OK!… So part one fired a few people up yesterday and there were some excellent contributions on both our Facebook page, as well as on our website too. I refrained from saying anything yesterday as I didn’t want my personal opinions involved. I read Matt’s article thoroughly (twice) and I’ll be honest, I was certainly caught in two minds as to whether or not to publish it. However, I am a big proponent of free speech and I like to listen before drawing conclusions. Given the debate being had around this issue right now, I thought an alternative point of view was appropriate.
So today we have part two of Matt’s article. I think to set the context a little further, one of Matt’s comments in this piece is that he doesn’t agree with Savulescu (an article quoted in the first part quite a bit) on many points. Here he discusses finding that competitive edge, the definition of honesty in relation to PEDs and what a sport with PEDs might look like. Matt acknowledges that his hypothetical argument is a highly minority and unpopular one for sure, but feels that it’s a debate worth having.
Part Two – PEDs in Ultrarunning
Competition & Advantages: Finding “That Edge”
The greater question is how we want to understand ultrarunning. Some would argue that early American football—as birthed from the Ivey League colleges—had a central goal of forming upright, honest, citizen athlete-warriors who played and lived by a clear code of conduct. Others could counter and point out how Pop Warner’s underdog team from the Carlisle Indian Industrial School “bent” the rules by introducing the forward pass (http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-early-history-of-footballs-forward-pass-78015237/?no-ist). According to the RadioLab, American football has never looked back and now changes the rules continually, arguably more than any of the other major sports (http://www.radiolab.org/story/football/).
Similarly, Christopher McDougall’s recent book Natural Born Heroes speaks of the ancient Greek god Metis, who represents a mixture of prudence and shrewd cunning. Is endurance running compatible with the notion of metis that seeks every possible advantage to endure, including enhancing the body through diet or medicines? “Fat as fuel” is a popular topic currently, and it seems easy to distinguish between this legal enhancement and, say, blood doping during competition, but in reality the body’s own resources are being used for both. Blood doping can be considered external in that technical processes (IV needles, fluid bags, coolers) are employed, but if we head that direction, we need to be aware of the implicit assumptions behind our definitions.
The point here is not to bring up examples where cheating has changed the rules in sport, as though cheating is to be praised. The challenge is rather to turn our attention to consider the spirit of games, the spirit of competition that naturally leads us to want to be better and better. Will we, or should we, adjust the rules of the game around these advances?
By way of a few disclaimers: as with Torrence’s article, this essay does not address a very practical issue that make PEDs in ultrarunning doubly complicated. Namely, for better or worse, currently there is no governing body for ultrarunning (outside of the events that are coordinated with WADA) to articulate the rules of acceptable enhancement (see Logan Jones-Wilkins’ thoughtful proposal on governing bodies in ultrarunning: http://www.irunfar.com/2014/10/ultrarunning-and-the-future.html) .
Further, I should say that I do not agree with Savulescu on many points. Savulescu’s logic in promoting PD I & II leads him to look forward rather gleefully to a (hypothetical) transhumanist future—replete with technological enhancement, bionic arms and legs, human and superhuman Olympics—that radically alters the definition of humanity that I believe in dearly. That aside, however, he offers a sound distinction between PD I & II and NPD that seems helpful to further the discussions on PEDs in ultrarunning.
The Rules of the Game Define Honesty
Disclaimers aside, as a way to draw these themes together, maybe we should step even further into the realm of controversy by considering in light of this proposal the now-classic case of cycling’s persona non grata, Lance Armstrong. Inevitably, it’s difficult to keep an even keel and remain reasonable while discussing such a controversial figure who has poured significant energy into fighting cancer while simultaneously investing in a lifetime of lies. If we can pause for a moment, however, to consider why Armstrong is such a villain (or somewhat vilified, depending on your perspective), I submit that Armstrong’s most significant, polarizing offense is not illegal doping per say but rather his nearly pathological lies for so many years. Others guilty of breaking the rules alongside Armstrong have been forgiven in the public eye. Some have served suspensions and re-joined the cycling ranks with less scandal and fanfare. Not so with Armstrong who remains a mysterious personality that many seem to find difficult to believe even after managing a few tears on Oprah. Are his apologies sincere? Is he honest at last?
