Sep 172013
 

 

This exemplifies "pear-shaped"

 

Last Saturday I demonstrated that I could suffer through about 11 hours on the trails around Big Sky, Montana. I’m proud to have finished the Rut 50K. But I knew after the first hour that the smart thing would have been to drop out, take my DNF, and vow to try again next year. So call me proud, but also kind of dumb.

The race started out at dawn in a gray half-light with light rain — beautiful.! I felt OK up the first climb and down the first muddy and twisty (= FUN) descent, but after that my race pretty much went pear-shaped. Every little uphill shot my heart rate through the roof. I couldn’t really catch my breath without hiking, slowly. I had diarrhea. This was not a good way to be feeling on this difficult course so early in the race. The big climb up the Bonecrusher Ridge to the summit of Lone Peak was still several kms away, but I was already completely done with racing. I was just slogging, hoping to save enough energy to self-extricate myself off the course and back to the finish without requiring a ride in the back of a truck or a on a chairlift.

My relentless forward progress eventually got me to the second aid station perched above treeline at the bottom of a huge bowl below Lone Peak, where I stood around eating gummy bears and PB&J burritos. My hands were cold and I wanted a hot chocolate and a nap. From where I stood I could look up at the ridge leading to Lone Peak and see lots of tiny dots, most of which were runners that had passed me long ago. They were climbing up into the cold, wet clouds that obscured the summit. That view alone made me colder and more tired and convinced me I should quit right away. On the other hand, looking down, I could see runners approaching the aid station behind me. They were all smiling, talking about how fun the race was, how much they were looking forward to the big climb ahead, and even though I knew some of this was intra-race bravado, I began to believe it would be wimpy to DNF right then. The aid station volunteers were so positive and optimistic that it was shameful in their presence to admit to any suffering at all. Even though I was still light-headed, cold, and weak, the peer pressure was taking effect, and I shuffled out of there thinking that maybe those gummy bears would turn things around.

We had a small descent from the aid station down to the base of Bonecrusher, and I did feel better after that descent then I had for a while – mostly because my hands weren’t as cold (and probably because it was the uphills that were causing my problems). I started to think that it would be so lame to DNF before  the Lone Peak ascent, because that ascent was the major selling point of this beautiful course. I had come all the way up to Montana to do that climb, and anyway, I could always DNF when I got to the summit. So I started up the ridge.

Bonecrusher Ridge on Lone  Peak, Big Sky, Montana

Bonecrusher Ridge on Lone Peak, Big Sky, Montana

And immediately I felt like shit again. I could only manage a slow walk, and I had to step off the route several times to allow people who were walking faster than me (all the other racers behind) to pass. I was passing no one. I would take six or seven steps and then stop for fifteen seconds to catch my breath. I could have made a strong argument for turning around and going back down, but that’s not how climbs like this work. Once you start, there’s an enormous momentum that gathers behind you and pushes you up, up, up! I was constantly thinking, will I need to be rescued on this climb? Am I getting hypothermic? Hypoglycemic? Any pulmonary or cerebral edema? Is my problem just that I’m climbing this mountain slowly? In that case, my lack of speed is my own problem and eventually I’ll be done. Or, am I about to fall over and require help from the Search and Rescue volunteers stationed along the climb? In that case, my problem will soon be their problem, too, and I’d better turn around. Always, the answer I gave was that this was just me climbing slowly. I didn’t have a headache, the short stops always were enough to catch my breath, I wasn’t dizzy, and I wasn’t nauseated or vomiting. Although there was no guarantee that I wouldn’t need a rescue in another five minutes and twenty feet higher up the mountain, I thought it was reasonably likely that I could continue my plodding until I got to the top. Luckily, that turned out to be correct, and I eventually made the summit.

Time to grab some more gummy bears and sit down. Although the aid station workers seemed much more worried about me here than they seemed to be at the last aid station, I actually felt about the same. Must have looked worse! I was surprisingly still about an hour and forty-five minutes ahead of the cut-off time. The rest of the course was, overall, downhill. Back to lower elevations with warmer temperatures and less wind. It would be silly to DNF here, right? The tough part was over! I should keep going.

