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Reporter’s notebook

I chased details about Rosie Ruiz’s life; she outdistanced me

Rosie Ruiz, at a press conference at the Prudential Center after the 1980 Boston Marathon.
Rosie Ruiz, at a press conference at the Prudential Center after the 1980 Boston Marathon.(The Boston Globe)

For more than 3½ days, the obit I wrote about Rosie Ruiz sat in the Globe’s computer system, topped with an unsubtle warning in red letters: “DO NOT PUBLISH!!!! without confirmation.”

News organizations often prepare advance obituaries for prominent people. These advance obits might sit in the system for days, months, or years with a note reminding editors that a death confirmation is needed.

My warning was more emphatic this time.

I loathe exclamation points — rarely using one, let alone four — but I’ve written obituaries for nearly 14 years without publishing one for someone who wasn’t dead. I didn’t want to end that streak by accidentally running an obit about someone as famous as Rosie Ruiz while she was still alive.

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And given that her claim to fame as being one of the sports world’s most famous frauds, the irony of an errant obit would amplify the embarrassment.

I was about to head to the gym early last Saturday afternoon when a colleague’s e-mail arrived saying there was a report that Ruiz had died. Almost immediately it was clear that confirming her death would be as difficult as confirming anything she claimed publicly after she faked a Boston Marathon victory in 1980.

I quickly tracked down a Florida funeral home listing for a Rosie M. Vivas — the name Ruiz used after marrying in 1984. Ordinarily, a funeral home listing for someone well-known would be enough to confirm a death, especially when most details match. And in the online posting for Rosie M. Vivas, much matches Rosie Ruiz’s life — including their shared first name and Ruiz’s married name.

This was no ordinary obit, though, and Rosie Ruiz was not a typical obit subject.

The first step was trying to get a family member to confirm that the Rosie M. Vivas in the funeral home listing was the same Rosie Ruiz who briefly deceived the running world in 1980. The funeral home’s listing said nothing about Ms. Vivas being a runner, and a funeral home spokeswoman said the details her family provided made no mention of marathons.

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All efforts to reach relatives failed, however.

Meanwhile, what I found elsewhere was enough to give any reporter pause.

In an initial search I gathered nearly 17,000 words of Globe clips about Rosie Ruiz, along with several thousand additional words of reporting from other news organizations.

It was like reading a novella whose main character was the dictionary definition of an unreliable narrator.

From almost the moment Rosie Ruiz crossed the finish line, reporters at the Globe and other news organizations found holes in nearly every claim she made, including on non-marathon topics such as her birth name and whether she had finished college.

Although the funeral home prepared its write-up from information Ms. Vivas’s family provided, the online listing didn’t inspire confidence, either. Among the details was a bachelor’s degree from a college in Nebraska. In 1996, an official from that college told a Globe reporter that Rosie Ruiz had only attended for 1½ years.

If a simple fact like that appears to be in error, how do you trust that the person in the listing really is the person you’re writing about? And for that matter, do you automatically assume the person is actually no longer alive?

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I called a Florida government office. A copy of the Rosie M. Vivas death certificate may be requested by mail, though even that official document wouldn’t establish that she was the runner Rosie Ruiz.

While waiting for a relative to return a phone message, I wrote an obit that stretched past 1,600 words.

Sometimes a famously deceptive life can be much more difficult to sum up than a life of resounding goodness.

Meanwhile, my editors and I watched online to see if any other organization reported that Rosie Ruiz had died. That happened Monday evening, when two websites devoted to runners announced her death and cited as their source the funeral home listing.

Top Globe editors had already decided that wasn’t adequate as a sole death confirmation. So we waited. There were discussions about going to Florida to try to locate relatives.

Then just before 7 p.m. Wednesday, an editor noticed that The Washington Post had published an obit online saying that Rosie Ruiz/Rosie M. Vivas was dead and attributing it to the funeral home website.

Many e-mail exchanges among editors later, the Globe decided to publish the Rosie Ruiz obit, but we added explanations to note that we had not been able to reach a relative and independently confirm her death.

Am I still uneasy? Yes.

Uncertain obit details are not uncommon.

But as I said, Rosie Ruiz was her own unique obit situation.

In life, she had what might gently be called a troubled relationship with truth, and she eventually tired of answering reporters’ questions, slipping out of the public eye during her later years.

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In death, if indeed she is dead, she’s having the final word, which so far is no word at all.


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BryanMarquard.