A few days ago, the Wall Street Journal published an article that looked at marijuana in our world, the sport of ultra marathons. As per usual, the Interwebz did its thing and the article was being hotly debated across the Book of Faces and many other forums. Many views were passed and I thought it would be a good topic to expand upon and look at some of the issues it brought up.
To be honest, the whole thing opens up a can of worms, namely; the ethical debate of using marijuana out of competition (which is allowed); what this means for drug testing in our sport in competition; the cultural differences and attitudes towards taking marijuana between different parts of the world; where you draw the line with other substances like caffeine, and most interestingly, an athlete who freely admitted to using marijuana on pretty regular basis in training.
Before the trolls (and the ignorant) latch onto one thing and ride with it, this article is not going to point the finger or single people out. I do reserve the right to occasionally whack in an opinion or two – with the main one being attitudes to people who flagrantly disregard drug laws around competitive sport. For the most part, what I’m going to attempt to do is take some of the issues outlined above, present a few cases and rationale to each side of the story and fire open for debate. Keep it respectful people…
The cultural division
What was very noticeable in some of the discussion was the difference in attitudes across different countries towards marijuana use in our sport. Here in Australia and particularly Asia, we live in a society where drugs are illegal, including marijuana. Purchase, consumption and use can carry fairly heavy penalties, therefore our attitudes around drugs are conservative and pretty forthright. However in parts of the US and Europe, marijuana has been legalised or decriminalised, so attitudes are more relaxed some might say.
I’m pretty liberal in my attitude towards drug laws and I do think that here in Australia, we’ve got it horribly wrong. The rather drastic assumption is made that drug use will lead to addiction on a mass scale and cause all sorts of social problems, whereas in other parts of the world, namely Uruguay and Spain, years of marijuana legalisation have proven the complete opposite. My own view is that drugs are not addictive in themselves, there are many other factors at play, but this is another article entirely.
So the cultural differences are important because it can affect our views of what is right and what is wrong and how we stand ethically on the issue too. For example, there seems to be some sort of justification for marijuana use based on the different attitudes we see across the world. As I said, I have pretty liberal views on drug use from a recreational standpoint, I have zero tolerance for its use in sport either in or out of competition.
This is where we start to get into the grey areas of marijuana use in our sport. WADA stipulates that cannabinoids are banned in competition, but that certain levels of THC—the drug’s active ingredient are allowable out of competition. Reading up on those that have used marijuana in their training, they report doing so to help alleviate pain not just in recovery, but also on long runs too to keep the mind occupied. But just how long does the THC remain in the system and could it in someway have a role to play while in competition i.e. suppressing pain, if it can as some reports suggest, remain in the system for up to three months for particularly heavy users?
Let’s for a moment look at things from an out of competition perspective. I can see why you might want to numb the pain, after all if you’re headed out for a long run on a Sunday and like most of us, you have to work the next day, who wouldn’t want to get some form of relief to get ready for the week ahead? The other side of this however is that in some kind of perverse way, many of us actually do this for the pain – this however leads us down the addiction discussion route again 🙂 Like I said, there’s an another article entirely on addiction, waiting to be written. But also to consider is your own sense of morality. Do you feel like you’re cheating yourself out of the whole experience? There’s a famous saying of ‘no pain, no gain’. Surely to derive the benefits of what we do, there needs to be an element of suffering to gain that full appreciation? Personally, I love a good suffer fest – it brings our the endorphins and raises those dopamine levels – Opps, we’re onto addiction again!
A final point on the out of competition to raise is one that Avery Collins brought up in the article, that of keeping himself occupied while on long runs. Again, I can see the point he’s making. When you’re on a long run lasting five, maybe even six or seven hours you’ve either got some music or your mind to keep you occupied. If you’re not that comfortable in your own company, then the thought of that long run might be enough to put you off.
The flipside of this is some personal opinion I’m going to offer up. I love being on my own on the trails, clearing my mind completely and being totally relaxed. I find running for hours at a time as a form of meditation, a time when the pressures and demands of ‘normal’ life can quietly drift away. I often find that I have my best ideas and thoughts when I’m completely clear of thoughts because I’ve allowed my brain to relax. I don’t want the time to drift away quickly through stimulant use. I want to savour and enjoy the mental benefits that this form of activity brings. I’m currently in the middle of a huge project in my real work that is as a result of an idea that came to me while running. Smoking a joint to relax on the trails is quite frankly the last thing I’d do.
