Marathon Man

Wow. Wow. Wow. Has anyone else read Mark Singer’s New York piece on Kip Litton, the mystery marathoner? Just finished it today and it’s incredible. Apparently not online except in abstract. The structure and pacing are absolutely perfect.

62 thoughts on “Marathon Man

  1. You can read it online if you subscribe.

    I kind of wanted Singer to sit outside Litton’s house until his wife and kids came out. Did he have a sick kid?

  2. I’m a fan of open ends. I don’t need everything to be said. In this case, though, the first half of the story led me to a second half that left me wanting more.

  3. I loved this story. I thought it was mesmerizing, a psychologically fascinating character study. Yeah, there are unanswered questions. Still, I found it still a very satisfying read, in large part because of how Singer frames the story. By the end there is no doubt this guy scammed all these marathons. It’s not clear exactly why he started doing this, but we get a definite sense that everytime someone challenged him, it upped the ante and Kip had to invest more in the lie. The question of how he did it is probably the big unanswered question, but Singer deals with it so skillfully. Kip is a guy who likes having the power to control his story. Although he is exposed, in the end he wins because only he knows all the answers.

  4. OK, I think this can be a great discussion. Kruse and Montgomery: Would you guys come up with a numbered list of the precise facts Singer should have gotten, and the methods he should have used to get them?

  5. I’d like to jump in. I did a story about a fabulist once, and I found it as unsatisfying to write as this was to read. I knew from the first section how it would end and nothing about what happened next surprised me. It was always going to be a man who lied yet refused to admit it in the face of all evidence. I even knew Richard Rodriguez was really Lee.

    I loved that the quest involved the marathon community, which made it more real than just a reporter’s quest. The specifics were interesting, sort of, but at the end, I didn’t know any more than when i started, and the central questions of Why? and How? remain unanswered. We got a tick-tock but never found out the answers to the questions posed very high in the piece. The only ending that works — that is satisfying — is if the fabulist comes clean and, afterward, you see inside this thing, how it happens, and why. Maybe I’m totally wrong about this. But I was totally pulled in by the beginning and let down by the end. Ben/Kruse, was that what you meant? Tom, tell me why you think I’m wrong.

    • Well put, Wright. And for a book-length version of your disappointment with this piece, I (don’t) recommend Singer’s “Citizen K.” I promise I’m not commenting just to bash a guy who’s obviously talented. It’s just that the book shares one frustrating quality with this piece: Singer’s inability to rebut the lies of a guy who’s obviously bullshitting him. In the case of “K”, he lets the guy spin for some 400 pages. It’s maddening.

      • Just discovered this conversation. I’ll refrain from commenting upon the commentary; my story speaks for itself. . . As for this comment by Caleb, I can tell you that either (a) he never actually read “Citizen K,” or (b) he’s forgotten what he read, or (c) he has a reading-comprehension problem; the book is, in fact, an exhaustively-reported (four years’ worth) exposé of the subject’s extraordinary accumulation of lies.

  6. Ben, I know you have finished at least two marathons and, proper training be damned, crossed the finish line with a determination uncommon to a lot of folks in the middle of the pack (see photo third row, first from left: http://www.marathonfoto.com/index.cfm?action=site.login&RaceOID=26252012W6&LastName=Montgomery&BibNumber=6309), which makes me curious to hear what you think about Lee as a runner and a sportsman.

    I have been a serious runner longer than I have been a serious writer, so I have a hard time looking at this as a writer first. The runner part of me wants Lee to break down, to allow the walls to crumble around him, to watch him writhe with discomfort. No luck, though.

    • I came away with a certain amount of respect, I guess. There was a line, a quote I think, that was basically: It would be harder for this guy to plan something like this than to actually run the marathon.

      I think that was the story, right there. And what’s prompting this debate is that we’re left to wonder about his motivation. Was it money? Attention? WHAT?!

  7. OK, so here’s the question. Let’s say you’re Singer’s editor, and he turns in this piece to meet your deadline.

    What, exactly, is your next move?

  8. It’s tough. It’s almost impossible to kill it, since we are all, at our core, seekers of the truth, and so to let someone who flaunts the truth so flagrantly get away with it because the story isn’t good seems selfish and counter to why we all do this. And I have had this exact same debate and ultimately decided to run the story. It’s not easy. But the right answer might be to kill it. I don’t know. I mean, take that assistant coach at Villanova right now. If he insists that he did play at Green Bay, despite all that evidence, what’s the story? But if he comes clean? Then it could be interesting. Like Gary Smith on George O’Leary. That was interesting because it was the story of a lie, and something so small and meaningless — and such a pure window into someone’s most insecure place — can grow and grow and grow until it destroys everything else. That’s a story about a liar that works. To me, this one didn’t.

