Honoring The Game: My thoughts on Performance Enhancing Drugs in Running
First off I’ll admit: I’ve been “obsessed.” Overly passionate on many occasions. That is part of my bias. Of course I also have a financial stake in being a pro MUT Runner. This is my main job…this is how I make a living…I live and breathe the sport (and have for several years). That is another part of my bias. I’ll own up to that.
A bit of perspective though: There are much more important, real world problems to worry about, post about and write about. Things like world hunger, children dying of preventable disease…atrocities and injustice with war and violence. It’s why our coaching company Vo2max Productions, LLC has donated to charities like UNICEF and 1% for the Planet (and we thank our customers and supporters in the generous running community that have helped with this!). It is not enough though. It is never enough. These kinds of things should be the focus of our attention…the driving forces that us (the more fortunate individuals) really need to take action and promote every day with a passion. Those are way more important than a little silly sport known as “Distance Running.”
But I digress: Today I write about what also really grinds my gears (perhaps selfishly). I feel like it’s something where a little voice tells me that it is the right thing to do…That it is time to take a stand and explain where I’m coming from. If you don’t stand for something, you fall for everything So that is part of the reason why I wrote this blog post.
A buddy of mine (2x Olympian Mike Aish…a 27:46 10km runner who also ran ultras, and who I interviewed on the SageRunning Podcast) lent me the book “Game of Shadows” about BALCO’s doping scandal which included Barry Bonds, Marion Jones and Tim Montegomery to name a few “elite” athletes. I’ll admit, I haven’t finished reading it yet, but a common theme so far is that the athletic-performance improvement from taking PEDs like EPO, HGH, testosterone, and steroids was a total game-changer. Records fell like never before (and we can even plot out batting averages, home run records and the 100m dash world records over time and see the huge “jump” these very athletes made on drugs…and what level they were at before taking the drugs). Sure they worked hard for it (Bonds had to be a machine in the weight room), but the advantage was vast.
Another book I recently read was “The Secret Race” by former tour rider Tyler Hamilton (a temmate of Lance Armstrong). It was depressing because there were clean guys who graciously bowed out of American Postal when they started systematically doping. The clean guys simply couldn’t hang with the Peloton anymore. Like not even close. Guys that weren’t known as big climbers suddenly become world class climbers (think Lance Armstrong). But you don’t hear about the guys that lost their careers because they got left in the dust…because they decided not to inject EPO and take extra tesotsterone and HGH. Thos guys are my real heros. They put integrity over fame and money. I really don’t want to see a “pure and natural sport” like MUT Running (which for most is an enjoyable hobby about personal challenge) get to the level of pro cycling…where just to compete in the front of the pack one has to be on “the juice.” It’s simply not healthy physically or mentally…but it does churn out “super human” performances. PEDs won’t make a mid-pack runner turn into an elite. But then can for sure bump on up to another level that they wouldn’t be able to attain without them. I personally don’t want to see what my body can do at 105% on extra EPO. I just want to see what I can do at 100%..with the body my parents gave me, and what 18 years of year-round training/and racing (including tons of 100+ mile training weeks in the last decade). I freaking love this sport…I love the community…I love the natural challenge and goal setting process…I even love the pain and extreme fatigue!
Now I’m obviously not a medical professional. I’ve taken advanced bio and chem. classes at Cornell Univeristy, but much of what I know about performance enhancing drugs has been lay study. I’ve scoured sketchy body building forums online where guys talk about “stacking” different combinations of drugs (mainly steroids for the body builder types), watched documentaries where journalists inject themselves with EPO, and heard first-hand accounts of other elite athlete/runners who were known dopers. I’ve competed against guys running half marathons and 10km races on the road that have finished just ahead of me and then been busted for EPO. From pro roading running circuits I’ve seen guys and gals get busted. In hindsight it always makes sense. It’s never a surprise to many. The story is the same: here was this pretty good, semi-national class /elite runner (they’re usually pretty nice people also)…then all of a sudden one year or season they make a big jump in improvement; they recover from hard training sessions faster and they start shattering their personal bests.
