his politics would damage the state.

But there is also a downside to this story. As much as Democrats would like to make this an issue about Ryan's character, ultimately we are talking about a marathon time, not policy issues. It would be nice to think that open data about political issues coupled with invested communities would yield equally robust policy fact checking, but I am not convinced that is the case. On the one hand, as has already been documented, politicians frequently lie about policies, and fact checking organizations exist to try and hold them accountable. But this yields few results, rather just more claims that "your facts aren't my facts." While with the marathon, it is pretty clear what time Ryan ran, policy questions contain far more data, interpretation, and contextualization (a clock time, though, is a clock time). And even in the case of the marathon, some try to dismiss this as simply a misstatement. Indeed it seems that many motivated by ideological beliefs are willing to accept that Ryan was just mistaken, not making a false boast. Ryan actually now claims that he just made up what he thought was an average time because he couldn't remember. LetsRun isn't buying this explanation either.

More importantly, I think if we take this as an example of how the Internet can hold politicians more accountable, and highlight when they clearly lie to the public, we also have to recognize that the Internet and open data alone are not a panacea. There are cultural issues in place. Clearly the Internet changes the field of play here. Don't for a minute imagine that politicians haven't for years been making similar false boasts. The Internet just records these in a way not previously available, so we become aware of them, and are able to hold politicians accountable. But to whom or to what standard we hold them accountable is really a social issue, not a technical one.