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As in life, apparent death of Rosie Ruiz shrouded in a bit of mystery

The first woman to break the tape at the end of the Boston Marathon — Rosie Ruiz.
The first woman to break the tape at the end of the Boston Marathon — Rosie Ruiz. (The Boston Globe/1980)

In videos of the 1980 Boston Marathon, Rosie Ruiz crosses the finish line and staggers into the arms of race officials as the unexpected women’s winner. But within hours it was the ruse she had concocted that was collapsing.

Several days later, race officials disqualified her for skipping most of the course and stripped her of her first-place title. But ever since then, even after becoming known as road racing’s most memorable fraud, she never backed down from her claim that she ran the entire way and finished in what would have then been a women’s record time for the course of 2 hours, 31 minutes, and 56 seconds.

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For much of the more than 39 years since that false victory, she sought anonymity — going by Rosie M. Vivas, her name from a marriage that ended in divorce.

But a Florida funeral home has now posted obituary information for a woman with that name, who was diagnosed with cancer a decade ago and died on July 8. The Globe has not been able to reach her family to confirm that the Rosie Vivas on the funeral home’s website is the same woman who was disqualified from the Boston Marathon.

But many biographical details for the Ms. Vivas on the website match those from the life of Rosie Ruiz. For example, they are the same age, were both born in Havana, are survived by a brother with the same name, and went to the same college in Nebraska.

Ms. Vivas was 66. Perhaps because the information from the Quattlebaum Funeral, Cremation and Event Center does not identify her as Rosie Ruiz, her death went virtually unnoticed for nearly a month after details were posted on the home’s website.

“A funeral is not scheduled due to Rosie’s final wishes,” says the West Palm Beach funeral home listing, which makes no mention of the marathon or any history of a running career. “She would always want you to remember to celebrate life because tomorrow is never promised. Never forget to fight no matter what life throws your way.”

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It’s an understatement to say a lot was thrown Rosie Ruiz’s way, much due to her own actions.

The Cuban-born administrative assistant from New York City who claimed to have run only one race before winning the Boston Marathon apparently never competed again, at least not in a race that drew media attention, and the spotlight was trained on her for years.

Because of the cheating scandal, she took a permanent place in running history, her name more recognizable than those of many marathon winners.

Though she refused to relinquish her winner’s medal, officials designated Jacqueline Gareau of Canada as the women’s champion eight days after the 1980 marathon race. Gareau had finished in 2:34:28, which was then the fastest women’s time in the event’s history.

Four days before Rosie Ruiz lost her Boston crown, New York Marathon officials invalidated her October 1979 finish there of 2:56:31 — a time that was 23rd among women and that had qualified her to run in Boston. As was the case in Boston, she didn’t appear in videos shot along the New York course. Also, a woman told reporters that she had met Rosie Ruiz on a New York subway that October day and rode with her to the finish area.

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In those tumultuous days after the 1980 Boston Marathon, Rosie Ruiz was befriended, defended, and publicly supported by Steve Marek, a running club president in suburban New York who for a time became her adviser.

A year later, however, he told the Globe that he had come to believe that she did indeed cheat. He thought she felt pressured to finish the Boston Marathon in under three hours and that her first-place finish was simply a miscalculation.

“She just jumped in too soon,” Marek told the Globe. “Then when she got to the finish line, she was surprised she won. She wasn’t trying to win. She was just trying to come in with the same time she had in New York . . . And when she realized she won, she just decided to bluff her way through it.”

Within a few years, she also faced criminal charges. On April 19, 1982, just 30 minutes before the start of that year’s Boston Marathon, she was arrested in New York on charges of stealing a combined $60,000 in cash and checks from her employer.

And in November 1983, she turned herself in to authorities in Florida, where she was wanted for allegedly conspiring with two other women to sell 2 kilograms of cocaine to undercover agents. The Globe later reported that she served a total of about a month in jail for the two arrests and was placed on probation.

Infamy carried a life sentence, however, and the name “Rosie Ruiz” became permanent shorthand nationally for cheating or taking a shortcut of any sort, in sports and beyond.

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In Boston in 1980, marathon race officials came to believe that she joined the runners not far from the finish — a pair of Harvard University students said they saw her emerge from a crowd of onlookers and start running near Kenmore Square.

Asked by reporters after the race about landmarks she had passed along the route, she could offer few details. Quizzed about pre-race preparations that helped her run so fast, she seemed perplexed by basic terms for training techniques.

