Monday, October 15, 2012

Doping: I Don't Know What to Believe Anymore

I'm about to wrap up Tyler Hamilton's new book, The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping: Cover-ups, and Winning at All Costs. Hamilton was a top lieutenant for Lance Armstrong, the celebrated cancer survivor and seven-time winner of the Tour de France. As we all know, Armstrong now faces a damning report by the US Anti-Doping Agency and may lose all seven Tour de France titles because of suspected doping.

An admitted doper, Hamilton in The Secret Race chronicles his years with Armstrong and the US Postal Service team and his systematic use of illegal performance-enhancers. Throughout his 300-page autobiography, he shares disturbing information about Armstrong, including the seven-time Tour champion's purported use of synthetic EPO (EPO boosts red blood cells, which provide oxygen to the muscles), testosterone and blood doping. According to Hamilton, the USADA report and many other sources, Armstrong worked closely with the unscrupulous, albeit brilliant, doping doctor, Michele Ferrari. Ferrari has since been banned from pro cycling. Hamilton says Armstrong, aided by Ferrari, doped long before his battle against cancer and throughout his seven wins at the Tour de France from 1999-2005.

Other former Armstrong lieutenants, including George Hincapie, Floyd Landis and Levi Leipheimer, shared similar accounts in their statements to USADA. Hincapie was by Armstrong's side in all seven Tour wins.

The point of this post isn't to offer a book review or to share information and analysis that's already available for public consumption; it's to express my profound sadness. Like millions of people worldwide, Lance Armstrong was once a hero to me. I admired the way he competed, lived and expressed himself. I read both of his books cover to cover and found inspiration in his competitive drive. He brought me to the Tour de France and I've been an avid fan of pro cycling since (and I always will be).

As the years pass, I find it harder and harder to resist becoming a cynic when it comes to those we view as heroes. Are there any heroes left? Where are our Roy Rogers types? Over the past few years we've seen Tiger Woods, Joe Paterno, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Marion Jones and many others fall from grace. Now, we see perhaps the most beloved figure in the history of American sports, Lance Armstrong, in the midst of a free fall like no other. Few could have predicted this, even as, deep down, many questioned the pureness of what they saw. I never really questioned it; I chose to believe in Lance. I was a fool.

Looking back on it now, I should have known Armstrong was a doper. Pretty much everyone around him was busted at some point in their career. How could it be that Armstrong, who conquered his opponents like no other cyclist could, was clean? While we continue to dismiss as no-good cheats disgraced riders like Jan Ullrich, Hamilton, Frank Schleck, Alberto Contador and many others, we've hailed the unbeatable Armstrong as a symbol of American righteousness, purity and might. Alas, the truth is this: Armstrong was no different than the cheats; he just hadn't been caught (yet). But now he's being exposed, and it's painful to watch because it's hard to let go of how we've felt about Lance for all these years.

The saddest message within Hamilton's book is that you have to dope in order to be competitive in the major events like the Tour de France. A clean rider might be able to compete in shorter races, but in a three-week event he'll have no shot, especially in the latter stages when one battles depletion. To be at the top of a sport of cheaters, you need not only lots of pasta and sleep, but also extra red blood cells and freakish recovery. Another disturbing message in Hamilton's book: Because everyone dopes, it's not viewed as cheating. Doping is seen as what you have to do to survive.

I've never taken an illegal performance enhancer and I never will. But now I look upon my own beloved sport and wonder how clean and honorable it is. You can't blame me for my cynicism; EPO, blood doping and testosterone would do wonders for an ultrarunner. There have been times, after a mountain run/race, when I've been depleted at a level far behind what I might otherwise experience in a sea level event. In these times, I do one of two things: either I push myself to break through, or I choose to recover the natural way (with diet, rest and legal supplements like Hammer Recoverite, Udo's Oil and whey protein powder). With the aid of EPO or a blood transfusion, I could probably recover ten times faster and be back at it in no time. I might even have a shot at winning a few races. I can resist such a proposition because it's immoral to cheat, but who's to say others are just as scrupulous...especially when money is on the line as we're increasingly seeing.

In a sport without any real drug testing to speak of, isn't it entirely possible--even likely--that performance enhancers have taken hold while we remain happily oblivious to the seedy underbelly of long distance running?

I don't know what to believe anymore.


  1. I completely believe Armstrong doped awhile ago. But I hardly care because:
    1) His performance even today is still at an elite, world class level
    2) Nobody can ever find a positive test

    I find the current situation rather amusing. Its like 20 different people all said "Lance told me he had a dead body in a second fridge. I saw the fridge, he told me he killed a guy." and all 20 stories were pretty on par with each other.

