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What Motivates Some Runners To Cheat?

A look at what compels an age-grouper or an elite amateur to risk their health and/or reputation.

Stories of runners using performance-enhancing drugs and taking part in other types of cheating—think mat skipping at major marathons—continue to dominate road racing headlines. While the motivation for money and fame at the professional level is fairly obvious, less understandable is the drive to win at all costs that takes place further down the rung. Just what compels an age-grouper or an elite amateur to risk their health and/or reputation to place well in a race?

Adrienne Langelier, sports psychology consultant and a talented runner herself, has some theories. “At the professional level, it’s an extrinsic motivation,” she says. “There’s money, rewards, and the belief in some cases that everyone is doing it and you have to level the playing field.”

For lower-level competitors, the motivation tends to be intrinsic, she says. “These are generally highly competitive individuals and they want an edge,” Langelier explains. “Or perhaps it’s a masters athlete who wants to fight the effects of aging.”

There are also runners who simply want to overcome their genetic or training time limitations. “They might need to talk themselves into it, but they probably consider what they’re doing as not harmful to others,” she says. “That’s where it’s more of an ethical issue.”

A 2010 German study by Schwieren, et al, suggested that competitive pressures are only part of what makes up the motivation to cheat. “Here they found that some of it is just image, or the motivation to save face,” says Langelier. “These are people who don’t want to be viewed as failures or compromised. They are completely wrapped up in their competitive identity.”

There is also an element of thrill seeking involved. “There’s definitely a high that comes from getting away with cheating that appeals to some athletes, particularly males,” Langelier maintains.

Once they get started, it’s sometimes tough to quit, too. This was the case for journeyman road racer Christian Hesch, who in 2012 admitted to using EPO since 2010, ultimately resulting in a two-year suspension from USADA. He said he first used EPO to recover from an injury. “I assumed I’d never do it again,” says Hesch, who has not returned to competition. “But my desire to travel and race outweighed my ethical fortitude to do things the right way.”

RELATED: Man Arrested After Cheating at Nairobi Marathon

Going After Cheaters

As numbers continue to explode at road races around the country, race directors must become increasingly diligent about preventing and punishing runners who cheat.

Most major marathons now have measures in place on the course that makes cutting corners difficult. “The foundation of our program is our timing system,” says Chicago Marathon race director Carey Pinkowski. “We have mats at every 5K plus several at undisclosed locations. We can immediately flag runners who miss those mats and disqualify them.”

More elusive, however, is catching those who use banned substances, especially at the amateur level. “We pre-race test about 30 or 40 top athletes, in addition to testing our top 10 finishers on race day,” says Pinkowski.

The fact remains that drug testing is costly, generally prohibitively so for smaller races, so most race directors cannot afford to trickle it down to sub-elites. “Given our limited resources, the majority of our out-of-competition testing is focused on the elite athletes listed in our registered testing pool,” says U.S. Anti-Doping Agency spokesperson Ryan Manning. “But we can and do test age-level athletes out of competition where appropriate.”

Blake Boldon, executive director of the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon, instituted a policy that bans any racing groups from toeing the line if a member has tested positive prior to his race. “The cost to test really cuts into our budget,” he says, “so we had to get more creative.”

While all the measures help, for some runners, the temptation to beat the system will always remain. “Succeeding through cheating helps feed the ego and fulfills some need that was never met for some people,” says Langelier. “I believe these athletes go through a cost-benefit analysis of cheating by rationalization. They believe the consequences, both organizational and to their own health, is lower than the performance benefit.”