Saturday, June 18, 2016

Desert Misadventure - A 34 Mile Impossibility


Robert Young is a UK ultrarunner attempting to break the world record for the fastest crossing of the United States on foot.  His run has raised much suspicion, especially in the early weeks as he amassed a string of unrealistic daily mileages and paces.

Robert's crew is in an RV, in which a live tracker has been recording (albeit with low resolution, one update every 12 minutes when moving).  Investigators have archived the tracks here:  This tracker is always on Eastern Standard Time.

Robert claims to additionally wear GPS watches, and has uploaded evidence of these activities in the form of photographs of a TomTom website to his Facebook page,


Here I will utilize available data sources to analyze Robert's movements on May 18.  On this morning, Robert's RV became stuck and his travel from that point forward is highly suspicious.

A couple of the observations are my own, but this is largely a synthesis of information gleaned from the hard workers over at  Markus Mueller, team1.kml, 113, and other posters long questioned and analyzed Robert's run and the events of this day.  A crowdsourced effort is underway here.

We will show that:
  • Robert Young would have had to travel 34 miles unsupported in less than 4:33.
  • Robert Young would have had to travel 12 miles in no more than 52 minutes.
  • Robert Young hitchhiked 12 miles up Hwy 95.

Summary of evidence

Data Analysis - Proof of Concept

First, on the evening of May 17th, Robert Young and crew (RY) set out from Danby, CA.  Their days usually being around sunset to allow for cool running temps.

RY's TomTom data, posted to his Facebook, shows a run starting May 17, 8:39PM.  The run lasts 2:19:33 (first entry seen below), bringing the time to 10:58PM:

First entry above: 14.29mi run, May 17 at 8:39PM, 2:19:33 duration
Source: Marathonmanuk Facebook

Though only a thumbnail of the GPS tracing is seen, it can be extracted and matched to a map to confirm the location:

Extracting the GPS thumbnail tracing

Danby to Fenner, May 17.  The live tracking from the RV is shown as blue points, and arrows indicate the timestamps at those points (note that the RV live tracker is on Eastern Time, 3 hours ahead of the TomTom data).  The times from the GPS watch are bordered in red.

The shape of the GPS thumbnail fits the available data well.  The start and stop times of the TomTom activity closely match the location of the RV.

Let's do one more to prove this works.  Just after midnight on May 18, Robert is now running through the small town of Goffs (mind you, he is running 6-flat pace here, but nevermind...):

Second entry from the bottom: 8.08mi run, May 18 at 12:24AM, 49:33 duration
Source: Marathonmanuk Facebook
Let's match the GPS thumbnail and timestamps with the RV data:

Extracting the GPS thumbnail tracing

Running though Goffs, May 18.  Again, the live tracking from the RV is shown as blue points, and arrows indicate the timestamp at those points (note that the RV live tracker is on Eastern Time, 3 hours ahead of the TomTom data).  The times from the GPS watch are bordered in red.

OK, once again, seems to work pretty well.

Approaching the RV Breakdown Site

At 5:20AM on May 18, Robert begins a 3.81 mile run which will take him to the site of the RV incident:

Source: See above

Using our technique to line up the GPS and RV timestamps and GPS thumbnails:

Before the RV got stuck.  RV timestamps (arrow) and GPS timestamp (red border).

The blip at the end of the thumbnail indeed shows this is where they briefly turned north and got stuck.

RV Breakdown

OK, what about the actual RV breakdown.  When did this happen, what do we know about it?

RY himself says it happened at about 6:30AM:


What does the RV tracker show? It shows a timestamp on the approach to the breakdown site of 5:59AM, followed by a conglomerate of points from 7:03AM-9:18AM, and finally moving away from the site at 9:30AM.

