Ryan’s Personal Worst

Paul Ryan said he ran a marathon under three hours. Runners World magazine showed that he did not, that he has run one marathon, in 1990, and his time was 4:01:25. One reaction to Ryan being caught saying something that wasn’t true is that it’s nothing that voters will care about, that it’s not a substantive like the substantive lies in his speech at the Republican convention. I think that is horribly wrong, and not only because his statement had another lie that I haven’t seen anyone else catch. This lie about marathoning–and a closer looks makes it difficult to see it as anything other than a deliberate lie– may turn out to be the best way for voters to see him for what he is: a person and a policy maker concerned with marketing over accomplishment. It is also a lie that exemplifies the Randian arrogance and self-delusion at the core of Paul Ryan’s public image.

The New Yorker’s Nicholas Thompson says Ryan’s time, for a twenty year old, was “entirely average; in fact, for the race that Ryan ran, it was below average.” That’s not really true. To finish a marathon, at any age, is not average. It takes preparation, at a bare minimum three or four months of disciplined fitness work, as well as focus and an ability to push yourself to finish the race. A 4:01 marathon is an achievement of which anyone should be proud.

But the difference between a 4:01 marathon and a sub-three hour marathon isn’t a quibble over a workout time. It’s a difference between what someone did, and who someone is. For most men, breaking three hours in the marathon requires at least two or three years of serious training. It’s not simply getting in to shape, it’s training: probably 40 to 80 miles a week for most of the year, regular 12 to 15 mile runs, attention to diet, rigorous adherence to a schedule, consistent and sufficient rest and sacrificing some indulgences that give people pleasure. A man with a time of 4:01.25 is someone who has run a marathon. A man with a marathon time better than 3:00:00 is a marathoner.


For someone who doesn’t run, the difference between a four-hour marathon and a two-fifty-something may seem inconsequential, and easy to confuse. But for someone who does run seriously, it’s immense. To make an analogy to an activity that Ryan is unquestionably good at, it’s like the difference between doing twenty-five pushups (not bad!) and a hundred (holy smokes!)

That’s an OK analogy, but it’s comparing things one is capable of doing. A marathon is a performance, and your time is the level of your achievement. What Ryan did was akin to someone with a bachelor’s degree, who thus knows the magnitude of the difference, saying she has a PhD. Or, like someone elected to the Wisconsin House of Representatives telling someone who wouldn’t be likely to catch the lie that he was a member of the United States House of Representatives.

And for those who might still believe that Ryan’s tongue simply slipped, look again at what he said:

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

Note that Ryan didn’t say he couldn’t run another marathon, but that he doesn’t run marathons anymore, that he “had a” personal best, which conveys the meaning that it wasn’t a single event, but a period of time where he ran marathons, plural. How would the term “personal best” have meaning if you did that thing only once? How could he run only one marathon but mistakenly remember it as more than one? Why didn’t he say that time is also his personal worst?

Paul Krugman points out the obvious: Ryan lies about policy, so it shouldn’t be a surprise he lied about his marathoning. But Krugman makes another important point, about how his image has helped Ryan get away with lying:

[T]he response from the Beltway [that Ryan’s budget did not add up] was that it can’t be true, because he comes across as such an honest, sincere fellow. So little things indicating that this character judgment was all wrong do matter.

I don’t know why the usual suspects continue to have such faith in their ability to sense character, although I can guess: it privileges those who can actually have one-on-one conversations over those who just, um, actually analyze policy proposals. I mean, any old blogger can analyze policy.

Ryan gets away with policy lies because the bloviators and very serious people of Washington ignore what he does, and focus on who they believe he is. They annointed Ryan as the “serious” Republican, so they can’t fathom that he might be perpetrating a fraud. They overlook him putting out a “budget” with no numbers, and when pressed on it blithely said it was just a “marketing document.” They overlook him being forced to admit the Romney-Ryan campaign hadn’t run the numbers of their budget proposal. “He’s a numbers guy, a wonk,” they think. “He wouldn’t be that brazenly dishonest.”

