Asher Delmott has never met Robert Young. Maybe if the two connected on the open roads of Kansas, the firestorm surrounding Young's trans-continental run might have been avoided.
Delmott, an accomplished distance runner from Emporia, Kansas, was intrigued by Young's epic cross-country effort from California to New York City. Young, the self-described Marathon Man UK, is attempting to break Frank Giannino Jr.'s 36-year-old record for a trans-America run and set a new mark for the Guinness Book of World Records. (I wrote about his attempt here.)
So Delmott decided to accompany Young as he ran through Lebo (just east of Emporia) about 1 a.m. on Sunday, June 5. The problem, said Delmott, was that he found Young's RV, but never saw the Brit running.
When he got home that night, Delmott started a chat thread on LetsRun.com—a popular distance running and track and field forum—with the title "Robert Young fakes run across America." In short, Delmott said he passed Young's RV without seeing the runner, and when he tried to approach the vehicle it sped off. Then, at several other points along the run, he again saw the RV (and took video footage), but there was no sign of Young.
"I am convinced that Robert is not completing all of the distance on foot," wrote Delmott. "I understand my screenshots and videos cannot definitively prove it, but I think it at least warrants a very close inspection of his attempt if he is to be awarded recognition for this."
In the days following, Delmott's LetsRun chat blew up. By Wednesday June 15, it listed nearly 200 pages, with 20 entries per page. Many question the veracity of Young's attempt, while others questioned details of his racing resume and lack of verifiable proof through available methods.
"I think that the climate in which Rob is running is really unfair," said Dustin Brooks, a member of Young's cross-country crew. "There is a movement of people who have never come out to see Rob running who, from the comfort of their home, have decided he is guilty of something. And people, including journalists, give them credence."
Clearly, though, the running world watchdogs were on high alert. This is not a new phenomenon. During the 1904 Olympic Games in St. Louis, New York City's Fred Lorz apparently won the marathon in just over three hours, entering the stadium to huge applause. But even as President Roosevelt's daughter Alice was placing a laurel wreath on Lorz's head, rumors circulated that he had hitched a ride for 11 miles. Before Lorz could receive his medal, he was disqualified.
Even today, Rosie Ruiz's name is held in contempt for her 1980 attempt to deceive Boston Marathon officials. Eight days after being crowned the winner, with a then-record time of just under 2:32, Ruiz was stripped on her title when it was revealed that she hopped aboard a subway from Cambridge to Boston (two years later, Ruiz elevated her cheating, and was convicted of embezzling $60,000 from the real estate company she worked for).
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Since then, social media has assisted people in calling out others for everything from performance-enhancing drugs to artificially enhanced race resumes. Consider the case of Mike Rossi. The Pennsylvania dad became an Internet sensation when he ripped school officials for punishing his children for attending his Boston Marathon run in 2015, only to have his own 2014 qualifying result called into question due to lack of photographic evidence and a dubious race resume.
But Delmott insists he wasn't interested in catching Young misbehaving. Quite the contrary.
"I thought it would be cool to be a part of something big like this," he said.
This week, however, Delmott said he was confident in what he saw, and reported.
"From what I have heard, he seems to be getting fewer miles per day since my thread on LetsRun started getting noticed, so that makes me think his second half is more honest than the first," said Delmott. "In all fairness though, I don't know what it is like to run across the country, so maybe there is a different explanation, and mine is just conjecture. All I can say for sure is that he wasn't running when I came to see him."
Young and his crewmembers, however, say there are simple explanations for Delmott's observations, and there was nothing sinister afoot. The first encounter, in the middle of the night, was disconcerting because Delmott didn't identify himself.
"They came up behind us waving a flashlight, and I thought, 'Oh my god, I'm in the middle of nowhere,'" said Young. "There was no calling out, no notice. If there was something like that, I would have been fine. I would have stopped. The fact that they came up behind me, out of nowhere, I was really scared. I ran up to the vehicle, and said 'Oh my god, there's this light coming really fast.'"
Young said he and his crew sped off, and then returned to the same location later so he could resume his run. (Coincidentally, Delmott also acknowledged in his chat thread that he didn't approach Young's crew that night for the same reasons. "I didn't really have the right equipment for the job, so even trying to film a conversation with the crew might not have helped," he wrote. "In this day in age, you also have to be worried about someone smashing your phone, or shooting you, or who knows what else.")
Delmott doesn't necessarily disagree with the version espoused by Young's crew.
"Most of their account actually does seem plausible to me," he says. "I do believe they could have been afraid of me coming up from behind in the middle of nowhere. He probably hadn't had too many people coming to run with him, especially at night, or on a deserted country road. The combination of all of that could have been unnerving.
"The part where I disagree with their account is simply whether Rob was running with the RV," says Delmott. "In total that night, I saw the RV at four separate occasions, and never saw a runner. I also got videos, which do not show a runner, or the flashlight they claim he uses to signal a stop. In summary, they might have been scared, but Rob wasn't running down the road."
Another video posted on the LetsRun chat, taken from a gas station security camera, shows the RV driving slowly through town without Young. What the footage doesn't show is Young running past the same camera nine minutes later. Young and his crew later posted that extended video on his Facebook page.
"When we were coming into Emporia, I was running behind the vehicle," said Young. "The vehicle was going at a set pace that I could normally run with. But with the flow of the traffic and everything else, I got disconnected from the vehicle. You can see the traffic going around the vehicle. And if you continue to watch the footage, you'll (eventually) see that I am behind the vehicle."
Young points to the live tracker that he carries constantly as proof that he has nothing to hide. Brooks acknowledges that the tracker isn't a pedometer, and could conceivably show the same results if the person was in a van traveling at a running pace, instead of actually running. But Young said the device is an open invitation for anyone who wants to scrutinize his run.
"Live tracking isn't a tool to be used for Guinness, it's a tool for people to look at where I am on the map, so they can pinpoint me," said Young, reiterating that he wants people to join him. "All of these people who have found me and randomly met up with me and run with me, there hasn't been a problem with any of those people, apart from this one issue."
Reached earlier this week, Young admitted the controversy had taken a toll on his record-setting attempt.
"Physically I'm OK," he said. "Mentally, I've been beat down. I think I was very close to having the record, or I was slightly ahead of having the record. Now it's borderline. And if I don't get this record, it's probably because of I've been beat down a little bit. And I'm pretty upset about that."
Young reiterated many of the online defenses posted by his team, primarily Brooks and Michael Speicher. He said CCTV and ESPN is filming his attempt (though not continuously), and the number of co-runners, including a number of well-known ultra-distance competitors, makes any attempt to cheat sheer folly.
"I hope you can sense what I'm trying to say and the frustration in my voice," said Young. "I'm trying to do this as honestly as possible, and with integrity. The tracker is there for people who want to come out and join me, and it's been there from the very beginning. Since California. Anyone can come join me."
Furthermore, Young said his crew has gone "well beyond" the requirements set by the Guinness Book of World Records. Brooks said the crew has logged "huge amounts" of photographs and video to verify Young's running.
"Those videos are time and location tracked, so they prove he was where he was and at what time just as much as a live feed would do," said Brooks, who added that he and other crewmembers were offended by the implication that they were also cheating. "It was never meant to be a TV show rather a record attempt."
Prior to his attempt to set a new trans-America record, Young said: "I'm not gifted in running."
"I have a talent to keep pushing on," he said. "That comes through years of pushing through everything in life."
Now Young will need to push through the doubt among some of his colleagues in the running community.