Previous GPS thumbnail overlaid on RV tracking timestamps around the breakdown site

The team posts a blog photo of the RV at the breakdown site at 8:50AM:

EXIF data for the RV photograph

We can't tell exactly when it happened, but definitely not before 5:59AM.  And by 7:03AM the RV is pretty much where it's stuck.  So Robert's 6:30AM estimate is probably pretty truthful.

Robert Young Whereabouts

What about Robert Young himself, not just the RV?  Where is he?  In the Facebook messages...


...he claims he leaves shortly after the breakdown, maybe 6:45AM.

First, in a FB message to Markus Mueller, he offers a photo of his phone showing he's still there at 7:21AM:

From RY to Markus Mueller
Secondly, again in a private message to Markus, and on a video on Facebook, Rob is seen helping to try to dig out the RV.  These are completely different lighting situations or sides of the RV, so I think it's safe to say he spend a fair amount of time here.

From RY to Markus Mueller

Source: video on Facebook

The cell phone and photos of Rob are not conclusive enough to know how long Rob was at the RV for.   Maybe that's not even his phone, though who knows why he would share that then...

However, one thing certainly is conclusive:... GPS.  We've proven using 3 of his runs around this time that the timestamps and tracings match up well with known data.  GPS watches determine the exact time using signals from the satellites - it's actually a purpose and use of the system.  So we know from the runs surrounding this event which are appropriately timestamped, and from the nature of GPS technology, that the GPS data is reliable.  It's not possible that there is a time zone error, or he set the time wrong, etc, etc.  GPS sets the time accurately and automatically based on where you are.

Take a look at Robert's next run after the one that took him to the RV breakdown site, clipped from a TomTom image above:

3.81 mile run to RV breakdown site, 4.61 mile run from RV breakdown site
(Those of you paying close attention will notice these two runs overlap.  The easy explanation is that 2 watches were used [Robert confirms he uses 2 watches in a Facebook video].  So the first watch is left at the site and the crew forgets to stop it for a while.  Meanwhile, Robert takes off with the other.  The abysmal 45min/mi pace further supports this.)

Whatever the circumstantial evidence indicates, it's pretty clear that Robert leaves the RV at 7:31AM.  Let's use our technique to confirm:

GPS thumbnail for 4.61mi run starting from RV breakdown site.

The GPS thumbnail shape fits perfectly.  Robert continued along the dirt road and turned north on Hwy 95.  He's a couple miles out of Bannock on Hwy 95 at 8:19AM, no question.

Laughlin, NV

The next thing we know for sure about Robert Young is that he is hanging out at a pool in Laughlin, NV at 12:52PM.


EXIF data for above photograph

Here's what his blog had to say about it:

In the FB messages, he claims to have gotten there "around noon" and that he had to run 36 miles:


Let's have a look at the overview:

Known whereabouts at 8:19AM and 12:52PM; distance between

It's 34 miles from his position at 8:19AM on Hwy 95 to the RV park pool in Laughlin at 12:52PM.
Before we go any further, consider that this is an 8:00min/mi pace through a hot desert completely self-supported.  Besides, he says he got there at noon, and needed time to play roulette.  So if we say 12:30PM, that becomes 7:23min/mi pace.  Completely continuous, not a moment of rest, and while supposedly carrying several liters of water that would be needed for this...

The Hidden Activity

This alone is preposterous, but there is even more data to help us:

Source: Marathonmanuk Facebook

The only activity Robert posted which occurs between the one from the RV, and one from Laughlin in the evening, is this 21.97 mile run.  The time and GPS tracing are cut off from view.  Nonetheless, we can still deduce information from this fact.  Because nearly the entire upper half of the GPS thumbnail is seen and is essentially empty, this activity must have occurred almost entirely on a West-East axis.  Any vertical (N-S) component would show up in the GPS thumbnail as it is programmatically centered (that is, an equal amount would show up above and below the midline of the thumbnail circle).

Any claim that this run was a "shortcut" through the desert in a NE direction to Laughlin is therefore invalid.

