A 50-Mile Race, a Quick Car Ride and a Scandal at the Finish Line
19th April 2023

Almost any endurance athlete who has ever gone on a long run has probably, at some particularly vulnerable moment, seen a car whiz by and been tempted, if only for a moment, to hook out a thumb, catch a lift and avoid suffering through the miles ahead.

Perhaps that explains why accusations of cheating involving competitive runners seem to crop up every few years. A suspicious time. A course cut short. A bus ride taken.

In the latest incident, a top-ranked ultramarathoner had her third-place finish in a race in England earlier this month invalidated because she got a ride in a car for two and a half miles of the 50-mile course.

Tracking data showed the runner, Joasia Zakrzewski, had completed one mile of the Manchester to Liverpool race on April 7 in 1 minute 40 seconds, a split much more likely to be posted by a late-model sedan than by a 47-year-old human being on two legs.

Zakrzewski of Britain was disqualified from the race, and the matter was referred to governing bodies for possible further action. She said she had actually quit the race and accepted a ride to tell organizers at the next check-in spot of that decision, but was encouraged to try to finish the race. She called her acceptance of the third-place award “a miscommunication.” Not everyone, though, was ready to forgive.

The true third-place finisher, Mel Sykes, tweeted of her promotion: “Great news for me but really bad news for sportsmanship.”

In a thread on Twitter, Sykes added: “A fellow competitor cheated. She traveled in a car for around 2.5 miles of the M2L 50 mile event last week. After an investigation, she has now been DQ’d, and rightly so.”

Organizers confirmed that a runner was disqualified and said that an investigation had revealed a competitor had “taken vehicle transport during part of the route.”

In an interview with BBC Scotland, Zakrzewski blamed the incident, in part, on jet lag, having arrived in Britain the night before the race from Australia, where she lives.

Zakrzewski said her leg was hurting and when she spotted a friend at the side of the course, she decided her race was over. She accepted a ride in his car to the next checkpoint, she said, with the intention of officially dropping out of the race. But a race marshal there convinced her to carry on, if only for pride, and she did so in what she called “a noncompetitive way.”

When she saw a runner ahead of her, for example, she said she intentionally did not pass her, knowing she was now running the race unofficially.

But when she crossed the finish line in third place, she was handed a trophy and a medal. “I made a massive error accepting the trophy and should have handed it back,” Zakrzewski told the BBC.

“I was tired and jet lagged and felt sick,” she said. “I hold my hands up, I should have handed them back and not had pictures done but I was feeling unwell and spaced out and not thinking clearly.”

She also apologized to Sykes. “I’m an idiot and want to apologize to Mel,” she said. “It wasn’t malicious. It was miscommunication. I would never purposefully cheat, and this was not a target race, but I don’t want to make excuses. Mel didn’t get the glory at the finish and I’m really sorry she didn’t get that.”

What makes her decisions in the English race unusual, though, is that Zakrzewski is an accomplished runner. She is a former world-record holder for running 255 miles in the span of 48 hours.

Still, she has now joined a list of runners best known for miles they did not run, a ledger of infamy still topped, even after more than 40 years, by Rosie Ruiz.

Ruiz joined the Boston Marathon in 1980 a mile from the finish ahead of all the other female runners and went on to “win.” (To achieve her qualifying time for Boston, Ruiz was later proved to have cheated in the New York Marathon as well, riding the subway for much of the distance.)

Even at the Olympics, runners have hitched a ride. At the 1904 Games in St. Louis, Fred Lorz of the United States jumped in a car for more than 10 miles of the race, then arrived at the finish to the cheers of an unknowing American crowd. He was nearly given a gold medal before the ruse was revealed. Lorz claimed he had done it all as a joke.

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