Ms. Ruiz broke down at a New York press conference a few days before she was stripped of her women's marathon title after a unanimous vote by the Boston Athletic Association Board of Governors.
Ms. Ruiz broke down at a New York press conference a few days before she was stripped of her women's marathon title after a unanimous vote by the Boston Athletic Association Board of Governors.(Stan Grossfeld)

She didn’t appear in photos or videos shot earlier in the race and she wasn’t spotted at checkpoints. She claimed that because her hair was short, observers had merely missed her. “No one waved to me that I was first,” she said at the news conference a few days later. “Maybe they thought I was a boy. I wish now I had taken the names of those around me.”

A year after the debacle, just a few days before the 1981 Boston Marathon, she sat for a media interview in her lawyer’s office in New York City, where she then lived. She still insisted she had been telling the truth the year before and was being honest still. “I do feel as strongly as I did last year,” she said.

“I understand how people think,” she added. “They’re trying to come up with a solution. If I were in their situation, I’d do the same thing.”

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Like the Rosie Vivas on the funeral home website, Rosie M. Ruiz was born in Havana on June 21, 1953, and was 8 when she immigrated to the United States. Rosie Ruiz’s parents, Jesus Ruiz and Juana Alvarez, “were afraid of the political situation,” she would later tell reporters, “so they sent my brother and I over first.”

According to the funeral home website, Ms. Vivas graduated from high school in Hollywood, Fla.

In 1980, she told reporters that she had been a runner in high school and had attended Wayne State College in Nebraska, where she injured her knee in a touch football game and underwent surgery to repair the damage.

She also told reporters she had undergone two successful brain surgeries in Florida in the 1970s, to remove a benign tumor and to insert a plate in her skull.

The funeral home said she moved in 1977 to New York, where she lived for “five fantastic years” before returning to Florida to stay — working there at a Better Business Bureau office, as a real estate agent, and for Laboratory Corporation of America.

The Globe reported that in January 1984, she married Colombia-born Aicaro Vivas. In 1998, Ms. Vivas told the Palm Beach Post that they divorced after 2 ½ years.

According to the funeral home, Ms. Vivas leaves Margarita Alvarez, her domestic partner; Alvarez’s sons, Francisco, Reynaldo, and Gilberto; and Ms. Vivas’s brother, Robert Ruiz.

Boston Marathon officials offered Rosie Ruiz the chance to compete in the 1981 race, but she said she couldn’t because of a hip injury. That same ailment, she told reporters at the time, had also prevented her from competing in a marathon in Vermont in the months following the 1980 Boston Marathon.

In those early months after losing her victor’s title, she declined many offers — including some that would have paid her thousands of dollars — to compete in races and prove she was capable of running the entire Boston Marathon.

Yet for years she kept insisting she would race again.

In the 1998 interview, she told the Palm Beach Post that she had collected photos and other evidence to prove she had run the entire Boston course in 1980. By then she was 44. She said she still had her Boston Marathon winner’s medal and she planned to run again in 2000 — though the race director told the Globe then that she wouldn’t be welcome.

“I may not win this time,” Ms. Vivas told the Palm Beach Post, “but I will be there and I’ll run again, the entire course just as before.”

Mostly, though, she avoided interviews over the years or cut them short.

“I’m not interested,” she said in 1996 when a Globe reporter tried to ask her questions as she entered her Florida home.

In 2000, Bill Burt of the Eagle-Tribune reached her by phone. “I ran the race,” she said of the 1980 marathon, before cutting short the call and later leaving him a voicemail.

For 39 years, reporters never elicited an admission of cheating from the runner who, for a few moments in 1980, lifted her arms high in triumph, head crowned with a laurel wreath, victory medal draped around her neck.

In 1996, though, her former adviser Marek told the Globe’s Kevin Paul Dupont that several months after the race, she had finally revealed to him that she had slipped in among the runners in the marathon’s final stage. At that point, Marek was believed to be the only person to publicly claim that she had admitted to the deceit.

In the end, years after her last public comments, she may have outrun inquisitive reporters, but the marathon controversy remained never more than a step behind, as she knew it would.

When she was officially disqualified from the Boston Marathon in 1980, she made a prediction: “I’m afraid this will be with me for a long time.”

Because of a reporting error, the college Rosie M. Vivas attended was incorrectly listed in an earlier version of this report. Wayne State College is in Nebraska, not Oklahoma.


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.