Christian Hesch was having a good week. On August 17, Hesch, a semi-professional road racer from Los Angeles, ran 4:00.01 at the Pittsburgh Liberty Mile, good enough for fourth place and an $800 prize. Less than 36 hours later, Hesch was in Providence, lining up across from the Rhode Island State House at the start of the Providence Rock and Roll Half Marathon. Within a few miles, the pack had thinned out and Hesch found himself in a lead group of three, alongside Ethiopia’s Fikadu Lemma and Demesse Tefera. At mile 10 near India Point Park, Hesch laid down the hammer, dropping Lemma with a strong surge and taking full command of the lead. Three miles later, Hesch was charging towards the finish line in front of the Providence Place Mall. Just a few feet from the finish line, Hesch, glancing over his shoulder, dropped to the pavement. Behind him, Lemma started sprinting, thinking that Hesch had collapsed, giving him an opportunity to win the race. But Hesch was fine—he just wanted to bang out five victory push-ups before getting up and breaking the tape.
But the Providence race was likely the last race Hesch will run for a long while. Soon after returning to his home in California, Hesch’s teammates at Nike Run LA, a sub-elite training group, discovered a vial of EPO—a banned blood doping agent—in Hesch’s possession. After confronting Hesch, Nike Team LA contacted the US Anti Doping Authority, who began an investigation, and requested Hesch immediately stop competing. Rather than fight the charges, Hesch admitted to using the drug. In mid-October, Hesch went public, contacting The New York Times, and posting apologies on a variety of running websites, including LetsRun.com.
In the Times article that first broke the news, Hesch said he began using EPO two years ago, when some fellow runners directed him to a pharmacy in Tijuana where he could obtain the drug. Since then, Hesh said he injected himself with EPO on 54 occasions, during which he entered 74 road races, won over $40,000 in prize money, and was never once drug tested. For his actions, Hesch likely faces a two-year ban from the sport.
As a confessedly avid fan of track and field, the Christian Hesch story provided a local reminder of an issue of I have been grappling with ever since I took a serious interest in running-the specter of doping that hangs over the sport. Of course, this issue is longstanding, as performance-enhancing drugs have now wracked track and field for more than four decades. Although athletes have been experimenting with a variety of herbs and medicines since the nineteenth century, the steroid era began in earnest in the 1970s. During the ’70s and ’80s, things got so out of hand that some countries such as East Germany even introduced state-controlled doping programs, leaving many athletes with long-term health issues. By the ’90s, as drug testing became more stringent, many athletes started to shift towards more discrete drugs, such as synthetic Human Growth Hormone and designer drugs specifically formulated to elude drug-testing officials.
For endurance athletes, the drug revolution came a little later. Steroids were mostly counterproductive to milers and marathoners, who needed lean frames rather than big muscles. This all changed in the late ’80s with the distillation of synthetic erythropoietin (EPO), the hormone that promotes the body’s production of red blood cells. Until doping authorities finally invented a test for EPO in 2000, there was little threat of getting caught. Even today, many believe it is relatively easy for athletes to time their drug usage so as to avoid detection.
This legacy is well known to anyone who follows the sport, but not one that many contemporary sponsors of track and field like to talk about. Doping is a serious buzz kill; in their efforts to make nicely packaged, prime-time drama, NBC and the International Olympic Committee have little incentive to speak honestly about the sport’s dark past, where disgraced figures like Marion Jones and Ben Johnson cast long shadows.
But the online community of LetsRun tells a completely different story; many on the forum often suggest that doping is so widespread it’s become a prerequisite for even making the Olympics in the first place. “In the late ’80s/early ’90s, it was especially bad,” wrote forum commenter under the handle Nairobi Blows in 2011. “LA/Seoul was anabolic steroids. Barcelona was old school blood doping. Atlanta was a freaking joke. The place was one big dose of growth hormone. Sydney was much the same, but recombinant erythropoietin [EPO] began to come in vogue. Athens was a combination of designer drugs, with Beijing much the same, yet even more complicated as testing grew tighter.”
The rampant pessimism results sometimes results in severe conclusions. “Throw out all the World Records and start over,” urged one forum commenter in 2011. “All athletes must live in compounds six months before an Olympics. Their food and liquid intake monitored. Only way to have clean records anymore.” Whether to believe the paranoia of the online forums or to just put suspicions aside and enjoy the competition has become a central dilemma for even casual fans of track and field.