RY himself also claims to have run 36 miles, and this only accounts for 22 of them.  By our measurements, he actually had 34 miles to go, so 12 are missing.  He only had 4 hours 33 minutes maximum, more like 4:10 given the roulette game, to get to Laughlin.  This run takes up 3:42.

4:33 or 4:10 minus 3:42 means: There are only 28 or fewer (realistically) to 51 (maximally) minutes to travel 12 miles!!

Since this activity, we concluded, occurred West-East, it fits very well with the course of Hwy 163.  Backtracking this distance from Laughlin yields:

21.9 mile backtrace from Laughlin, NV. Source:

Let's do some image processing.  We can use photoshop to extract the tracing of the route, scale it down, and center it in a circle in the same manner as the other TomTom thumbnails:

"TomTom-style" thumbnail of route

Now let's make it green and superimpose it on the contrast-enhanced TomTom image from Robert Young:

Superimposed thumbnail

There's a lot of monitor artifact and jpeg compression in the image, but I'm pretty sure I can see hints of the small vertical components showing above the taskbar, which correlate well with the superimposition.  Regardless, there is no doubt this activity is horizontal.  Any more vertical component than this route across Hwy 163 should be seen.  We can see probably the upper 48% or so of the circle.

Putting It All Together

So where exactly do we end up if we go ~21-22 miles back from Laughlin? Here's where:

Backtrack from Laughlin

If we go 21.5 miles back (Robert probably had to look around for the RV park, or rendezvoused somewhere else, plus his GPS track will not be as completely smooth as this automated tracing, so a little extra for him is completely reasonable), we end up at the intersection of a dirt road with Hwy 95, south of the state line.

Curiously, this is exactly the spot where RY and crew planned to shortcut to.  You see, that's probably why they got stuck in the first place.  They were trying to take shortcuts to cut to the state line, rather than through Bannock directly East and up 95 north:

Planned route.  Source: Marathonmanuk Website
Planned route (zoomed in)  Source: Marathonmanuk Website

I believe this is what happened:

The planned route has them going into the desert from Goffs.  Robert is supposedly laying down 6 minute miles here, so whether it's because he is in a groove, it is too dark/dangerous to attempt, or whatever, they just continue East on 66.  When they reach Homer, they now attempt to cut the corner:

Blue points: RV tracking; Red arrows: possible intended route; Green arrows: actual route; Black: zoomed inset

They turn onto a dirt road, which Google shows as continuing NE into the desert.  A quick zoom on the satellite view shows this is really not a road at all though, so they instead parallel Hwy 66 on the real dirt road.

In Bannock, they again see an opportunity to cut Northeast, attempt to do so, and get stuck around 6:30AM:

Bannock detour attempt, RV breakdown site

Robert Young tries to help it get unstuck, but it's not working.  And sitting still is not helping his suspicious mega-mileage totals.  So he sets off at 7:31AM, running to a few miles north of Bannock on Hwy 95 at 8:19AM.  He is 34 miles from Laughlin.  He is tired, frustrated with the wind and heat, frustrated his RV broke down, and inadequately self-supported.  He seeks out, or maybe is offered, a ride.  He hitches 12 miles up the road to the place where he deserves to be, if it weren't for everything that went wrong that wasn't his fault.  It's how he justifies it.  It is now ~8:30AM.  He runs 21.97 miles to Laughlin in 3:42, arriving after noon, meeting up with his crew, playing roulette, and finally chilling at the pool at 12:52PM.

His Facebook post from above says "we continued running 36 miles...".  He's supposed to be unsupported, so I don't know who we is.  Perhaps an accomplice, perhaps an innocent pronoun and a samaritan offered him a ride...


  • Robert Young would have had to travel 34 miles unsupported in less than 4:33.
  • Robert Young would have had to travel 12 miles in no more than 52 minutes.
  • Robert Young hitchhiked 12 miles up Hwy 95.
Known positions and likely events

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