Marathon Times, Lies, and Paul Ryan

I generally stay away from politics when it comes to any stories about compliance and ethics. Politicians spend too much time spinning the facts and bending the truth. When it comes to policy, the facts rarely tell a black and white story about whether the policy worked, so I can forgive most of the spin. But sometimes the facts are clear and you have to wonder what is going through a person’s mind when they tell a blatant lie.

In an interview with Hugh Hewitt, vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan claimed that he had run a marathon in under three hours.  An impressive time. Unfortunately, that claim was revealed to be untrue. It actually took him more than four hours to finish Duluth’s Grandma’s Marathon.

I ran one marathon. It was ten years ago, but I still remember what my finishing time was. My wife remembers what my finishing time was, because my months of training were so arduous and time-consuming.  Anyone who has run a marathon knows there is a huge difference between running a 3 hour marathon and a 4 hour marathon. A sub-three hour marathon means that you are an elite runner. A four hour marathon means that you are a fit, but still recreational, runner. You spill a great deal of blood, sweat, and tears training for a marathon. Your mileage splits and likely finishing times are burned into your mind during the months of training that lead up to the race itself.

Here’s the transcript of what Ryan said to Hewitt:

H. H.: Are you still running?
P. R.: Yeah, I hurt a disc in my back, so I don’t run marathons anymore. I just run ten miles or [less].
H. H.: But you did run marathons at some point?
P. R.: Yeah, but I can’t do it anymore, because my back is just not that great.
H. H.: I’ve just gotta ask, what’s your personal best?
P. R.: Under three, high twos. I had a two hour and fifty-something.
H. H.: Holy smokes. All right, now you go down to Miami University…
P. R.: I was fast when I was younger, yeah.

Unlike policy outcomes, a race finishing time is a very straight-forward fact. One that cannot be subject to spin, just subject to excuses about why you ended up slower than expected or faster than expected. (I developed an injury while training for the marathon. Competing in a 24 hour adventure race during the marathon training re-injured my legs. Excuses, excuses…. but my finishing time is still my finishing time.)

I ask any of you who have run a marathon whether you remember your finishing time? Of course you do. Could Ryan have misspoken? Perhaps. Here’s what Ryan had to say in response:

“The race was more than 20 years ago, but my brother Tobin—who ran Boston last year—reminds me that he is the owner of the fastest marathon in the family and has never himself ran a sub-three. If I were to do any rounding, it would certainly be to four hours, not three. He gave me a good ribbing over this at dinner tonight.”

It was not a conventional news outlet but, rather, Runner’s World who looked into his claim and found it lacking. Maybe Ryan was looking to win the marathon runner demographic by throwing out an impressive finishing time. I suspect that he has lost the votes of most marathon runners. You can make excuses, but you can’t lie about your finishing time.

Any marathon runner will tell you the difference between a four-hour marathon and a sub-three hour marathon is enormous. For a non-runner it may seem easy to confuse or inconsequential. (I suspect political affiliation will also affect one’s view of this story.) Ryan is a self-proclaimed fitness nut. It should be nearly heartbreaking to be a minute over four hours rather than a minute under four hours. It’s only two minutes, but it’s the difference between having your time start with a “3” instead of a “4”. Starting with a “2” is only a distant dream at that point.

That two minute difference pits him against the last Republican vice presidential candidate.  Sarah Palin has run a marathon in 3:59.

That difference between a 3 and 4  has to be even more troubling when your brother runs marathons and has a better time than you. As his response pointed out, Ryan’s brother will not let him forget that he has the best marathon time in the family and it starts with a “3”, not a “2”.

One of my ongoing areas of interest is what makes an otherwise respectable business person turn into a white collar criminal. During my recent trip to FBI Headquarters,  Supervisory Special Agent Susan Kossler pointed out that two of the traits that distinguish a regular person from a white collar criminal is pathological dishonesty and little regret for misstatements. You look back at a Madoff or Stanford and wonder what led them from being legitimate, successful businessmen to start believing in their own lies and deception and become fraudsters. Even today neither expresses much remorse for their fraud.

People ask marathon runners about their finishing times. Look back at how easily Ryan responded to Hewitt’s question about his finishing time. Ryan, the fitness nut, must have been asked that question many times and responded many times  (dozens? hundreds? of times). When did he stop responding with “four hours” and start  saying “almost four hours”? Or “three and a half hours”? And then “a two hour and fifty-something”? When did one marathon turn into the plural “marathons”?