Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Quest for an Unfair Advantage

Jeptoo’s Elixer

True sport is sport that upholds the principles of fair play, sportsmanship, integrity, and ethics.
The WADA Code

By Van Rensselaer Townsend

Using EPO is much easier than many running fans imagine. The hormone comes in small vials. No IV bags or drips. The user does not need to offer up an arm vein; the small needle is injected into a pinched roll of skin (subcutaneous) just like an allergy shot. Erythropoietin is almost prohibitively expensive in the jacked-up Insurance morass we call “Medical Treatment” in the US. It goes into the books as costing $800. Monopoly money. A doctor cannot prescribe EPO unless a patient’s red blood cells are dangerously low. There are loads of prescribing protocol parameters in the US system.

But not everywhere. George Hincapie, Lance Armstrong’s loyal lieutenant domestique, likens purchasing EPO to “buying a pack of gum” at Swiss pharmacies where the drug was available without a prescription over the counter. A recent write-up on Jeptoo’s bust penned by Justin Lagat , a Kenyan correspondent ,explains that all sorts of drugs are inexpensive and available within the East African nation.

We must also remember that running within the Kenyan culture is competitive not only on an athletic level but also on a financial platform. As a general rule, Kenyans don’t run for fun. Sure, kids often run to school , their uniform ties flapping breezily. But when we listen to the interviews, we learn that they aren’t running to beat the opening bell for fun; they know they will be given “six of the best” (British term for 6 whacks with a ruler). When these kids grow up, they see individuals who have succeeded as professional racers. And they see scores of neighbors TRYING to make the grade. On any given Thursday, they find 200-plus runners, many in hand-me-down gear and outdated shoes, cruising a structured fartkek on wide rolling dusty roads. Everyone tries to keep up. Various strivers are shelled off the back. But that defeat doesn’t discourage them from showing up next Thursday to suffer similar punishment. Why? A Kenyan runner wants to change his or her financial life.

With the country’s annual median income hovering around US $350, to even win a thousand dollars at US or European road race is big money. That money multiplied can buy a small farm, a couple of cars to launch a taxi service, even purchase or build an hotel. Pro running is the ticket. The ticket out. Often even the bus ticket out of your village to travel six hours on rutted roads across the Rift Valley to reach a dream of running at Nairobi’s National Cross race held at the fabled N’gong Horse Racing Venue. Once standing there, pawing the start line in your worn-out, size-too-small spikes, you pray to God that you finish high up enough in the field to be noticed by the many European agents who flock to Kenya to find the Next Big Thing. Or at least a promising prospect to sign and develop. Then you can move to a “camp” where you will cook ugali with fellow aspirants and be coached by someone who knows what they are doing. Or perhaps a college scout might be in attendance at N’gong Raceway as well. Teenagers in your village have flown off for free educations in such far away, exotic places as, sight unseen, South Alabama. In the States, many recruited athletes take the allowed five “official visits” to decide between universities. Not so for Kenyans. Here’s your ticket out, son; pack your bags.

So EPO use is not OUT of the question in Kenya and other countries; it is more IN the question. Having said that, Kenyans and runners the world over are, as a majority, clean. But isn’t that the Way of the World? From bankers to baseballers, certain individuals will cheat to get on or near the top. To Track & Field and Road Racing’s credit, they air their dirty laundry. Running is far more “transparent” than other professional sports. It takes years and Senate Investigative Committees to uncover Major League Baseball’s sordid PED use. Football? Forget about it. They have to be pressured into punishing a player for face-punching his fiancée in an elevator.

Let’s be clear, doping is cheating. It is gaining an unnatural and unfair advantage. Whether we be Kenyans, Germans, Italians, Spaniards or Americans, the rules dictate fairness. Unfortunately, sadly, even tragically, human ambition clouds those rules. Some find acquiescent doctors/enablers or come up with all sorts of self-justifications to skirt those boundaries: “It’s not illegal YET”, “Everyone is doing it,” “I’m just trying to level the playing field.” Heard these rationales? Bet you have. Lance told us as much. Shakespeare wrote about the tragic conundrum in his play MACBETH: a good man gone bad. Coupled with overweening ambition, temptation is timeless.