  9. OK, Wright. I see your point.

    But Kruse, seriously: Write me the editor’s memo you’d send to Singer after he turned in this piece. I really want to know what you’d write.

  10. Also: I think you shouldn’t let the guy know you’re on to him. Rent a bunch of cameras, hire 30 marathon runners, and then catch his ass cheating. Show me HOW.

  11. By the way, we had this conversation at dinner last night. My friend Allison loved it. Her boyfriend Chris hated it. Had same issues as Mike and me.

  12. Interesting discussion. Wright, I think your challenge comes under the heading of easier-said-than-done. I like the idea, but 26 miles is a long stretch to cover with cameras, runners, reporters. It might have worked, but then again you might have gone to a ton of trouble and still not caught the guy. I do wish the writer had made it clear whether or not the guy’s kid was really sick. But I do have a problem with the idea that a story in order to be successful must explain everything. We’ve all covered stories where there were gaps — some small, some large. Almost every story fails to answer some question or other. As a reporter, I want to know everything about my story. But I can live with the fact that there are many, many things I don’t know and some that I am simply not good enough to ever discover. I guess I enjoyed this story because of the mystery, because it drilled into this guy’s psyche and still never hit bottom.

  13. No, seriously, Kruse. Write me the memo. I want to know exactly how you, as Singer’s editor, would have used your power to make this story as good as it could be. I want to know what specific demands you would have made regarding the reporting.

    Would it have been different if Singer were younger and less accomplished? Would the editor have used a firmer hand?

  14. While we’re waiting on Michael, let me try to take a swing. And keep in mind that when faced with this exact same decision, I didn’t have the guts to say this to myself. So take this with a grain of salt:

    There are two questions posed from the very beginning of the story: How and Why? You don’t answer them in the end. So you need to either answer one of them or reconstruct the story so the arc leads to somewhere. An open ended story is often more powerful than one where things tie up, but that only happens if the end feels like epiphany and not like a disappointment.

  15. OK, good. Now I’m Mark Singer:

    Thanks for the note, boss. Help me out here. I worked on this thing for weeks. I stalked this guy to his hometown. I kept working until I got an interview with him. I couldn’t make him admit the truth. I’ve laid out the breadth and depth of his fraud in a way that no one else has previously done. I’ve connected the dots and built the timeline. But it seems I’ve also scared him away from racing, so I doubt I’ll be able to catch him in the act of this mysterious fraud. Keep in mind that several running experts have been analyzing this guy for months, and they, like me, have not been able to solve the puzzle. This is akin to writing about an unsolved murder. Would you kill the story if I didn’t solve the murder? And in a way, I did solve the murder. I mean, we know who did it. Men have been convicted of murder even when the prosecution failed to prove HOW they did it or WHY they did it. Is the bar really that high for a magazine story? I agree with you that the how and the why are important. But what if I just can’t get them? Do you want me to throw the whole thing away? Or do I have to camp outside his house and wait for him to call the cops?

  16. Camp outside his house. And … no the standard isn’t higher than a trial, but then again the purpose is different. Trials don’t need to be entertaining or tell a story. In fact, most trials are unbelievably boring. A magazine story needs to entertain, which this does, but it also needs to deliver on its promise, which this doesn’t. A trial ends in a verdict, and so does a magazine story, and the verdict in this case is that you can’t tell me how or why, which were the only two questions posed by the entire structure. There is nothing we know at the end that we don’t sense at the beginning — in the first section, there’s a guy who claims to run a marathon that it seems like he didn’t run, and six pages later, that sentence has been changed to “A man who claims to run many marathons doesn’t.” See what I mean? Send it back when that isn’t the case. Or reframe it. What about: who cares? Why are so many other runners pissed? What separates those who are pissed from those who don’t care? What else has this guy lied about? Why? Is there a pattern? I don’t know. Call Tom Lake and see what he thinks.

  17. I’d also say — and I’ve both done this accidentally, done it while trying not to do it, and successfully avoided it — that the story was fundamentally altered by the act of reporting it. Not sure what to do about this. And I’ll stop. I’m Monday Morning Quarterbacking someone I don’t know, someone I respect tremendously, and I don’t know how I’d feel about somebody I didn’t know doing it to me. I feel like I’m being inappropriate.