To be absolutely plain: the argument I’m putting forth in no way seeks to justify Armstrong. Clearly, he broke the rules of the game. Lance won while racing “dirty.” That stated, it’s informative for us now to imagine hypothetically what it would mean if the rules back then had allowed PEDs such as PD I & II? Doubtless, Armstrong rode against fellow unclean riders in his years on top, and it is reasonable to think that his incredible training regiment earned him the victory other those fellow dirty riders. The point remains that he broke the rules and has rightly earned the consequences, but were the rules different (allowing PD I & II) his very same actions currently vilified would be admired. This may seem obvious, but such a simple point reminds us that the rules help define the critical principle of honesty.
How would this argument for PD I & II affect the mid-pack ultrarunner currently training for her or his upcoming race? What are the implications of this proposal for the elites that toe the same starting line as the rest of us? Simply put: this argument suggests allowing PD I & II for anyone who wishes to put in the effort and expense needed to experiment for gains with PD I & II. In all other areas, ultrarunning welcomes creative efforts to gain advantages for endurance and speed. Most runners take extra sodium. Most runners wear high-tech shoes, however minimal or maximal. Many runners swear by their favorite gels, drinks, carbs, fats and nutritional timing strategies. Some races allow poles while others deem that an unfair advantage. Many runners can’t wait to see their pacers somewhere on the second half of 100 mile races. Others think pacers offer no advantage. Some swear by the benefits of electro-stimulation for muscle recovery, while some low landers swear by their altitude tents. Regardless of the example, the point is that runners experiment and adopt whatever advantages they can to run faster and more easily. We could even say that such experimentation and time/money invested is actually a critical and enjoyable part of ultrarunning. I think we all know a few tech-happy runners who geek out with half a dozen GPS running watches, HR monitors, etc. The peripheral stuff of ultrarunning matters to many, and without that stuff, events such as the Adventure Gear Review expos wouldn’t exist, nor would we eagerly read articles from the elites offering “tips” for improvement.
The urge to find benefits and enhancements is normal; the question is how we chose to define acceptable, clean enhancements.
So, Practically, What Might PEDs in Ultrarunning Look Like?
Let’s entertain this even as a mere thought experiment: what if PD I & II were allowed in ultrarunning for anyone who wished to invest in such efforts? Personally, I would have little interest, as my training regiment and natural ability place me below the elite level. For me to seek out PD I & II enhancements would probably be akin to a cyclist who is 25lbs overweight yet shells out $15k to buy the perfect aero-bike to shave a few ounces off his riding weight. This is difficult to verify, but I suspect that cyclist and I both would need to invest in fitness substantially more to see real gains with PD I & II. This point may be challenged by some steroids and HGHs that encourage lean muscle mass independent of extreme training, and perhaps in weightlifting and body building there are enhancements that change that alter the spirit of the sport. Considering the endurance nature of ultrarunning, however, with the exception of some PD I recovery enhancements, I strongly doubt my fitness level is at such a level that PD II enhancements in particular would be an advantage.
For the elite runners, the advantages seem clearer. The line between 1st and 10th place in many races is a thin one, and naturally this leads to the motivation to cheat by the current rules. Detecting these cheaters as Torrence and others have noted, is a real challenge. Some say it’s impossible. Armstrong the Artful Dodger, evaded the system for years, despite around the clock attention and testing. Despite the difficulties in testing, it makes no sense to throw up our hands and give in to accept “dirty” ultrarunning. Why not work with the grain, and ask if our definition of “dirty” is worth all the hoopla? What is lost if we allow PD I & II? Why not reconsider the rules to allow for PEDs that do not take away from the spirit of our sport? Arguably, with rules that outlaw PD I & II, the system is set up to increase the temptation to cheat. No on wants that. We all want a clean sport with honesty and integrity so that we simply don’t need to worry about ethical dilemmas that can be reasonably avoided. Perhaps the best answer for this dilemma facing ultrarunning is to diffuse some of the elements in the problem itself.
All this to say, I am proposing this cautious argument in support of PD I & II in ultrarunning as a way to move past the vague definitions of “clean,” “dirty,” “cheating” in our sport. As things stand now, this argument is a long way from being implemented practically (if ever), but I do maintain that this argument is worth considering for the ultra runners interested in PEDs. For those not interested in reflecting on this, please ignore this ethics puzzle and go for that long run. At the very least, this (unpopular, minority) argument is offered as a way to further the conversation amidst fellow ultrarunners who love ultrarunning for what it does best: draw people out in to the wild places, testing the physical and mental limits of our bodies that simply love to move.