Newsday – Dec 6, 2005 – John Hanc – Honest runners say there’s no reward in taking shortcuts. John Hanc is a regular contributor to Newsday.

Janese Decal was driving home from work when she stopped at a Freeport bank to withdraw some cash. As she walked back to her car, a man on a bicycle came pedaling out of the darkness and tried to grab her pocketbook. When Decal resisted, he slammed her down on the pavement of Sunrise Highway before riding off with $260. Decal suffered a severe contusion on her left leg, a bruised femur and a gash in her head that required three stitches.

Three weeks later, against the advice of almost everybody, Decal completed the ING New York City Marathon. “It just meant a lot to me,” said the North Bellmore woman, who – because of her injuries – was forced to walk much of the 26.2 mile distance.

For the 26-year-old marathoner, part of the motivation to compete in the event comes from her involvement in the Long Island chapter of Team in Training, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s marathon fundraising group. To her, running represents a link to a network of like-minded friends, driven by a desire to go the distance, get in shape and, in the process, raise money for a good cause.

So when Decal heard that a group of women from a similar program was disqualified for cheating by cutting the course in the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., she was horrified. “I don’t know how they could live with themselves after doing that,” she said.

A race for amateurs

With almost 20,000 finishers this year, the Marine Corps Marathon – held on Oct. 30, the week before New York’s – is the country’s fourth-largest 26.2-mile race. Unlike New York’s, it is a strictly amateur race; there is no prize money. Because of that, the event calls itself “The People’s Marathon.”

So what kind of people would cheat themselves?

At the center of the controversy is a Toronto-based group called JeansMarines, a nonprofit group that was founded by Dr. Jean Marmoreo and her husband, Bob Ramsay, after they completed their first Marine Corps Marathon in 2001. On its Web site, the organization describes itself as “a group of Canadian women who dare ourselves to do the impossible; to run the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C. … no matter how fearful, reluctant or out of shape we were when we began. In the process … we change in ways we never thought possible.”

Cheating presumably was never part of the JeansMarines training program. Yet, that is exactly what the group admitted doing. Marine Corps Marathon race director Rick Nealis said eight members of JeansMarines – out of 200 from the group who participated in the race – were directed by Marmoreo to take a shortcut near the 10-mile mark and then to rejoin the race course at about mile 14. This would enable them to reach Washington’s 14th Street Bridge at mile 22 before the mandatory 51/2-hour cutoff time. (At that point, the bridge would open to vehicular traffic.) After taking the shortcut, the women supposedly continued on and completed the remaining 12 miles of the course. (Race organizers are also looking into allegations that another 22 members of JeansMarines also cut the course at a different location.)

‘We made a mistake’Nealis said he heard about the course-cutting from an eyewitness. He and his staff then analyzed the data from computerized chips marathon participants wear to keep track of their time and concluded that the eight women had, indeed, cut the course.

Meanwhile, when bloggers picked up the story and contacted her, Marmoreo called Nealis and admitted that she had encouraged her “Marines” to take the shortcut.

As a result, JeansMarines have been banned from participating in the 2006 Marine Corps Marathon. Marmoreo and her husband issued an apology on their Web site. “We made a mistake,” the statement read. “We’re sorry. And we’ve taken corrective action. … No shortcutting will be encouraged, allowed or tolerated.”

Marmoreo asked the eight women to return their finishers medals. “They feel they’ve accomplished a great deal in terms of fitness and weight loss,” said Ramsay. But “they certainly understand the reasons for [returning the medals].”

Others in the marathon world may not be as understanding. “The sport has gotten a bit of the black eye,” said New York City Marathon spokesman Richard Finn. “This raises the idea that [course-cutting] goes on more prevalently than it actually does.” Still, he says, “you shake your head and wonder why they did it.”

Decal says she can understand the urge to want to quit in the middle of a marathon, but not to cheat. “I was going to drop out at mile 16,” she said. “But I wouldn’t have walked back on the course further along in the race and then accepted a medal for doing less than the full distance. There’s no honor in that.”

To keep goals, set them wisely

To sports psychologist Dr. John Murray, the Marine Corps Marathon cheating incident, in which a group of eight back-of-the-pack participants admitted taking a 4-mile shortcut along the 26.2 mile course, illustrates an important point about goal-setting.

“Goals should be primarily based on performance and process and much less on outcome,” says Murray, who is based in West Palm Beach, Fla. “That helps put the sport where it should … as a healthy outlet for fitness.”

That’s worth remembering if you’re planning to set fitness and health-related “resolutions” for the New Year. A goal of “I will lose 25 pounds by mid-February” is not only unrealistic, it’s outcome-based.

A better and more achievable objective would be to go to the gym consistently or to make some specific dietary modifications and stick with them.

Here are some other goal-setting tips for fitness:

Set specific, short-term goals: “Looking and feeling better are good long-term goals,” says personal trainer and author Douglas Brooks.

A more tangible, short-term goal, he says, might be to exercise three times a week. “This is realistic and achievable and will serve to motivate you until you reach your loftier or more ambitious goals.”

Keep your workouts at reasonable lengths: There’s a tendency for people who are getting back into the gym to overdo it – to work out every night, for an hour or more. More often than not, that leads to injury and premature burnout.

Write down your goals and keep track of your progress: Studies have shown that people who keep a training diary are more likely to stick with a program.

Stay flexible, but stay with it: The Web site mygoals.com says that continual modification of our goals is now recognized as a key to reaching them. So don’t be afraid to adjust and amend your fitness goals. You don’t have to stick with the program, just make sure you stick with a program.

Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.