The Family Table

The irony was lost on absolutely no one that on National Running Day, ProPublica and the BBC went public with allegations and evidence that the Nike Oregon Project and Coach Alberto Salazar have been bending or breaking anti-doping regulations for years. It struck me as an odd juxtaposition: National Running Day seems like a silly but harmless exercise in trying to raise the profile of running by a millimeter or so, and to have it in any way associated with the potentially earthshaking story of ethical lapses at NOP felt a little bit like having the FDA discover an international plot to sell Cannabis-infused brownies at elementary school bake sales.

In any case, when the story broke, the running community took to its message boards, blogs, and Twitter accounts with their responses, and these included everything from well-informed analysis to wild speculation, from attempts to downplay the lack of substantive proof of guilt to essays of passionate condemnation, from expressions of disillusionment to righteous indignation to cruel mockery. The story raged like a fire, with everyone anxious to know who and what would be consumed.

But it’s worth remembering a few other things that happened this week:

On Monday, obituaries ran for Pat Peterson, who was one of the top marathoners in the United States in the 1980s and who died at age 55 from pancreatic cancer, leaving a wife and four children. I remember watching Peterson run in the 1988 Olympic Trials Marathon Trials, held on the Waterfront Marathon course in New Jersey. Peterson had an unusual gait, swaying form side to side as he ran, but he was very tough and very good. The 1988 race was supposed to be his greatest moment, making the Olympic team on his home turf. But he suffered stomach problems that day and ended up dropping out. I’ve always felt that he was the best man in that race, eventually won by Mark Conover, and consider it a tragedy that he wasn’t able to show it on the day. Reading his obituary, I felt that the sport had lost a very good, very humble man, who had been a wonderful example of a citizen runner who trained while holding down a full-time job. (Pat Petersen, a Former U.S. Marathon Record Holder, Dies at 55)

On Wednesday, Runner’s World reported that the University of North Carolina-Wilmington would continue its track and cross country programs for at least another year. The sports were scheduled for elimination, but 766 donors combined to raise $255,781.59, meeting the minimum $250,000 required to keep the programs afloat for 2015-2016. (UNCW Saves Its Track Teams, For Now)

On Thursday night, Grant Fisher became the seventh high school boy (and sixth American high schooler) to run a full mile in under four minutes. Fisher accomplished the feat by running 3:59.38 at the “Festival of Miles” in St. Louis. His time exactly matches the time Matthew Maton ran less than a month ago. It’s the first time in history that two American high school boys have run sub-four in the same year. Fisher, a converted soccer player, has now won the Footlocker Cross Country championship twice, won the Adidas H.S. Dream Mile as a junior, and run sub-four. He becomes the fourth U.S. runner to break that barrier before being 18 years, 2 months old, joining Marty Liquori, Alan Webb and Jim Ryun as the only other to do so. (FloTrack coverage of the race)

On Thursday night, a high school coach named Steve Lane who started a low-key local track meet in honor of one of his athletes who died far too young, presided over the eighth running of that event. Although held on a humble community track that has no stands, the track in the middle of Concord, Mass., was ringed by enthusiastic running fans from around the Boston area who paid no admission and got to see dozens of professional runners race very fast on a cool, windless evening that was perfect for distance running. The professionals were there because Hoka One One had signed on last year as a sponsor, and offered enough prize money to attract national caliber athletes. The women’s 5000m was won by seven-time NCAA champion Abbey D’Agostino. The men’s mile was won by multiple-time NCAA champion Robby Andrews with a kick that was a thing of beauty. In addition to the professional races, there were races for kids, high school runners, open and masters runners, and those who had never run a timed mile in their life. The kids and local heroes got to mix with the pros and everyone had a great time. After winning the mile, Andrews said it best when he thanked the crowd for coming out. “What a great evening for running,” he said. (Full Recap of Adrian Martinez Classic)

So if you ask me what I think of the ProPublica story and the guilt or innocence of Salazar, Rupp, and the NOP, here’s what I say:

Running is a community, and maybe even a family. It is one of the most popular fitness activities for millions of people. It is one of the most popular sport for high school age athletes. It is one of the foundational Olympic sports, contested in almost every country of the world. It is a sport that allows kids and old farts to compete in the same races with legends. It is a sport where professionals show up to tiny tracks and thank tiny crowds for a great night of running.

