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Let me tell you, first, my best memory of Dr. Jean Marmoreo, the founder of the Toronto-based running group JeansMarines, which is now smack in the middle of a cheating scandal.

It was Oct. 26, 2003, and Dr. Marmoreo's group of novice and predominantly middle-aged women distance runners, me among them, were running the 28th Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C.

As a motley crew of my friends and I approached the notorious 14th Street Bridge -- notorious because if you don't get there within 5½ hours, your race is over, and you're picked up by a bus -- this wiry little redhead appeared out of nowhere to tell us we were right on track and easily would "make the bridge," as it's called, with no worries, as indeed we did.

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It was, of course, Dr. Marmoreo, who is a genuine speedster and an age-group record holder. She was giving up her own race to help us with ours: I believe she did the same thing for JeansMarines both ahead and behind us, and I would guess that with all the back-and-forth she and her husband, Bob Ramsay, logged that day, they probably ran a hell of a lot farther than 26.2 miles each.

It is a long, long way from that sort of nobility to the mess Dr. Marmoreo now finds herself in.

A front-page story in the Toronto Star yesterday made public a tempest that apparently has been brewing for a while now on running websites, and that is this: A number of this year's slowest JeansMarines, directed by Dr. Marmoreo herself, took a shortcut that shaved several miles off the critical, pre-bridge distance.

In other words, they cheated. They didn't run the full distance, but they collected their finisher's medals as though they had.

These JeansMarines were spotted as they crossed what Dr. Marmoreo yesterday called "the 17th Street bypass" and in an e-mail she sent out to members this week described as the "17th Street cut-off."

This, frankly, strikes me as a lot of hooey: There are no bypasses or cutoffs or shortcuts to the storied distance, and saying there is is the flip side of Bill Clinton saying that oral sex doesn't count.

And this wasn't the first time, Dr. M. said yesterday.

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Last year, with a walker who was "having a real hard time," someone approached Dr. Marmoreo to suggest she should "put her through here" to spare the woman the ignominy of not finishing the race.

From this, and from what she has seen with those runners who are picked up by the buses -- some allegedly begin running again on the other side of the bridge -- Dr. M. came to believe that this was an accepted practice unofficially tolerated by organizers of what is also called "The People's Marathon."

So this year, when the slowest of the slow of the JeansMarines took 28 minutes to do the first mile, Dr. Marmoreo knew they would never make the bridge in time, and ran ahead to see about the shortcut.

"This wasn't some Rosie Ruiz thing," she told me in a telephone interview, a reference to the woman who was considered the female winner of the 1980 Boston Marathon until it became clear she had run only the last half-mile.

Rather, Dr. M. said, it was done so "that our people could have the marathon of their dreams" and because she believed "that this was the one marathon in the world that would accommodate it." Dr. Marmoreo said she herself "put three" people across, and that three others had started early so as to beat the bus but took longer than the specified seven hours. She also insists all of them could have completed the 26.2 miles, if they had enough time.

One of those who had spotted the cheaters began complaining after the Oct. 30 race, and soon wrote Dr. M., saying she had "besmirched" the marathon, and that's when the doctor sent out her e-mail, asking those who didn't do the total distance in seven hours to return their medals. She described what happened as having been "perceived as cheating" and noted that others in the running community "feel some of our runners and walkers did not earn the medals we so proudly wore" after the race.

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Well, count me in on that.

I don't believe those who cheated earned their medals, and here I speak as someone who finished 13,628th out of 15,968 total finishers that year. I don't perceive what these people did as cheating: I know damn well it was cheating. And I don't believe that Dr. Marmoreo should shoulder all the responsibility here either, though she is willing to do so. The people who availed themselves of the shortcut, or who started early, are adults responsible for their own decisions. They have to wear some of the mud.

I think I may even understand how Dr. Marmoreo, and JeansMarines, temporarily lost their way.

In recent years, this sport that was once the purview of the few and the skinny has been remarkably democratized.

Suddenly, marathons were being seen as a sort of personal empowerment exercise or as therapy -- a way, especially for people in midlife or midlife crisis, to make a big statement. This was, in the main, a good thing, or at least, a benign one. It inspired people to get fit, helped them lose weight, and enabled them to make new friends.

All of these things, to one degree or another, happened to me when I joined the group. I run now with a small group of other former JeansMarines, all of whom I love madly and who now number among my dearest pals. I lost weight, and am in the best shape of my life. Since Washington, I have gone on to complete two other marathons, one of which I ran every step of the way, wanting to do the race the way it was meant to be done.

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JeansMarines really did change my life, and I say as much in one of the group's promotional videos.

But somewhere along the line, what Dr. Marmoreo and hubby Bob and some of the members appear to have forgotten is the very message they preach -- that the act of crossing the finish line is not the gift of this group or this sport or any other. Rather, the gift is found in the journey to get there, or not, if that happens.

I used to write a sports column for this newspaper, and still dabble in what my predecessor in that space, the late Dick Beddoes, always called "the playpen." For as long as I've covered sports, I've heard athletes talk about failure. Fear of failing is what motivates them, and to understand its lessons, they must experience it first.

We all lose sometimes, or fail -- at love, at work, and everywhere else we go in life. It is how we learn our limits (and then perhaps how to go around them); it's how we learn to change; ultimately, it's how we learn to succeed.

There's no protection or escape from it. I think they forgot that at JeansMarines. Now is the perfect opportunity to pick themselves up, ashes of defeat bitter on the tongue, and try again.

cblatchford@globeandmail.ca

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