Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Marathon Cheat

Man, am I the only one fascinated by this article about the "Marathon Man" dentist, Kip Litton, who cheats in marathons, but no one can figure out exactly how?

http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/08/06/120806fa_fact_singer

I was extremely disappointed to get to the end of this article without learning how he did it. How does he pull off such elaborate cheating? For those who don't want to take the time to read, this guy is trying to record sub-three hour times in marathons in all fifty states. He often starts races way at the back, taking up to five minutes to make it to the start line, then mysteriously disappears from most race photographs throughout the race, showing up again only at the end, yet somehow he passes over all the chip mats in the race, often at odd times. How does he do it?

I've never taken part in a traditional road race with bibs/chips, so I'm going to make some assumptions about how they work. Those who have participated, please correct me where my assumptions are wrong. I'm guessing the race photographs are based on the bib numbers, either automatically OCR'ed or at the worst, manually by volunteers. Kip Litton often has his bib covered during races, so it makes sense that he rarely shows up during the race photographs.

A strange recurring feature is that he seems to change clothes and sneakers during races. My immediate reaction was that there must be multiple people. Assuming there's a guy who looks like Kip Litton (twin?), that would explain the differing outfits, as well as why he's usually shown looking down. So I could imagine during the initial race start confusion, the real Kip Litton passing off the chip to the "fast" Kip Litton.

But that doesn't come close to explaining the chip times. His chip goes over all the chip mats. Even cutting the course directly, it seems to take an awful lot of planning to know where the chip mats are, and to make it from one to the other without just being obviously spotted. And the times are not consistent. He registered a huge negative split in a few of the marathons. Even if a "real" marathon runner had run the race with his chip, the real runner would likely have more consistent times - unless they swapped halfway (with Kip running the first half, and the faster runner running the second half).

So my next thought was, what if he's figured out how to clone a race chip? And then how to give someone else's chip time to your own chip? I know absolutely nothing about the chip system used in races, but I'm hoping it's not that easily hacked. If it is, though, let's imagine at the start of the race, Kip Litton clones the chips of a number of runners around him whose approximate times he knows (people line up for races by expected mile pace, after all). Then during the race, as their chips go over the mats, his linked chip is also recorded as going over the mat, perhaps with an added randomness factor so it's not exactly the same as the other runner's time. But if you can figure out how to trick the system into stealing another chip's passage over a chip mat, you have probably compromised the whole system, so there's no need to go through the additional trouble.

Occam's Razor says that this random dentist has not hacked the chip system. There must be a low-tech solution. My guess is multiple people that look approximately like Kip Litton, passing the chip (attached to the bib) from one to the other like a relay, making sure to keep the bib covered during the race. But surely this would be obvious to other racers? And for shorter races (like the 17-something 5k he "ran", where he was photographed walking during the race), simply cut the course directly. For less policed marathons, simply cut the course, show up at the finish, and if the result is questioned, remove it from your list of completed marathons.

Any other ideas?

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