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Are Age Groups Obsolete"

The time has come to reconsider how we validate age-group placings and records in our largest races

By any measurement, Jane's performance at The LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon Chicago seemed remarkable. The 62-year-old woman from Battle Creek, Michigan crossed the finish line in 3:37:05, first in her age group, well under the time she needed to qualify for the Boston Marathon. Strangely, Jane also had run the Detroit International Marathon the previous weekend, recording a time just under five hours, placing ninth in her age group.

Only later did race officials discover that Jane wasn't Jane. A runner from Georgia had run 11 miles of the race chatting occasionally with a male in his 30s running the same pace. Curious to find out how his new friend had done, the Georgian checked the results and discovered that the other's bib number was listed to a 62-year-old woman. Several days later, Jane called race officials to confess her indiscretion. Choosing Detroit over Chicago, she let her 37-year-old son use her race entry. The son, foolishly, had worn Mom's chip.

Are age groups obsolete? They seem to be in at least the largest races. As numbers soar from the thousands to tens of thousands, organizers find it increasingly difficult to certify that the runner listed actually ran the time listed. As the most popular races limit the size of their fields, runners who decide not to run are more likely to switch entries with friends, or even offer them on eBay confusing the official results.

Cheating is easier

The use of chip timing should make keeping track of everybody easier, but in many ways identifying age group cheats has become more difficult. One woman recently was overheard on a Boston subway bragging that her boyfriend had gotten her a Boston Marathon qualifying time by wearing her chip as well as his in a marathon. Then there is the case of Chandra from Connecticut, who ran the last mile, and only the last mile, of a half dozen marathons in 2002 in times near three hours. After she placed fourth in the Marine Corps Marathon, officials noted that she had passed none of the check points and disqualified her, but Chandra still is listed as placing second in the 35-39 age group on the website of the Hartford Marathon.

If race organizers can't certify the accuracy of their age group awards, any attempt to certify age group records seems doubly doomed. A friend of mine wanted to come to Chicago, because he hoped to use the fast course to break the American marathon record in an upper age group. He was certainly capable of doing so, but how do you verify such an accomplishment?

Yet age groups and the opportunity to compete against age peers is a strong motivating factor for many runners. "To place high in an age group is a goal for many runners," says Julie Koehler, 33, a public defender from Chicago. "For others, it's an unexpected bonus after crossing the finish line."

The honor system

Will that bonus be removed from us? Apart from the top finishers, ranking runners relies at least partly on the honor system. The system still works in small, local races where runners get to know their competitors. In a race with 250 finishers, someone wearing the wrong bib number, or one who pops onto the course in the last mile, probably will be noticed. Not so in a marathon with more than 10,000 finishers.

Most age group "cheating" is not intentional. Did Jane send her son to Chicago to get her a Boston qualifying time? I hope not. More than likely she wanted only to give him a chance to run a race that had closed its entries. But how many Janes go undetected? For that reason, we need to eliminate age group records and results from at least our largest races--or find a better way to authenticate them.

The above article appeared originally as a "Bell Lap" column on the Internet edition of Runner's World.