Ryan has cultivated an image of a serious intellectual, someone conversant in philosophy, a man of ideas. But is there any foundation for this belief? He did not graduate from college with any distinctions, and never did post-graduate work. He has no significant writings. His only think tank work was as a speechwriter/publicist. He presents himself as a serious and devout Catholic, but when he invoked Catholic social teachings to defend his budget, Catholic social teachers showed he is clueless about Catholic social teachings. And he presents himself as a player in Congress–and in terms of messaging he is–but in over twelve years in Congress he has had only two piece of legislation become law.

When Al Gore got in trouble for seemingly stretching the truth while on the stump, it was invariably a case of Gore trying too hard to connect with a voter, to demonstrate to them “I understand you, and I’m actually more like you than you may realize, I’m one of you.” In contrast, the image Ryan cultivates, and that the DC bloviators suck up, is straight out of Ayn Rand: “I come from the same place as you, but I work really hard, I’ve accomplished more than you, I’m better than you.”

Now he wants us to believe he’s faster than us too.


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10 Responses to Ryan’s Personal Worst

  1. physicsmom says:

    So, essentially, he’s a male Sarah Palin, who also lied about everything – big and small – and claimed to be a runner, with little or no evidence to back that up. She said she ran a 10K race in Iowa last summer at which no one saw her except at the beginning and the end. The the start photo was clearly photoshopped and the finish pic showed a woman with no sweat or mussed hair and in full makeup. Supposedly she placed second. While I think she is pathological, Ryan is just calculating; using falsehoods to boost his image and not caring if he’s found out. He will just stonewall until the media gives up. A technique that seems to work well these days.

  2. Pingback: Paul Ryan, Al Bundy, and why sports don’t build character, they reveal it. | Hotspyer – Breaking News from around the web

  3. Thank you for explaining why this is a big deal. It’s hard to convey to non runners via Twitter. I can’t recall how many marathons and ultras I’ve run, but there’s no doubt about the times of my first and fastest marathons. I may occasionally say I ran a 2:44 at Grandma’s, but the 2:44:59 will never be “low-2:40s.”

    Ryan wanted the credit without doing the work, which seems ironic, doesn’t it?

    • Dana Houle says:

      I’ve never run a marathon, but I ran in HS, I ran in college, I worked in a running store and I coached for several years. It occurred to me after I wrote this post that the best analogy I could come up with for non-runners in my Twitter feed is how writers feel about plagiarism. And my Twitter feed has been interesting, too: runners in my feed, like Tina Dupuy and even the amazingly good-natured and seemingly easy-going Peter Sagal were pissed. I think it comes down to honor. And saying you ran a sub-three hour marathon when you didn’t break four hours is, most of all in the eyes of runners, deeply dishonorable.

      BTW, I don’t know if you just tossed that out as a random time, but if you ran a 2:44, kudos, that’s pretty damn fast. As I said in the post, hell, 4:00:00 is worthy of praise, so there was no reason for Ryan to dismiss that as an accomplishment. But 2:44 is serious shit. So, if that’s what you ran, you have my respect and admiration.

  4. David says:

    Ryan is not a legislator. He is VP candidate made out of thin air by a Washington press corp that, in there wish to show impartiality, needed to find what they felt was a rational GOP voice to put up against the administrations slightly left of center positions. Tired of the Mitch McConnell and other GOP leaders highly political antics they looked for a younger and newer figure. Ryan popped up and since he was young, listened to music their kids might like and was into exercise he fit the bill of something new. Even Obama fell for the kids press PR.

    Unfortunately Ryan is neither a policy wonk or a budget expert as his unfinished budgets, there are so many of them now even he can’t define a clear position or how they came about, are laughable as a guide to policy discussion.

