Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Malin to Mizen – Establishing the truth

EDIT - Just to be totally clear the opinions and interpretation of events below are entirely mine (Andrew McDonagh; amcdonagh(at)flexability.ie) and was written by me without reference to anyone else. I take 100% responsibility for the following text...

Is it really a year since M2M? I have to say it doesn’t feel like it! It’s been a great year for me personally and professionally. Among other things I learned to ski, managed to expand the company I own internationally, established a running website and broke three hours in a marathon for the first time. But head and shoulders above everything else are the few days on the road from Donegal to Cork; the most infuriating, frustrating, exhilarating and satisfying few days I think I have ever spent.

By now it’s a matter of public record that GWR rejected our record application. There seemed to be some flim flam over exactly why, but it essentially boiled down to their opinion that they could not award a record where there was active controversy. The fact that the “controversy” was ill informed and based on third party hearsay didn’t seem to matter. As long as there was “controversy” there could be no record. Frankly I found it baffling – akin to teaching Creationism alongside Evolution but there you go, it’s their club so they set the rules. And a piece of paper makes absolutely no difference to me. I saw Jo run from one end of the country to the other faster than anyone else ever has and that’s good enough for me.

So why – a year later – am I back here?

Well the Internet is chock full of lone cranks ranting and raving in dusty and unvisited corners and what they think shouldn’t matter to anyone. But in our case it seems that the M2M run attracted the attention of a Mr Richard Donovan and – in my opinion – he and the URI wanted the attempt to fail from the beginning. I don’t know if he takes satisfaction from helping deny Jo the record after her heroic efforts (and incidentally slinging enough mud to hinder the fundraising activities of the charity) but the “commentary” on the URI website has been updated pretty frequently though so you can draw your own conclusions.

My legal advice was that we had grounds for action but frankly why bother? The fundraising was over so there was nothing to gain from further publicity so our theory was that if we ignored him then his page would quietly sink into oblivion. However he continues to bounce up and down in the corner demanding that we look at him and listen to his opinions. And he has continued to write about me. Frequently.

So here it is – the factual account of what actually happened on a sunny day in May on a lonely stretch of rarely run road…

Ultra Running Ireland and their claims of jurisdiction

As we were driving up to Donegal, less than 24 hours from starting the event we had a phone call from GWR. They told us that they had received a call from someone claiming to be from the national governing body for point to point distance running in Ireland insisting that GWR had no right to award a record without the URI sanctioning it. Jo and I had previous dealings with Richard and that was the reason we decided to seek a GWR. Knowing he was trying to muscle in on adjudication was bad news.

In a nutshell Richard held the record we were attempting to break. He had certified this record through the governing body he chairs (the URI). The inner workings of the URI are hard to fathom as membership is closed – you must have represented Ireland at least twice at Ultra distance in order to be granted full membership. And Irish Ultra Runners are selected by the URI, under the direction of… Richard Donovan. Incidentally Richard makes at least part of his living from staging ultra running events in Ireland. Standard distance events need to be certified by the AAI for them to be official. Ultra events on the other hand need to be certified by the URI. So Richard has responsibility for sanctioning his own races. And of course processing the applications for certification from his direct commercial rivals.

Now we had flagged up weeks in advance and in a very public way that we were going to be making this attempt and that we were going to be doing so under the auspices of GWR. URI were well aware of our plans but rather than contacting us to indicate that they felt they should have a hand in certification or passing on their certification standards they waited until the day before the event. And even then they approached GWR rather than us.

Now GWR contacted the global governing body (the IAU) who in turn directed them to the URI. Later on a representative of the URI was to publically claim that the IAU told GWR to talk to URI – the impression conveyed was that GWR had proactively contacted the URI to discuss the run and URIs right to certify it, giving a sheen of respectability to their effort to claim authority over the run. In my opinion URI and Richard were adept at taking a situation and presenting it in a manner that showed them to the best possible advantage – something we simply couldn’t compete with in the middle of the event.

In actual fact the URIs claims of authority were totally empty. URI had no right to sanction a record. What makes me so sure? Well I know nothing about these things but I am pretty sure that Norman Wilson, the Vice President of IAU and the Chair of the IAU Records Committee knows what he is talking about. So I asked him in an email if the IAU had any dealing with long distance point to point record keeping (being from the UK the example of Lands End to John O’Groats, their equivalent of M2M was used). His answer is illuminating:

For records such as Lands End to John O Groats in the UK the Guinness book of records would inform you of the rules for this type of record .National records and IAU World best performances and World age best performance for standard distances can be find on the IAU Website under statistics dated 21/02/10.For 100km road this would be ratified by the IAAF

So the head of records at the IAU – the global governing body – pointed me to the GWR for a point to point record. But the URI – sanctioned locally by the IAU – reckon that they do sanction records. So Richard – the guy who holds the record remember – is claiming that he has the right to decide if we have broken his record or not based on his mandate from the governing body to do something that the governing body say they don’t do! Confused yet?!

