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.
If not, this is trouble.
OFFICIAL UPDATE. At 5:38pm I received this note from Brendan Buck, of the Romney Campaign:
Hey James - caught your entertaining piece. Unfortunately, you've got some bad info in there. We're not sure where this started, but he's not said 40 different peaks, its nearly 40 climbs - with a number of peaks climbed more than once. He's been doing them for more than 20 years. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article from '09 doesn't say 40 separate summits, but instead "He is fairly careful about what he eats, performs an intense cross-training routine known as P90X most mornings, and has made close to 40 climbs of Colorado's "Fourteeners" (14,000-foot peaks)."
- The sportswriter and veteran runner Jeff Pearlman, on why he thinks the mistaken claim matters.
- The now-famous Paul Ryan Time Calculator, according to which my personal-best marathon time is 2:11:57.
- A political scientist on why the logic of Walter Lippmann bodes trouble for Ryan.
- Paul Ryan has now explained that he couldn't remember his real time so he made up what he thought would be "an ordinary time."
I do not believe this explanation. Remember his original exchange with Hugh Hewitt, emphasis added:
HH: I've just gotta ask, what's your personal best?
PR: Under three, high twos. I had a two hour and fifty-something.
HH: Holy smokes. All right, now you go down to Miami University...
PR: I was fast when I was younger, yeah.
This is someone volunteering an "ordinary time"?
**My main analogy is flying. As with running marathons, and as (I assume) with climbing mountains, this is an activity that attracts a certain kind of obsessive personality. Like almost all pilots, I keep a logbook with records of every single flight. If I tell you that I've landed in airports in 42 or 43 different states -- I forget which right now -- I can flip through the pages and count them up with you. I assume it would be the same with someone keeping records of the "Fourteeners" he had climbed.