Robert Young is a hero. He has an incredible, emotional backstory, and he’s trying to accomplish an unprecedented feat of athleticism. The 33-year-old Brit says he started running two years ago, and that an abusive childhood drove him to try and become one of the best endurance athletes in the world. According to Young, he’s won almost 100 marathons and ultramarathons, raised over $315,000 for charity, and worked extensively as an inspirational speaker. Young is currently somewhere in Missouri, over halfway through with his quest to break the record for the fastest transcontinental run. Since mid-May, Young has travelled on foot all the way from Los Angeles and he plans on arriving in New York City in early July. He has to cross the country in under 46 days and 8 hours to break the record, and he is on pace to do so. The data shows that Young runs between 50 and 90 miles a day on three hours of sleep.
That is, unless he’s a massive fraudster who has been lying about the whole thing and secretly traveling in an RV at running pace.
Tuesday, a LetsRun.com forum user chronicled his attempts to run alongside Young while he was allegedly passing through a rural Kansas town at 1 in the morning. While trying to rendezvous with Young, Asher Delmott passed by his RV, which was going at running pace, but he didn’t see anyone running. He passed back and forth past the RV, and took two videos, but nobody was running. Additionally, security camera footage from a nearby gas station shows an RV going by without a runner.
Here is Delmott’s (lengthy) tale of the incident:
I wanted to run for a couple miles with the guy running across America, since I saw he was coming very near Lebo. I saw he was within 10 miles of Lebo, so I got in my car to find exactly how far away he was. I started driving west on old highway 50 from Lebo, and eventually passed an RV going east with an American flag on the back corner of the vehicle. I recognized that as the runner’s RV, but I did not see anyone running. I thought the runner might have another support vehicle further back, so I kept driving.
After a couple of miles, I checked his live tracking, and saw that the runner was indeed east of me. I took a screenshot of where the map said he was, then drove down the road. When I got close to the RV, I started filming, and still did not see a runner.
I also took a screenshot of the map and took a video of the RV driving by. After it drove by, I ran into the highway, turned on my headlamp to strobe mode, and started running behind the RV. It was driving running speed, so I was making progress, but they saw my light and stopped. Someone got out of the passenger side of the RV, but when I got closer they got back in, and the RV drove off too fast for me to follow on foot. I ran back to my car, then drove to the highway. By that time, the RV had returned to the intersection of Fauna road and old highway 50. Someone was standing outside the RV, but I just drove past it heading east. I parked on the south side of the next intersection, and again, waited for the RV to pass.
While waiting, I looked at the live tracking, and saw where the RV had driven away, and then come back, so I took a screenshot of that. I waited in my car for a few more minutes, and as the RV approached, I took another screenshot, and then another video as the RV drove by once again without anyone running beside it.
The LetsRun forums are notoriously wonky but they have taken down cheaters before, including Kip Litton, who got a New Yorker profile out of apparently faking his attempts to run a sub-3 hour marathon in every state.
As for Young, concerns started to bubble up about the legitimacy of his quest even before Delmott tracked him down, and the physical evidence he has provided raised eyebrows. He spoke with Sports Illustrated before he began, and was surprisingly casual about the preparation and scheduling needed to run across the country in record time:
“I personally think it’s doing everything completely the opposite to how everyone else has tried doing it,” he says. “Everyone else has gone into the race fully fit, race lean. I think by doing that, you can only deteriorate in fitness straightaway. Whereas if you go in slightly underfit, slightly overweight, I think as you climb over the mountain, or around it depending on the route you go, you’ll gradually get fitter.”
Aside from not preparing for the endeavor, he also said he didn’t put a ton of thought into his on-road diet. Forum users have pointed out that his physique doesn’t match up with someone who is running 67 miles a day:
In keeping with his low-tech approach, he doesn’t adhere to any rigid dietary regimen. Several Race Across USA colleagues had dietary plans that proved inadequate once they got several weeks into the race, he says.
“As soon as I would finish a run, I would eat three burgers, and a chocolate milkshake. That’s three to five thousand calories right there,” says Young, who estimates he’ll consume between 10,000 and 15,000 calories every day. “It’s all trial and error, all the way along.
