Sunday, July 30, 2006

The Hall of Shame Gets Bigger

So now the Sprint King has joined the Endurance King in the Hall of Shame in the biggest Doping Double the sports world has ever known. First Tour de France winner Floyd Landis was told that he had failed a testosterone test. Now Olympic 100-meter champ Justin Gatlin has revealed that he too failed a testosterone test, with the result that he could be banned for life, since he has previously failed a stimulant test.

What can we possibly make of this? Only one thing: That despite increased drug testing, some elite athletes still feel compelled to mess with their biochemistries to reach the top rung in their sport. Since they pass the vast majority of their doping tests, we must assume that they have gotten pretty good at beating the system. And we must assume that others are doing the same.

Since they sometimes fail a test, we can also assume that either: (A) the testing is getting better; (B) it’s possible to “slip up” and make a mistake in your doping regimen; or (C) both of the above.

And that’s the good news. The doping kingpins know that they don’t have to catch everyone to level the playing field. They only have to catch enough to scare the red blood cells out of everyone. And “enough” isn’t many. If you’re an endurance cyclist or 100-meter sprinter, you’re going to think long and hard right now about your approach to your sport, because Floyd Landis and Justin Gatlin are the biggest catches since Ben Johnson. And Ben was a long time ago, 1988.

This is 2006, and the noose is getting tighter.

Landis is the Tour winner; no Tour winner has ever been banned. Gatlin has strands of Olympic medal dangling around his neck, and is also co-holder of the world-record in the 100 meters. No track athlete of his stature has been dinged before.

This is serious stuff. It means the doping officials aren’t afraid to go after the biggest stars. It means that we can be a little optimistic about the future of sports, even as some are ringing the death knell.

Not too optimistic, mind you. History has proven that the athletes and the chemists on their teams are often ahead of the Pee Police. And we can’t let pretty “stories” cloud our judgment. Landis comes from the land of Mennonites; he would never use drugs. Gatlin campaigns vigorously against drugs, and answers lots of emails from budding track runners. Surely this proves that he’s the real deal.

Sadly, no, in both instances. The only proof is a doping test. And the fact that you have passed 99 tests doesn’t mean anything if you fail the 100th. The rules are clear: You have to be 100 percent clean 100 percent of the time. Why should we expect any less? This isn’t a geography test, where a 99 percent score deserves an “A” or even an “A+.” It’s a pass/fail test, and if you don’t pass, you fail.

Again, let’s look on the bright side for just a moment. Somewhere a young rider or sprinter is thinking, “If the big guns can get caught, that means there’s hope for me, a clean athlete.” And this kid, this budding dreamer we all want to meet and applaud some day after some great performance, is gonna go out there this week and train hard. Really hard.

Because suddenly he’s got a chance.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Floyd Landis Re-Considered

A couple of days ago I wrote about Floyd Landis’s amazing comeback victory in the Tour de France, and implied that his Mennonite roots could have contributed to that success. Yesterday’s sad news about Landis’s testosterone test forces a second look.

Sad is the right word. That’s how I felt about the test result and the rejiggered view that it forces us to take of Landis and the Tour. Not shocked, however. The Tour has too long and deep a history of drug problems for a new one to shock anybody.

Here’s how I look at it, from my runner’s perspective. Sprinters are tempted by testosterone derivatives, including steroids, that build power and speed. Marathoners are tempted by blood boosters like EPO that build endurance. Tour riders are doubly tempted: They need power for the time trials, and endurance for those monstrously long and difficult mountain stages. It’s no surprise to me that Tour riders too often succumb to temptation.

In Landis’s case, the circumstantial evidence is extraordinarily damaging. The guy has deteriorating hips, and knows this Tour might be his last. He suffers a damaging blowup on Day 16, falling far behind the leaders. Every Tour expert in the world says that it will be essentially impossible for him to catch up. The next day, he does the impossible. He wins the Stage, and basically catches up to his rivals. Only one problem: Because he has won the Stage, he faces mandatory drug testing. And that test reveals an illegal ratio of epitestosterone to testosterone.

Let’s forget about the biochemistry for a moment. Here’s what you need to know. Normal people don’t fail this test. Abnormal people don’t fail this test. Only super-abnormal people fail, and that’s why doping authorities go after them. Your epi to testosterone levels don’t go skyhigh, with very, very few exceptions, unless you have manipulated your body chemistry in highly suspicious ways. (Yes, some athletes have beaten the epi test results before the Court of Arbitration for Sport, or other bodies, but these have been on technicalities not relating to the test’s essential power.)

You fail the epi test, and you should get bounced. Sorry, Floyd.

In the court of public opinion, athletes often gain precious points for their “explanations.” Landis has already begun to argue that his tests could have been thrown out of whack by certain hormones and cortisone shots he was taking to lessen the hip-arthritis pain. We’re all partial to the notion that someone should be allowed to take a few pills for their mortal pains.