    • Let me first state that I’d have a lot to learn from Mark Singer, and was smiling rather than angry at the end (just read it, after seeing this involved thread). But your talk of altering a story by reporting it hits a nerve for me — just published a story (http://goo.gl/FVVUX) whose anticipated existence got the main character fired the day I turned it in. The resulting rushed rework — a story about his motivations and the force of his involvement, ending with negation — was a frantic attempt to keep the narrative from dumping, at the end, into a pile of disappointment. So while I thoroughly enjoyed Singer’s story, the frustration at the end hits close to home.

  18. All right, let me try this from a different angle. You and Ben and Kruse all have legitimate points. The how and the why would have helped this story tremendously. I get it.

    But go back for a moment to my original post. I didn’t say, “Hey, everybody, come look at all the problems in this story.” I didn’t say, “Hey, guys, how could this have been better?” I had nothing but praise for this story. And you know why? Because I enjoyed reading it so much. In this sense, Mark Singer the writer has done something extraordinary. He has taken something that could have been terribly unsatisfying and made it a thrill. Now, I recognize that I don’t speak for everyone. Only myself, as a reader. But I’ll tell you this. I’m very, very hard to please. I quit reading half the stories that won National Magazine Awards. And there was something about this one that pulled me along. What was it, exactly? The style? Not exactly. Look at the opening passage from the abstract. It’s plain, as New Yorker stories often are. But Singer so deeply appealed to my sense of curiosity and wonder that I left feeling, well, curious and wonderful. The way he resolved the lack of resolution — with the line about the good magician not revealing his trick — well, it satisfied me. It worked for me. I wanted to know more, but I accepted what I was given. It was enough. The journey was worth my time. I was very glad to have read this story.

  19. And this right here is the maddening thing for all of us. Because four people who are all pretty good at this — and have remarkably similar tastes and sensibilities — read a story and had such divergent reactions. That always makes me want to pull my hair out.

  20. I mean, Tom’s reaction was “wow wow wow.” Which is a reaction I almost never has and, knowing Tom, he doesn’t either. That’s a Flight 111 Heavy reaction. And not only did I not react like that, I wouldn’t have finished it had I not been turned on to it by Tom. And therein lies the part of this job that makes me nuts: we want there to be an empirical good, and, sadly, there isn’t. It truly is different strokes.

  21. I don’t find it maddening at all. We’re not scientists here. We’re not engineers. We’re not trying to create results in a laboratory that can be perfectly duplicated by someone else. We’re not building widgets. To some degree — and I know the cynics will scoff at this, but I don’t care — we’re artists. And art exists in the eye of the beholder. Is “As I Lay Dying” recognized as a classic work of art? Yes it is. Did I stop reading in the middle because it never really engaged me? Yes I did. Is that disconnect all right with me? Yes it is. Some college English professors dismiss John Steinbeck, too. Didn’t we talk about this before? They call him a “literary gateway drug,” or some such thing. As if you read him first and then you get to the really good stuff. Myself, I haven’t found any stuff much better than his. Likewise, I love certain works of James Joyce, but I still can’t get past Page 40 of “Ulysses,” which is considered his masterpiece. So: It’s a big world out there. Plenty of room for differing styles and differing tastes. It’s funny — when we were all at the St. Pete Times, people often said Ben, Kruse and I were all very similar. In some ways, yes. But in some ways, not at all. Kruse was talking about the lead paragraph of one of my stories last year. He said something like, “Well, it’s purple, but that’s just what T.Lake does.” And the funny thing is, I had just gotten done telling him how much I liked one of his stories, EXCEPT for the opening paragraph, which I thought was sort of dry and lifeless. We went back and forth about it for a long time. It all seemed very healthy to me.

  22. Well, I agree with that. I meant more of going into a cave and coming out with something that we’ve worked so hard at that everyone will recognize its inherent goodness. haha.

    I’m with you on that, TL. For instance, nobody but english majors have finished Infinite Jest. Hemingway is out of vogue right now in english departments, but I bet you can’t name me another writer other than Shakespeare who has written four masterpieces: Sun, Bell, Farewell, Old Man.

    I love Steinbeck. A lot more than I like Joyce. Don’t know what that says about me and don’t care. It’s a fascinating conversation.

  23. I’m totally with you on the idea of “going into a cave and coming out with something that we’ve worked so hard at that everyone will recognize its inherent goodness.” It’s easy to have an easygoing debate about someone else’s work. But when it comes to my own, well, I want it to be indisputably good. Unassailably good. And when that doesn’t happen, it’s very hard to accept. Some of the people on this board liked my story “The Boy Who Died of Football,” but the guest editor of BASW didn’t choose it for that year’s collection. Jones wasn’t even an ASME finalist for his classic story on Roger Ebert. I can’t tell you why.

