Going the Distance (and Beyond) to Catch Marathon Cheaters

Driving his wife’s car, he headed to Frogtown, the neighborhood where he had grown up. He parked, then started on a running trail that winds by the Arroyo Seco, where the dry riverbed meets the Los Angeles River. He made his way along the path above the river, then he stopped at a bridge near Dodger Stadium and leaped off. He was killed on impact.

A few months after Meza’s death, I went to meet his family in South Pasadena. Faustina greeted me at the door and welcomed me inside, to the living room, where she had put out chips and guacamole. Frank Meza collected art, and the home is decorated with several original paintings by Latino artists, including one that depicts a running race in a pastel city with Day of the Dead skeletons cheering on the competitors. On a large shelf in one room were dozens of Meza’s trophies. Above a pile of medals was a framed photo of Meza running. In a corner of one room was a large photo of Meza, beneath it incense, several crosses, and a photo of a saint. Beside it a wreath of red roses.

Faustina, who was wearing blue jeans and a blue button-down shirt, has graying hair and brown eyes. She offered me a glass of water, and soon her son and daughter, and Francisco’s wife, Sara Tartof, joined us.

Over two hours, Meza’s family told me dozens of stories. As a family doctor, Frank Meza would give people free care and make house calls. “He sutured lacerations right at our dining room table,” Francisco said. “He’d make big pots of soup to bring to his patients,” Lorena added. They described how Meza rarely missed his daily run and read every book on the sport. Faustina learned, after Meza died, that he’d been paying to support kids’ running camps. “I didn’t even know about that until they came up and thanked me at the funeral,” Faustina said.

Nearly 1,000 people attended his funeral, including Antonio Villaraigosa, the former mayor of Los Angeles, as well as several of Meza’s former high school classmates. “All these old men spontaneously stood up and sang the Cathedral fight song,” Faustina said.

“All the stories were about how engaged he was in the community,” Tartof said of the anecdotes told at the funeral. “Which is something that’s really being lost. Now there are online communities.”

“What happened to him online … ” Francisco interjected.

“If what happened to Frank happened physically and not in the virtual world,” Faustina added, wiping away tears, “they would all be in jail.”

Frank Meza’s family: his daughter, Lorena; wife, Faustina; and son, Francisco. “He was a man of integrity,” Faustina says.

Photograph: Kayla Reefer

At some point on July 4, before Meza got out of the car, he’d recorded a video and left it on the front seat. On it, he apologized to his family for what he was about to do. He told them he loved them. “I can’t go on with life with the whole world attacking me,” he said. “It feels like it’s never going to stop, and I can’t be pushed down any further. I just can’t continue like this.”

The family blamed Derek Murphy for inciting the hate. They felt that if Murphy had just let it go, the story would have gone away and Meza would have been able to recover and go on with his life.

“He was obsessed,” Tartof said. “What motivates him? He finds pleasure inflicting pain and shame on others.”

Faustina grabbed her daughter’s arm and her eyes welled. “He was a man of integrity,” she said.

“Frank was one of the good guys,” said Tartof, who was also crying. “He was one of the good guys in this world.”

On the evening of July 4, Murphy and his daughter went to King’s Island Amusement Park in Mason, Ohio, to watch fireworks. Shortly before the first bottle rockets were launched, he stepped into the restroom and started scrolling on his phone. On LetsRun, somebody had posted the news of Meza’s suicide. “I thought, this is just a horrible joke,” Murphy says. “At first, I didn’t want to believe it.”

He walked back outside into the humid evening. Wanting to be present with his daughter, he blocked the news from his mind and sat in the cool grass. They watched the sky light up yellow, red, and green. When he walked into his house a few hours later, he opened his computer on his desk and looked at his email. He’d received several media requests asking him to comment. “That’s when I believed it,” he says.

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