    Now that the press is really looking at his background we can see that even Ryan believed his own press clippings. Having never been challenged by the press or his own party, he now faces real questions about his background and theories and is trying to warp reality into his own needs. The national press is no longer shy of calling a lie a lie, and the pundits and bloggers are not reluctant to pin lies to the liar’s lapel.

    Ryan may not go rogue on Romney but the flip flopping Mitt should wonder if voters might eventually think flip flopping is the same as lying.

  5. JohnDavis says:

    We all remember about a month ago Romney commented to NBC’s interviewer at the start of the London Olympics, saying that he found it “a little disconcerting” how there may not be adequate preparations for those Olympics, (which pretty much went off without a single hitch), It seems to me to be the MOST appropriate term (“disconcerting”) to describe the Republican Party’s nominees and their supporters in this election year. They are ill-prepared. Their platform is filled with gaping holes,even inconsistencies with the stated positions of the candidates. There is a lack of flesh and muscle on their skeleton images of austerity. So ill-prepared are they that these two now famous “numbers men” have simply NOT run the numbers on their budget. And yet, every one of their devoted supporting fans seems to care as little about the facts and figures as a time-keeper would if he forgot to bring his stop watch to a marathon race.

    Marathons are the stuff of legend to Boston, where Romney once claims to have governed. In Boston, the marathon race is a yearly event on a unique Boston holiday, Patriots’ Day. Thousands of runners of all varieties gather each year, and quite often the official winners are not even Americans. Everyone with a decent qualifying time is allowed in. Any marathon runner or any former governor of the state knows more than a little about the Boston Marathon, and how traditions and training combine to make for a festive and for often a record-setting early spring holiday. In recent years, it is often a Kenyan, by the way, who takes top honors and record time.

    Romney and Ryan are running in a different sort of race. Their personal best is precisely what we are expecting. We want well-trained, disciplined, seriously qualified candidates in this policital race, not just duffers who decided one day that it would be a thrill to run. The fact that they both ran and were elected to office, (Romney only once, Ryan six times without voters paying much attention), should have taught them how tough it is to qualify and lead in this most important of races worldwide. That should be the focus, not just the qualifying time numbers, (which we STILL DON’T HAVE), but the detail of how they trained for this event. We want details, not just outlines, facts and figures, not just pithy platitudes and boastful bragging. Yet the bottom line, this time around, seems to me that Romney and Ryan’s cheering fans don’t need those details. Their fans just don’t want that “Kenyan” runner to win another race. To me, this is more than a little “disconcerting”.

  6. Pingback: Paul Ryan, Al Bundy, and why sports don’t build character, they reveal it. | FavStocks

  7. Pete says:

    Well said, very well said. Some have wondered if, well, maybe he considered himself a three-hour marathoner because he ran 4:01 and might have crossed the start line a minute or so into the race, given that there were 2,000 runners and the race wasn’t chipped time — meaning his actually running time was three fifty-something. But as you point out, his remarks to Hewitt suggest he’s run several marathons. And there’s just a smug, narcissistic way he talks about himself to Hewitt. Even his statement regarding how he can’t run so much now because of his back — “I just run 10 miles.” Well, hell, 10 is no short run, dude. If you’re getting out on 10 milers every so often, you are a runner. And if you are a runner, you don’t accidentally say you ran “under three,” then elaborate on that to say “high twos,” and then zero in on “two hour and fifth something.”

    • Dana Houle says:

      Excellent point. First of all, if something takes down a distance runner, it’s usually going to be a bad knee, metatarsals, a hip, sciatica, IT band….but seldom a bad back. And you’re right, if you do have some injury that keeps you from marathon training, it’s probably going to keep you from doing ten mile runs. As to the chip issue, right, they didn’t have them in 1990, but almost nobody runs a 3:10 marathon at 20 years old, and besides, even though Grandma’s is a big marathon–and when the weather is right, one of the fastest courses in North America–it sure doesn’t take an hour to clear the starting line.

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