The first woman to cross the finish line of the 1980 Boston Marathon seemed to have run 800 meters, not 26.2 miles. Scarcely out of breath, hair still in place, she had finished her first marathon in New York months earlier in just under three hours, then set a course record in Boston with a stunning time of 2 hours 31 minutes 56 seconds, the third fastest in women’s history.
But competitors said they never saw Rosie Ruiz and her bright yellow shirt fly down the course. On video tapes of the marathon, the 26-year-old Cuban American was nowhere to be found. No one had jotted down her number, W50, at checkpoints during the event.
Four days after the race, officials in New York concluded that she had skipped much of that city’s marathon, apparently taking a 16-mile subway ride to the finish after turning an ankle. And in what is sometimes described as one of the worst moments in marathon history, Ruiz was soon stripped of her Boston Marathon title as well, as race officials determined she had jumped in with roughly half a mile to go, cheating Canadian runner Jacqueline Gareau at the finish line.
Ruiz, who later went by Rosie M. Vivas, was 66 when she died July 8, according to an obituary her family placed with a funeral home in West Palm Beach, Florida. The obituary said she had been diagnosed with cancer more than 10 years ago but did not specify where she died.
In rare interviews after the Boston race, Ruiz always insisted that she had completed the marathon. As she saw it, her boyish short hair had led the crowd to mistake her for a men’s runner; officials were embarrassed that she, an amateur, had defeated the professionals; and her victory marked a “triumph” for women’s sports.
“I do not believe that there is enough coverage for women in any of the races,” Ruiz said in a tearful news conference days after the marathon. “I believe that maybe after this, whether you prove me guilty or not — which I am not — there will be more coverage of women crossing the finish line during 26 miles.”
“I had one minute to feel that I had won the race,” she added, “and every moment after that has been a nightmare.”
To many runners and race historians, Ruiz was less a feminist trailblazer than a brazen course-cutter and an unrepentant cheat. Some wrote her off as a mischievous prankster; others suggested she was deluded, struggling with mental illness. According to one theory, she had only wanted to cross the finish lane with the rest of the women, and her real mistake was winning.
“It was the last time we could have been fooled,” said marathon runner and race commentator Kathrine Switzer, who interviewed Ruiz on television after the race. “Women’s running was growing so fast and so excitingly, that there was still a chance that some unknown could emerge and win a race.”
“People called me and said, ‘This is such a setback for women,’” Switzer recalled by phone. “I said, ‘People haven’t even been paying attention to women. The reason she was allowed to cheat is nobody was paying attention to anyone except for the first 10 men at the Boston Marathon. At least now people are paying attention to what we do.’ “
Ruiz was far from the first person to cheat at a marathon. Fred Lorz finished first at the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis, only to acknowledge that he was helped by hitchhiking roughly 10 miles after suffering from cramps. (It was all a “joke,” he said.) More recent contestants have been caught doping and biking across racecourses. Last month, the marathon world was rocked when Frank Meza, a 70-year-old runner, died by suicide, after his record time at the Los Angeles Marathon was disqualified amid accusations of cheating.
Ruiz’s victory was suspect from the beginning. In a post-race interview with Switzer, Ruiz said she had run in high school, quit because of a knee operation and only recently taken it back up, running 65 to 70 miles each week.
“Have you been doing a lot of heavy intervals?” asked Switzer, using a common term for a speed-training technique. “Someone else asked me that,” Ruiz replied, crowned with the winner’s wreath. “I’m not sure what intervals are. What are they?”
In a separate interview, she explained, “I just got up this morning with a lot of energy.”
Two Harvard students ultimately helped uncover the ruse, reporting that they saw Ruiz emerge from the crowd near Commonwealth Avenue, not far from the finish. Soon after, the phrase “pulling a Rosie” became “a euphemism for finagling with infamy or finding a shortcut to success,” the Boston Globe reported, and Ruiz became one of the world’s best-known marathon runners.
“Great for our sport, isn’t it? Think of the two most famous marathoners — Pheidippides and Rosie Ruiz,” said Boston Marathon champion Bill Rodgers in an interview with the Globe. “One dropped dead and the other was crazy.”
But the episode “really did pay off for women,” Switzer said, spurring anti-cheating reforms and a separate start time for women at the Boston Marathon. “It matured us. It forced us to organize our sport better — and it forced us to understand that we were important enough to be cheated in.”
Ruiz was born in Havana on June 21, 1953, and was 8 when she came to the United States. (Accounts vary on her birth name: She once told the Globe it was Maria Morales, but an aunt told the newspaper it was actually Maria Rosario Ruiz.) According to her family obituary, “she was separated from her mother and lived with cousins, aunts and uncles in Hollywood, Fla.”
“There was nothing for me to do but run,” Ruiz later said, recalling her upbringing near Miami. “It was an escape for me.”
She played piano and studied music at Wayne State College in Nebraska before settling in Manhattan, where she worked as an administrative assistant for a metals company. She said she was recovering from surgery to remove “a tumor on my skull” when she qualified for the Boston Marathon.
“As I saw it, and several of my colleagues saw it, she wanted to be part of the ‘in’ group at the office, and running was her attempt of being accepted,” her boss at the time, John Emptage, later told the Globe.
Ruiz went on to work as a client representative at the Laboratory Corporation of America, an accreditation specialist at the Better Business Bureau, and as a real estate agent and public notary, according to her family.
But she struggled at times with the law, making national headlines in 1982 when she spent a week in jail (later receiving five years’ probation) after being accused of stealing cash and checks from her employer in Manhattan. The next year, she was arrested and accused of trying to sell cocaine to undercover narcotics agents and received another two years’ probation.
Her marriage to Aicaro Vivas ended in divorce. Survivors include her partner, Margarita Alvarez, whom she met in 1988; three sons; and a brother.
In a 1998 interview with the Palm Beach Post, Ruiz said she still had her Boston Marathon medal and watched the event each year, calling herself “a masochist” while continuing to insist she had completed the marathon.
By then, however, an old friend had contradicted her story, telling the Globe that Ruiz had confided to him six or nine months after the marathon that she had sneaked onto the course near the finish line. The friend, running-club leader Steve Marek, said Ruiz told him she covered herself with water to make it look like she had been sweating.
“She jumped out of the crowd, not knowing that the first woman hadn’t gone by yet,” Marek said. “Believe me, she was as shocked as anyone when she came in first. But at that point they had put the crown on her, gave her the medal and told her she’s the winner. How could she say, ‘No, I’m not’?”