The Maguire Incident

Oh if only I could turn back time so that I could pay a bit more attention in map reading lessons during my Inter Cert Geography!

Crewing a point to point Ultra is a huge navigational challenge. On one hand you are working on a scale you are familiar with – distances of 100km a day or whatever involve standard routing of town A then town B. But because you are moving at running speed your actual navigation of that route is on a micro scale – you are literally planning from tree to tree and lamppost to lamppost. And – as an inexperienced crew member – I will admit that I dropped the ball. We were on a long straight road heading towards Swanlibar. On the map the road looked very simple so I hopped into the camper to get the next set of feeds for Jo. She caught up with me sooner than I had expected and yelled in the window for directions as she ran past. Keep straight on to Swanlibar!” I called back.

Except it wasn’t straight on. A short distance up the road there was a Y junction that had a triangle of rough land dividing it (see the grab from Google Maps with the GPS plot). It was clearly a junction and the left fork was sign-posted Swanlibar. Having been told to head for there Jo took the left fork, running down towards the apex of the triangle. Getting there it was pretty clear she was now no longer running straight on, even though she was (without knowing it) still on the right route.

Would have, could have, should have. If only. Why didn’t?

Easy to be wise after the event – I should have been sharper on the maps. Jo could have stopped and waited at that point. A hundred and one things could have been differently done. But they weren’t.

Jo turned at the apex and ran back up the other side of the triangle, on the wrong road where she continued on for a few hundred metres before we caught up with her.

Now the GWR rules are very clear. An athlete can leave the route at any time and be driven back to it again but they must cover the entire point to point on foot with no gaps and the clock stays running at all times, irrespective of if the athlete is on the course or not. Indeed this is common in many long distance events – track runners in 24 hour races can leave the track for toilet breaks for example. So when we caught up with Jo she jumped in the camper to be driven back to the junction, just as we drove her back to the course every morning.

The sudden panic we had when Steff pulled back into traffic was that the GPS watch might lose it’s signal – a moving vehicle, under a roof and boxes of crap above the seat could all block the satellite signal it needed. Rather than throw Jo out and make her return on foot I was given the watch and I ran it back. Jo was driven to the junction where she walked back to the point she had deviated from the point to point route and waited for me. I ran up, handed over the watch and away she went.


Except the claim from URI is that I ran a “considerable” distance on the point to point route! For a start Jo went no more than 600m on the wrong course so there was never a considerable distance in the first place – I ran no more than a few hundred metres in total. And Jo stood and waited for me at the junction, the point where she left the course – I handed her the watch and I got back in the van. I DID NOT RUN A SINGLE STEP ON THE POINT TO POINT COURSE WEARING THE GPS WATCH IN PLACE OF JO!! I keep hearing about evidence from Richard. I’d love to know what it is because there must have been a rift in the space time continuum if he has evidence of my cheating! So Richard Donovan and the URI please make publically available whatever “evidence” you claim you have. It can’t be photographs of me on the M2M route because I wasn’t on it (although we all know by now that I was running off the route). It can’t be video and for the same reasons. Maybe the URI – without my knowledge – recorded the conversation between Thomas, Steff and I. If so then release it but in full and unedited. There can be no evidence of cheating because there was no cheating.

Why would I cheat?

Yes I am labouring a point but it’s taken me a year to write this so bear with me!

Why would I cheat? An athlete taking steroids to get into the Olympics has an obvious motive. The saddo who cuts a couple of miles off his marathon route is motivated by claiming a time they couldn’t achieve honestly. Even the coaches who supply doping products to athletes have clear motives (money, fame). If you were cynical and didn’t know Jo you could assume she had a motive to cheat – after all it would be her name on the cert and she would collect the plaudits. As it happens I think she would have dropped dead on the course before cheat but that’s another days discussion.

But me? What would I stand to gain from running chunks of the course for Jo?

For a start I’m a marathon runner not an Ultra runner. Back to back long distance runs would have destroyed me physically (that’s why I had the bike). And for what? I have known Jo for years but she’s an acquaintance rather than a close friend. We have met a few times and run in a couple of the same events (sometimes without knowing it!) but we are not close friends – we have never been to each other’s homes for example. So what would I have to gain from systematically cheating on her behalf?

In fact if anything it was in my interests to keep the run honest – my wife is an employee of the charity that benefitted from the run. Any negative publicity would have the capacity to reflect badly on her, potentially harming her career and in extremes costing her her job. Remember that the fundraising was in full swing and getting the record would have no impact on the amount raised. As I am self employed the potential cost to me of cheating was also enormous – if clients thought I would cheat on a running event how could they trust me to bill them accurately? And while the run was of huge importance to Jo would she risk a high profile academic career just to get a piece of paper for her wall?

