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.


Aug 232013

The Pikes Peak Marathon is an iconic mountain trail race that exemplifies most of what I love about mountain running. Sure, there are some aspects of the sport that aren’t highlighted at Pikes Peak. It isn’t particularly “technical” in that the Barr Trail is wide, easy-to-follow, and relatively smooth. (Kilian Jornet called it “flat.”) It isn’t an “ultra” distance like many top mountain trail races (Hardrock, for example, or the UTMB), meaning it doesn’t require you to run through the night and into the next morning. But it is long enough to test your endurance, and short enough to test your speed. There is a lot of sustained uphill (and downhill) running at very high altitudes. There are steeper parts and flatter parts, that test your power and your aerobic conditioning. The views are beautiful. The quality of the field is excellent; several of the world’s best mountain runners come to Colorado Springs every year for this race since it is part of the world skyrunning calendar. You don’t have to be an elite runner to do this race, but you do have to qualify to enter.

The Pikes Peak Marathon course from Manitou Springs to the summit and back

The Pikes Peak Marathon course from Manitou Springs to the summit and back

The 2013 PPM was my first since 2001. My goal was to finish in less than 7 hours, because that’s the qualifying time cutoff to enter next year’s race in Wave 1. I did achieve my goal, and I’m very happy about that. On the uphill I felt generally pretty good, but once I got above Barr Camp I didn’t have the power that I’d hoped to have, and I had to start hiking sooner than I’d expected. Even then, I managed to get to the top in 3:47, which beat 3 out of 4 of my previous ascent times.

The downhill, however, was mostly a disaster. As soon as I turned around on the summit and ran downhill for a few meters my stomach started giving me problems. With every footfall my lower abdomen actually hurt, and I wondered whether appendicitis felt like that (lucky me, never had appendicitis!). By the time I got close to Barr Camp on the downhill trip the jarring pain had been replaced by nausea. I had to stop at the Barr Camp aid station for fifteen minutes to drink and eat and grimace a lot. I thought the sub-7hr goal was slipping away, and it would have had not I been lucky enough to feel better for the run down from Barr Camp to No Name Creek and the top of the Incline. That stretch actually felt pretty good — no nausea and none of the joint or muscle pain that’s common for such a sustained downhill. I wasn’t running hard, but I managed to pass plenty of people on that stretch who I’m sure were all fighting their own pain problems of one sort or another. By the time I got to the top of the Incline I knew the sub-7 was in the bag.

Unfortunately, the trail steepens past the Incline summit and that final downhill turned into a sufferfest. I had been protecting two big heel blisters I’d picked up the week before at the Telluride Mountain Run Hill Climb, and now the balls of my feet and toes felt gangrenous and ready to fall off. The nausea had returned in full force. Any attempts to run (let alone run fast) made me feel like throwing up. I admit that the certainty that I’d finish in less than 7 hours, but over 6 hours, sapped my motivation to extract speed on that last miserable section, because what was the point? So I basically walked in that last mile, and finished in 6:43. If I had dug deep I might have finished in 6:20 or something, but at the time that difference wasn’t worth the additional pain. Wimp!

Happy to get back down to the finish

Happy to get back down to the finish

So, that’s how the race felt. Some bad, but mostly good because I’d done what I’d set out to do. Post-race, though, it’s fun to do some analysis, and try to learn as much as you can about how to get better. Hence, numbers.

Thanks to the great people at the Pikes Peak Marathon and their super-duper timing technology, I have a lot of numbers. Here are my splits for the 2013 race:


NNUp      0:56:54     0:56:54

BCUp       0:42:53     1:39:47

AFUp       0:50:40    2:30:27

Summit    1:16:57     3:47:25

AFDn       0:44:46     4:32:11

BCDn       0:47:20     5:19:31

NNDn      0:30:38    5:50:10

Finish      0:53:15     6:43:25

Descent   2:56:00


The first column of numbers is the time elapsed since the last time check, and the second column is the cumulative time elapsed in the race. The splits are from No Name (NN), Barr Camp (BC), and A-Frame (AF, which is at timberline).