The descent from Lone Peak turned out to be a relatively good stretch for me. It was a reasonably technical route down a bunch of large, loose stones, without much of a trail to speak of, just a ridgeline down, down down. Follow the always copious and easy-to-see course marking flags and hope you don’t break your ankle or fall on your face. Since I wasn’t having any joint problems at that point, I cruised down this part feeling pretty good, managed to pass about five or six people, and got back under treeline without any injuries. Oh, how I would have loved to feel like this during the rest of the race!

Alas, it was not to be. After a brief period of tagging along with a Missoula college student and another twenty-something runner along some rolling terrain, I lost touch with them on a downhill just before an insanely steep climb up to the final aid station where the volunteers happily told me I was a full 45-minutes ahead of the cutoff time and that there were only five downhill miles to go. More M&Ms, more gummy bears, a change of shoes, and I set out again feeling bad but knowing that that the finish was close.

The downhill went pretty well, but there was about 500 feet or so of uphill left, hardly even noticeable, but that climb made me feel so bad that I had to lie down next to a log for about ten minutes, less than 2K from the finish. A few more people passed me. “Yes, I’m OK, just need a break” was what I told them when they asked if I was OK. Then it started to rain, and I was actually worried about getting hypothermic within bowling distance of the finish line. So I stood up and zombie-shuffled to the finish in just less than 11 hours. Done, and without a rescue. Strong work! I got my finisher’s cowbell, and the free can of Montana beer that was my most-deserved beer ever. I had managed to finish just before the awards ceremony, and I was able to watch it. Then it was back to the hotel room to sleep and try to analyze why this race had gone so pear-shaped. (I love that phrase. “Pear-shaped.” Especially because pears aren’t badly-shaped.)

Could it be that I had a subclinical virus? Did I rest too much after Pikes Peak, or not enough? Is my diet not up to snuff? Did the four hours of sleep I got the night before slow me down? Do I have a V02 max of 35? Did I not eat or drink enough during the race? Did I not run enough this summer? Or did I just have one of those bad days?

I don’t have enough experience yet to know what exactly went wrong. I do know that this race was amazing; the organization and the course marking was flawless; the aid stations were full of great food and greater people; there were several beautiful athletic dogs hanging about the start/finish line all day.  All of that makes me think that if I had a good day, performance-wise, at THIS race, it’d be spectacularly fun. I hope to come back next year and have a good day. I’d like come early, and bring my dog. He’d LOVE to run these trails!

 

 

Sep 102013
 

It’s downright unfashionable to have to be rescued. But is it wrong?

Mountain and wilderness people of all sorts — including climbers, backpackers, trail runners, hunters, skiers, photographers — are almost universally proud of their self-sufficiency in the backcountry. They’re used to talking about risks from weather, getting lost, falls, avalanches, wild animals, lightning. They’re familiar with all kinds of traditional and exotic gear and methods designed to minimize these risks. They sometimes sneer (I have, and I’m far from an expert mountaineer) at the casual tourists who set out each summer from roadside trailheads in jeans and hoodies, a bottle of Coke and a pack of cigarettes, thinking that it will take them only about an hour to climb that mountain that looks so close, but who quickly become dehydrated, get caught in a thunderstorm, become hypothermic, get lost, and need to be rescued. “We,” these mountain people think, “aren’t even close to being that stupid.”

And yet, even expert mountain people occasionally get in over their heads and need to be rescued. If these experienced people are smart, they’ll swallow their pride and embarrassment and call for assistance. That’s what Kilian Jornet and Emelie Forsberg just did while climbing the Aiguille du Midi last Saturday.

Kilian Jornet and Emelie Forsberg (photo: skyrunning.com)

Kilian Jornet and Emelie Forsberg (photo: skyrunning.com)

Jornet and Forsberg apparently got stuck on the Frendo Spur in running shoes when the weather worsened and decided to request assistance from the Chamonix mountain rescue team, the PGHM Chamonix Mont-Blanc. From reading various accounts of the event, it appears that they decided that further climbing was unsafe once they had unexpected delays in the ascent and the weather got worse. By all accounts I’ve seen, the rescue was done safely and professionally. Emelie Forsberg describes events like this:

Kilian and I went out climbing on Frendo Saturday morning. We had checked the weather, checked the route and we had in our mind that we could do the epron pretty fast. We estimated the time with the experience we had before. We know that we can move pretty fast in that kind of terrain.
We went climbing in a good pace. And when we reached the icy ridge we had only been out for a few hours. I thought to myself that woooha this must go really wrong if we don´t make it up there before 5 pm.
After the icepart we decided to go more in the rocks instead of the most common way up that was on the steep ice. That was in our plan the whole way, because we didn´t bring the proper gear for the ice. And that we knew before we started.