    The Police and FBI can find no dead body, nor is there any missing persons report. But they convict Lance of murder anyway. And then they say they will eventually release a report with their evidence.

    The report comes out with all the corroberating evidence. Still no dead body and no DNA found at the scene.

    Sure I bet he did it, but the entire situation is laughable. The USADA should be disbanded and shut down.

  2. I too was persuaded by the report and felt betrayed and embarrassed when I looked back and saw how obvious it was. I was embarrassed at my own behavior and opinions. I like to think I'm a rational person. Apparently not.

    This being election season, there's a metaphor that immediately comes to mind. Long ago, I wrote off politics because I became convinced that all of the principal players (red or blue, doesn't matter) were corrupt dishonest liars who could not be trusted. It took a few years longer, but I'm beginning to see top sports stars in a similar light. Whether my impression of a sports star is positive or negative, who cares? Unlike politics, sports has almost no bearing on my day to day life. So I stopped being interested. Lately I only casually follow my favorite sports team (The Mets, and it doesn't help that they suck). Can't even name half their lineup anymore. I was for a while following running stars such as Ryan Hall, but not closely enough to name more than a few of them.

    That brings us to Ultrarunning. My continuing interest and fandom has been an exception, but lately even that has started to wear off. It seems unfair to group the Dakota Jones' of the world with major sports stars, but objectively I don't see how we can't, especially now that money races like UROC and RRR are in the picture, as well as growing sponsor money.

    Fortunately, participating in running, ultra or otherwise, does not require you to be a fan of running, ultra or otherwise.

  3. I'm just as sad and frustrated as you are Wyatt! Lance has been an inspiration to me for as long as I can remember. I even used to buy Michelob Ultra Light and call them 'Lances.' "Hey, you wanna throw me another Lance." ...stupid

    Lance Armstrong has accomplished some absolutely amazing things in his lifetime, performance enhancers or not. Deep down I still hope that all of the allegations aren't true...but I doubt it.

  4. Incentives will make people take illegal means.
    I think they should organize sports events where all dopes are allowed, just to see the ability of human body (this is crazy.
    Well, I already read about the blood transfusion in one race report of timothy olson.
    I don't know how people decide upon the legibility of performance enhancers but anything artifiacial like protein powder etc. is unnatural and enhances the recovery of body more rapidly than it would have recovered with natural diet.
    Question is what we want to test in sports events; the maximum ability of body to perform in sport in any conditions or ability of the body to perform in natural conditions.

  5. Trunil: I'm going to need you to provide a link to the report you mentioned, or else I may have to delete your comment.


  6. a runner's tale of EPO

  7. Uh, yeah that is a pretty hefty allegation against TO, and I can't find any sort of reference to it in his blog (scanning over the last two years). I call BS.

    In any case, I see it a lot like Steven T says ... it is disappointing because of the hero worship. So, drop the hero worship, be your own hero and help the heroes around you ... much more fulfilling that way.

  8. Hi Wyatt!
    I am sorry for my comment about Timothy Olson. I misunderstood his report on western state 100 2012. he had written:
    "I did not eat breakfast Friday because they wanted us to give blood after a ten-hour fast. In the middle of giving blood I got incredibly dizzy, and the next thing I knew I was having crazy dreams and then woke up on the floor. "

    I apologize for this misunderstanding.


  9. It's just a natural instinct for us to want to believe in someone. It just is. We don't have to look back very far to find the athlete, politician, or public figure that let us down. It's inevitable, we are human and possess human weaknesses in character and soul. Each new revelation reminds of this fact and It's sad.

    Let's be careful not to ascribe divinity or God-like amazement and wonder at someone that walks this earth. There's only one person capable of carrying that kind of pressure flawlessly and He isn't running the trails or riding in the saddle. To not learn the lesson is to be setup for another disappointment, you know?

  10. I'm with GZ: at least some of our hurt over all this stuff lies in our making heroes of human beings. With all the money behind sports, it becomes more and more a desire for the perfect, which of course we can never achieve. How about John Elway, who loses four Super Bowls and then finally wins one (two)? How about Oscar Pistorius, who overcomes an awful lot just to compete at a high level? How about Michael Jordan the baseball player? I want to find examples in folks who struggle, lose, win, lose, keep struggling--take away the wins, and that's (most of) us...