Occams razor is a great concept. Take two competing theories that explain a set of observations and whichever is simplest, whichever requires the fewest assumptions, is the best theory.

So would my wife lay her career on the line and risk her charities reputation (including it’s ability to fundraise and receive continued government support) and would I risk my legs and reputation to gain a certificate and some fleeting glory for someone we don’t know that well?

Or was the URI witness just mistaken in what he thought he saw?

Meeting the URI man who said he wasn’t from URI and subsequent communications

I was handing over a food bag to Jo when the man I later learned was Thomas Maguire approached me. He introduced himself and was at pains to point out that he was “there for himself and no-one else” and he asked a legitimate question – why was I running with the watch while Jo was in the van?

I vaguely recognised Mr Maguire’s name but couldn’t place him so – assuming he was a random runner who I wouldn’t be able to contact again – I attempted to explain what had happened. This was despite the fact that I hadn’t discussed the episode with Jo so had no clear understanding of the route she had run around the junction. I explained to Thomas about the navigational error, said that I wore the watch to measure the distance off route we were and that any errors would be of no consequence as the distances involved were so short and Jo was covering the whole thing on foot so even though she had gone 600m or whatever off the track there would be no concern over her doing the full distance. In truth I was tired, stressed and operating on minimal sleep and limited information so I doubt very much that I made an awful lot of sense.

But here is the important thing. Thomas was at the time totally satisfied with my explanation. How do I know that? Well he told me so. And why should you take my word for that? Well you don’t need to. Because Steff asked Thomas to fill in a GWR witness form in support of our application. I interrupted and said that might put him in a difficult position but he disagreed and completed the form for us, including his name, email address and contact numbers (I can publish it but haven’t simply as his personal details are there, if this account is disputed though I will have to do so to prove that I am telling the truth). It is interesting that in the URI version of the story this became Thomas signing a piece of paper to verify his identity! Even more usefully at the time Thomas – an international standard ultra runner himself – gave a huge amount of very useful technical advice on how we as crew could manage Jo, particularly in light of the unusually hot weather.

Now if he had seen obvious cheating and if he had been unhappy with my explanation would he have completed a witness form and helped us with advice? Or was he happy with the explanation he had heard in the context of what he had seen and decided that we had done nothing wrong? Again think of Occams Razor…

And how did the URI react to this when it was passed up the line? Well Richard didn’t get in touch – instead Eoin Keith did. Do you think that the governing body informed us they suspected a breach of the rules and would be in touch after the event to investigate? Did they call or email and say they had heard we had an issue and what had happened, what was our side of the story? Or did they instead demand that we drop the event immediately? Sadly yes they assumed guilt from an unsubstantiated third party account without ever asking us what had happened. To my mind the real motivation for the lack of a proper enquiry or following of established sports disciplinary procedures became clear when Eoin suggested that if we were to drop our attempt at breaking his Chairman’s record with immediate effect and say it was a technical error then they would remove all reference to the attempt from their website. Yes I know, if you watched enough American cop programs you would interpret that as blackmail but I am convinced it was offered with the purest of motives…

The warm down

The content is still up on the URI website and Richard continues to send emails that someone with a thinner skin than mine could find upsetting. In them he continues insisting that he will sue me and everyone and anyone else who publically disagrees with him. For example my new website published an article on how to use online resources to research races and – literally within hours – I had an angry mail from him. One of many in fact, including some with his legendary sign off “yours in litigious anticipation”! I think it might be supposed to be threatening rather than pompous and faintly ridiculous but there you go. And he has also re-written the article on his website a couple of times and has even put a fairly awful photo of me! You would have thought that he would have better and more constructive things to do with his time than faff about sending those sorts of emails but there you go.

As for me I’m still rushed off my feet and trying to fit in a bit of running. I have been told I have a solid case for legal action but the reasons I didn’t before haven’t gone away – after all why raise the profile of someone whose sole contribution is always negative? Am I just as bad as him if I launch action against the likes of Eoin and Thomas? I have a bit of time yet to decide; a part of me wants to simply to put him in his place but it’s probably more hassle than it’s worth. And this article gave me a chance to close this chapter once and for all, to tell my story in a way I haven’t been able to.

So that’s it! Now you know what really happened and I have finally had a chance to counter the allegations and tell the truth about both that day and all of the associated shenanigans. It’s something I have been meaning to do for a while so it’s nice to tick it off the list. Now if only I was able to do all my other outstanding tasks (Steff tells me our bedroom needs a coat of paint…)