To give you a sense of what these numbers mean, here are the splits from Dave Mackey, one of the world’s elite ultra runners who is listed as 42 years old (same as me), and who finished 6th overall:


NNUp      0:44:33     0:44:33

BCUp       0:32:41     1:17:14

AFUp       0:33:40    1:50:54

Summit    0:46:40   2:37:34

AFDn       0:22:52    3:00:27

BCDn       0:16:54     3:17:22

NNDn       0:20:46    3:38:08

Finish       0:23:51    4:01:59

Descent     1:24:25


You’ll immediately notice that Mackey’s times are much faster. That’s not too surprising. The interesting thing is that for some of the splits, his times are better to a much larger degree than for other splits. There are a ton of racing lessons buried in here, just waiting to be extracted and used for future races. Obviously the two big ones are that I need to run uphill faster, and I need to run downhill faster. Duh. But let’s look more closely for some more helpful, more specific lessons.

I think these splits say two big things. I need to get faster at high altitudes, and the downhill is killing me. Comparing my times up to AF and the summit with those of Mackey (way ahead) and with many of the runners that had similar times as me up to NN and BC, I pretty clearly slowed down relative to the field above Barr Camp. Of course, it might  just be that I went out too hard up to NN and BC. While that’s certainly possible, that doesn’t fit with how I felt on the course. I don’t think it’s just a matter of endurance, either, since I’d been doing plenty of four-hour runs and I’d be surprised if I just ran out of gas two hours in. I’m convinced that the ticket to getting a really good time (a subjective thing, I know) in the ascent or the marathon is being fit enough to actually run the trail above the A-Frame to the summit. If I can manage to do that, my ascent time will drop like a stone.

But the downhill is really where I have the most low-hanging fruit to pluck. Run down, instead of hobble; avoid the 15-minute spell in the chair doubled over at Barr Camp, and I could take an hour off of my descent time without getting any fitter or stronger. Earlier this summer I ran down from the summit with my dog in two hours. My challenge is to feel good enough to get down in at most 2 hours during the race. It’s a doable goal, but I think it’ll take a lot more specific training than what I did this summer. Instead of one trip down from the summit I’d like to do at least 5 or 6. First, run, then think about running downhill faster.

Descending Barr Trail between the A-Frame and Barr Camp with Pele on a training run

Descending Barr Trail between the A-Frame and Barr Camp with Pele on a training run

I suspect I’m also making technical errors on downhills generally, because why else would I be suffering from such bad blisters? For this race I wore two socks on each foot, and they helped a lot (my heel blisters didn’t get any worse). So that’s a lesson learned. How to prevent ball-of-foot blisters, though, is probably in part a matter of running technique and form. I’m probably leaning back and heel striking too much. There is a strong argument for working with a coach for a few sessions to improve my technique.

Anyway, a big thank you to all the aid station volunteers (and especially those at Barr Camp!) for keeping all of us going on race day. Hopefully I’ll be able to do this race again next year with another season of training under my belt, and do it under 6 hours. Then next year, under 5. Then next year, under 4. Then next year….  OK, yeah, not so much.


Dec 062012

My most important trail-running goal for 2013 will be — wait for it — patience.

In other words, I want to improve upon last year, but I don’t expect to suddenly transform into a professional-level runner who wins races at any distance.  That’s just not realistic for anyone with the possible exception of Emelie Forsberg.  So here are a few things I’d like to accomplish in 2013:

1) Run a decent marathon-length race.  What counts as “decent” is that it won’t be like my 2012 Prairie Fire Marathon in Wichita, where I had to walk the last 10 miles of the course.  I’d like to try a 50k or 50 mile race, and I might try one in 2013, but I’m not going to fret much if the ultra distance gets pushed back a year or two.

2) Run the Pikes Peak Ascent or Marathon for the first time since 2001.  I’ll hope to get a good time, but unless I get a better qualifying time between now and next March, I’ll probably have to run those races in the second wave, which makes it a little more difficult.  If things go *really* well, I’d like to get a sub-3hr ascent time on Pikes Peak next year, either in the race or during a training run.