On the rock, I started to became a bit stressed. I was finding a way up that was a bit loose and I also didn´t have the best feelings after the icepart where I hurted my foot.
We took time climbing up, rappelling down, trying to find another way and so on we did for a while.
I became so cold and I couldn´t focus my thought very well. I was stressed and felt captured. We started to talk about possibilities. Rappelling down or try to do the last part even if we didn´t know if we could reach the summit that way or the last way out; call the rescue.

Kilian Jornet says this about their rescue:

On September 7th, I had planned a mountain route on the north face of the Aiguille du Midi (France), the so-called Frendo spur. This was a route that I had already done twice before on my own with only the minimum of material. I do this type of outings frequently, alone or accompanied, as they are both the basis of my training and of my free time.

I was accompanied by Emelie Forsberg and we were both equipped with light materials (short sports leggings, fine down jackets and trainers). We set off at dawn from Plan d’Aiguille, at 8:30 am to be precise, planning to return some 4 hours later, which was the time we estimated the journey would take. We had checked the weather forecast the day before, which announced bad weather as of 5 pm, and we both carried rock climbing materials (a set of friends, climbing chocks, 60m of rope …) and also ice climbing equipment (2 ice axes each, technical crampons and ice screws).

We started off at a good pace along the route, and at 9 am we started to climb roped together. At 12 we were about an hour from the summit. There, on the last stretch of the climb, we took a wrong turn and when we realized what had happened, we abseiled down to get back on the right path, losing about 3-4 hours. About 50m from the summit, my companion had a problem, and it was at that moment that we decided to call the PGHM (high mountain rescue team), aware that the weather would worsen in an hour’s time. We decided to make that call so as not to take a greater risk. At that altitude, it was me who had more experience and so I was responsible for the safety of my fellow climber. We were not exposed to serious risks because we were roped together and had the chance to abseil down if rescuers had been unable to reach us.

The rescue team told us that, due to the weather, a helicopter could not be used, and they would reach us on foot taking the Aiguille du Midi cable car and then abseiling down the 50m that separated them from the top of the Aiguille. It took 4h for the team to arrive at the scene after the call was made. From there, in a very professional and secure way, we were taken to the top of the Aiguille, from where the cable car took us down to Chamonix. We didn’t suffer any injuries or major consequences, apart from suffering a bit from the cold.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the mountain rescue teams for their work, which is always so professional and efficient.

This is a warning that the mountain is a hard and dangerous place, even when precautions are taken. One must be humble in the mountains, because a high price can be paid for our failures, especially when travelling light. We must accept and be aware of the risks that we are prepared to take individually and with the people who accompany us, depending on our physical and technical skill and also our experience.

As is usual when a rescue like this takes place, there’s been criticism of Jornet and Forsberg’s decisions. In retrospect, there were plenty of things the pair could have done differently to avoid the predicament they found themselves in. Most of the criticism has been aimed at their choice of gear — running shoes and light clothing. The most aggressive of the critics implicitly or explicitly accuse Jornet and Forsberg of moral malfeasance, of selfishly choosing to take risks that, once things went bad, put their rescuers in danger and imposed costs on the public. Commenting on Emelie Forsberg’s blog, Alex Fernandez writes:

I have deep respect for what you do, you and Kilian. Very inspirational. BUT the main question here is : where ends everyone’s passion and wishes ? Wanna move fast & light in moutains ? Being rescued has a price. You put the PGHM guy’s life at risk, just because you wanna move light and fast, and moreover, at the expense of every french resident. We don’t have to pay the bills for your passion.

There is something to this argument. Where does the freedom to choose our path in the mountains butt up against the imperative not to burden others tasked with rescuing us from mistakes and misfortune? What costs, what risks, should we incur to support the passions of climbers like Jornet and Forsberg? In a perfectly-realized libertarian world, none. Ideally, we each would face the consequences of our own choices in the mountains alone. We would never call for rescue, realizing that this would be imposing risk and cost upon the rescuers. As a close second-best alternative, if we did request a rescue, we would reimburse the rescue group after the fact for the costs they incurred while rescuing us.

