A Record-Setting Marathon Champ Was Accused of Cheating—Weeks Later, He Was Dead

Dr. Frank Meza had found himself at the center of a media firestorm before his body was discovered in the L.A. River

For Dr. Frank Meza, a marathon was no big deal. He had run dozens of them in his 70 years and had a simple prerace routine: wake up early, slam a cup of coffee, no stretching, maybe a light warm-up. The morning of the L.A. Marathon on March 24, he pulled on a pair of running shorts and a purple long-sleeve shirt, donned a black cap, and drove from his home in leafy South Pasadena to the starting line at Dodger Stadium. The gun went off at 6:55 a.m.

Two hours, 53 minutes, and 10 seconds later, Meza crossed the finish line in Santa Monica. The official announcer cheered him over the PA system: “Seventy years young, going 2:53 and change—Frank, you are incredible!”

“Incredible” was an understatement. Meza had just run the fastest marathon ever recorded for someone in his age group of 70 to 74. It wasn’t an official world record, which would require running on a certified course, like Berlin or Chicago. That honor still belonged to Ed Whitlock, the legend who spent his last decades tearing up age-group records before his death in 2017. But Meza’s time put him on Whitlock’s tail.

Meza didn’t stick around to stand on the podium or pose for pictures. Instead, he went home for breakfast with his family. There was no party, no TV interview, just a few congratulatory texts from friends. “We were so used to him getting first place, we were like, ‘OK, cool,’” said his daughter, Lorena.

Meza’s performance didn’t surprise those who knew him. All he did was run, ever since he joined the track team in the 1960s at L.A.’s Cathedral High School. He took up marathoning while studying medicine and raced even more frequently after retiring since he had extra time to train. He wore shorts under his work clothes in case he wanted to squeeze in a jog between shifts. As assistant coach of the Loyola High School cross-country team, the man known as “Doc” would take the boys on long runs across the city he knew so well, through Elysian Park or up to the Hollywood Sign or along the L.A. River, where he played with frogs as a child. “Running means movement,” he said once. “There is no life without movement.”

Meza’s marathon prowess matched his success in other areas. He worked in family medicine at Kaiser Permanente for decades, eventually becoming physician in charge at the company’s East L.A. office, and served as interim chief medical officer of the community health network AltaMed. In the ’70s he cofounded the Aztlan Track Club, a running group aimed at young Latinos, and also helped start the educational program Chicanos for Creative Medicine. A child of Mexican immigrants who grew up poor in Elysian Valley, Meza was a classic American bootstrapper, and he dedicated himself to helping others. His wisdom and deadpan humor endeared him to peers and mentees alike, while his work ethic earned their respect. “He was a father figure for a lot of us,” said Scott Dominguez, a former Loyola student who went on to become a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney. With a loving wife, two children (a doctor and a nurse), three grandkids, good health, and a sterling reputation, Meza seemed to have it all. Becoming the world’s fastest 70-year-old was just a bonus.

Meza’s L.A. Marathon results drew the attention of hard-core running nerds, some of whom praised him on LetsRun, an online forum known for its rollicking message boards. “Great race Frank. Wow!” “This guy is a machine.” A few weeks later Meza was thrilled to receive an email from a marathoner named Amby Burfoot asking to talk. Burfoot is marathon royalty: He won the 1968 Boston Marathon and served as editor-in-chief of Runner’s World for 25 years. Meza expected Burfoot to congratulate him on his record time and ask about his training regimen. “He was a bit of a hero to him,” said Meza’s wife, Dr. Tina Nevarez.

So Meza was distraught when Burfoot began to grill him instead about the “confusion” surrounding his times. Why, for example, had the California International Marathon in Sacramento disqualified him in 2014 and 2016? Race officials had ruled that Meza’s splits showed him running the last ten kilometers of the race unrealistically fast. What happened?

Suspicion of Meza’s blazing times was not abnormal. Cheating abounds in racing: An expert estimates as many as 5 percent of qualifying times for the Boston Marathon are fraudulent. In recent years a dentist invented a fake race in Wyoming and declared himself the victor, a British author pretended to run across America (he rode partway in a van), and a Harvard grad biked a half-marathon while wearing a GPS watch to prove that she’d run it. Their names became punch lines, their reputations tainted for life.

