Afterword: Frank Meza

Posted: July 25, 2019 in CATCH-ALL, Life & Running
Tags: , ,

If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else.
– Booker T. Washington

Los Angeles runner Dr. Frank Meza

(photo: FinisherPix)

I was saddened to learn of the death of Los Angeles runner Dr. Frank Meza earlier this month from an apparent suicide. Dr. Meza, a retired physician well respected within his community, had recently been disqualified from this year’s Los Angeles Marathon (in which he’d won the 70-74 age group in a time of 2:53:10) after clear-cut evidence surfaced that he’d cut the course. Dr. Meza repeatedly denied the allegations, despite the fact he’d also been DQ’ed by the California International Marathon in 2014 and 2016, and officially banned from CIM after 2016. In light of his most recent disqualification, Dr. Meza’s other marathon results from recent years have now been called into question.

To be clear, cheating in any sport is unconscionable, unacceptable and should be dealt with appropriately. And the available evidence did support the conclusion that Dr. Meza cheated. However, to ensure the continued well-being of our sport and its participants, in situations like this we should all take a deep breath and allow the data and the events themselves to be the final arbiter of guilt or innocence, not the court of public opinion. Which is why I was admittedly dismayed by the chain of events in which high-profile media coverage led to relentless online harassment and a striking lack of empathy from some members of the running community toward Dr. Meza.

Apparently for many of his critics, some of whom continued to defend their tone-deaf position in the aftermath of his death, it became more important to “put him in his place” (often anonymously) and to burn him publicly, as a child with a magnifying glass would an ant, rather than to step back, recognize the deeply troubled pathology of a serial cheater, and let the race organizers handle their business privately and professionally. Yes, Dr. Meza refused to accept responsibility and repeatedly denied the allegations, but then again what would you expect from a proud but flawed man who’d been treated like a hardened criminal by the social media outrage machine, and who’d been publicly shamed into a corner with no graceful way out?

I’ve read all the arguments from the outraged masses eager to step up and take a swing at the Frank Meza piñata: “The damage he did to the running community will never be fully calculated.” “He deserves all the blowback he will receive, and a lot more.” “He took the easy way out.” If the damage done to the sport by one cheating age-group runner is indeed irreparable, then I’ve badly underestimated the strength, integrity and resilience of a community that’s survived far worse over the years. It feels like just yesterday we were all reeling with shock after two bombs exploded at the 2013 Boston Marathon finish line, so a little more perspective and a little less melodrama is in order.

Not only that, but the overheated online outrage felt less like concern for the running community and more like a small segment of vocal armchair psychologists who felt personally wronged by Dr. Meza’s actions or who were simply rubbernecking, as drivers here in Los Angeles do for even the slightest fender-bender, hoping to see — what, exactly? Before Dr. Meza’s death, one online commentator admitted as much in saying, “I’d binge-watch a Netflix series on [Meza].” To many onlookers, Dr. Meza’s downfall was must-see reality TV, and the opportunity to be part of the action was too good to pass up.

And to those same armchair psychologists: the only one taking the “easy way out” is the self-appointed judge, jury and executioner who so casually and callously dismisses the devastation of suicide. Fortunately I’ve never been in such a position, but I can’t imagine anything harder than making the decision to end one’s life. I don’t claim to understand how anyone — and particularly someone who reportedly did so much good for so many people throughout his 70 years — could cheat himself and his sport to the extent Dr. Meza allegedly did, much less find himself in a place where suicide feels like the only viable option. Unfortunately, mental illness doesn’t boldly announce itself like measles or a broken bone; more often than not its symptoms are elusive, insidious and misunderstood. And we all have a high tolerance for each other’s pain.

As ambassadors for the sport, Katie and I love the running community because it’s just that — a community. One with the same foibles and flaws as many other communities to be sure, but one that’s far greater than the sum of its parts, and one whose members lift each other up in the toughest of times by appealing to our better angels. Where else outside your pet bulldog can you get that kind of unconditional acceptance and appreciation? We’re firm believers in the power of positive thinking and positive people, and no collective group of individuals personifies that belief like runners.