    It all reminds me of this Wilco song, one of my favorites, called “What Light.” There’s a passage in the second verse:

    So if the whole world’s singin’ your song
    And all of your paintings
    Have been hung
    Just remember
    What was yours
    Is everyone’s from now on.

    ***

    Once it goes out there, you have to wash your hands and let others judge it for themselves.

  24. Tom asked: Would you guys come up with a numbered list of the precise facts Singer should have gotten, and the methods he should have used to get them?

    First off, he’s Mark Singer, and he’s an Okie, so second-guessing his reporting is … I’m unworthy. I wasn’t there, so maybe he made a million contacts and found that the strongest story was exactly what he wrote. Probably the case.

    Without knowing anything about that: As a reader, I wondered about his finances, and his family. Is there any way to learn how much his website raised? Did he benefit in any way his neighbors would have noticed? Are his parents still alive? What do his friends and co-workers say about him? Is his kid sick? What’s his wife like? Was he lying to her as well? Hard to be gone that long and much without some kind of story about where he was going and what he was doing.

    Those kinds of things.

  25. Different perspective: I started reporting on Spectacle with the intention of naming the Committee of Six. That was my goal. I got close, but fell short. It was terribly unsatisfying. I mean, sleepless-nights unsatisfying. And then I had a deadline and as it approached I sort of let go, thinking that if I could tell it right, the reader would be as unsatisfied as me, as unsatisfied as Claude Neal’s family, and maybe that’s a noble goal and a worthy story.

    In that light, maybe that was Singer’s goal. Viewed as art, I’m okay with a story that leaves me feeling that way.

  26. Sorry for the delay. Let me start with a version of something Wright already said: Mark Singer is Mark Singer. Who the hell am I? Also, the mag’s at home and I’m at work, so unfortunately I can’t be as specific as I’d like to be right now. I’m going to re-read tonight and then I’ll post more after that. In general, though, I’m like you, Tom, in that I read to the end. No way was I stopping. Singer made me read to the end. I wanted to know the how. I really wanted to know the why. When he was in Boston, then when he got on that plane, I thought: Yes. YES. Now GO GET HIM. Then he didn’t. And by get him I don’t just mean GET him. I guess I mean understand him. Again, I’m all for subtle endings, I pretty much prefer them, I don’t want or like frying pans to the face, but at the end of this piece I STILL wanted to know so many things I didn’t know. So I felt — what? — disappointed.

  27. That makes sense, Ben. In the case of the fabulist I wrote about, I ultimately said, well, I can spend the rest of the year on this jackass or I can put it out there and say, this is the best I can do. That’s what I did. I got everything I could get. I made every call I could think to make. What I wrote is, in the end, what I could get. There wasn’t a phone call I wish I’d made. And if someone else can report more, then more power to them. I’d love it if someone got something I couldnt get, or didn’t think to get.

  28. Lovinger always tells me that good writers are all a dangerous and perfect mix of arrogance and insecurity, and that manifests itself in an endless number of ways, for instance: wanting everyone who reads a story to feel hollow inside when they finish, and yet wanting those readers — be it people out in the ether or our friends on places such as this — to let us know that we achieved those goals, when it makes sense that anyone who is talented enough to create a story like that should be able to recognize it, too. For instance, I know that the Urban Meyer story was really good. I knew it when I filed it. And yet to hear Tom Junod or Ben Montgomery affirm that makes me feel good. Why is that? Tom Lake knows the Boy who Died was timeless, so why does he care what others think? Well … he does. We all do. Right?

    Sigh squared.

  29. Ha. I’m not sure that anyone who isn’t a writer would even bother asking why outside affirmation feels good — it’s kind of like asking why ice cream is delicious — whereas I expect that question to be the basis of a 6,000-word profile from Wright within the next few years.

    (And really: sports would be a pretty fertile area for exploring that question).

    I also disagree with Lake in that I think most of us are pretty decent judges of our own work. There’s just an emotional lag that comes with being in the aforementioned cave. You know when something is great, pretty good, fair, so-so, or simply the best you could do with a lousy hand; you might not feel that way about it until a few weeks or months after seeing it published.

  30. I read this as a story about the elusiveness of empirical truth. How and Why* were writerly sleight of hand deployed to distract your eye from the astounding question of Whether. By opening with How and Why, the writer sets us up for the fascinating ride backward from the certainty we can feel long before we’ve heard all the evidence to the uncomfortable teensy-weensy nagging doubt that creeps even as we settle on the same conclusion many pages later.
    How and Why, like any other questions, vary in importance from story to story. Here’s an example: One time I worked at a newspaper with a guy like this who told a whole bunch of crazy lies. Things got way out of hand. The top editors ended having to quit. The How was fascinating. But when the Why turned out to be that the dude was just a major league asshole, the rest of the story got a whole hell of a lot less interesting. Nobody read the book.

