by John Idstrom on September 7, 2012

Paul Ryan is a liar. But if you are a runner, then you probably already know that, because you know The Code.

I started competing as a runner in junior high school in 1973; I started getting serious about it as a freshman, when I went out for cross-country to avoid being killed by linebackers some 60 pounds heavier and infinitely meaner. I succeeded in high school, first setting class records, then school records, and then even setting a Minnesota state record for the indoor two-mile, in a time of 00:09:17.6 in 1978. I subsequently ran in college and thereafter successfully pursued a career as a professional runner. This is to identify my status as a running geek — and there is strong evidence that suggests once a running geek, always a running geek.

So it comes as no surprise that Paul Ryan’s recent “misstatement” of his time in the one and only marathon he ever ran rubbed me seriously against the grain. If you are only tangentially associated with runners or the running community, you may not be aware of this, but when it comes to the reporting of your times, there is a strict honor code that prescribes conduct. Understanding that distance runners are a) obsessive and b) compulsive, it’s no surprise that The Code is adhered to with a gluey devotion that at times borders on disorder. Golfers, who have a similarly strict code of their own, will understand.

If you missed the news, Candidate Ryan recently reported on a radio program that he had run a full 26.2-mile marathon in a time of just under three hours — “two hours and fifty-something,” as he described it. This time is relevant. Most would think that a sub-three-hour marathon is a worthy accomplishment, and for many it is. It qualifies one to run in the Boston Marathon, for example — one of the few such races that require a modicum of accomplishment beyond fogging a mirror or writing a check. For my 40-something or 50-something peers, a sub-three is indicative of a degree of dedication and devotion. To break three hours, you need to be able to string together 26 straight miles at seven minutes or better per mile.

As it turns out, however, Mr. Ryan did not run a sub-three-hour marathon. In fact, he did not even run a sub-four-hour marathon. What he did was run a single 04:01:25 marathon when he was 20 years old. This was accomplished at Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota, a point-to-point race well known for both its net elevation drop and its consistent prevailing tailwinds. Grandma’s is where you go to PR (set a personal record).

To even the casual runner, there are several issues here that bear mention. The first is that 04:01:25 at Grandma’s at the age of 20 is, in fact, a pretty lame effort. You can complete a marathon in four hours while walking significant portions of it. Any 20-year-old male in decent physical condition can cover 26 miles in four hours without much training. To be honest, three hours at age 20 is a little embarrassing. It means you didn’t take the race seriously enough to actually train for it. Had Ryan broken two hours and thirty minutes at that age, I would hardly have raised an eyebrow. An even three hours? Meh. Virtually any able-bodied male of that age can do that.

The bigger and more salient issue here, though, is that Candidate Ryan has lied so brazenly about his time. Anyone who has trained enough to be able to cover the marathon distance is well aware of the distance runner’s code of conduct in this regard: exaggerating your time is Strictly Verboten. As I mentioned earlier, this is a sport that tends to attract the obsessive-compulsive among us, so it comes as little surprise that accuracy in reporting times is not only highly prized but an essential and valued element of the sport.

I offer a personal example. My best marathon time was 02:18:42, a performance of which I am not especially proud. A time of two hours and eighteen minutes is not especially good, nor is it rarely accomplished. When the topic of my best marathon comes up, I tell people I ran a 02:18. And when I do, I feel guilty about not mentioning the extra 42 seconds it took me to complete the course. My best ten-thousand-meter race, on the other hand, was a decent 00:28:30.3, a time which qualified me to run in the Olympic Trials. But I would never dream of calling myself “a 28-minute ten-thousand runner.” Those last 30 seconds make a world of difference. I even feel a bit squeamish about dropping off the three-tenths.

So when somebody with a single mark of 04:01:25 describes his time as being “under three, high twos . . . a two hour and fifty-something,” I see it not as a misstatement but as a significant breach of The Runner’s Code. It’s an exaggeration that goes so far beyond prevarication that it is as if I said that I once held the world record. It is not mere fudging; it’s startling in its pure and utter mendacity.

Not that such breaches never occur. While the vast majority of runners are meticulous in their performance reporting, we all know a handful of runners who regularly are guilty of substantively stretching their accomplishments. In each and every such case, these individuals suffer from a variety of psychological maladies and quirks. Quirks or much worse — most of them are out-and-out sociopaths. Not necessarily harmful sociopaths, but sociopaths nonetheless. Prevaricating may be accepted and even expected in certain circles (notably among anglers, fishing being my current passion), but when runners do it, it is indicative of a serious flaw of character. While unrecognized by the non-running civilian population, lying about your racing time suggests unreliability of absolutely epic proportions.

Mr. Ryan may be a highly competent individual in many respects. And it’s possible that prevarication, even of epic proportions, might not disqualify one to be VPOTUS (see Agnew, Spiro). But it does eliminate him as a member in good standing of the running community.

Sayonara, Mr. Ryan.

* * * *

John Idstrom thinks and writes about food at

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: