Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Doping and Cheating in Sport, Specifically Running

I haven't talked a whole lot about doping and cheating in sports, specifically in running. In this article when I say sport I mean athletics, which is the Olympic designation for track and field. I haven't said anything because as a scientist I realize how difficult it is to draw the line. What I mean is, is taking testosterone wrong, or is it wrong to have your testosterone level above a certain level? I'm speaking out now because it seems we, the athletes, have reached the consensus that taking testosterone (or any other drug, testosterone is simply an easy example) is wrong. The problem is, how in the world do you know if someone is taking any? I could easily pay a friend cash, or a stranger cash for that matter, to buy drugs for me and microdose and no one would even know but me, and perhaps the other person, but not necessarily. It's the same for EPO, steroids, blood transfusions (actually blood transfusions I could do myself if I had the equipment), and every other banned substance or practice. And yes, it affects ultra running, not just the 100 meter dash.

An article and documentary broke recently about alleged cheating in running, and it's not positive and uplifting.

When it comes to drawing the line, it is hard. In the running community, a huge percentage take iron supplements and caffeine. I take both at times. Both taken in large enough doses are lethal, and both contribute to good performances at moderate levels. Yet both are legal. Obviously iron deficiency is a problem among runners, especially female runners, but even I feel better when I take an iron supplement and I've never had an iron deficiency. Although, I have always measured at the low end of the hemoglobin spectrum (14.7ish, although I was at 16.2 when I recently gave blood, my highest ever reading). Also, when I ran my PR 10k I had a blood test as part of starting a new job at work and my hematocrit was only 43, which basically means lots of room for improvement without alerting a biological passport inspector. In other words, I have blood that I could easy screw with and improve my performance without being detected.

It's a temptation. Seriously. To admit that the allure of getting 5% faster in one training cycle (4-8 months) is not a temptation is a lie. No I have never taken a banned substance as far as I know. Well, okay, there was one time with some steroids. In 2009 when I went to Pakistan to try and climb Broad Peak I had a number of prescription medications including the steroid dexamethasone. Dexamethasone is banned in competition. Well, I took the pills out of their original bottle and put them in plastic bags and then in little diabetic needle bottles the rationale being with mittens on they would be easier to get to, very logical. However, having been to 23,000 feet, I now know that during the day you can always take your mittens off for a minute to open a pill bottle. At night, outside, like on a summit day, if you have HACE you should head down and not be popping pills anyway! I even have some dexamethasone in my apartment now that I got before Everest in 2014 and it's in the original bottles, pictured below. Anyway, back in basecamp in Pakistan in 2009 I was curious how I might react to the dexamethasone so I licked the powder off of the ziplock bag the pills were in and for the next day I felt amazing! I know now that the placebo effect probably does not affect anyone else more than it does me, and I was probably riding the placebo effect more than the medication. Still, just the powder made me feel good. I can only imagine if I took a full pill I would feel great.
My 10 4 milligram tablets of Dexamethasone for Everest 2014
In fact, doping on 8000 meter mountains is unfortunately common. People take dexamethasone proactively to climb faster and feel stronger at altitude. Most people seem to be oblivious to it though.  on Everest last year I think I was the only client, or maybe one of two, that brought our own high altitude medications. The thing is, there is no testing in mountaineering. It's the wild west. Even in running, I've never been drug tested. I've been drug tested twice for work, as a condition of employment, but not for athletic performance enhancers.

Part of me thinks athletics will never be totally clean. You would need a drug enforcement officer to follow people all the time. You could try to audit finances for payments, but clearly a handshake agreement depending on payment a decade down the road could happen.

There is rationalization too. I read that dexamethasone helps people recover from Achilles tendinitis issues quickly too. Before my recent trip out to Colorado July 4th weekend, I thought, 'wow, I could "proactively" take dexamethasone to make sure I adjust well to the 13,000 foot elevation, and I could reason that it would help my Achilles heal faster too.' Fortunately, I totally forgot about it as I packed, so I didn't bring it. Yet it sits there in my bathroom medicine shelf, a little temptation that would improve my running. We are most vulnerable when things are going poorly. When injured, an athlete wants to get back to full health faster. Then there is the fuzzy line between injured and healthy, and who is to say you need to stop taking those performance enhancing drugs and you are fully healthy?