Asked about the two disqualifications, Meza pleaded ignorance. “I didn’t contest it,” he told Burfoot. “I said, ‘I would disqualify me, too. I can’t run 10K that fast.’” Bib chip technology isn’t perfect. It’s not unusual for a timing mat to miss a runner altogether. Meza gave Burfoot the names of people who could vouch for him. One friend and longtime running partner testified to Meza’s skill. Burfoot also tried Lalo Diaz, head coach of the cross-country team at Loyola. Diaz didn’t pick up but later left Burfoot a polite, measured voicemail requesting that Burfoot “cease and desist.”

Burfoot decided to let it go. He wasn’t sure “whether it was worth writing about an esteemed member of the Hispanic medical community for records which didn’t affect the world at large,” he said. “If this puts more bad juju out into the universe than good, why bother?”

frank meza marathon
Dr. Frank Meza, with his wife, Dr. Faustina “Tina” Nevarez, and his son, Dr. Francisco Meza. His daughter, Lorena Meza, is a nurse

Derek Murphy was not a fast runner. With a fatherly paunch and an affinity for earth tones, he looked more like an off-duty mall cop than an athlete. He described his racing style as “plodding.” “I can move very slowly for a long time,” he once said. Over a dozen marathons, he had never broken five hours.

But Murphy followed running news, and in 2015 he spotted a report about a Philadelphia disc jockey who was caught faking his qualifying time for the Boston Marathon. Murphy, who works as a financial analyst, wondered how many other people cheated to get a coveted Boston slot. So he did what he does best: He created an Excel spreadsheet. After downloading publicly available marathon data, he quickly found that a portion of runners logged radically different times in their qualifying races and in Boston. He launched a website, Marathon Investigation, and started posting evidence and calling out cheaters.

Marathon cheating is almost as old as the modern marathon itself. At the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis, a competitor who had collapsed from exhaustion rode a car to the 19-mile point and finished the race on foot, placing first. In 1980 Rosie Ruiz famously jumped into the Boston Marathon near the finish line and claimed victory.

But as technology has improved, cheating has gotten harder. Dishonest marathoners must now outsmart timing mats, professional photographers, and video cameras. Some cheaters hire a faster runner to act as a “bib mule” and wear their number, but that’s relatively easy to catch by comparing race photos to photos of the person whose name is registered. Course cutting is trickier: You’d have to know the locations of all the timing mats and move from one to the next while also maintaining plausibly smooth split times. Few marathons have the resources to probe every last suspicious time, leaving vigilantes like Murphy to protect the integrity of the sport.

Murphy first heard about Meza in 2017 from a skeptical race official. He looked at Meza’s times but couldn’t find enough evidence to justify a post. Still, he wasn’t surprised when the congratulatory messages about Meza on LetsRun in March turned sour. A user with the handle Not Possible observed that Meza appeared in relatively few photos compared to other runners. Someone else noticed Meza’s absence from video footage taken during a 2019 race in Phoenix. His splits were also wildly uneven: In the L.A. Marathon in 2015, he had run one five-kilometer section in 25 minutes and ran the next in 18:34. And that was during his fastest marathon ever (2:52:47). Experienced runners say that simply doesn’t happen when you’re setting near-record times. Robert Johnson, the irreverent cofounder of LetsRun, put it bluntly: “Anyone with half a brain knows those splits are absolutely impossible.”

Murphy dove in and, with help from the mostly anonymous LetsRunners, found photos that showed Meza entering the L.A. Marathon course from the sidewalk at the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2019. Murphy contacted Meza. “I looked at the photos and I can assure you I did not cut,” Meza told him in an email. He had merely left the course to urinate: “I found a building wall maybe 20 yds from street.”

Murphy reviewed hundreds of images from the same time and location, trying to confirm that Meza had left the course where he re-entered it. He came up empty. When he reached back out, Meza said he would be obtaining counsel. “If they admit it and withdraw, I don’t write about it,” Murphy once said. “It’s when they double down that it gets interesting.”

In late May, Murphy presented the evidence against Meza on his website. While he was the first to call out Meza in public, the doctor had been quietly setting off alarms for years. First came his disqualification from CIM in 2014 for suspicious splits, followed by a lifetime ban in 2016. In 2015 the L.A. Marathon must have noticed something fishy because officials asked him to run with an observer in the future. But when he returned in 2017, he ran alone, the observer idea apparently forgotten. He also ran solo in 2018 and 2019. 