In the running world, be that your local scene or the global rarefied racing air, we all want to run faster. But as recreational runners and fans, we need to recognize that at the top professional level, the temptation, drug availability, and financial incentive is far, far greater than our city’s track club or YMCA fun-run group aiming to break 3 hours for the marathon atmosphere. So, in addition to heaping praise upon pro performances, let’s admire those athletes who achieve their accolades whilst being pure and drug- free. And here’s why we need to be stringent and vigilant about drug-testing: we want to be doubt-free when we marvel at magnificent achievements.

Running is a primal sport. No gym equipment. No Studios needed to twist and contort our bodies. No obstacle courses to surmount. Just plain natural. Let’s keep it that way.

Editor’s Note: Van Townsend has been runner and coach for 30 -plus years, but now battles a bone marrow blood cancer where he had to become a fast learner on the proper medical usages of EPO, testosterone, red blood cell transfusions, dexamethasone ( a corticoid steroid), and even amphetamines. As he jokes, “While racing, I couldn’t have told you the difference between hematocrit and a bike race crit, but now I have to use all these PEDS just to stay alive rather than win. Damn!”

Postscript: Breaking Bad…and sad news. Writers often remark that stories write themselves. Well, apropos of the above piece, I just learned that in our sleepy Chattanooga city, last weekend’s Women’s Overall winner in our annual Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon cheated in attaining her 2:55:39 victory. This 31 year old made Rose Ruiz look clever by comparison. Tabatha Hamilton thought she could bewitch race officials by coming through the first half in 2:06 and then finishing up with a magical 50 minutes for the last 13.1 miles. Her husband, who may have colluded with his wife, must have forgotten to tell her that negative split would be almost 10 minutes quicker than the very best professional males’ marks for 21k. Tabatha’s (yes, she can’t even spell her name properly) previous marathon best was 4:20. When asked after the race if this win was a PR, she said, “I think so, by 6 or 7 minutes.” Ok, multiply by ten and a 70 minute improvement is closer to the true falsehood. Of course, Tabatha trotted out the usual “I’m crushed and heartbroken as my name is mud right now.” Yup, too bad, girl. The chip timing technology worked and you got popped. So, as we sadly surmise, even slow people cheat. From amateurs to professionals, let’s keep working to keep it real.

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Friday, November 7, 2014

Jeptoo’s Secret Race

Jeptoo tracks Flanagan in Boston

By Van Rensselaer Townsend

Now that the Kenyan red dust has settled and the New York race winds subsided, let’s step back, and perhaps forward, and look at the revelations and ramifications of Jeptoo’s alleged positive drug test for EPO.

First, we should look at what EPO does and examine what many say it doesn’t do. Let’s start with the latter claim that any super-talented Kenyan would win a marathon anyway without using the blood-boosting drug. Here, we hear the Kenyan Federation clamor that “outside forces” such as agents, coaches and doctors are taking advantage of naive professional runners. Note that appellation “professional.” Yes, these athletes are pros. They are not some eager kids dreaming of winning a World Marathon Major. And, yes, I’ve been in Kenya and heard the “afraid of taking an aspirin” refrain, but an experienced professional runner who has flown across and around the world, bunked in luxury hotels, and been feted at celebratory banquets is not some rube or ingenue who can’t think for him or herself.

These pros surely know that even a small percentage increase in oxygen-rich red blood cells can give them an edge late in a 42k prize money race. I mention “late” because EPO appears to provide the power to throw down a ridiculously fast final 5k finish after 23 miles of already racing fast. It’s one thing to crank out one’s fastest 5k split after keeping the early pace dawdling for tactical or meteorological reasons. Witness Kipsang’s and Desisa’s breakaway after New York’s lead pack stuck to an historically SLOW pace as they battled the heavy headwinds. Now contrast that situation to what Jeptoo did at Boston. She blazed through her last kilometers on top of an historically FAST first 30k where Shalane Flanagan towed the leaders through successive 5k markers that broke every previous women’s race course record. So, for Jeptoo to lay down such a torrid 5k finish when her legs should have felt normal fatigue was surreal and suspicious. EPO can do that.

Way back in 2003, Outside Magazine ran a story by a writer, Stuart Stevens, who agreed to be a test-subject for the effects of PEDS. I’m not sure the pharmaceuticals were even nicknamed as such back then ! Here’s what Stevens had to say about an endurance cycling event while he was using EPO: “After the EPO kicked in (meaning his buildup injection regimen), I rode a 200-miler and I felt strong, ready to hammer. The next day I easily could have ridden another 200.”