I’m sympathetic to this argument, but it does have limits. First of all, it’s not always clear what counts as a “mistake” in the mountains. What looks a priori like a reasonable decision will become, a posteriori, an obvious mistake if things go bad and you need to be rescued. In retrospect, every person that needs to be rescued did something (or failed to do something) that would have prevented their need for rescue. In this sense, the fact of being rescued inevitably reveals a mistake. But, a priori, most people make decisions about risk that look reasonable. They anticipate the weather as best they can. They plan their route as best they can. They account for dangers and risks as well as they can. But it is a fact about traveling in the mountains that all risk cannot be eliminated. And protecting against some risks often increases your exposure to other risks. A classic example is the tradeoff between “light and fast” vs “heavy and slow.” If you take less gear, you gain safety because you can travel faster, and every mountaineer knows that safety is often found in speed — get where you’re going before the weather changes. But of course, if you get caught out in deteriorating conditions, you’ll be in more danger if you don’t have a lot of gear to keep you warm or finish your climb.

The Frendo Spur (photo: chamonixtopo.com)

The Frendo Spur (photo: chamonixtopo.com)

Secondly, the suggestion that every rescue unjustly burdens the rescue service or imposes unfair risks upon rescuers just isn’t true. Every professional rescuer, such as those with the PGHM Chamonix Mont-Blanc, willingly chooses to join the team and to respond to calls for assistance. Many of these professionals derive immense satisfaction from using their considerable technical skill to rescue people. That’s why they volunteer or are hired for these services. No one forces them to do it. They understand, as every mountaineer does, that if people travel in the mountains, people will require assistance in the mountains. There is nothing unforseen about the risks these rescuers are taking.

And the costs that the rescue group or general public incur for these rescues are the foreseeable other side of the coin of the benefits these people obtain by encouraging  people to travel in the nearby mountains. The village of Chamonix, for example, derives immense economic benefit from their location at the foot of Mont Blanc, precisely because it’s such a good spot for mountain enthusiasts from around the world to visit, spend time and money in the local hotels and restaurants, between excursions into the mountains where risk is unavoidable. Chamonix is so popular precisely because of people like Jornet and Forsberg who, daily, are making journeys into the mountains and exposing themselves to the risks that go along with this. In fact, the notoriety and fame of Chamonix is disproportionately augmented by the bold and risky exploits of world-class runners and climbers who draw press coverage for their exploits, more so than the average tourist who rides to the top of the Aiguille du Midi in the telepherique.

It’s not a bad idea, of course, for rescuees to give back to the mountain rescue groups that help them. But it’s a tougher case to make that this should be required by law or by morality. There are cases where people show bad judgment when calling for a rescue. If you go hiking in the Grand Canyon and get thirsty, it’s not reasonable to call for a helicopter to fix the problem. But these stories are rare — most people of all experience levels try to be self-sufficient and to minimize risk. If you are human, and you go into the mountains, you will eventually need to ask for some help. It’s not a moral failing.

Sep 072013
 

Malcolm Gladwell continues to argue against the ban on performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) in elite athletic competition. Since he is such an intelligent person and such a good writer, he should be held to a much higher standard than he’s managed to meet so far.

Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell

One of the problems with Gladwell’s New Yorker article questioning the ban on doping in sports was how vague it was. He strongly hinted that he was in favor of legalizing performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) but chose not to say so directly. Fortunately, he has removed all doubt about his position in a follow-up interview.

In the interview, we learn that Gladwell is in favor of “bringing PEDs in out of the cold” by “liberalizing” the rules against PED use. He supports legalizing and then regulating PEDs according to “medically appropriate principles.” He is also in favor of bringing “total transparency” to elite-level competitive sports by instituting “complete bio-passports for everyone” documenting the PEDs each athlete is taking and what the effects have been on, for example, their hematocrit levels.  According to Gladwell, his proposals will help to remedy the terrible unfairness that exists now, where athletes born with unfavorable genetic characteristics are not allowed to use all of the miracles of modern pharmaceutical science to remedy the disadvantages they face when competing against others with natural genetic gifts.

But won’t the average athlete then feel pressured to dope? asks the perceptive and probing interviewer. “I would never imagine that [PED use] would spread to weekend warriors,” replies Gladwell. Practically begged by the interviewer to acknowledge that critics of Alex Rodriguez and Lance Armstrong are correct to condemn these athletes as “cheaters” who willfully flouted the rules against doping, even though those rules might not seem rational to him, Gladwell declines to do so. He prefers instead to call A-Rod a “rebel.” At the end of the interview, Gladwell plays the “that’s-just-the-way-it-is” card, suggesting that our current ban against PEDs is equivalent to pretending that we still live in the nineteenth century.