However, this argument doesn’t hold up in elite sports competition. The rules are very clear. A failed test is a failed test. No explanations can change this. Got bad arthritis? Sorry to hear it, but you have only two options: Don’t ride; or live with the pain.

If you start taking stuff that changes your epi to testosterone ratio, you’ve violated the rules. Just as much as if you had taken human growth hormone laced with nandrolone and steeped in EPO.

There’s no gray area in drug testing in elite sports. If you failed the test, you failed the test. The real and final assessment of Landis’s Mennonite roots will be whether or not he can bring himself to state the truth that simply.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Elephants Are So Cute...And Heavy

So elephants don’t like to walk uphills. Why am I not surprised? I’ve never in my life met a big runner who liked hills. It simply requires too much extra work to lift the body uphill. And the bigger you are, the harder it is. It’s like the difference between pushing a 100-lb barbell over your head vs a 200-lb barbell.

In northern Kenya, a group of British researchers recently tracked elephant amblings by attaching a GPS system to the elephants. In an area with about 5,400 elephants, not to mention lots of mountainous terrain, the scientists found that the hills weren’t alive with the sound of elephant braying. The pachyderms kept to the lowlands. They did this because an 8,000 pound elephant that wandered uphill even a mere 100 meters would require so much extra energy that he’d have to spend an extra 30 minutes foraging for food. Or lose weight. Neither is a very good alternative. So elephants stick to the flatlands.

That’s what big runners like to do, too. Conversely, when an overweight runner loses a few pounds, he feels the difference first on the hills. They’re so much easier after you’ve slimmed down a bit.

Elephants in the wild don’t have weight problems, but those in captivity occasionally need to attend Weight Watchers. In 2004, the Anchorage Alaska zoo made some news when it announced that it was going to buy a treadmill for Maggie the Elephant, because she was tipping the scales at 9,120 pounds. Maggie’s zookeepers wanted her to lose 1,000 pounds, and they figured a treadmill would help. After all, exercise is important to healthy weight control, right?

Somebody forgot to tell Maggie. The Zoo ordered up its treadmill, for something over $100,000, and it arrived last September. Next they only had to get Maggie onto it. The zookeepers tried all her favorite snacks—apples, carrots, peanuts—but none worked. If she were in Kenya, Maggie wouldn’t be walking the hills. In Anchorage, she ain’t getting on no damn treadmill. “We have to be patient,” a zoo employee said. “The treadmill didn’t come with an instructional video.”
More on Maggie, the overweight but recalcitrant elephant

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Floyd Landis, Man Of Simple Ways

Tour de France winner Floyd Landis hails from Farmersville PA, just 58 miles from where I live in the Allentown area, so it wasn't surprising that the Allentown Morning Call had a feature story on Landis and Farmersville this morning in the Sunday paper. The quality of the story was surprising, however; it's a simple but great and emotional "read."

The writer, Brian Callaway, got himself down to Farmersville Saturday morning to watch the all-important final Time Trial on TV with Landis's parents and their community members. Farmersville is a real community, a Mennonite "hamlet of a couple of hundred people in Lancaster county," according to Callaway. Paul Landis (Floyd's father) and his family don't even own a TV, so they had to hoof it over to some friends' home to watch the Tour. TV is not a life essential to Paul Landis. "You see things on there that you think you have to have, that you can't afford, so that you can impress people you don't like," he said.

That's a killer quote, my friends! From a man who's thought long and deep about the role of TV in modern life.

Of course, when your son is winning the Tour de France, you've gotta cheer him on somehow.
"This is your mom, pedal harder," Arlene Landis implored Floyd through the TV screen. "Drink more water. Listen to your mother."

When things started looking good for Floyd, the heavy celebratin' began. Everyone started chugging "Farmersville champagne," otherwise known as lemonade.

The owner of the local bike retailer remembered the day Floyd, then an early teen, dragged his dad into the shop to buy him a bike. "His dad was not happy. It was an expensive bike, about $300." In his first races, Floyd wore long sweat pants, following the Mennonite custom of covering up pretty good.

The story of Floyd's eventual push into bigtime cycling, which forced a major change from his Mennonite ways, has been well covered by the media. There was a time when youngster and parents didn't see eye-to-eye. That was many years ago. These days, they're all fans of each other's choices.

That's why I was a little surprised by Paul Landis's final quote in this article. "I'm proud of his accomplishments," he said. "But I think someday what we taught him will come back."

As I watched Floyd Landis ride the Tour, with all its ups and downs and endless days and incredible pressures, with his arthritic hip and his disastrous bonk, I saw nothing if not his Mennonite background. Call them what you will, I don't think any endurance athlete can succeed without a simple approach and unswerving dedication to the most basic values.


Thursday, July 20, 2006

What's The Point Of Pain?