So I prefer to err on the side of empathy, because the alternative is counterproductive and leads to no positive outcome for a community that prides itself on busting its backside to chase positive outcomes. And in the end, Dr. Meza and his family suffered a far greater punishment than any race organizer, indignant critic or overreaching blogger could ever dole out.

Though his disqualification(s) may crown deserving new age group champs, there are no winners in the Frank Meza saga. His story is unfortunate, but it wasn’t the first of its kind and it won’t be the last. And hopefully the silver lining will be that this opens the door to a productive dialogue around cheating in the sport.

For the rest of us, now more than ever the Golden Rule is worth its weight in gold. So maybe we can all calm our thoughts, take a step back together and remember: words matter. Words have power. And whether you recognize it or not, your words may someday be the difference between extending someone a lifeline and pushing them off a cliff. The high road may feel like a steep climb at times, but the view from the top is worth it.

Be good to each other, y’all.

Comments
  1. Joe Ely says:

    Well said, Mike. Words matter. This brings that simple statement into shocking focus.

    Thanks for posting.

  2. CPK says:

    Hey… Found your website awhile back bc we apparently co-ran Comrades together… I appreciate your thoughtful tone and words in this piece. However, I’d like to push back against some of what you’ve said. I feel like you’ve created a bit of a straw-man argument and misrepresented the vast majority of the reactions against Mr. Meza. Sure there were a few random anonymous internet commenter who wanted his personal and professional lives ruined. But most people just wanted to see him disqualified from the LA Marathon, which is eminently reasonable. He literally claimed a world record time, this wasn’t just a BQ situation or something small! It took mainstream media coverage for the race directors to do so, despite plenty of evidence along with his prior disqualification from other events. Was this related to his well-connected affiliation with a local running club? I don’t know. But I do know if they had quietly removed him from results and maintained integrity of their race, it would’ve thrown a bucket of ice water on the fire.
    Marathon Investigations gives its subjects ample opportunity to defend themselves prior to publishing any article; he chose not to. All it would’ve taken was a single apology or effort to withdraw from these results, but he did none of that.
    You also say “what else would you expect from a proud but flawed man” and “I can’t imagine anything harder than making the decision to end one’s life”. Apparently making an apology or taking responsibility for his actions was harder than making that decision to harm himself.
    Lastly, it’s very easy to retrospectively say this all went too far. But as it was happening, who was out there trying to pump the brakes on all of it? Nobody. Not a peep until he took his life.
    Like I said, I admire your thoughtful writing on this post and others. I think we agree on most of it, I just think that responsibility for Frank Meza falls on Frank Meza, not the running community…

    • Mike says:

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment, CPK. I appreciate your perspective and agree that the public outrage against Dr. Meza represented a vocal minority. As I said, the running community is among the most supportive I know, and that was the case here as well — most of the reactions were exactly as you describe, that is, folks simply wanting the LA Marathon to do the right thing. But in this age of so much manufactured outrage, the minority in question was sizable and vocal enough that its mob mentality hijacked the conversation, thereby exerting a very real and ultimately tragic impact.

      I don’t know whether it was the mainstream media coverage that led the LA Marathon organizers to disqualify Dr. Meza. While the coverage may well have forced their hand, the fact is that CIM didn’t need mainstream media coverage to disqualify him in 2014 and 2016 and then ban him from their race. That was done privately and professionally, without the help of the social media outrage machine. Presented with the data, I have no doubt the LA Marathon organizers would have done the right thing in time, and especially as you mentioned because his was a world record time. A performance of that magnitude is guaranteed to generate scrutiny with no help from the public. But again, as you said, quicker action on the part of the LAM would have doused this fire quickly, so the race itself is not without blame.

