Apr 122014
 

The Squak Mountain race that Evergreen Trail Runs puts on every April is one of my favorites.

It has a beautiful hilly mostly-single-track course with a few fast flats and some flowy downhills. It has a wonderful technical section where you can barely see the trail on account of its being overgrown with ferns and moss that hide slippery rocks and bundles of roots with feet-sized holes between them. There are fallen tree trunks that you have to climb over, and tree trunks that you should probably duck under. And the view! Well, this is Seattle, and so there really isn’t any view. But that’s because it’s blocked by a forest of beautiful big fir trees.

The organization and the volunteers are stellar. If you’re reasonable about it, Roger Michel still lets you run his races with your dog. So even if, on race day, you don’t have your dog with you, chances are you’ll encounter someone else’s dog during the race. Running is always better with a dog.

Squak is one of the best trail/mountain races around, and I encourage everyone to try it sometime. There is a 12K, half, full marathon, and 50K, so pick your distance and try not to break your ankle or dislocate anything.

This year I did the half marathon for the second time and finished an unofficial (as of race-day afternoon) 15th. I believe I may have gotten third in my age group. It was a competitive year with 3 or 4 guys running under the old course record (and some guy named Justin Houck did an insane 1:32), so place-wise I’m pretty happy with where I ended up. I felt pretty strong for most of the race. I didn’t fall on my face once. It was, in general, a rousing success. But as after every race, there were a few things I wanted to have done better. My arbitrary goal beforehand was to finish in less than 2 hours, and I finished in 2:04:55.2 which is arbitrarily 4:55.2 too slow. I did the first big climb and all the descents really well, but the climbs near the end had me a bit strung out. You know that feeling you get when your heart rate goes above 200 and you shift over to anaerobic metabolism?  It was like that.

For most of the race I was by myself, except for a spell during the middle when I was running with a guy named Josh. He probably has a bunch of natural talent, because I got the impression he hadn’t been doing a lot of focused training and hadn’t done a trail race since the late George H.W. Bush administration. Anyway, he was great and I hope he continues to race because he’ll probably kick a lot of ass.

Squak was my first race of the year, and I thought it went well. I think I’m a better mountain runner than when I did this race two years ago, and I think the changes I’m making this year in my training are making me faster.  Those changes are primarily 1) greater variety in intensity and distance of my training runs, and 2) occasional group runs with the Rocky Mountain Runners in Boulder (a dog-friendly group of fast motherfuckers). I’m trying to adhere to Matt Carpenter’s advice this season: make your hard days hard and your easy days easy. I think it’s working.

Check back later for some pictures. Until then, my race per the Suunto.

 

Jan 082014
 

WARNING: This post is about my trail running goals for 2014 and contains some musings about how I’m going to achieve them. Most of you are probably not interested, and that’s… healthy.

BUT FOR THOSE WHO ARE (Hi Mom!), here’s the deal. The 2014 season will be my third trail-racing season, and I think that means that I ought to start shooting at some loftier goals. I have two years of trail running behind me. I think this constitutes a reasonable base of fitness from which I can start to try for some race performances that I would consider “good.”

South Table Mtn trail, Nov '13

So how’s that for specificity?  In the past when I’ve started a race, my goal was usually to get in a good workout, not finish last, and learn something about racing. I think these were very appropriate goals for my first two seasons, where the risk was that I wouldn’t be patient enough and would fail to understand that success isn’t built on one or two good training runs, and that you can’t reach your potential in one or two months or even years. Facing my third season, I think the time is right to put that base fitness to work and aim for something else in races.

I’d like to have some really good races this year where I do well against my past performances and against the field in general, depending on the race and on the field. So for example, concerning my two goal races for 2014:

Pikes Peak Marathon: I’d like to finish in under 6 hours. This would improve on my best time of 6:23 back when I was 28 years old (but when I was doing the race rather…. casually). I think this is actually a very modest goal, as it would require me to cut 43 minutes off last year’s time, 20 of which were spent sitting on a bench at Barr Camp trying not to throw up. Considering that my training for last year’s race included only one descent of Barr Trail and only one ascent, I think there’s plenty of room for better race-specific training this year.

The Rut 50K: Another race I’m repeating this year. Last year was a pleasant disaster (I felt miserable the whole time but somehow enjoyed it and finished), so there’s a lot of room to improve. I’m going to spend more time at Big Sky prior to the race and do runs on the course with my dog. The goal is to finish in the middle third of the field. Since the field might be dramatically different from last year on account of the Rut’s inclusion on the Skyrunner world series calendar, there’s a lot of uncertainty about this goal.

Two other races I’m repeating from past years are the Illinois Marathon and the Squak Half Marathon. No specific goals for these other than that I want to run them hard, and that I’m committed to finishing the Illinois Marathon this time (last year I dropped after 18 miles without any regrets, as it was purely a training run).

In order to race better in 2014, I’m going to rely on two major adjustments to the training regimen. First, I’m going to vary the intensity and length of my workouts more. Last season I was doing too many 1.5 -hour runs over similar terrain, without much variation. This year, I plan to run shorter, faster, longer, etc. over the course of each week and month to avoid doing the same workout over and over.

Second, I’m going to increase my volume. I need to do some 5-hour runs in training and not just in races. I’m going to do more Pikes Peak ascents and descents. Maybe a training round-trip or two.

So for the first time, I’m going to be disappointed if I don’t have some substantially better racing performances this season. It’s about time to raise the bar.

Pup licks on Green Mtn

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.