Posted by: Chris | September 5, 2012

Paul Ryan: Neither Athlete nor Mathlete?

This probably flew below most people’s radars, but there has been a minor controversy bubbling about something Paul Ryan said to Hugh Hewitt last week.  Not about the budget or Medicare, but his claimed marathon time:

HH: Are you still running?
PR: Yeah, I hurt a disc in my back, so I don’t run marathons anymore. I just run ten miles or yes.
HH: But you did run marathons at some point?
PR: Yeah, but I can’t do it anymore, because my back is just not that great.
HH: I’ve just gotta ask, what’s your personal best?
PR: Under three, high twos. I had a two hour and fifty-something.
HH: Holy smokes. All right, now you go down to Miami University…
PR: I was fast when I was younger, yeah.

In case you are not in running circles (or into running in circles), a 2 hr 50 min marathon time is really fast (as in <6:30/mile for 26.2 miles).  It is also not Paul Ryan’s actual marathon time.  Writers from Runner’s World, glad to find a kindred spirit in the spotlight, attempted to track down the race where PR PR’d but came up empty-handed.  Shortly thereafter, Ryan confessed to having made an error:

“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.”

His true time was in fact 4:01:52, which he ran at age 20 (slower than Sarah Palin in her forties!). Later, in a televised interview, Ryan elaborated, admitting that he had forgotten his true time and made up one he thought seemed like “an ordinary time.”

However, the explanation does not seem to have convinced many other runners.  Of course, runners have been known to slightly exaggerate their times or engage in creative rounding when discussing their PRs (myself included), but the difference between his stated and actual results is far too yawning to be dismissed as a mistake or some innocent braggadocio.  An equivalent reduction would make my highly unimpressive mile time the men’s world record by 5 seconds and put me 21 seconds away from the record in the 5k (both as a junior in HS to boot, thanks Paul Ryan Time Calculator).

Taken at his word, the flub says a lot about the GOP’s putative math whiz that he estimated an average time so poorly.   But that explanation is as unconvincing as it is unflattering.  As Nicolas Thomas at the New Yorker notes, Ryan stuck with his story even after Hugh Hewitt’s apparent shock:

What’s striking about the exchange is how he responds to Hewitt’s “Holy smokes.” A four-hour marathon, for a twenty-year-old, is not something that elicits a “holy smokes.” It’s entirely average; in fact, for the race that Ryan ran, it  was below average. In the marathon in question, he finished in nineteen hundred  and ninetieth place, out of just thirty-two hundred and seventy-seven male  runners. (A 2:55 would have had him at a hundred and thirtieth.) But Hewitt’s  reaction didn’t set off any alarm. Instead, Ryan could tell that he had just  impressed his host, and he reinforced it, saying “I was fast when I was younger,  yeah.”

Moreover, as a number of observers have noted, including Thomas, runners tend to be fairly obsessive about their times, especially their best times and these sorts of things do not just slip away.  I can still recall my results for a good chunk of races I’ve run and certainly those where I posted an as-of-yet-unbeaten personal best.  It is almost unthinkable, assuming Ryan thinks like many runners, that he could forget his time in the one marathon he ran and then guess so wildly incorrectly.

Then why lie?  As many commentators have pointed out, Ryan’s true time was far from embarrassing.  Heck, even completing a marathon without walking or resting deserves high praise (I am not sure I can do that in my current shape).  Though the fib itself is, in the grand scheme of things. fairly inconsequential and I imagine the resultant kerfuffle amuses non-runners imagining diligent fact-checkers at publications like Runner’s World assiduously cross-referencing politician’s claims, it does bespeak of a contempt for the truth and a disregard for those who did invest the effort to achieve:

That, of course, is the larger point — as far as I’m concerned, the only point that matters. This man claimed an honor that he never earned.

That’s it, in eight words. That’s what most folks are missing.

He claimed an honor that he never earned.

In doing so, Mr. Ryan diminished — just a little — the status of every single person who has put in the work to run sub-3:00, who has accomplished this feat, who has achieved this rare honor. This concept seems alien to him. Even now, he appears amused by all the fuss.

It will be interesting to see if Ryan’s similar claims about summitting the 14-footers in Colorado pan out.

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