UPDATE: Please see official response from the Romney campaign, below.
My mailbox has been blowing up with speculation on why Paul Ryan would have invented such an impressive "personal best" time for the marathon, and whether the invention will matter. For now I am going to leave it to others, with some highlighted links below.*
A crucial "will it matter?" factor is whether this proves to be one embarrassing but isolated glitch, or whether the new scrutiny it provokes will turn up other, similar problems. I have argued that on big questions of public policy, Ryan showed impressive sangfroid in standing before a national audience at the convention saying things he knew would be easy to attack. But I've known of no other indications of personal whoppers like the marathon.
Here's the first exception. Ryan has told his hometown paper that he has climbed "close to 40" of the famous "Fourteeners" in Colorado -- the 54 peaks more than 14,000 feet high. In fairness, he made this claim a few years ago, before he knew he would be under the scrutiny he is now.
Still: this claim makes me even more suspicious than his marathon answer did. I
know nothing about mountain climbing, so give my views appropriate
weight. But to see what people who do have experience think, you might check out the current comments at the climbers' site SuperTopo. One explains the reason for his skepticism:
The 54 peaks are scattered throughout remote parts of Colorado and you have to visit out-of-the-way little towns and valleys to tick the list, towns and valleys that you would never visit otherwise....
To have climbed forty and not be a resident means that you would have had to devote entire summers to climbing fourteeners, in essence becoming a "lifestyle" hiker/scrambler. I doubt Ryan had the time or dedication to fourteeners to take the required time out from his political career. Even if you did four a summer, that would be ten summers devoted to traveling to Colorado for the purpose of high altitude hiking. Even if you live here and can drive to the trail heads, forty is a huge commitment of time and energy.
This reader then quoted an admiring DenverPost.com op-ed about Ryan, from someone who believed the "about 40" claim:
Why does it matter that Paul Ryan is a mountain man, at home above timberline on the fourteeners? Because there is no better index of character. It tells of someone's backbone under pressure, resourcefulness in facing adversity, and trustworthiness for power. Conservative or liberal isn't the point. The high peaks simply test your mettle. Declinists and defeatists need not apply.
The skeptical climber replied:
Why does it matter that Paul Ryan--as seems likely in light of his marathon fabrication--is not a "mountain man" and is lying about his fourteener record? Because there is no better index of character. It tells of someone's desperation to connect to the voters of a swing state, his ability to make stuff up without conscience, and ruthless ambition to obtain power through any means. It also indicates his contempt for the citizens of Colorado. He apparently believes that Colorado voters are clueless and that the press is a lapdog that has lost any ability to check facts. Dedicated hikers, scramblers, climbers, hunters, fishermen and other aficionados of the Colorado high peaks do not need to exaggerate their visceral connection to the Colorado high country and need not apply to become a faux mountain man, like Paul Ryan.
As I understand it, mountain-climbing is like marathon-running in this way: people pay enough attention to their achievements that they remember the details, and they know that they are written down somewhere. Lists of who has climbed which "Fourteener," like lists of finishers and their times for marathons, are part of the permanent record of each pursuit. As with his marathon time, this is so specifically impressive a claim that it should be very easy to back up and dismiss doubts about**. If it is true.