Does Gladwell imagine that this last barb will sting? If so, he’s mistaken. His entire position is nonsensical at best and for me at least, aesthetically (athletically?) ugly. Some of his critics have suggested that Gladwell’s value system is “messed up,” but that’s actually just fine. His logic is a complete mess.

Item 1: Imagine that we do what Gladwell suggests and legalize all “safe” forms of doping, regulating it according to “medically appropriate principles.” We collect and publish biopassports on all elite athletes, including whatever measurable physiological parameters Gladwell wants to include — hematocrit, VO2 max, lactate threshold, length of Achilles tendons — whatever. What will have changed? There will still be regulations prohibiting “unsafe” PED use that doesn’t adhere to “medically appropriate principles,” and these regulations will need to be policed. There will still be “rebel” athletes like Armstrong and A-Rod who will disagree with where the line has been drawn, and take it upon themselves to surreptitiously cross the line without admitting it. (Will Gladwell then be willing to call these athletes “cheaters”?) There will continue to be technological innovations that allow athletes to artificially increase some parameter that isn’t measured by the biopassports of the time. I can think of several plausible scenarios off the top of my head. How about glycogen storage? Will we measure that in the biopassport, and can we feasibly measure it? What about lung function? What about when a lab comes up with a pill that allows athletes to do the mental things that Gladwell recognizes are so important for elite athletic success but are nevertheless functions of genetic inheritance that Gladwell finds so unfair? Will we (can we?) assign athletes a “willpower” number, a “concentration” number, a “smile all night and focus on your own race a-la Rory Bosio” number for their biopassports? What should we do about the innate intelligence that allows athletes to strategize during a match, to learn from past competitions, and to outthink opponents? What if there were a pill that allowed all of us to become, like Rafael Nadal, the “Leonardo da Vinci of tennis“?

My point is that since Gladwell is still willing to say that he’d draw a line between permitted and forbidden PEDs, the regime that he advocates won’t be any different for the things that mattter to Gladwell than the one that exists now. Natural differences will still exist and will still make competitions “unfair.” If Gladwell imagines that technology can level the natural differences that make up the “great menagerie” and which prevent athletics from being a “contest among equals,” he’s going to have to go a lot further than allowing PEDs. Surgery for everyone to make their calves the same length. Frequent, documented VO2 max testing for all athletes. To imagine trying to eliminate natural differences between athletes is to reject it as impossible. The simple difficulty of distinguishing between differences arising from factors that Gladwell presumably can tolerate (better training, more willpower) from differences that are randomly assigned by genetic luck is enormous and will resist Gladwell’s liberalized PED-with-biopassport system. And so long as there are prohibitions, there will be athletes like Armstrong and A-Rod who will lie and cheat to get around them. These athletes will be “rebels” against Gladwell’s regime of rules, too, but at what point will Gladwell be willing to condemn them as cheaters?

Gladwell’s athletic PED-driven utopia will remain a fantasy. So the practical issue that requires debate is: Gladwell thinks the place where the line between permitted and forbidden athletic augmentation is currently drawn, isn’t drawn in the right place. He wants to draw one someplace else in order to permit more PEDs. But is he persuasive about the need to do this? No he isn’t.

Item 2: If Gladwell has an irrationally rosy view of what PEDs can do to eliminate natural differences between athletes, he has an equally rosy view about the consequences of liberalization for non-elite athletes. As a non-elite athlete myself, I can speak from personal experience that so much of athletic culture arises out of attempts of weekend warriors to emulate the elites. I’ll spend $170 for a pair of Salomon S-Lab Sense trail running shoes because that’s the shoe that Kilian Jornet wears! And Salomon knows this; their enormous budget for athlete sponsorship depends on this being true. Whatever your sport of choice, you don’t have to think for more than a second to know that this is true. Tennis? You want Rafael Nadal’s racket. Cycling? If you could drop five figures in cash for one of the bikes Mark Cavendish uses, you’d do it. We already rush out to the store to buy Udo’s Oil because our favorite runner is adding it to their cottage cheese — if that runner was publicly adding microdoses of epo, only the financial burdens would keep the weekend warriors from using it, too. And anyone who’s seen some fat corporate lawyer pedaling along Lake Michigan in Chicago on a Saturday with his corpulent self perched upon the same bike model Chris Froome rode up the Alpe d’Huez will realize that this financial barrier doesn’t apply to all weekend warriors. Would it really matter if everyday schlubs were taking epo? Maybe, maybe not, but Gladwell is prosaically wrong when he says that they won’t.