I spent 3 hours in my dentist’s office this morning, not my idea of fun, or probably anyone else’s. At least he gave me several novocaine shots to numb the pain of his drilling, as he fashioned two new crowns for me.

I started wondering: Is there anything that can numb the pain of racing hard? Like when you’re at the 2-mile mark in an all-out 5000 meters, and you really wonder if you can keep it going. It would be nice to have some distraction, or something to cover up the pain.

Caffeine is supposed to work a little. It reduces the “relative perceived effort” of your race, meaning that you feel somewhat better than you would without the caffeine. I’ll take that. And I know many running psychologists who claim we can do much with various “visualizations.” I’ve never been able to get these to work, unfortunately. I’d like to pretend that I’m dangling my feet in a cool mountain lake, but I just can’t tear my thoughts away from that last mile.

Maybe the pain serves a purpose. At the very least, it helps us guide our pacing effort. If we pushed too hard, too soon, things could get really ugly. And pain helps us detect an incipient injury. That’s a good thing. Especially if we listen to the pain and stop running before the injury worsens.

The pain of racing isn’t a sharp, physical pain anyway. It’s more like a gnawing discomfort, and I wouldn’t want it to go away entirely. If it did, a race wouldn’t be the special, unique experience that it is.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Sweating The Details

I’ve been doing a lot of work this year trying to figure out how much I sweat in different weather conditions, and on occasion I’ve dragooned a few other Runner’s World editors into my “study.” Yesterday, 10 of us ran in 100-degree conditions, and measured our sweat rates.

Here’s the background: Many scientific experts have now decided that runners should drink according to their “thirst.” They acknowledge that this will leave us 1-2-3 percent dehydrated, but say there’s no strong evidence that this modest dehydration has a negative health or performance effect. And it at least will help us avoid overhydration, called hyponatremia. Others advise that we should run for an hour, weigh ourselves, and then figure out how much we need to drink to cover the sweat loss.

My thought is that runners do virtually everything “by the mile,” so we ought to figure our sweat rate per mile. In a recent Runner’s World, I proposed in a Table that many of us sweat a little more than 3 ounces per mile per 100 pounds (hence 6 ounces if you weigh 200 pounds) at 50 degrees, and more than that as the temperature rises. At 100 degrees, I had figured that sweat rates rise by 50 percent over 50 degrees, hence 4.5 ounces per mile if you weigh 100 pounds and 9 ounces/mile if you weigh 200 pounds.

Yesterday, it was 100 degrees and my sweat rate of 8 ounces/mile was the lowest in our group. Others went up to 15 ounces per mile. (We measured our pre- and post-run weight on quite accurate digital scales, good to the nearest .2 lbs.)

I conclude a number of things from this test. First, in 100 degree weather, no runner can possibly replace his sweat. For example, I was running 8mph yesterday, so I would have to drink 64 ounces, a half gallon, every hour to replace my sweat. And others in our group would have had to drink almost twice as much.

Second, it follows from this and lots of other things that running in 100-degree heat is not a good thing to do. At least not for long periods of time. We covered only 4.5 miles in our test run. In the heat, you should run shorter and slower.

Last, it seems that sweat rates climb really steeply at the high temperatures. Running at 80 degrees is tough and uncomfortable. But running at 90 and 90+ degrees is a whole, different, and ugly experience.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Sometimes I'm Too Impulsive

Last week I decided it was time to shake off the doldrums, and "shock" my training into high (well, slightly higher) gear. Since completing the 54-mile Comrades Marathon in South Africa in mid-June, I hadn't been doing much running. And when I did run, I was still shuffling along at ultra-marathon pace. Time for a change, I thought. Time for a little juice.

This was a good idea, I'm pretty sure. It's the way that I decided to "kickstart" my training that could be called into question. But, like I'm said. I tend to be impulsive. Sometimes I wish my middle name were "Moderate." It's not. It's more like "Crash And Burn."

I decided to do a couple of speed-fartlek workouts. I jogged a mile over to our forested, 1500-yard "jogging trail" at Rodale, and then did 5 x 30 seconds pretty fast with 90 seconds of walking after each pickup. It went fine. Two days later, I did the same, only with 6 x 30 seconds. You see the logic? I thought I was being extremely smart.

But a few seconds after my last pickup, I felt something yank tight in my arch, right foot. I thought at first that it was just a misstep, that it would go away in a couple more strides. But it didn't. I had some kind of arch strain. An injury that I've never had before.

So now, a week later, I'm hobbling back into a 4- or 5-mile a day routine, very slow. I've kickstarted nothing. In fact, I've lost more time.

What should I have done differently? Looking back, I think I should have done more moderate tempo-pace runs instead of the pickups. I didn't really need to shock myself. I just needed to ease into a new phase.

And I should have started with a couple of treadmill runs. The treadmill is my friend. I always seem to do well on it.

I like the sound and imagery of impulsive. But it's rarely a great way to run.