One athlete, American sprinter Carmelita Jeter, provides a telling example of how difficult this choice can be. In a world without drugs, Jeter would have been a household name during the 2012 London Olympics. On the track, Jeter’s credentials are impeccable. Currently, Jeter is the second fastest woman of all time, having run faster than Marion Jones and nearly as fast as the famous Florence Griffith-Joyner (popularly known as “Flo-Jo”). Coming into the Olympics, Jeter was considered the gold medal favorite for the 100-meter dash, the marquee women’s track event of the games (she got the silver).
But nobody on NBC really seemed to want to talk about Jeter—no emotional biopics, and no studio interviews with Bob Costas. The problem is, Jeter exhibits many of the classic signs of a drug cheat. At age 30—very late in a sprinter’s career—Jeter’s suddenly reached the elite level. While most top-tier sprinters emerge in their early 20s, Jeter never even broke 11.48 for the hundred-meter dash until age 27. Three years later, she ran 10.64, an incredible improvement putting her in rarified territory. Most damning of all, Jeter has been repeatedly spotted in the company of Mark Block, a central figure in the BALCO doping scandal, who is currently serving a ten-year ban from the sport. But rather than investigate these suspicions, most in the media seem more inclined to just pretend Jeter doesn’t exist. Silence, it seems, is an easier choice than speculation or the threat of libel litigation.
This could not be further from the case on LetsRun, where Jeter is often referred to on the message boards as “Pharmalita Cheater,” and is the consistent target of jibes and derision. “Seriously, if [the United States Anti-Doping Authority] can't pop Carmelita Jeter, the system just failed,” posted Captain VG during the Olympics. “It's so obvious she's juiced that it hurts.” Of course, this is the same forum where people argue that any sprinter with braces is almost certainly using orthodontics to offset the jaw-expanding side effect of human growth hormone. Ridiculous opinions and speculation are the norm rather than the exception on the message boards. But in a sport with such a checkered past, it’s hard to dismiss these vigilante online doping tribunals as completely unfounded.
The line between cheating and clean competition is even further blurred by a variety of technologies and medicines that—although legal—can have performance-enhancing effects. Traditionally, running has prided itself as the purest of sports, but these new gray areas have almost completely destroyed that fantasy, at least on the elite level. Paradigmatic of this new reality is the Nike Oregon Project, an elite American distance running group founded by former marathon champion Alberto Salazar. In many ways, American running fans are enormously indebted to the Oregon Project for finally making American distance running relevant again on the international scene. For the first time in decades, American runners are consistent medal threats at the Olympics and World Championships. As the most prominent American professional running group, the Oregon Project has played a central role in fostering this level of talent.
While no major doping scandal has engulfed this group of elite American runners, the Oregon Project is infamous for pushing the rules in search of the slightest competitive edge. The core members of the Oregon Project live in an altitude-controlled house, which, according to experts, can mimic the effects of EPO on the body. The house is equipped with air filters that artificially set the internal altitude of the house to several thousand feet. This allows the athletes to achieve the magic-and usually logistically impossible-combination of ‘train low, live high.’ Under this scheme, the runners can get the red blood cell boosting effects of altitude living, while maintaining a rigorous training schedule only possible at sea-level conditions.
The Oregon Project’s activities don’t end there. An unusual number of Salazar’s athletes have been diagnosed with hypthothyroidism, allowing them to take thyroid supplements that many believe to have performance-enhancing side effects. Other methods used by the group are, frankly, just absurd. The runners often train on Anti-Gravity Treadmills that manipulate air pressure in a chamber to artificially reduce a runner’s body weight, allowing runners to train harder with less wear-and-tear on the legs. Galen Rupp-the group’s top American runner, who recently won a silver medal at the Olympics-sometimes wears a mask across his mouth and nose during races to increase oxygen flow to his lungs and help him with his asthma. No surprise, Runner’s World has referred to Rupp as the “greatest-but-least-loved American distance track runner of all time.”
