Irish runner Martin Fagan, suspended for EPO use. Image source: http://corkrunning.blogspot.com

When it comes to connecting distance running with performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs), we know a few things.

  • We know that 2011 saw a record amount of PRs and course records in the sport of distance running.
  • We know that certain illegal substances, specifically EPO, boost the performances of endurance athletes, regardless of sport.
  • We know that purses, appearance fees, and sponsorships have dramatically increased in value.

But, do we know if there’s a problem with PEDs in distance running? Let’s take a closer look.

2011: a great year for running?

In the broader picture, 2011 was a great year for marathon running. Participation was up across the board as the bellwether of the running community, the ING New York City Marathon, once again broke its own record with 46,795 finishers.

Geoffrey Mutai celebrates his NYC Marathon victory. Image source: in2eastafrica.net

The year that’s past also saw a huge number of course records in marquee events all across the United States. In March, a first-timer named Markos Geneti broke the Los Angeles Marathon’s course record by two minutes. In April, Geoffrey Mutai of Kenya set a world record in the Boston Marathon, although it wasn’t recognized. Later in the year, the top three finishers in the NYC marathon, led by Mutai, all broke the 10-year-old course record.

What’s responsible for all of these amazing performances? A statistical anomaly, perhaps, but many believe the

The effect of Performance-Enhancing Drugs, specifically EPO

In the wake of the Lance Armstrong scandal, in which it was alleged that Armstrong orchestrated the ‘an elaborate doping operation’ during his string of seven Tour de France victories, the spotlight has turned to the use of doping in other endurance sports.

(Note: Armstrong is attempting to fight back in federal court.)

From a scientific standpoint, it’s easy to see the temptation to use EPO exists:

The most common illegal substance for endurance athletes is EPO, erythropoietin, which is used by cancer patients to replace the red blood cells killed during radiation or chemo. When you have lots of extra red blood cells you can transport more oxygen so you can run longer and faster.

The steroids used by sprinters and throwers may help but the biggest part of endurance athletes is being able to perform at a higher percentage of maximum for a longer period of time. Most of these drugs require a doctor’s prescription, but can be purchased from illegal sources.

Source: Yahoo! Answers

The sport of distance running as seen a few athletes suspended in recent months. An Irish marathoner named Martin Fagan accepted a two-year ban after testing positive for EPO use. Ethiopian runner Ezkyas Sisay also tested positive and had his ninth-place finish in his marathon debut expunged.  In July, two Kenyan failed doping tests, as did a female runner from Lithuania. However, it is not known how widespread the abuse is.

Lance Armstrong is still fighting for his reputation. Image source: cbssports.com

Lance Armstrong, despite his recent embattlements, has never tested positive for a banned substance. If we assume for a moment that Armstrong is nevertheless guilty, that would mean it is possible for sufficiently motivated individuals to escape detection when using PEDs. Which leads to the question of why one would consider taking such a risky and potentially harmful tactic to increase performance.

Follow the Money

Road races are big business now. From the purses to the sponsorships and the appearance fees, the temptation is there for today’s marathon runners.

Big money = big checks. Image source: hollywoodhalfmarathon.com

Before it was cancelled, this year’s NYC Marathon planned to offer a staggering $853,000 to the winner, with the possibility of time bonuses. The Boston Marathon had a total prize purse of $575,000. These purses don’t include additional bounties a top finisher might receive from sponsorships, or the re-appearance fees the runner would receive for defending their title in the next year’s race (many believe these fees are in the six figures).

Conclusion

Back when I was with the Seattle Mariners, Chuck Armstrong once told a group of us his best advice: follow the money. When you follow the money here, it leads me to believe there will be more doping in running as the financial awards continue to grow.

Let’s not be naïve here. We know that there are any number of ways to increase one’s performance. The boundaries of human achievement are being pushed forward on an almost-daily basis, and Nature argues that if doping restrictions were lifted entirely we’d see new extremes in human performance.

The circumstantial evidence to support this theory is overwhelming. PEDs are a huge problem in the world of competitive running. They likely always will be.

The only possible approach is this:

  • Increase the efficacy of testing to root out dopers from the sports, with harsher punishments
  • Use some of the money generated by these road races to redouble the effort to dissuade athletes and young children from going down this road

It’s not perfect because it could lead to false positives, such as what might have happened in this case from Lake Tapps, Wash. However, as the money in the sport continues to skyrocket, one can only assume that the temptation to dope will increase along with it.