Running under a Shadow

This article was concurrently published at NoCoastBias.com on February 3, 2015.

The Boston Marathon was in the news again this week. Twice, in fact. After a snowstorm hit the Northeast, inspiring pictures circulated on the internet showing the finish line that had been cleared of snow. That feel-good story was subdued slightly within the running community amid the decision that Rita Jeptoo, the Boston Marathon champion in 2006, 2013, and 2014, had been suspended for 2 years following the positive test of her “A” and “B” samples for erythropoietin (EPO). EPO stimulates the production of erythrocytes, which are precursor cells for red blood cells, vital for transporting oxygen through the body during exercise. For its proven enhancement on aerobic capacity, EPO is a banned substance for all endurance athletes.

Jeptoo, who also holds the course record at Boston, is one of the biggest names in women’s distance running. Having also won the Chicago Marathon in 2013 and 2014, she was the top competitor at the World Marathon Majors, a circuit that includes six of the most competitive marathons around the globe each year. Jeptoo will no longer be eligible for that prize, and is banned from competition for two years, including the world championships this year and the 2016 Olympics. There will still be an appeal, which will occur before determining whether Jeptoo will have to forfeit any previously won prize money. However, her reign as a top-teir distance champion may be informally over, as the professional running community has increasingly moved toward an attitude that seeks to punish doping offenders and keep them out of future competition.

Most people would agree that doping is present to some extent in all endurance sports. The degree to which you believe it exists, depends on your level of cynicism. Unfortunately, until the penalties catch up to the infractions, there may remain be an incentive to cheat. Running is a demanding support; marathon training, even more so. At the professional level, the stakes are high to win races and set records. Champions receive nice payouts in prize money, but many elite and sub-elite runners live with mid-level sponsorship deals while training full-time and sometimes holding other jobs. A win at a major race can be a career-defining moment, not just in terms of earning potential, but also as a springboard for other competitions.

But distance running doesn’t have a “quick fix.” The “fluke” wins that might show up once in a while in other sports don’t occur in running. You can’t train to win a race overnight (or even within a few months). Winning a marathon “on luck” doesn’t happen. Sometimes an entire year is planned out in order to peak for a single race. Base mileage for elite runners tops 100 miles per week; specific workouts are tailored for each phase of the training cycle; and the “intangibles” of strength, nutrition, and recovery become even more important. Oh and by the way, everyone else is working just as hard to beat you. A nagging injury, improper recovery, or a few missed workouts can derail a training plan, which at the elite level, might jeopardize the race goal. I’ll never justify using performance enhancing drugs, but I do understand the motivation. Even when I’m sidelined with an injury in my running career (which doesn’t need to support my livelihood, I might add), sometimes the frustrating aches and pains leave me wishing for a magic healing pill or some secret formula to increased fitness as I chase the more talented runners ahead of me on the roads. Running is about setting goals and improving, and sometimes the line between what is fair and what is cheating gets obscured. A professional runner may know that doping is against the rules, but if “not doping” means a perpetual inability to reach the top-tier, than their decision-making suddenly gets cloudy. That is, until the review process and penalties are arranged in order to discourage doping or cheating of any kind. If the penalties becomes more strict, hopefully that will deter the use of performance-enhancing substances at the elite level. Now is the time for professional running to take a hard stance against doping, and maintain the integrity of the sport. Many professional runners have advocated lifetime bans for runners convicted of doping. Others are advocating in the US and abroad for regular and reliable testing procedures, which will hopefully set an example for younger athletes to compete fairly as well. Certain race directors are more likely to withhold entry into races from runners who have been banned in the past, and it is likely that future efforts will continue in this direction.

Running should be clean. It is the purest sport that pits one person’s physical limits against another’s. Implicit in this competitive contract is the understanding the accomplishments listed next to your name are yours alone, those earned without any unfair advantage. It is the sport that connects to the masses, not just those select few trying to make an Olympic team, but the millions more who sign up for local 5Ks, those who train to complete their first marathon, and the runners that trot along city trails and bike paths every weekend, simply for the love of the sport. When I read stories about doping in running, many emotions arise, but the first one is sadness: when a sport that unites runners around the world is cast into a shadow, and for the terrible example I fear this portrays for young athletes. Running is about the grit and effort that goes into each tough workout, the knowledge that you gave your all, and the satisfaction that you get out exactly what you put into it. But it’s also about revealing one’s character and winning with integrity. Doping, whether to increase red blood cells, build muscle mass, or recover from an injury more quickly, is merely just a shortcut.

And when it comes to running, shortcuts don’t get you there any faster.  AN

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