In 1999, Salazar famously wrote a paper for a conference at Duke where he posited that “it is currently difficult to be among the top five in the world in any of the distance events without using EPO or Human Growth Hormone.” This summer in London, Salazar’s athletes took the top two spots in the Olympic 10,000-meter event. Despite my vexation towards Rupp’s high-tech training methods and ridiculous facemasks, I stilled yelled at my computer in exaltation when he finally ended America’s decades-long medal drought in the 10,000-meter. But even as I cheered, I couldn’t help but recall Salazar’s famous statement thirteen years earlier. I can only hope Salazar has proved himself wrong. For better or worse, success brings scrutiny in today’s world of track and field
Like thousands of other lanky teenage runners across America, I grew up with a poster of 1970’s American running champion Steve Prefontaine on my wall. For many, “Pre” represents everything good about running. He had the perfect ‘I don’t give a fuck’ attitude, with his long thick hair, groovy mustache, and unwavering desire to lead every race start-to-finish, tactics be damned. In between setting American records in seven separate events, Pre liked to party, and could often be seen whipping around Eugene, Oregon in a vintage British convertible. Sadly, at age 24, Pre died when he drove his car off the road on the way home from a party.
Like many who died too young, Pre has become mythologized. But looking at the present state of distance running, it’s hard not to pine for the days of Prefontaine, when runners trained hard, lived hard, and raced hard. No EPO, no altitude-controlled houses, no anti-gravity treadmills, and no special facemasks – just plain running. In just a few decades, the simplest sport on earth seems to have become one of the most complicated.
But more recently, I’ve started to let go of my nostalgia for a bygone era when competitive running was simply a test of training and tactics rather than chemistry. Instead I’ve come to realize that the mystery of doping that hangs over track and field is a main reason why I’ve stayed glued to this sport for so many years. While the sport I love is being dragged through the mud by the specter of doping, I follow it ever more closely all the same; that burning question-who’s cheating?-is central to my position as a fan.
And clearly I’m not alone. Nothing makes the LetsRun boards explode like a doping suspension or a suspicious performance. For many, contemporary track and field fandom is about more than appreciating athletic competition—it’s become a struggle for sporting justice. Doping scandals and speculation are probably the last thing track and field needs as it struggles to gain more attention. But, if anything, these speculations have galvanized the little community of fans that have stuck with the sport through all these troubled years. Sometimes, when something is slipping away, you cling on even harder.
Man, Myth, Legend: The Kip Litton Saga
Two years ago, Kip Litton was just an ordinary 48-year-old Michigan dentist who liked to run marathons to raise money for research on Cystic Fibrosis. In 2009, Litton amped up his training and started a website, Worldrecordrun.com, where he chronicled his effort to run a sub-three hour marathon in each of the fifty states.
At first, all was going well for Litton, as he ticked a number of states off his list. But when Litton placed second in the Masters Division at the 2010 Missoula Marathon, some runners said they didn’t remember seeing Litton during the race. Race photos revealed that Litton was only visible in pictures taken at the start and finish, and Litton’s splits during the race were highly unusual. Litton was disqualified. Eventually, somebody decided to mention the situation in a post on LetsRun.
What happened next was spectacular. For the next year and a half, the collective energy of the LetsRun community was applied to solving the mystery of Kip Litton. Every marathon Litton had entered was carefully scrutinized; graphs were made analyzing Litton’s improbable splits, and race photos were carefully dissected to show where Litton had cut the course. The official Kip Litton thread now spans across 255 pages, one of the longest threads in the site’s history. From all this collective labor, it soon became clear that Litton systematically cheated in practically every marathon he entered. Often Litton would start the race at the back of the pack with his head down and a hat worn tightly over his eyes. Then, somewhere near the finish line, Litton would emerge seemingly out of nowhere, usually in a completely different outfit. During just 2009 and 2010 alone, Litton is believed to have cheated in as many as 30 separate races.
Then things got really out of control. After some further sleuthing and backtracking of IP addresses, some LetsRunners discovered that some of the races Litton cited on his website were completely fabricated. In at least three cases, Litton simply constructed imaginary result lists from races that never actually happened. Litton would then post those results online, going so far as to provide fake names and email addresses for the race directors. In the case of the fictional West Wyoming Marathon, Litton’s most infamous fabrication, Litton created a fake website for the race, naming the race director “Richard Rodriguez.” After posting a link to the results on his website, Litton even he penned a fake review of the race on marathonguide.com “Small race, with only a couple dozen runners,” wrote Litton. “Sounds like a downer, but the view and the town are so worth it!”
Barry Elkinton B ’13 trains low, lives high.