Detroit marathon's 1st-place handcyclist disqualified after veering off-course
By BILL LAITNER | Detroit Free Press | Published: October 24, 2017
DETROIT (Tribune News Service) — In the high-tech world that high-stakes sports has become, it’s not enough to look like you won.
Computer chips have to prove it -- even if you were the very first person across the finish line of the Detroit Free Press/Chemical Bank Marathon.
After a week of reviewing data, the chief referee for the Detroit marathon determined that handcycle winner and overall first-place finisher Omar Duran of Clearwater, Fla., did not complete the full 26.2-mile course. Sensors keyed to computer chips built into competitors’ race numbers showed that Duran missed numerous checkpoints, race officials said Monday.
Duran has been disqualified and the win was awarded to second-place finisher Travis Peruski of Linden, Mich., officials said.
"The technology bears out what we were thinking," said the marathon’s chief referee Ned O’Doherty of St. Paul, Minn. Duran did not cheat but instead simply made several wrong turns, O’Doherty said.
Duran's predicament illustrates the challenge of marking and marshaling the serpentine marathon course for the several dozen speedy handcyclists who start two minutes ahead of thousands of runners, then streak in predawn darkness through Windsor and Detroit as fast as 40 m.p.h.
"Omar feels terrible, and I feel terrible. He’s a good guy. He was very careful not to place blame. I can picture how it happened" when Duran raced out of the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel and apparently turned the wrong way, said O’Doherty.
A former Portage resident, O'Doherty is in his third year as chief referee of the Detroit marathon and has been a credentialed road race official in Michigan since 1982.
Forced to disqualify Duran, "you’re mortified at what happened, but you’re gratified that it wasn’t cheating," O'Doherty said Monday. Although the race assigns trained bicycle racers to accompany and guide each handcyclist, and although escorts had fallen behind Duran at the time of his missed turns, "it’s ultimately the racer’s responsibility to know the course," O’Doherty said.
Duran, 38, did not respond to messages Monday. Like many in the marathon’s Disability Division, Duran is a military veteran. He was serving in the U.S. Army in Afghanistan in 2011 when a buried explosive device blew off his legs and part of one hand, he said last week.
Peruski, the new winner, will collect $600 for the win. The two became friends soon after meeting at the finish line, but Peruski kept to himself the sense that he had actually won, Peruski said. The two shook hands warmly, then rolled off to the recovery tent together, with Duran inviting Peruski to stay with him in Florida for training this winter, Peruski recalled Monday. As for the race?
"He said he got lost on the course. And he said, ‘I only beat you by 45 seconds.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I guess.’
But I knew right away I’d won because he never passed me," said Peruski, a veteran of Detroit's marathon.
He added: "I know that course cold. I was telling my bike escorts where to turn."
Yet, more persuasive in this cyber-driven age than any witness statement is the data cranked out by race computers, said George Dubrish of Grosse Pointe Farms, manager of the marathon’s Disabilities Division. That data shows signals sent by sensors inside timing mats stretched across the marathon's key mile posts, and tripped by the microchips built into every competitor’s race number, Dubrish said.
The data showed that Duran passed the race's 7-mile and 20-mile markers but none in between, Dubrish said. Officials of Detroit's marathon learned last week that Duran might be disqualified and were given the final word Monday, said Executive Race Director Barbara Bennage. The decision came after O'Doherty in consultation with other referees checked the timing data but also interviewed course marshals and bike guides, Bennage said.
"It is unfortunate that Mr. Duran went off course and we hope that he will be back in 2018," Bennage said in a statement. With Duran's disqualification, this year's Disabilities Division logged 30 finishers, although several top competitors quit the race after encountering mechanical issues with the hand-cranked, three-wheeled handcycles that can cost as much as $10,000, race officials said.
The breathless tale of Duran's errant race gives a hint at the struggle between muscle and mind in any athlete forced to make decisions while feeling close to exhaustion. Duran's bike guide Martin Tulashie of Ferndale had been assigned to another handcyclist but, when the other racer didn't appear on the Ambassador Bridge, Tulashie raced ahead and saw Duran rolling without a bike escort in the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel.
"I was going about 30 m.p.h. but I couldn’t catch him," Tulashie said. "So, after we came out of the tunnel, I think right after we came on Jefferson, he made a wrong turn but I wasn’t aware of that. There were some arrows that I heard were blown away because of the wind. And it was so dark," Tulashie said.
"I was following him but he was maybe 50 to 80 feet ahead of me. We got to one of the streets and he had gone completely off course. He continued to go past one of the barriers and I knew that was definitely the wrong turn. I was racing like crazy, trying to reach him," he said. The two stopped, conferred with a course marshal and tried to get back to the official course -- but evidently missed many more chances to rejoin the race, Tulashie said.
Racing off course, whether intentionally or not, is easy to prove. A top marathoner also missed a sensor, running through one for half-marathoners, "because he's Russian and I guess he can't read English," referee O'Doherty said.
"We had a course marshal on a motorcycle, shouting at him, but he doesn't speak English either." So the marathoner, who might've won, "still ended fourth" after having to circle back a quarter-mile to pass the right sensor, O'Doherty said.
No matter how it happens, in a racing and so much of life these days, "the chips tell the story," he said.
Contact Bill Laitner: firstname.lastname@example.org
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