  11. Yes, GZ. Not sure what Trunil was referring to, I'm assuming it was a confused mistake rather than accusation. Otherwise, hero worship (as it stands in society generally) lends itself to disappointment.
    This is especially true with people we don't know or hardly know personally; and/or if the achievement is based on personal achievement more than altruism (it would be hard to be disappointed by a rescue worker or teacher or medical researcher or aid worker clearly motivated by helping others).
    It seemed to me from Lance's books (and divorce and dating) that he was quite ego-centric anyway. Things seem significantly, although not universally, better in the ultrarunning world in that respect, so I think it's less likely to see major surprises there (combined with the practicality of the monetary costs).
    Too easily, a single-minded focus of a person, combined with talent, that leads to their success is confused with suggesting their general character is somehow better than ours or the people around us. Popularity and celebrity too often trump real character and humility. That sort of thinking makes us miss out on small bits of real greatness around and within us.

  12. I have been thinking about the question of doping in ultras a bit with both your post as well as GZ's. You speculate that it may already be occurring in ultras. But, do you think that you would know, or at least suspect it, if it was going on?

    I think that one of the big differences between cycling and running is the knowledge/acceptance of doping. In cycling there was, and probably still is (but I think it is cleaner now then it was), a culture that very much supported doping. Even before Lance won his first TdF there was substantial evidence for organized and systematic doping. Basically I think everyone knew it was occurring so they accepted that it was something necessary to do in order to compete. The fact that it was occurring was pretty obvious, and I think that if it was happening to a significant degree in ultras you would either know about it explicitly, or at least have heard stories.

    I certainly don't go to a race thinking half the field is doping and have never heard a single runner discuss either doping themselves or others doping (aside from discussions like those taking place here). You certainly don't have to name names, but have you ever heard anyone actually state that they have doped in ultras? I may be naive but I have never heard a single person discuss this, nor have I ever suspected anyone of doping in ultras. So I am pretty sure that at least the front end of ultras is clean. Will it always be that way? Maybe not, but for now I like to think it is an even playing field.

  13. Well stated Dr. Nick.

    Maybe it is occurring, maybe it is not. It is not a stretch to think it is occurring because:

    1.) it is happening in running, of which ultras are a part of.
    2.) the amount of money that is in ultras is increasing, and such use seems to follow the $
    3.) we have heard of cases where folks don't use PEDs for money, but just for a boost in performance for so called "glory."

    For what it is worth, I never heard anyone talk about doing it explicitly when I was running the roads or track more in the 90s.

    I think the bigger barriers to my use are less about the ethical concerns or even health concerns (those are there but at a lower level) ... but that I am generally too lazy or cheap to pursue this. And frankly, I'd have a tough time being able to look my kids in the eye. Like I said elsewhere, glad this ain't my living.

    And for everyone who wants ultras to go to the Olympics, like Frosty said - just know that makes use a sure thing.

  14. Nick: You raise some excellent points. I'm not sure what would be a giveway as far as doping in ultrarunning. In cycling, seeing Lance surge past his competitors on big climbs certainly was a giveaway that something wasn't normal there, but many of us chose to deny what was obvious....

    As you point out, cycling was rife with doping before Lance went on his run in '99. The Festina scandal in '98 rocked the sport, and some champions and podium finishers before Lance were found to be using PEDs. Interestingly, LeMond was never implicated, and today he's a major critic of Armstrong.

    Anyway, as GZ mentions, $$$ is a big motivator for doping. And $$$ is now a factor in ultrarunning, as we can see with the TNF50 in San Fran and Run Rabbit Run. All the while we're seeing some ultrarunning teams using a pseudo-cycling model, so to me it stands to reason that it's not a matter of if doping infltrates cycling; it's a matter of when.


  15. It's hard to not wonder a little bit. Like you mentioned, so many heroes have fallen so hard in the past several years. I choose not to be too cynical though - there are still great stories out there and athletes we can trust that their achievements are earned through hard work.

  16. Using EPO or having ways through blood doping to enhance red blood cell count (to increase oxygen carrying capacity in the blood) might be an advantage for an ultra-distance athlete. The advantage is minor, but at levels of international competition that can be the difference between 1st and 15th. Testosterone probably won't provide a performance enhancement for ultra athletes (it might give some slight advantage to women, but likely none to men). The risk with increased red blood cells is increased viscosity (thickening) of the blood, putting stress on the heart, increasing the potential for heart attack or stroke. That is one reason why athletic organizations have prohibited EPO and blood doping: the risk to the athlete. Some athletes find that disingenuous. What is the long term risk to an athlete's health to have him riding his bike 100-150 miles a day averaging 25 mph for 20 days over a three week period, at high intensity with some very high altitudes to ascend, on narrow roads where crashes are common, some of them putting athletes out of competition and training for weeks or months? And athletic organizations want to protect the athlete from certain health risks? See Cooper, Chris. Run, Swim, Throw, Cheat: the science behind drugs in sport (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).