In competition and other substances
But what of in competition? Well the rules are pretty clear here – its banned. There’s no grey area here, despite some of the patronising comments I saw on the Book of Faces about how the immorality/illegality should be left to discussion in the playground. Right now, you use cannabinoids in competition you get a ban.
The massive issue we have in ultras is that very few races will actually test for drug use, mainly because of the high cost of doing so. I think we’re extremely naive if we think our beloved sport is free of drug use, whether that’s cannabinoids or any other substance. As commercialisation booms, winners prizes get higher and lucrative sponsorship contracts become increasingly on offer, the temptation for some will be too much to boost their already narcissistic, sociopathic egos.
The jury might still out as to whether cannabinoids actually increase or enhance performance at all, but given its perceived ability to block out pain, for WADA, they’re pretty clear on it. Whatever your moral or ethical view on the matter is when in competition, it’s banned. Period.
On a personal level I have very strict moral rules I live by when it comes to the use of drugs in sport (both in and out of competition) and I include in that legal painkillers and to some extent caffeine. I have used them previously, but haven’t touched a painkiller for over four years in a race or training – I made a conscious decision to no longer use them. I’ll also do my level best not to intake caffeine if I can help it, or at very least keep it to a minimum because of the highs and lows you get of using it in a race. I do think that while it can boost performance, it can also have a negative impact too – personally it sends my stomach in knots!
Morally, I believe everyone should be on a level playing field when in competition and that if you get caught using a banned drug (regardless of what you might think of its use) you should be banned too. And depending on the drug used i.e. EPO etc… life bans be handed out automatically.
This again, is where some of the cultural nuances come out to play. You only have to look at Lance Armstrong and some of his attitudes to his drug use to see that in some quarters, people believe that what they do or have done is acceptable, because of the cultural dynamics they were in at the time. This is why the differences in cultural acceptance play a big factor in what we believe to be morally and ethically right or wrong.
So what of the future of drug use in our sport? Well the one thing I do think will happen is that more and more people will start to use banned substances. I have zero evidence to suggest this, but based on what we see in other growing sports, I believe the practice goes on not only at the top end, but also at a local level in Australia. I think we’d be naive to think it doesn’t, whether that’s some of the hardened PEDs such as EPO, or simply cannabionoids, I’m sure it does take place. While I couldn’t give two hoots what people did in their recreational time, there is no place for it in sport. If you want to take drugs, choose your own adventure in the mountains and don’t seek to personally gain through methods that are not allowed by our sports rules. You either play by them or you don’t.
Until more money enters the sport to enable drug testing (ironically, more money will likely mean more drug use – you can see where this is going), it will largely go undetected because of the prohibitive costs of introducing testing. A cost that would probably be passed onto us, the runners taking part. The other part of the question is whether those in charge would actually do anything about it. We’ve already seen how pathetic the perceived image of the UCI is when it comes to this issue. How seriously would UTWT or Skyrunning for example take the issue and expose people? That’s a rhetorical question by the way 🙂 I know some testing does take place at some races, Western States for example and other Skyrunning events in Europe, but would they expose it? There’s big commercial pressures at stake now – exposure will come down to a question of morals and ethics. Would they stand tall? Or would dollars get in the way and would it be swept under the carpet?
The reason I bring this up is I recall the 1988 Seoul Olympics 100m mens final. That day, Ben Johnson got caught and a huge deal was made of it all – but was he the scape goat? Post that race, all eight participants tested positive at some stage following that final. You have to wonder just exactly how much information is being released. Did the IOC catch all eight of them but decide that dumping all of them would effectively mean the distrust and downfall of an entire Olympic movement? Or were the athletes too clever on the day or avoid testing altogether? Who knows…
All we can do for now is call upon our own conscience and morals as to what we regard as right or wrong and hope that those who do cheat to gain an advantage through banned substances are caught.