Frank Meza running in Tibet

Courtesy Tina Nevarez

I spoke to one runner, an acquaintance of Meza, who was cruising down a stretch in Beverly Hills during the 2013 L.A. Marathon when he saw the doctor running on the sidewalk—in the opposite direction. “We made eye contact,” said the runner, who spoke on condition of anonymity. He assumed Meza had given up. “I’m like, ‘Oh, man, he’s having a rough day.’ ” At the end of the race, he was surprised to learn that Meza had finished in three hours—far ahead of him. “He would have had to pass me and beat me,” the runner said, but he hadn’t seen Meza again on the course. A volunteer coach at Loyola had a similar experience and expressed concerns to head distance coach Diaz in April 2019, but Meza continued to coach there. (Diaz did not respond to requests for comment.)

So Murphy and the LetsRun crew grumbled when the L.A. Marathon announced in early June that it would not disqualify Meza from the 2019 race. Instead, officials would ask him—again—to run with an observer next time around. “This is the best solution for all,” they told Murphy.

“Each race has its own set of politics,” said one marathon director I spoke with. Meza was an established, well-regarded community doctor and coach, and no race wants bad PR. So Meza brushed off the wrist slaps. “I took up running for fun,” he told Canadian Running Magazine in June. “What I can tell you is that I did not cut.” He promised to wear a GPS watch next time.

While his explanations may have mollified race directors, they didn’t impress Murphy. “I was disappointed in this decision,” he wrote on his site. “[I]t is not the time to give Frank the benefit of the doubt.” The decision galvanized LetsRunners; the Meza thread now stretched to hundreds of posts, ranging from sober and evidence-based to self-righteous and conspiratorial. Some users saw themselves as defenders of a sport that had devolved from serious competition into “fun runs”; others sought to protect Ed Whitlock’s legacy; still others invoked the hard-working runners-up who didn’t medal because of cheaters. “The pressure, attention, emailing, even trolling should continue until Meza fesses up to what he did and apologizes for it,” one user wrote.

Burfoot, who had previously hesitated to write about Meza, posted an essay on Marathon Investigation. “In my opinion, it’s time for Meza to prove his ability,” he wrote. “The sooner the better.”

On June 21 the Los Angeles Times published a front-page story with the headline: “Is this 70-year-old marathon runner from East L.A. a record setter or a cheater?” Until then Meza and his family had dismissed the allegations as the ramblings of an obscure blogger. But the Times story put him at the center of a media firestorm.

His family didn’t understand all the fuss. Meza was a private citizen, loved and respected in the community. “Why does anyone care about this?” asked Sara Tartof, Meza’s daughter-in-law.

Johnson, the LetsRun cofounder, attributed the public fascination partly to crowdsourcing. Anyone with a laptop could hunt for the next clue. “It’s like a reality show hits the internet,” he said. Then there was the question of method: If Meza had faked his times, it would have required meticulous planning. Meza was never that organized, according to his wife: “If he makes it on time, you’re lucky.” His case also posed a deeper question: Why would a happy, successful man with a lifetime of accomplishments cheat at a mundane pastime like running?

Maurice Schweitzer, a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, studies decision-making. Marathon cheats, he said, seem to be motivated by external validation—medals, applause, Instagram likes. If Meza craved adulation, torching marathon records could deliver. Age-group winners get cheered at the finish line, receive backslaps from fellow runners as they head to their cars, and have fingers pointed in their direction at the start of the next race. See that guy? That’s him. Such athletic glory, even in the sleepy world of weekend races, intoxicates in a way that professional success never can. Some of the most egregious marathon cheaters have been doctors, dentists, and lawyers. “You become addicted to the positive press, the accolades, your self-image as this incredible success,” Schweitzer said.

Suddenly Meza was famous. News outlets called his landline. TV trucks camped outside his house. Inside Edition rang his doorbell.

Aging could play a role, too. Many seniors’ identities start to fray when they can no longer do the things that gave their life meaning, Schweitzer added. Even a seemingly trivial activity could matter deeply to someone whose sense of self depends on it. “The psychological stakes for someone like Meza are quite high,” said Schweitzer, who pointed out other possible motivations. “People get a rush from outsmarting a system,” an effect he calls the “cheater’s high.” “It’s the same reason somebody’s going to scale a mountain: It’s a challenge.”