It is clear that EPO is a drug that makes a significant difference in athletic performance for any individual. And now we also know what happens when EPO is used by an already gifted Kenyan runner.

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Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Congratulations to Lopez and Brittany

On Saturday September 20, 2014 in Lake Oswego, Oregon, Brittany Morreale and Lopez Lomong were married. They met while Lopez was in residence at the US Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs and Brittany was a student nearby at the US Air Force Academy. Brittany was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship in 2009 and earned a degree from Oxford in 2012.

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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Flanagan’s Record Quest

By Vanrensselaer Townsend

Shalane Flanagan is no shy debutante on the Marathon Dance Floor. Don’t let her perky cheekbones and blonde ponytail fool you. This woman is driven and direct. Witness Shalane’s spot on 60 Minutes last April: she flat out announced to a national television audience that she was in the next week’s Boston Marathon to win it. Not do her best. Not try her hardest. No, she was there to win it for her hometown Boston. She told us how much the 2014 race meant to her after the senseless bombings at the previous year’s finish line. Shalane poured out her emotions. She wore her heart on her singlet.

And she almost pulled it off. Shalane broke every checkpoint Boston record all the way through the 30k mark as she ripped off a “fetch this” pace , a full
shadow ahead of her Kenyan and Ethiopian competitors who expected the usual tactical group-pack race. At 19 miles, Shalane began paying the lactate price. What surprised me was how tough she was when the wheels came off. As most of us know, when we reach that awful point in the Full Mary, the wheels not only come off, they roll away into a ditch somewhere. We start losing minutes per mile. But as trailing women passed Shalane, she didn’t crater. Crossing the finish line in 7th place, she set a PR by 3 minutes, running 2:22:02. Boston doesn’t allow pacemakers, but by throwing down the gauntlet, Shalane set up not one, but two course records as Rita Jeptoo and Buzunesh Deba both broke 2:20. They should send Flanagan a check!

Cut to Berlin. Shalane is gunning for the American Record. She’s already got the 10k pistol in her holster. It’s time to Tear down that Wall.”

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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

There Are No Barriers

Two years ago at Eugene’s Olympic Trials, a roguish journalist cut from Dr. Hunter S. Thompson’s cloth, heralded the Coming of a new Steeple Star: long-haired , free-spirited Evan Jäger. Running only his 3rd barrier race, he dismissed the field and rocketed, blonde locks flopping beneath his headband, down the final straight to a delighted roar from the uber-educated fans. They knew they had seen something and someone special.

In Evan’s buildup to London’s Olympics, he raced in the Monaco steeple for his 4th ever water jump experience. There, in the opulent magic of Monaco, Jäger shattered the long-standing American record by naling an 8:06.81. This kind of novitiate stunning success is reminiscent of the miraculous surpises of Kenyans ,Daniel Komen and Moses Kiptanui, the latter a steepler himself.

Just a few days ago, Evan did it again at the Memorial Van Damme meet in Zurich. In this final Diamond League affair, Evan finished a stellar 3rd behind Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad and Jarius Birech who popped this season’s single sub-8 mark. The Bowerman Track Club’s phenom ran 8:04.71 to slice 2 seconds from his previous AR.

Next, Evan was off to Marrakech run his next Steeple at the Athletics Continental Cup in Morocco. He was one of two Chase entrants representing The Americas against other blocs such as Africa, Europe, and Asia. The prize money on offer, made the Diamond League meet winnings look like rear-of-running-short pocket change. Track and Road need to take a glimpse in the side mirror as Tennis and Golf -certainly no big bucks Brahmins when they started- blow by us in the passing lane because they draw media madness with their mountainous money payouts. Sad in a way, yes, that Green makes for envious fans; however, we can’t turn back the clock. But Evan has proven he can beat that clock,so we anxiously awaited results from the Marrakech Express. Evan did not disappoint.

One of Evan’s goals for this season was to work on his closing lap speed. When he set the AR last week, he finished with a 62.1. Decent, yes, but ,here at the Stade de Marrakech, Evan pushed the pace during the penultimate lap and more as he led until the last lap’s water jump against Jarius Birech, arguably this year’s best steeplechaser. Although Birech gritted through for the win, Evan cranked out a splendid 58.89 for a well-deserved and well-paid second place. Jäger can buy a lotta haircuts with $15,000 ! Not that he should cut those golden locks.

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