Item 3: The safety of PEDs isn’t a binary thing, such that one set of PED regimens are safe, and another set are unsafe. Gladwell imagines that we should permit “safe” PED use, but how do we identify which uses are safe? There are no clearly agreed-upon “medically appropriate principles” that separate reasonable, prudent use of PEDs from unreasonable and imprudent. Like all drugs, the magnitude of the risks from PEDs exist on a spectrum, and the point at which anyone draws a line between “safe” and “unsafe”, “medically appropriate” and not, is always going to be somewhat arbitrary. Gladwell in his interview mentions the current UCI cutoff for a rider’s hematocrit level in cycling – 50%. There is a limit because in the recent past riders have died after their blood sludged in their vessels and stopped flowing because their hematocrits were so high. So the UCI drew an arbitrary line at 50% hematocrit and declared that riders would not be permitted to race if their hematocrit was higher than this. That doesn’t mean that a 50% hematocrit is “safe” while 51% is “unsafe.” 50% is safer than 51%. It is more dangerous than 49%. The safety and risk profile of elevated hematocrit levels is gradually sloping, not binary. The UCI’s limit is, inevitably, an arbitrary one. Perhaps it’s appropriate and perhaps not, but it is arbitrary, and reasonable people will disagree about where to draw the line. If Gladwell is unsatisfied with the current limits, he can’t just say “increase the limit until it becomes unsafe.” He’s got to make the more difficult argument that the inevitable loss of safety he’s proposing will be worth it. He hasn’t made this argument.

Item 4: “Fairness” in sports isn’t the kind of “fairness” that Gladwell says he wants. Gladwell’s use of the word “fair” when applied to sports is very odd. To say that a sporting competition is “fair” usually means that all of the competitors are required to play by the same rules. That they all know what those rules are and that they all abide by them. Gladwell, by contrast, thinks that natural differences in athletic ability between athletes renders the competition “unfair.” This is true in a simplistic sense, and we already do a good job of correcting for this. Sumo wrestling contests between 350-lb men and 35-lb girls are “unfair” in this sense. It is “unfair” to expect a 50-year-old runner to outsprint Usain Bolt over 100 meters. We have age-group awards in marathons because we understand that our athletic ability waxes and wanes over the course of our lives, naturally. We have weight classes in boxing to ensure that fighters with roughly equal physical attributes fight each other. But we don’t prohibit on grounds of “unfairness” someone with a naturally low percentage of fast-twitch muscle fibers in their legs from sprinting against Usain Bolt. We’re prepared to say, simply, that this guy just isn’t as good a sprinter as Bolt is, not that Bolt wins “unfairly.”

Our common understanding of what “fair” competition means makes sense. Lance Armstrong was the perpetrator of “unfair” competition when he chose to race the Tour de France using dope. He was not the victim of unfairness because his un-doped hematocrit may have been less than Jan Ullrich’s or Iban Mayo’s.

Gladwell is in a tiny minority of people who evidently derive no pleasure from seeing naturally-gifted athletes demonstrate their natural advantages in competitions against other gifted athletes. It’s a beautiful thing to watch Usain Bolt run precisely because of his natural gifts of speed, which Bolt has augmented to the maximum possible level with training. When I watch Bolt sprint, I’m not rueing how unfair it is that some other sprinter wasn’t born with the same combination of fast-twich muscle fibers, oxygen-utilizing capacity, leg shape, and lung size of Usain Bolt. I feel sad for Malcolm Gladwell that he, apparently, fails to see beauty in Bolt’s running, and sees unfairness instead.

Item 5: Seriously Mr. Gladwell, the nineteenth century? This is the kind of rhetorical device that makes me cringe, and someone with the intelligence and insight of Malcolm Gladwell shouldn’t stoop to using it. Obviously, it’s untrue. Because we prohibit some technologies that improve athletic performance and prohibit others, does not mean we’re somehow anti-technology in general, or that we prefer to live in the past. Even Malcolm Gladwell, presumably, would retain some limits on PED use, and not allow athletes to use any and every technology to help them win, but that doesn’t mean Gladwell is some kind of Luddite. Obviously, neither are Gladwell’s critics who would like to retain the current bans on PEDs in sports.