3) Run a race in Europe.  There’s a chance I’ll get to go to Europe next May, and I had initially thought of trying to get a spot at Zegama-Aizkorri.  Now, though, it looks like the timing won’t work out for that race.  So if I do go Europe at all, I’ll try to find another event.  Shouldn’t be that hard from what I’ve heard about the sheer number of races in Europe.

4) Have fun.  This probably means running a lot with my dog.

Dec 042012

Last weekend, The North Face Endurance Challenge 50-mile trail race handed out $10,000 each to Miguel Heras of Spain, and to Emelie Forsberg of Sweden.  It was a controversial race because the lead group of runners including Adam Campbell, Sage Canaday, and Jason Wolfe ran off-course midway through the event in part because of various organizational problems (you can read about it all at iRunFar).  It isn’t too unusual for this to happen in a trail race, but this episode was particularly concerning because it may have cost these athletes significant prize money.*

It used to be that trail racers never won any serious money.  That’s starting to change.  Trail running is still nothing like cycling, where the winners of the top races take home hundreds of thousands of dollars and a serial winner cheater like Lance Armstrong can become a multimillionaire from winnings and endorsements.  But the possibilities for earning money from trail racing have increased to a level where important consequences will follow, or in some cases already have.

Most of these consequences are unalloyed good things.  It has recently become possible for the top trail runners to earn enough money to not have to rely on other jobs and to devote all of their working time to running.  This elite tier of mountain trail runners can and do travel all over the world to compete in races — Kilian Jornet and Mireia Miro can line up at the Pikes Peak Marathon in Colorado; Anton Krupicka and Dakota Jones can race the Cavalls del Vent in Spain, and South African Ryan Sandes can win races in every hemisphere.  These elite runners are supported by sponsors that are spending more money to develop better gear for long mountain runs, and the increased profile of the races means that the gear tested in prototype by the elites is quickly made available in the stores for everyone else to buy, which helps the sponsors earn back their investment.  It’s a virtuous circle.**

Not all of the consequences of the professionalization of trail running are good.  We’re eventually going to have to face the unpleasant consequences of trail runners who dope.

There are always cheaters in every sport, but doping only makes sense under certain conditions which are starting to prevail in elite trail racing.  First, the relative consequences of winning vs finishing in the middle of the pack have to be significantly different.  It’s getting harder and harder to argue that the benefits of winning vs just finishing haven’t become profoundly different in trail running — winners can look forward to sponsorships, international travel, and the ability to quit their day jobs for the sake of running.  Those perks are powerful motivators.  Finish in the middle of the pack, and you can read about your race on iRunFar.  Win, and you can be interviewed by Bryon Powell himself — other people can read about you on iRunFar.

Only the winner gets to wear the Zegama hat (photo: iRunFar)

Second, the margins between winning and losing are getting smaller and smaller.  It used to be absurd to think that there would ever be a sprint for the finish of a long trail race, but it’s becoming more and more common.  Western States 100-mile winners are battling up until the final miles.  Nuria Picas beats Anna Frost by just seconds after 83 kilometers at Cavalls del Vent.  When the difference between winning and not-winning is so small, any little edge that a top runner can get could make the difference between being a Oihana Kortazar at Zegama, who gets to wear the famous Zegama hat, and a Oihana Azkorbebeitia, who ran fast, but not fast enough to get a video of herself on YouTube in the goofy hat.

You may be saying to yourself at this point that it would be absurd to cheat for the questionable benefits that winning trail runners receive, and you’d be right for most values of trail runner.  But then, you’re not likely to be one of the people who will dope in order to win a trail race.  My point isn’t that everyone will dope, it is that the increased competitiveness and money in trail racing will induce more athletes to dope than would have already, and someday one of these athletes is going to get caught burying syringes behind their minivan in the parking lot of a big race.  There is going to be a scandal.

