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Outkicked: Dopers!

Peter Vigneron doesn't believe that running has as pervasive a doping problem as cycling. Here's why.

Peter Vigneron doesn’t believe that running has as pervasive a doping problem as cycling. Here’s why. 

Five guys ran under 2:05 at the Dubai Marathon early on Friday morning, the most ever in a single race. Naturally, on Letsrun and elsewhere, folks have started wondering whether the times are legitimate. As Bicycling editor-in-chief (and former Runner’s World staffer) Peter Flax noted, until a couple years ago, only three men in history had broken 2:05, and Flax tweeted that it reminds him of another era in pro sports, namely, the dark, dirty days of cycling, when riders pretty much needed a pharmacy to keep up with the peloton.

MORE — Outkicked: What are the rules?

At the risk of appearing naive, I really don’t think that distance running has a similarly pervasive doping problem. To be sure, there are problem areas—groups and regions where doping isn’t uncommon, and is maybe widespread—but I don’t think the sport as a whole bears any resemblance to cycling at its worst. Here’s why:

1. Running is structured differently than cycling.

Some of the most damming allegations from USADA’s reasoned decision against Lance Armstrong detail the pressure he and others put on young riders to take PEDs for the good of the team. And when those riders were ready to dope, there were team doctors and support staff to make it possible and very easy.

Runners, on the other hand, compete as individuals and are paid as individuals, even if they train in groups. That removes some of the pressure to get with the program, since the program itself is decentralized. Sure, a few training groups employ medical doctors—and you probably already know which groups those are—but its relatively rare. In the United States, often there are massage therapists or orthopedists involved, but that’s a far cry from letting Michele Ferrari write your workouts.

2. Based on the runners who have already tested positive, we actually have a pretty good idea of which runners are doping.

I’m skeptical of fast Eastern European women, Russians especially, given how regularly they test positive and how weak Russia’s internal testing program is. Likewise, fast Moroccan men, especially if they’re linked to the Olympique de Safi club. And I’ll bet that many of the people reading now were under no illusions when a certain group of Americans in Albuquerque started winning races in the early 2000s. More recently, Letsrun was on to Christian Hesch months before he got nabbed.

It’s also useful to keep an eye on agents who repeatedly represent dopers. In the interest of avoiding a libel suit, I’ll say that you don’t have to look to hard to find a link between Dubai and doper Amine Laalou.

3. Part of Flax’s skepticism of the Dubai race was the sight of previously unheard of men running 2:05 or better.

Endeshaw Negesse Shumi, for example, ran 2:04:52, bettering his old PR by more than five minutes. Hard to believe, right?

Well, not necessarily. I can’t find a birthdate for Shumi, but Dubai appears to be only his third marathon, and his IAAF profile lists only two races. That suggests he’s young. And it is very common for young, undertrained athletes, especially those from East Africa, to make massive improvements in the marathon from one race to the next. It’s much more suspicious when this happens with an athlete of mature age—say, a journeyman track runner who starts beating the best in the world by large margins from one year to the next.

4. Flax’s larger point is that the marathon has seen an explosion in fast times over the past three or four years that defies rational explanation. Therefore, drugs.

There’s no question that long-distance road-racing is going bananas right now, but I’m skeptical that drugs are responsible. Instead, I think two perfectly legitimate things have happened: One, there’s no money to be made in the 10,000 meters any more. All things considered, that means a 22-year-old from Kenya who would have been chasing 26:50 on the track is now chasing 59 minute half marathons or 2:05 marathons on the roads. Two, I think it’s likely that Sammy Wanjiru fundamentally changed the way elite male marathon runners approach the distance. The marathon is a much more aggressive race in 2013 than it was even in early 2008.

And, sure enough, there hasn’t been a corresponding drop in 5,000 and 10,000 meter performances among elite male runners, which you would expect to see if drugs were behind all these fast times.

5. The bio passport makes it harder to dope.

The Science of Sport guys say so. Lance says so, too. I don’t expect the passport to eradicate doping, but I would expect it to make doping harder. Unless there’s some new designer blood booster out there that the passport doesn’t catch, an uptick in drug-fueled performances this year would be odd—using traditional methods, it’s harder to dope now than at any other time in the past quarter century.

That said, I’m under no illusion that running is without its own PED problems, and I found Matthew Kisorio’s doping positive from last year very troubling. Until then, there had been plenty of rumors, but very little conclusive evidence, that Kenyans were using drugs. Because the testing protocols in Kenya, like Russia, are so lax, anytime there’s an especially quick race it’s fair to wonder what’s up. But it’s equally important to keep in mind that distance running has seen few doping scandals that match what appears to have occurred on even the slowest ProTour teams in cycling, and it’s unlikely that we’re seeing one now.

About The Author:

Peter Vigneron is a senior contributing editor at Competitor magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @PeterVigneron.