Back in March, a 70-year-old runner named Frank Meza finished the Los Angeles Marathon in 2 hours 53 minutes 10 seconds, unofficially the fastest-ever time for a man his age. But almost immediately after the race, runners from around the country began questioning Meza's time, noting that he had twice been disqualified and eventually banned from a marathon in Sacramento.
After an investigation, the Los Angeles Marathon's organisers disqualified Meza on Monday, saying in a statement that, based on video evidence and an eyewitness account, he had left the course and then reentered it in a different location and had posted a midrace 5km split time that would have set the world record at that distance for the 70-74 age group, "an impossible feat during a marathon."
Speaking to the Los Angeles Times, Meza said he merely left the course in search of a restroom and ran the race on the sidewalk before finding one.
"I didn't cut the course," he said.
Meza, a lifelong runner and retired physician who had worked to provide health care to low-income Southern California residents, didn't start running marathons until the age of 60. He began to attract attention when his marathon times went from about 3 1/2 hours or longer to less than three hours, setting personal bests with times of 2:53.33 at the 2014 California International Marathon in Sacramento and then a 2:52.47 in Los Angeles a few months later. But the former marathon questioned the irregular splits he posted both in 2014 and 2016, eventually disqualifying him from both and banning him from the race. The latter marathon, meanwhile, did not have the evidence to disqualify him but asked that he run the 2016 version or the race with an official observer to prove he could hit those times (Meza instead chose to skip that marathon to run in a race in Northern California).
According to the Times, the Los Angeles Marathon has again asked Meza to run with an observer if he chooses to enter the 2020 race.
"That's my only silver lining," he said.
Other races Meza has run have come into question, as well. Derek Murphy, a business analyst who described himself to the Times as a "plodding" runner, began a website called Marathon Investigation a few years back to document cheating allegations against marathon runners, advancing his sleuthing to the point where marathon organizers have paid him for his investigations. If a runner posts irregular split times, he checks the marathon's route map for potential shortcuts and goes over time-lapse and video documentation provided by race organizers from along the course to see if the runner either disappeared for a stretch or started running irregularly fast.
In May, Murphy wrote about Meza's time in Los Angeles, noting that the marathon was run in record-breaking heat and using photo evidence to claim that Meza was cutting the course (one photo shows Meza emerging from the sidewalk to rejoin the race along Hollywood Boulevard). He also questioned Meza's time from the Mesa-Phoenix Marathon in February, when he again set an age-group record with a time of 2:53.54. Murphy claims photo evidence proves that Meza's split times were significantly slower than his overall time and that he did not appear when he should have on an official race video camera set up at the 22-mile mark, alleging that Meza skipped that portion of the course.
Meza now has been disqualified from three marathons and a number of his other races have been questioned. Why would a 70-year-old man, a lifelong runner and former high school track coach who has spent his life helping others, allegedly take shortcuts to set records few would care about apart from a small number of dedicated marathoners? Meza won't admit to cheating, but he's mostly quiet about his motivation, too.
"My take on all this, it was supposed to be fun," he told the Times. "Obviously it's not fun anymore."