As we’ve seen with cycling, doping scandals have a tendency to taint everyone involved with the sport.  It can take a long time for the organizers and athletes to win back the trust that they inevitably lose (fairly or unfairly) when a successful athlete is caught doping.  Questions are leveled at everyone, even the clean athletes, who may have at one time had a result equal to or better than a disgraced doper.

I would be surprised if doping were a serious problem in trail running now, but I predict that it will, at some point in the near future, become a problem.  I’m not advocating that trail runners get tested now.  That’s expensive, and if not done right, testing is ineffective at actually catching dopers.  An effective testing regimen is also very annoying and intrusive, and trail running hasn’t yet demonstrated that it has a problem requiring such a draconian solution.  But we’re getting there.  Getting there slowly, but we’re getting there.  A few bad apples are going to ruin the pie for everyone — it’s merely a matter of time.  Trail running will eventually uncover a Lance Armstrong and a George Hincapie among its ranks.  It’ll be tragic and disappointing.

But when that time comes, the sport will be much better off if we’ve anticipated the problem in advance, and discussed what ought to be done about it.  Ellie Greenwood may be right: “It’s better we have drugs testing from the get-go, rather than our sport waits until there is actual speculation that drugs may be a problem in our sport.”  If we’re not going to test now, we ought at least to say why, and try to specify when we might start.


* Adam Campbell did point out, though, that the winners earned their places on the podium and that speculation about what might have happened had he not run off course is “pointless and unknowable.”

** None of this would really be possible without YouTube videos — without YouTube there wouldn’t be a single American who would know who Kilian Jornet was, let alone racers like Julien Chorier or races like Zegama-Aizkorri.

Dec 022012

Next summer I want to run the Pikes Peak Marathon for the first time since 2001.  This summer I ran up the Barr Trail to the summit for the first time since my last race, and recorded the following splits:

1:01  to top of incline (from soda springs park)
1:58 to barr camp (57 min from incline)
3:03 to aframe (1:05 from barr camp)
4:36 to summit (1:32 from aframe)

This run along with my previous race times told me a lot about what I need to do to record a good time in the marathon.  Here are the most important points.

Run, don’t walk, the portion of the ascent above timberline.  This is the most important single thing that separates the fast racers from the slow ones.  In my ascent this summer I wasn’t acclimated enough to the altitude to run any of the trail above the A-frame (roughly the elevation of timberline).  I watched the top racers this year near the summit, and it’s clear that you don’t necessarily need to run fast once you get that high on the mountain, but you should at least be running.  In 1996, I was working as an EMT on the summit and was able to run the entire trail above the A-frame during the Ascent, so I know I can do it if I’m adapted to the altitude.  Unfortunately, I was in the second wave of the Ascent that year and had to spend all my energy leaping up on rocks at the side of the trail to pass hikers, or my ascent time would have been much better than the 3:35 I recorded in the 1999 Marathon.

Condition my legs to absorb the beating of the downhill half.  My downhill times in my previous races are excessively long compared with my ascent times.  If you look at runners with roughly equivalent uphill times to mine, most of them have much better overall times, because they were able to run the descent much faster.  Most of the profound suffering that I experienced during my marathons was concentrated in the last fourth of the race.  In 2001 especially, I was reduced to walking most of the course below the summit of the incline on the descent, which meant that my downhill time was almost the same as my uphill time!  If I can run the entire downhill, my overall time will be much, much better.

These two goals dictate the kind of training I’ll need to do between now and next August.  Luckily, I’m living in Colorado now so I should be able to do what I need to do.  First, I’ll need to spend a lot of time up high.  Second, I need to do a lot of 5-6 hr trail runs with a lot of descending.  Both of these things sound fun to me, so I shouldn’t fail for lack of motivation.

Trail running is more fun with my dog.  This is my secret weapon that I didn’t have back when I last raced the PPM.  If I had had the kind of dog then that I have now, I would certainly have trained more and raced faster.

Pele waits for me above treeline on Pikes Peak