Fraud in sports: Thru-hiking fakers

This is the second in a series of five posts on the topic of fraud in sports. The first post, from December 5, was about marathon cheaters and how they are publicly investigated and exposed. Today’s post will be about imposters and scammers in the world of thru-hiking, a hard-core and tight-knit community of athletes who long-distance hike with the objective of completing a major trail end-to-end at once. Next Tuesday’s post, on December 19, will discuss fraud in sports gambling schemes, including those committed by players and to induce people into fraudulent investment vehicles. On January 2, the next to last post will be about game fixing, describing conspiracies by players to throw games or systemic spying and cheating operations by teams and coaches. The final post in the series, on January 9, will discuss fraud in sports via doping scandals, such as in the Olympics and the Tour de France.

Thru-hiking is the endeavor of hiking a long-distance trail in full within one hiking season. In the United States, there are three main trails where these attempts are made: the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail. Thru-hiking these trails can take months, passing through all kinds of remote trail and difficult weather conditions, and requiring immense planning and preparation to do so safely and with proper equipment, provisions, and support. Adjacent to thru-hiking is section-hiking, in which hikers complete parts of the same trails methodically over a longer period of time. Because of the intense nature of this activity, and the survivalist needs of the participants who camp rough along the trail and crowd-source information about conditions and news from both the outside world and further down the trail, tightly bonded communities of hikers form.

In this insular community comes a lot of trust and reliance on people’s credibility and honesty. People share materials, hike sections relying on each other’s planning and information about conditions, help each other when they are out of money or food, and generally work together to stay safe and make progress in their individual and collective efforts in the thru-hiking process. In such an intimate social group, reliance on honesty creates unfortunate opportunities for people to commit fraud and carry out scams. Sometimes these acts of dishonesty take advantage of other hikers, whereas others falsify accomplishments or misrepresent setting records.

  • In summer 2017, the story of an inspiring thru-hiker began making the rounds on social media, even receiving publicity in the press and coverage on television news. Stacey Kozel was portrayed as a hero for completing both the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail as a paraplegic with lupus. Unable to use her legs unassisted, Kozel relied on specially-designed braces that allowed her to not only walk, but miraculously walk long distances. However, much like the case of marathon cheaters, the online community of thru-hikers and those who support and follow them soon became skeptical to her claims about her achievements. Thru-hikers operate on a quasi-honor system, without a self-regulatory organization to administer verification and investigation efforts when individuals proclaim that they have completed hikes or set records. However, a robust independent community exists on forums online and that community relies upon much of the same data used by marathon runner authenticators – GPS data, photographs, witnesses, and other real-time physical evidence. No one could remember seeing Kozel on most of the trail, and encounters she should have had with other hikers in rest and communal areas were totally lacking. The photographs of Kozel were mostly only taken at trailheads or other area relatlvely easy to access by driving and then walking a short distance. Kozel reiterated her claims that she did the thru-hikes, but did not stand up to continued scrutiny, and she subsequently removed most of the coverage of her purported hike from the internet. One of Kozel’s possible motivations for pretending to do the hike could have been to get publicity for her leg braces, as she stated that she wanted to be an inspirational user of them and to encourage insurance companies to cover them: How Did No One Notice This Inspirational Hiker On The Pacific Crest Trail?
  • Taking the endurance sport of thru-hiking to an all-new level, there are some individuals who take an ultra-marathon approach to completing the trial. These people aim not only to complete the trial in one go, already an audacious task, but to do so as quickly as possible, in pursuit of a record known as Fastest Known Time (FKT). In 2016, Kaiha Bertollini claimed to have set a huge FKT on the Appalachian Trail. Her announcement of her achievement was shortly followed by major doubts and dissension. Bertollini did not have a support crew, was seen drinking and smoking on the trail or even taking “zero days” where she did not hike at all despite her claim of a lightening-fast finish time, and did not produce the proof and documentation demanded by the community, claiming that her phone that held the evidence was broken. Claiming an achievement like a FKT without the requisite evidence in the 21st century, with the community’s obsessive demand for proof and data easily satisfied by all the recording capabilities technology affords, is sure to arouse criticism and mistrust: The Problem with Claiming a Fastest Known Time in the 21st Century
  • Further in the challenges of the concept of validating FKTs, the popular doubts about claims of setting records suggests that there may be some need for a more robust and reliable authentication system. As the sport grows in popularity and recognition, the unofficial arbiters of the records may need to become at least somewhat more official. In their early days, ultramarathons were plagued by the same questions about reliability of their results, as informality and athlete-driven timekeeping reigned. However, most ultramarathons now are governed by some administrative entity or a race organization, and they typically have reliable, consistent rules about the type of data that is accepted to substantiate authenticate and prevent concerns about alteration or falsification. The time could be near for thru-hiking and FKT attempters to follow suit: We Need to Re-Evaluate the Fixation with Fastest Known Times
  • On a different note, one of the reasons why most people know anything all about thru-hiking or about the trails on which it happens is because there have been several very popular books and film adaptations about the attempts of amateurs to join the sport. Two of the most famous of these books (with movies based on both) are Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods” and Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild.” These books, depicting thru-hiking attempts on the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail respectively, are both bestsellers and have fascinated readers with their depictions of the authors’ amusing and emotional attempts to immerse into the lifestyle of the thru-hiker. However, a careful contemplation by a real thru-hiker would lead anyone to likely conclude that neither of these authors truly thru-hiked or accurately depicted the experience of having done so. In all cases, the authors wrote interesting, engaging books, mostly appealing emotionally to the readers by retelling the tales of their lack of preparation and overwhelmed reactions to the hike. In the end, they often had to reduce their efforts and could not meet their ambitions. Their books are more about this than they are about actually thru-hiking, and therefore they may reproduce conversations or thoughtful revelations truthfully, but the descriptions of the trails themselves, which induce many other amateur hikers to embark on journeys of their own, are perhaps not so faithful: Why the Most Popular Hiking Memoirs Don’t Go the Distance
  • Finally, a tale of an imposter scammer who chose the trusting and supportive community of thru-hiking to execute his cons: Jeff Caldwell is a serial scammer who operated for many years in the outdoor community, posing as a thru-hiker and taking advantage of fellow thru-hikers and people to whom he appealed because of this identification. He used his false accomplishments as a thru-hiker to pull off romance scams. He claimed he had completed what is known in the thru-hiking world as the Triple Crown – thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, the Continental Divide Trail, and the Appalachian Trail. These assumed bona fides gave him credibility in the community and made his victims easier to befriend and defraud: Inside the Mind of Thru-Hiking’s Most Devious Con Man

Check back next week, Tuesday December 19, for the third post in this series of five, which will be about fraud in sports as illustrated in sports gambling.

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