If you look at the distance and speeds of a few of Young’s days, you see that he consistently maintains a pace nearly equal to that of his fastest marathon. Per his website, his personal record is 2:41, although that figure has disappeared from his website’s “Stats” page since the LetsRun thread popped up, along with some performance data archives from his transcontinental attempt. A participant in an ultra-running email thread calculated his efforts, and Young’s data shows him to be consistently at his near-peak level:
Here’s a sample of stretches from the marathon man’s tracker. They are in 1 to 2 mile increments mostly, so over long periods of time they are relatively valid for showing his pace. So on May 26 at 1:20am he decided it’s time to turn on the jets.... according to his tracker he averaged between 9-10mph from 1:20 until 3:47 to go 22 miles in 2:27. A 3:08 marathon pace. Impressive enough by itself considering how far he had run up to this point. But it does wear him out, so he takes a ~3 hour break from around 3:50 to 6:50. Then he gets back out on the road and immediately jumps up to ~9mph and runs 18 more miles at that exact same overall split, 3:08 marathon pace..... seriously. There are some slight ups/downs in the speed, but over a 7:40 period he covers 41 miles with a 3 hour break in between.
By the night of the 29th at 1:20am he’s again recovered and does some of his best running yet - an 18.6mi stretch in just over 2 hours, a 2:53 marathon pace! That winds him a bit so he takes 30 minutes to recover, then back out again for another 5.25 miles in 35 minutes. Now he’s really pooped though, so 1.5 hours of rest before going back out for more. This time it’s 23.6mi in 2:53, or a 3:11 marathon pace.
Once you start to examine Young’s career, more questions come up. There’s his (since-defaced) Wikipedia page that reads like he himself wrote it (large chunks match up with the copy on his own website). He claims to have won 96 races, but as forum users noted, there is inadequate documentation of these wins. Per the data he provides on his own website, Young’s 5k pace is slower than his 10k pace, and he is averaging 67 miles per day on three hours of sleep.
As for proof of the run, Young released a nine-minute video today explaining how he documents and verifies his progress via GPS tracking and hand-logged mileage. Seeing as how the main point against Young is that he sits in his RV while it drives at running pace, a GPS tracker only proves that something is traveling at a certain speed. The only unassailable proof would be a live camera or some sort of cadence tracker in Young’s shoes, and Young and his team have dodged any questions about taking measures to prove with certainty that he is running the entire distance. (Young’s team did not acknowledge the uncertain standard of proof in an email reply to Deadspin.)
Young has since begun to hit back at his doubters. In a blog post, his team acknowledged the speculation, called any doubters lazy, and ended on a vaguely threatening note:
Parting note: Most of the comments on social media have been hugely supportive up till now and helped Rob continue on with added vigour. Thanks for those. However some idiots have written stupid things, calling into doubt what he is doing out here, which unfortunately get to Rob. Why he listens to these people I don’t know but he does. I won’t respond to them individually here but if and when Rob makes it to NYC I will name and shame those individuals for attacking an individual who is openly and sincerely doing something they are entirely incapable of doing themselves. We have been easily found by several people already by locating us on the tracker map on this website. We are out in the open doing something without guile or manipulation, and to accuse us or Rob of doing anything else is a very low thing to do, and completely without basis. Anyone who doubts the legitimacy of what Rob is doing is free to find us and follow us and to see for themselves what Rob is achieving. If you’re too lazy to be a witness yourself, then, from someone who has witnessed hundreds of his miles already, please have the self-respect to keep your doubts to yourself – or risk the chance that those doubts may one day turn around and bite you on your nose. We’re in Mark Twain country here in Missouri and, as in so many other instances, he made the point better than I could: ‘It’s better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than open it and remove all doubt’.
There’s no way to tell for certain whether or not Young is telling the truth about his achievements, not given the set of evidence we have now. If he is indeed running the entire breadth of the country on three hours of sleep per night, he is one of the greatest athletes of all time. If he indeed can manage to rip off 30-mile stretches at a three-hour marathon pace with small breaks in between, the man has more endurance than perhaps anyone in the history of running. But there’s enough evidence to at least cast doubt upon the accomplishment, and if people start to run along with him and try to help pace him over the last third of his journey, we’ll see if Young can keep up the pace.