Still, Frank Meza? Everyone who knew him testified to his generosity, modesty, and sense of justice. He bought running shoes for students who couldn’t afford them. He wore clothes from Target and drove a 2014 Toyota Camry. Tina called him “honest to the core.” Schweitzer argues that in some cases, good deeds might help justify cheating. “‘I’ve sacrificed so much, helped out so many people, I deserve it,’ ” he said. “Bernie Madoff was a very generous donor to philanthropic causes.”

On June 28 the L.A. Marathon reversed its decision and disqualified Meza from the 2019 race. After reviewing video footage and a “credible eyewitness report,” officials concluded that he had “violated a number of race rules,” according to a statement. They also calculated that Meza ran one five-kilometer section of the course faster than anyone his age had ever run that distance—“an impossible feat during a marathon.”

Suddenly Meza was famous. News outlets called his landline. TV trucks camped outside his house. Inside Edition rang his doorbell. Dan Patrick dissected the case on his syndicated sports talk show, while the hosts of Good Morning America joked about Meza’s alleged pee break. The family hired a company that specializes in online reputation management, but it didn’t help. “They said, ‘This is a tsunami. We’ve never seen anything like this,’” Tina said. Daughter Lorena monitored the news so the rest of the family didn’t have to. “It was just too painful,” she said. Not knowing what to do, her father called her. “I said, ‘You can’t defend yourself right now. All they want is to see you run a marathon.’ ”

That was Meza’s stated plan. He would run Chicago in October and clear his name. It’s what he told friends, colleagues, Burfoot, even the boys at Loyola. But on May 12 he was running near Debs Pond when he reported having trouble breathing. “I saw him hunched over with hands on his knees,” said Tartof, who was with him. In June a cardiologist diagnosed him with mitral valve prolapse, resulting in a backflow of blood, possibly from a torn muscle in his heart, and was scheduled for surgery. He would not be able to run a marathon for a long time, if ever. “He knew he could never prove himself,” Tina said.

Meanwhile, on LetsRun, some users had posted contact information for Meza’s employers. A handful of people left negative online reviews for him. The institutions where he had worked for decades began to distance themselves. Loyola quietly let him go. “He was asked to step down, but they called it a medical leave,” Tina said. 

If Meza had faked his times, it would have required meticulous planning. Meza was never that organized, according to his wife: “If he makes it on time, you’re lucky.”

Some friends defended Meza. “This is bullshit. How can we help fight this?” said Castulo de la Rocha, Meza’s boss at AltaMed, when he heard the charges. Scott Dominguez, the deputy district attorney and former Loyola student, posted a comment below the L.A. Times article calling the claims “libel”: “I can guarantee you that these allegations that Dr. Meza would ‘cheat’ on his times [are] FALSE!”

On July 3 a LetsRun user posted a photo with the comment: “Frank on a bike?” The image, taken by an official photographer during the 2014 San Francisco Marathon, showed a blurry figure riding a bicycle down the sidewalk. His face was obscured, but his outfit—a black cap, a gray long-sleeve shirt, Nike Zoom Marathoners, green socks—resembled what Meza was pictured wearing at the end of the race. When I sat down with the family and we examined the photo together, they denied that it was Meza. “It looks like someone photoshopped this,” Lorena said, pointing to the shoes. Plus, this man was wearing black athletic pants with a white stripe. “You don’t run a marathon in sweats,” Tina said.

Usually on July 4 the Meza family would host a party on its front lawn and invite the whole neighborhood. But this year they decided to nix it. That morning Tina was doing bills when Frank walked in. “It looks like you have enough money,” he said to her. “I said, ‘No, I don’t,’” Tina recalled. “I said, ‘I need you to stay alive at least until we get through this mess.’ And he just smiled at me. And for no apparent reason, he said, ‘You know what? I love you.’ And I said, ‘Thank you.’ Which was uncharacteristic—we’re a close-knit family, but we’re not all that affectionate. And then I kept doing the bills. And then he said, ‘I think I’m going to go for a run.’ I said, ‘OK,’ and he said, ‘Let’s have lunch afterwards.’ I said, ‘Great, where do you want to go?’ He says, ‘I’ll bring lunch home.’ So I said, ‘OK.’ And he left.”

