Paul Ryan, imaginary marathon man

He also won Wimbledon this year
He also won Wimbledon this year

Here’s a weird thing I learned this morning. Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s vice-presidential nominee, recently claimed to have run a marathon in less than three hours: “Under three, high twos. I had a two hour and fifty-something,” he said in a radio interview.

The magazine Runners’ World was understandably intrigued by this. Sub-three hours, for those who don’t know, is an extraordinarily good time; I’m always pleased when I can run faster than eight-minute miles, even on a short run, and was ecstatic to make a personal best on a half-marathon of 1hr 44m, which is pretty much exactly eight-minute miles the whole way. I know some much better runners than me who have made a personal best of 3hr 30 for the full marathon, and that’s eight minutes a mile all the way; my wife, who is a very good runner, managed 3hr 46m, and was automatically awarded a place on the next year’s for running a fast time. Paul Ryan’s time (assuming it was 2hr59m) works out at 6m51sec, for 26 miles. That is seriously, seriously impressive.

Except it’s not, because it didn’t happen. Runner’s World investigated Ryan’s claim – which is quite easy to do, because all marathon times are recorded – and discovered that in 1991 the then 20-year-old Ryan ran the “Grandma’s Marathon” in Duluth, Minnesota, in a time of 4hr 1m 25sec.

Four hours is a thoroughly respectable time for a marathon. In fact, simply finishing a marathon is pretty impressive: I’ve done three halves, and each time I have thought at the end “Thank God I don’t have to do that again right now”. But four hours is not three hours. To put it into context, in 1908, the Olympic marathon was won in a time of 2hr 55m. Mr Ryan lived in the wrong era: his imaginary alter ego might well have got on the podium.

Does this matter? Mr Ryan’s team is trying to laugh it off: in a statement given to Runners’ World, he said: “The race was more than 20 years ago, but my brother Tobin—who ran Boston last year—reminds me that he is the owner of the fastest marathon in the family and has never himself ran a sub-three. If I were to do any rounding, it would certainly be to four hours, not three. He gave me a good ribbing over this at dinner tonight.” But I think it does matter, and I hope it’s not just because I’m not a fan of his politics. Nobody I know who runs would misremember their times by an hour; in fact, everyone remembers their PB to the minute. Knocking a minute off my half-marathon time was a genuine triumph. And you don’t run a marathon in four hours without taking it quite seriously, dedicating a significant portion of your life to it for several months. I can’t believe that Mr Ryan didn’t know exactly what his time was, or at the very least didn’t know that sub-three hours is a big deal.

I knew a guy, years ago, who made stuff up. It wasn’t malicious or mean, it was just weird; sometimes self-aggrandising, but more often just unnecessary. It came to light when he said that a member of his family played for quite a high-level sports team, and when I innocently checked this out on the team’s website, it transpired the family member did no such thing. I’m not sure he even existed. Then, as when you pull at a loose thread, all sorts of other stories he’d told started unravelling, until almost nothing was left. I’m sure we’ve all met one or two people like that. But it was strange, both watching this constructed life disappear, and trying to place myself in the mind of someone who behaves like that. It seemed like a compulsion.

It goes without saying that I have no idea if Mr Ryan is doing something similar. Maybe he did misremember. But anyone who’s even done a couple of 10Ks will think that’s really, really weird, and it makes me wonder if he misremembers a lot of stuff like that.

Mind you, at least, as one guy on Twitter pointed out, now we can recycle all those Chuck Norris facts as Paul Ryan facts. Altogether now: “When Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, he had three missed calls from Paul Ryan.”


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