Less than five months ago, a runner named Jay Zubick was doing early-morning hill workouts with the two of us, and talking about his plans to race at Ironman Coeur d’Alene this summer.
Today, he’s sitting in a jail cell, leaving a family behind, and a wide trail of devastated victims in his wake.
This tragic story played out in the news over the course of the past several months, culminating with his sentencing two weeks ago. After hearing the statements of victims who lost retirement accounts, college savings, and health care funds, the judge sentenced him to almost 25 years behind bars.
The entire saga sent shockwaves through our athletic community, because as far as we all knew, Jay was one of us. He was a veteran marathoner who served for many years on the Big Sur Marathon Board of Directors. He had done several Ironman events over the past several years, and moved comfortably between the local cycling and running clubs. He was one of the friendliest guys any of us knew, and we were always happy to see him show up at group workouts.
Runners often feel like bonds are forged with the shared toil of our mutual endeavors. We spend hour after hour talking to each other on the roads and trails, developing camaraderie amongst ourselves, and believing we have a sense of each other’s character.
But sometimes, we learn that we didn’t really know a person at all. Jay clearly had many positive attributes – and yet, somewhere inside him, a destructive force lurked. Unfortunately, none of us recognized this side of him until it was far too late to make amends.
Many of his victims are members of our extended family of runners, as well – and watching the pain and betrayal they have suffered seems almost too much to bear.
When we first started hearing these sordid details last February, we didn’t want to believe them. We wanted the accusations to be a misunderstanding, hoping that somebody simply got some facts wrong. We wanted there to be a reasonable explanation for all of our friends who believed their lives were ruined.
We wanted these things, because Jay was one of us. Scandals and crime shouldn’t happen in our utopian fraternity of runners. We’re supposed to be better than that.
Of course, we were mistaken. In reality, runners – even at the amateur level - are collectively no better than any of the other athletes who fell from grace this summer.
More than any year in recent memory, the summer of 2007 was a season of overwhelming immorality in the sporting world. Barry Bonds. NBA referees. Michael Vick. The Tour de France. These were the headline stories, and they all represented what is wrong with sports.
Deep inside, many runners feel like they live to a higher standard than most people. We believe that our sport is more “pure” than the high-profile professional sports tainted by scandal. We feel that the discipline, work ethic, and self-restraint we develop through our workouts will carry over to our personal lives as well, making us role models within the community. It’s a notion that athletes often take great pride in.
But clearly, no group of athletes is more or less honest than another. They’re all populated by humans who struggle with the good and evil forces inside them, with varying degrees of success. No sport can honestly claim moral superiority over another.
Most likely, there are just as many crooked people in the sport of running as there are in the general population. There are elite athletes who test positive, age groupers who cheat by various means (including drug use – which is a growing problem at amateur races), and role models who turn out to be criminals.
In other words, the bad guys are very likely to be one of us. Far too many people, with the exact same interests and goals that we have, decide to venture down the wrong path - and the consequences are universally heartbreaking for everyone involved.
Obviously, we realize that our former training partner isn’t an accurate representation of the larger population of runners. But on the other hand, we know his dark side isn’t merely an isolated case. And that’s what frightens us the most.
We all make our own choices in life. We decide which path we want to travel. Some choose a way of integrity, others choose to be destructive. And - as the two of us have learned this year, to our great disappointment - whether or not we happen to be runners is really quite irrelevant.