An hour passed, then two. Tina started to worry. She decided to go look for him and drove to the trailheads where he usually ran. Then she thought to use the Find My iPhone function on Meza’s device. She soon found his car parked near the L.A. River. It was unlocked, as always. If someone really needed a car, he had always said, they could have his.

“Then I saw the park rangers who’d closed off the bike path near the river,” Tina said, “the same river where he used to play when he was a kid. And then I knew.”

Police found Meza’s body on the concrete bed of the L.A. River, beneath the Riverside Street Bridge overpass. The coroner’s report said he died from multiple blunt-force traumatic injuries.

News of Meza’s death spread just as the city was erupting into fireworks. Friends and family gathered at the house, bringing food and flowers. On the bridge where he had jumped, Alfonso Orozco, an old friend, performed a traditional Aztec ceremony, burning incense and playing a conch trumpet. Someone tied a Loyola-branded mesh bag onto the railing, emblazoned with a winged “L.”

Murphy and his family were visiting an amusement park near Cincinnati when he started getting texts and emails. A commenter said he had “blood on [his] hands.” “This was my low point,” he told me. Murphy posted a brief message on his website offering condolences and asking readers to “allow those close to Frank the space to grieve.”

The Mezas, meanwhile, went on offense. “We had a press junket in our living room,” Lorena said. “It was so surreal.” They sat down with Inside Edition. They covered a table with Meza’s numerous medals and invited journalists to take pictures. They attributed his death to cyberbullying. “They destroyed my husband,” Tina said, referring to the online investigators. “He was being assassinated and targeted,” according to Lorena said. She objected to articles about Meza that referred readers to a national suicide hotline. “He wasn’t suicidal; he was so joyful, so happy.” He’d never had any mental health issues, Tina said: “Solid as a rock.”

The LetsRun forum descended into recriminations. “This is the lowest humanity will go,” one user wrote. What’s the solution, another asked, “[t]urn a blind eye to cheats and liars for fear their feelings might get hurt in being exposed?” “Internet is the worst thing to happen to mankind.”

Johnson soon closed the thread. But he rejected the charges of cyberbullying, arguing that while some users took glee in the pursuit, most focused on the evidence. “If anyone was bullying, he was the one threatening lawsuits,” said Johnson, adding that the internet didn’t kill Meza: “The person that killed Frank Meza was Frank Meza.

“But that doesn’t mean the site can’t be more respectful,” he added. In the future, he might require users to register. “We want to learn from it. You’re talking about a real human being.” He argued that if Meza had simply come clean, the doctor could have recovered his reputation. “America is a very forgiving place… We’re all sinners; we’re all flawed.”

Johnson wondered what could have driven Meza. “Since the beginning of time, it was fight for survival,” he said. “Now we’re living in a day-to-day world that isn’t that hard. So there’s lots of depression because people don’t know what to do. You raise your kids, you’re successful in your career, and then what? Particularly with the decline of religion, there’s a void in people’s lives. Running gives you an artificial scorecard for life.”

“I think he had a very specific idea of what his life should be. And he didn’t see any way out.” —Tina Meza

Meza had not especially looked forward to getting old. If he got cancer past a certain age, he told his family, he wouldn’t seek treatment. “He didn’t want invasive stuff where he wouldn’t be able to enjoy his life,” said his son, Francisco. “I think he had a very specific idea of what his life should be,” Tina said. “And he didn’t see any way out.”

Murphy said he plans to keep Marathon Investigation going. Like Johnson, he rejects the notion that he played a role in Meza’s death. “I don’t know what I could or would have done” differently, he said. He was merely posting evidence, and he discouraged users from leaving negative reviews or contacting Meza’s employers. In the aftermath he received “tons of aggression,” he said. People called him a murderer and a psychopath. “So I understand what it’s like to be harassed on the internet.”

Late on July 4, while word of Meza’s death was starting to circulate, a LetsRun user posted one last series of photos from the 2014 San Francisco Marathon. In each the Golden Gate Bridge looms in the background. And there is Meza, unmistakably, hanging out by a timing mat as other runners blow past him. He wears a familiar outfit: the hat, the shoes, the socks—and long black pants with a white stripe.

The post elicited few responses.

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