Sep 042013
 

Malcolm Gladwell asks a provocative question about doping in sports — why not?

He imagines baseball player and accused doper Alex Rodriguez asking why, if pitchers can use the technological marvels of Tommy John surgery to prolong their careers, why shouldn’t he be able to use the technological marvels of endocrinology (e.g. erythropoetin injections) to prolong his own career? Gladwell also imagines Lance Armstrong, cyclist and serial doper, asking why “one man is allowed to have lots of red blood cells and another man is not?” when the only difference between the two men is that one has lots of red blood cells from birth, because of genetics, while the other achieves the same physiological condition by doping.

Lance Armstrong (Mike Hutchings, Reuters)

Dope: Lance Armstrong (Mike Hutchings, Reuters)

Gladwell suggests that we embrace a “vision of sports in which the object of competition is to use science, intelligence, and sheer will to conquer natural difference.” The implied suggestion is that we legalize doping as a form of science that can compensate for natural differences. We embrace much of this technological vision already, so long as the science and intelligence extends to better shoes or better surgeries for injury, but not to erythropoetin or anabolic steroids. Gladwell is provoking those of us who oppose doping to explain why we don’t like it — and that’s a lot more difficult than it might seem at first.

I am disappointed that Gladwell seems unable to explicitly state that he’s arguing for a legalization of doping in sports. I’m disappointed that he seems unable to bring himself to acknowledge that most of the moral condemnation of athletes like A-Rod and Armstrong comes not from the fact that they doped, but from the fact that they violated explicit rules against doping and then lied about it. Set those things aside, though, and what’s left is an interesting question: why not allow athletes to dope? That would give us the kind of athletics Gladwell seems to pine for, the kind of sports where there are no restrictions on “taking the body that nature [has] given you and forcibly changing it.”

As an athlete, I aspire to bring out the best performances I can given the limits I was born with. I like training for competitions not just because I want to beat people in races but also because I enjoy optimizing my own performance, given my natural talents and limits. For me, it’s not all about forcibly changing my body through any means available, it’s about becoming more healthy and fit. I don’t think that goal is compatible with taking epo. But this is a deeply personal reason why I don’t dope.

As a spectator, I’m opposed to doping on aesthetic grounds. I just finished pulling an all-nighter refreshing iRunFar’s live coverage of the 2013 Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. 2469 mountain runners started this race around the base of Mont Blanc, but as usual, by 80 kms into the race, the expected elites were running well in front of the enormous field. It wasn’t surprising that people like Julien Chorier, Miguel Heras, and Timothy Olson were among the few athletes contending for podium spots. These elite runners were at the front because they had done the arduous training for a race like the UTMB, but also because they almost certainly have the genetic characteristics that enable them to excel at long mountain trail races.

For me — and this is where I seem to differ from Gladwell — these advantages conferred at birth don’t make it less interesting to watch these athletes perform. In fact, I enjoy watching how much better these naturally gifted people can run precisely because of these genetic differences that the athletes themselves had no control over. My appreciation for watching Kilian Jornet run up a hill faster than anyone else is increased, not decreased, by my knowledge that Jornet has such a high VO2 max, a physiologic characteristic determined in part by training but also in large part by genetics. So that’s what a high VO2 max looks like!

Oihana Kortazar atop the Zegama-Aizkorri podium (photo: iRunFar)

No dope: Oihana Kortazar atop the Zegama-Aizkorri podium (photo: iRunFar)

In contrast, as soon as I know or suspect that Lance Armstrong is climbing Mont Ventoux so well because he’s injecting epo or taking steroids, I lose interest. His performance loses any ability to inspire or awe because what I’m seeing is his body’s response to dope and not his naturally given talent. One way to state my objection is that I’m not interested in seeing what Gladwell seems to want to see, what he describes as “a vision of sports in which the object of competition is to use science, intelligence, and sheer will to conquer natural difference.” Instead, I’d like to see “a vision of sports in which the object of competition is to use science, intelligence, and sheer will to make the most of the natural differences we’re given from birth.” For me, the beauty of competition is exactly the revealing and display of those natural differences which seem to bother Gladwell so much. (Set aside the likelihood that “sheer will” is itself a natural difference — why does Gladwell not object to competitions on this ground?)