Just to elaborate on my thoughts, I realize this next statement goes in the minority, and actually doing it would get me banned, but blood doping, that is taking your blood out and then putting it back in at a different time seems fine to me. It's a very mechanical act like using an altitude tent or training at altitude. It also comes with significant risks as Tyler Hamilton's book about doping with Lance Armstong describes, you could die or put yourself in the hospital. In other words, in my mind, if you are brave enough to take that risk go ahead. I like racing and competing, but I'm not about to take that kind of risk.

Another example in my personal quest to navigate the drug taking world I live in, was when I quit asthma my junior year of high school cross country when I was 16. I was getting better and I had some trouble breathing when I ran hard. I went to the doctor, described the symptoms, and without any testing he prescribed me albuterol for exercise induced asthma, and I used it before every run, three pulls with the little air regulator tube. However, after a week of using it before every run and even a race, I decided I didn't feel any benefit, and I actually felt like I was trying to squeeze some unfair advantage out of medicine. So I quit asthma. Running hard puts anyone out of breathe, it's simple but no one in my family had ever been a runner, we didn't know gasping for breath after a hard bit of running was normal. Now I know it's the best evidence you actually ran hard. Frankly as a coach it's something I am always really happy to see from an athlete.

All of that being said, I've never done anything that I view as controversial with regards to extra advantage. Yet to ignore the reality that something that will improve my performance, without the pain of the really hard workouts, is a temptation, is naive! Maybe it sounds cliche, but it's true, I think of Jesus being tempted by the Devil for 40 days in the desert. Just because we are tempted does not mean we fall into sin. You are welcome to come to my apartment and count my 10 dexamethasone pills to make sure the number in the bottle match the number on the label. Reading this it might sound like a big temptation to me, but the reality is I know when things go poorly on a mountain those ten pills might not last ten hours when three people come down with HACE and no one else has anything to help them. Still, it sits there, whispering to me, 'you can recover faster, you can be a little stronger, you can lose a little fat.' Funny story about fat, at the IAU 24 Hour World Championships in April the team doctor squeezed my arm, and the fat on it, and said he knew I wasn't doing steroids because it takes away all the surface fat on our bodies. Turns out a doctor telling you, "you have fat" can be a complement.

I don't expect people to agree with me. Frankly, I don't expect people to respect me for admitting that cheating is a temptation. I hope that you will believe the stories I have told as the extent of my use of banned and prohibited substances, and even then I don't expect you to believe me. I wrote this because I wanted to let the next generation of athletes know that being tempted does not mean you cheated. I want people to know that you can have success without using a variety of drugs and illegal methods. I am slow! If I can have success running, almost anyone can. (It just takes 15,000+ miles of running, lots of workouts, long runs, and a lot of suffering.) I will say, I've been beat by cheaters a number of times, and I hate it! Chicago marathon 2013, Rita Jeptoo passed a few feet away from me at the one mile mark in that race, she looked so strong...

Don't cheat. If it feels like it is wrong, don't do it. After I failed at my third big wall climb in Yosemite in 2010, I called my 8000 meter mentor and he told me, "If you aren't whole without it, you won't be whole with it." It means, if you "need" to win, to set a personal record, to summit Everest, climb El Cap, when you do, that feeling inside you won't go away. It helped me learn I love the process. I like climbing; summiting is a bonus. I like running; winning races and setting records is a bonus. You will be tempted, if not by cheating at sport, perhaps by filing your taxes, speeding on the highway, or by some other unethical situation, but you don't have to fall into sin! Enjoy the suffering, I do sometimes. "...we also rejoice in our suffering, because suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us"

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