What are these runners usually on? My guess would be a variant of EPO. This is a powerful PED folks. This is not like toking up with a little weed or taking a caffeine pill during a race. [I’m not worried about “small time drugs” nearly as much although I do follow WADA code with banned substances and realize the code is where one simply draws the line ]. No, this is night and day difference in power/strength/endurance/recovery ability. This is likely a 2-3% improvement at the very bare minimum of an elite level runner (not to mention they can train a lot harder and therefore get superhuman” strong). For more recreational runners, I’ve seen journalists claim a 7% boost in Vo2max within 7 weeks of some training and micro doing. At the top level a 1-2% improvement is everything. Stiff records in the most competitive events should fall by only tiny margins….and the margin of victory should be relatively close.
“When it seems like it’s too good to be true…it probably is.”
Drugs are easy to get these days…and not as expensive as people think (aside from HGH). I’ve heard one could get a very good supply of EPO for about $1000. It is easy to order off the internet as well (ships to your door). Others in the road running circuit have been busted driving over the border with it in their car though!
Recently there was an article on Ultra Running Podcast by an anonymous writer/runner calling for support of Jim Walmsley (an elite MUT Runner and fellow HOKA teammate of mine) to take more proactive action. [I think some people may have thought that I even wrote the article….I did NOT write it, and I honestly don’t know who did. 11/17/16 5pm update: That article has been removed from their website]. I think moving forward, that if we want to take action on PEDs in the sport of distance running (specifically MUT Running which is notorious for a lack of testing and where performance gains can go exponential due to their longer duration/ high physical demands…much like cycling tours), we must do it as a collective community. Yeah, there should be more pressure on sponsored athletes like myself and Jim…we are benefiting big-time from this sport….no doubt about it. But I’m hoping all levels of runners (and sponsors/brands/races) see the need to share this message, and stand up for how they want to see the future of the sport for generations to come.
What I have been doing is contacting some people in higher up organizations that can implement actual drug testing and enforce actual rules/policy and penalties. I think a key would be “out of season” testing and surprise tests 4, 6, 8, or 10 weeks before key races (when athletes really ramp up their training and get the most gains from PEDs). Race day testing is always nice as well although likely athletes like to “taper off” the juice before any big race (that they know they might do well in and get tested at). Where we get the money from is a big issue. Obviously I’m against having the majority of runners pay for it. Most people in MUT Running already have to pay high entry fees for races (and wait on crazy lotteries). That certainly isn’t fair. So the financing should have to come from those with a major financial interest (and also those passionate about the cause!): the elite sponsored athletes and their brands. I’m personally ready to put by money where my mouth is. Maybe we can get some creative brainstorming going on for more solutions? I’m all ears and I want to know your thoughts on this…what does the community think? I’d love to hear from you!
Overall though, I think in life it is about “doing the right thing.” Treat others like you want to be treated and be fair. Don’t let others get taken advantage of, don’t let money and greed and “fame” or an ego boost tempt you into cutting corners and screwing over others. This goes for all you hard working age groupers out there in all competitive running events…hardworking people that train to get the best out of their bodies naturally…to see what they can do and how close to their 100% potential they can get. Isn’t that the whole point of a challenging sport like distance running? If you’re cheating, you’re stealing from honest, hard working athletes, you’re stealing from the community, but most of all you’re cheating yourself. That can’t feel good.
Finally, there are some serious health risks with taking some PEDs …it is an abuse of a controlled substance, and something that I believe is not healthy for future generations of runners. Cyclists would drop dead with heart attacks and strokes because their blood would get too thick from abusing EPO. Do we really want to promote a sporting culture that tells youngsters it’s okay to cheat, and cut corners, and inject PEDs because “all the top guys do it.” Or that “to be a top guy you have to do it”? Why settle for that easy cop out…for mediocrity? I don’t think that’s the way a lot of us want to move forward in life and in sport. We have to learn to deal with failure and struggle sometimes…failure from overtraining, failure from not quite hitting our goals (or qualifying for Boston…or the Olympic Trials…winning or age group…or finishing that ultra). But that is part of the process and challenge that we all hate and love in this tough and grueling sport of distance running, isn’t it? Be honest and run with integrity. Respect your body and respect “the game.”
All the best in running,
About the Author (Author Profile)2-time Olympic Trials Qualifier, Mountain runner, Author of "Running For The Hansons," trail runner, videos for Vo2max Productioins, LLC.
Sites That Link to this Post
- Ultramarathon Daily News, Fri, Nov 18 - UltrarunnerPodcast.com | November 18, 2016