So I have an aesthetic difference with Gladwell, but I also think his vaguely-stated argument for doping is weak on its merits. Assuming doping is legalized, presumably athletes would then have to rely on other differences between them in order to win competitions. But are those other differences so different from the ones Gladwell thinks would be erased with doping? Armstrong’s defenders often make the plausible argument that he won races not because he doped, but because he doped better than anyone else in a peloton where everyone was doping. But how did Armstrong manage to do this? He might have been smarter (a natural difference), more unscrupulous (presumably a natural difference), or he might have just been luckier (which is exactly the kind of natural difference when applied to muscle strength or VO2 max that Gladwell wants to eliminate with dope). Or it might turn out that Armstrong was simply blessed with a body — from birth — that responded better than his rivals’ to erythropoeitin and steroids. If Gladwell is objecting to the unfairness of natural differences per se among athletes, allowing for doping isn’t going to solve the problem. Competitions between doped athletes will simply shift into a different arena where other natural differences become important.

And what of Gladwell’s point that a ban on doping seems arbitrary when other means of “taking the body that nature [has] given you and forcibly changing it” are allowed? Why ban doping but allow reconstructive surgery? Why ban erythropoeitin but allow iodine supplementation? There’s an easy version of this question, when surgery is used to repair an injury or iodine supplementation is used to reverse a deficiency that causes goiter, but what about the hard case? Why not have surgery before any injuries in order to prevent them? Why not acknowledge that taking steroids is similar to taking nutritional supplements?

Almost any line you can draw between methods of improving performance that are allowed and those that are not will be somewhat arbitrary — there will be methods that could arguably fall on either side of the line. But that’s not an argument for not drawing a line, that’s just an acknowledgment that at the margins the interpretation of rules and laws is subtle and requires judgment that will always be somewhat arbitrary. We can argue about where exactly to draw the line, but only after we agree that a line should be drawn somewhere. I think the current line allowing athletes to supplement their diets with fish oil but not with anabolic steroids is a good place to draw the line. Fish oil is more like food and less like a drug; fish oil has few negative side-effects, steroids have many dangerous side effects. Perhaps it’s merely an aesthetic difference that I have with Gladwell and maybe Gladwell will condescend to arguing more specifically where he’d like to see the line between permitted and forbidden drawn.

But Gladwell — with allowances for his vague hinting and his beating-around-the-bush — seems to want to say that there ought not to be any lines, that any means at all of “forcibly changing” the body that nature has given you should be permitted. That’s certainly one vision of athletic competition, but not one that I want to see.

If Gladwell is right that allowing doping really would level the playing field and narrow arbitrary natural differences, it would drain competitions between elites of the beauty that the revelation of natural differences through training and competition reveal. It would make the top performers even more freakishly different from the rest of us who don’t dope than they are now. Gladwell might revel in that torturing of nature, but I wouldn’t.

But if Gladwell is wrong (as I think he is) that doping would eliminate natural differences between athletes, then we would still be stuck with the “fantastic menagerie that is human biological diversity” that Gladwell thinks is a such a problem. In addition, though, legal doping would subject elite athletes to more of the unpleasant and dangerous side-effects of the technological tortures that would be required to win top events.

In the interest of communicating some of the revulsion I feel about removing limits on doping, I’ll reach for florid language. Gladwell’s regime would turn the Tour de France and the UTMB into a freak show between cyborgs with “thin papery skin” who can’t sit still in a chair because they have no buttocks. In Gladwell’s regime, the beauty of seeing a supremely healthy Kilian Jornet or Sage Canaday run off the front of the pack would be obscured by Jornet’s or Canaday’s muddling along amid a pack of amped-up products of Amgen and Glaxo with buffalo humps and tiny testicles (and that’s only the best-case scenario, where doping works as intended and Kilian and Sage don’t dope). We’d certainly do more to take the bodies nature has given us and forcibly change them. But instead of shaping a healthy Kilian Jornet or Ellie Greenwood with training and diet that revealed those athletes’ beautiful biological gifts that they received from birth, much like Michelangelo revealed a beautiful David by shaping marble, we’d likely manufacture a pack of freaks that resemble Michael Jackson in the years just before he managed to overdose on that other technological marvel, propofol.

Gladwell might want to see more of that, but I don’t.