      That said, the blog you referenced (which funds itself by outing cheaters publicly) published no fewer than NINE articles focused on Dr. Meza… that to me is the definition of overkill. Why not privately present such clear-cut evidence to the proper authorities (in this case, the LA Marathon organizers) and wash your hands of it? Why continue to use your public platform to shine a glaring spotlight on the man, if not to humiliate him publicly and try to force an admission of guilt? And once Dr. Meza refused to admit responsibility, this quickly became an episode of “us vs. him.” As a former research scientist, I know the most important thing you can do is to let the evidence speak for itself, and the evidence in this case spoke volumes — so then why undermine it and drown it out with a seemingly personal quest for validation?

      And yes, to be sure hindsight is 20/20… to say no one was trying to pump the brakes on the public outcry is one of the key lessons here. I think it’s fair to say no one expected this would get out of control as quickly as it did and ultimately lead to Dr. Meza taking his own life. I for one expected the furor would die down quickly in today’s rapid-fire news cycle and that whether he admitted guilt or not, Dr. Meza eventually would be able to regain his privacy and some semblance of a normal life, albeit as a former marathoner unwelcome at local races. Ultimately the data would win the day, I thought; clearly I was naïve. Instead this took a sad turn, and all those involved should be taking a long hard look in the mirror rather than continuing to blame Dr. Meza for taking the “easy way out.” As I noted, we all have a high tolerance for each other’s pain, and I refuse to stand in judgment of Dr. Meza’s final decision — I don’t know the man, I don’t know what he was going through, I don’t know what it was about his brain chemistry that drove him to cheat, and I don’t know why a highly respected former physician found himself unable to admit to his mistakes and accept responsibility. I don’t know.

      Again, I appreciate your thoughtful push-back and think we’re largely in agreement here. My main contention is that the sustained coverage and public outrage, even from a vocal minority, were an unnecessary and largely avoidable component in this tragedy, and one that played an outsized role in directing its outcome. And I hope there’s something here to prevent history from repeating itself down the road. Thanks, CPK.

      • CPK says:

        Dang… Nine articles? I knew it was a few but you’re right. That was probably too many, even if you don’t know how the story ends.
        I really wish we could know why the LA Marathon handled it differently than CIM. I feel like CIM is a much more serious, “runner’s runner” style race whereas LA is a major city, carnival type event. I also hope that races invest in adding more timing mats and perhaps broader use of technology. I can’t think of a single innovation in this area since the disposable timing chips became ubiquitous

        • Mike says:

          Yes, CIM and LAM definitely cater to different crowds, though with both being significant marathons I’d hope they would handle issues of cheating with similar urgency. And I’d agree about timing mats, it does seem like another mat or two along the course wouldn’t be difficult in most cases and would go a long way toward deterring would-be cheaters.

          I think the sport would benefit, too, from having a centralized “cheaters database,” i.e. a database containing the names of known cheaters who have been DQ’ed and/or banned from a previous event, as a way to communicate among races and possibly ping a race director when someone in the database registers for their event. Not an idea I’ve thought through in any great detail admittedly, but RDs could use a proactive solution to help them combat this problem

  3. lilahwi says:

    Thank you for writing this. Social media is a very powerful tool and one that is easily and often abused.

    You never know what internal struggle is going on within someone. This probably applies even more to runners, we have way too much time to get into our own heads.

    It is always better to choose to be kind.

    • Mike says:

      That’s just it Cathy, well said… you never know what others may be going through. And though I’ve never intentionally cheated on race day, I’m surrounded by far too many glass walls to be throwing stones myself. Thanks for reading and for sharing your thoughts.

  4. Paul says:

    Who among us isn’t deserving of empathy and compassion? Thanks for the reminder, Mike.

  5. Mike Beckwith says:

    Very well written Mike. I’m so glad you did this. Such a tragedy.

  6. Roderick Powell says:

    Thanks for posting this.

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