    *Come on, though: Does he have a sick kid?

  31. That story will endure as one of the great pieces of American journalism. But you haven’t really experienced it until you’ve heard it read aloud by the author in a dark room after midnight.

  32. As he read, I was struck by the powerful thought that a person couldn’t possibly have written this. It had to have sprung, fully formed, from the earth. It really is so perfect on about 93 different levels.

  33. I wish I had more to add to this discussion, but I really don’t. Just wanted to drop in and say again how great this place is.

    It’s really, really great.

  34. I love that story so much. Every line of it.

    And there was Mr. Fatjo, in an expansive loft far from the main drag, Bedford Avenue, knee-deep in the hoopla. He had a job at a record store, gigs as a D.J., an untamed Afro and three roommates. They held five parties during their tenancy that Mr. Fatjo would later describe as major, defined as involving three separate sound systems blaring away in different parts of the apartment.

    ”It was just insane,” Mr. Fatjo said.

  35. I love y’all.

    From an email conversation between a law professor and a colleague in the Brooklyn bureau:
    >At 09:54 PM 8/21/2004, (name withheld) wrote:
    >
    >Have you seen this, from today’s paper?
    >
    >
    >
    >It’s only been on the Web a day, but already I’ve received emails from
    >two different sources, both complaining about the article’s intensely
    >irritating cluelessness. One twentysomething reader complains: “Who the
    >hell is
    >Michael Brick? Why is the times printing an insufferable, passe piece
    >about williamsburg being passe? Should they not have just directly
    >written
    >a
    >story about how out of touch and irrelevent they are?”

  36. I think the why is explained by the quote from the high school classmate. It’s same why as why most liars lie, why William E. Clark lied: They want to be something they’re not. The how is different and way more important, I think. The momentum of the first half, told mostly through the eyes of those who were obsessed with proving that he was a cheater, perhaps could have carried through a little better if he’d found someone who was equally obsessed with how he pulled it off. But all in all, I side more with Tom on this one. I enjoyed it, and didn’t feel cheated–no pun intended–that he couldn’t crack Kip’s warped code.

  37. I think we want and need that outside validation, no matter how often we tell ourselves that we shouldn’t, not only because we’re trying to do something artful, not only because we’re exposed and expressing and pushing ourselves, even if it’s in ways we might only noticed ourselves, but not only because writing is so subjective, but because we’re essentially competing against ourselves. If you’re covering a game, for example, you can easily see how your work holds up by reading everyone else. That’s what Wright and I did in college, both for games that we covered and for games that we didn’t. Nobody else was writing about the boy who died from football; nobody else had three days alone with Urban. So the only validation is from outsides sources like Twitter and from peers. When it comes to anthologies or awards, it’s so much tougher because the game is no longer confined to a stadium; it’s literally every story out there. And yet, we can’t help it.

  38. And of course, I’m tired, so my last post didn’t completely track. Meant to say, we’d read other writers on events that we did cover to see how we stacked up, and read other writers on events that we didn’t cover to see who wrote it best.

  39. This is probably oversimplifying an argument that is way over my head, but this reminds me of the debate surrounding the final scene of the Sopranos. Some people – maybe even many people – hated it. They felt cheated. They felt they deserved to know what, exactly, happened to Tony and his family after investing so much time watching the show. Instead, they got a black screen. It was maddening. But other people, including myself, loved it. We thought it was the perfect way to end the show: It was unexpected, it was open to interpretation, it was smart.

    That’s how I viewed this story. I read it after seeing the discussion on the board, so I went in knowing that some people really weren’t satisfied with the ending. I wasn’t one of those people when I got to the end. It captured me and made me read all the way through. By the time I got to the end, I felt I understood that there wasn’t ever going to be a clean and simple How and Why. While those are obviously nice, I don’t think they’re necessary. Some stories absolutely need to have those explained in black and white, but I didn’t think this one did. I was fine with it going to the black screen. In fact, I’d almost argue that it made it more enjoyable. It was entertaining, and I didn’t feel cheated.

    The biggest thing I took away from this is something that I constantly try to remind myself: You have to write what feels right to you because there will rarely be a consensus on what makes a story good. There have been some Gary Smith stories that have made me read them 15 times, but a couple of writing buddies couldn’t get through them. They thought they were self-indulgent. I couldn’t believe it. But, hey, it’s just like anything else – a song, a movie, design, style -in that people will feel intensely different about the very same thing.

    Anyway, I know I’m out of my league here, but it’s a really fun discussion that got me thinking.

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