To me, it doesn’t really matter whether NOP was over the line, or on the line, or just shy of the line that separates the illegal from the merely unethical. To me, the actions of Salazar have created a distance between his athletes and the rest of the running community. The hyper-competitive, take advantage of every loophole to gain an advantage mentality runs counter to what I love about the sport of running. I’m not a better person than Salazar, but I do have different values, and I have such a deep regard for the “family” that I have found among runners that I would never want to do anything to endanger my relationship with that family.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to win. There are choices to me made, though, about what you do to win, and whether those choices strengthen your community, or leave you victorious but alone, uncomfortable and unwelcome at the family table.

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for more than thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. Sixteen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past ten years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts. I've been writing about running for almost as long as I've been running, dating back to high school, when I would write meet summaries for the Amherst Record for about $0.33 per column inch. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. Until recently I also had a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. But I am now on what might turn out to be a permanent sabbatical. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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4 Responses to The Family Table

  1. jseeherman says:

    John, typo with Pat Peterson (wife not wide)

  2. ankit says:

    You know what happened to Carlo shortly after that conversation, right?

  3. David Wilder says:

    How do we decide who is and isn’t welcomed at the family table?

    If Harold Abrahams in Chariots of Fire is right, some Brits thought it was unsporting to train very seriously at all. In the movie, he was nearly given the boot for employing a professional coach. Amateurism was a cherished value of athletics for a long time. We threw that one out, maybe because it went against our value of the right to work hard to achieve what you can, and certainly because there was a lot of money to be made. Drugs in sports also seem to pit financial interests against our sense of a pure competition. Great performance sells, as does the belief that the impossible is possible. And maybe it is sometimes. But in light of all we know about doping from Lance and the rest, how many world records are clean? And what is clean?

    How do you answer these questions:

    -What do you do when you have worked your whole life to compete at the top level (or train athletes to do so), only to arrive and discover that most of your competitors have some chemical help?
    -What do you do when you discover your competitors have naturally quicker recovery, higher oxygen capacity, or naturally lower body fat?
    -Are B12 and iron and altitude tents are okay because they provide 1-2% improvements, and micro-dose testosterone and prednisone are not okay because they provide 2-3% improvements? (I have no idea what the actual numbers are, but you get the idea.)
    -We give small kids HGH to make them grow. How do we decide what is a fair height for them to be?
    -Is it cheating when kids are given amphetamines to perform better in school?
    -If you have a nephew who was valedictorian of his med school while taking amphetamines, is he welcome at the table?

    As a spectator and amateur athlete, I prefer the idea of athletes competing clean — seeing what the human body is naturally capable of, and marveling at the genetic anomalies who come along from time to time. The worst thing about doped up athletes is that they rob us of the chance to witness the wild grace of our species. They run, jump and throw with over-muscled frames, with over-thick blood in their veins. They corrupt the art of striving. They rob us of our humanity by stealing the spotlight from evolutionary marvels. The cleaner the sport is, the better, 100%.

    But in the age of professionalism, what is clean? Is micro-dosing safe? Does it provide only small improvements? If so, does it not look similar to some other methods we consider fair? Where would we draw the line?

  4. Tyler says:

    David – you raise some really good questions. I want to address one in particular:

    “Are B12 and iron and altitude tents are okay because they provide 1-2% improvements, and micro-dose testosterone and prednisone are not okay because they provide 2-3% improvements? (I have no idea what the actual numbers are, but you get the idea.)”

    Full disclosure – I take an iron supplement and sleep in an altitude tent.

    To me, there is a significant difference in these two categories. Specifically, one is permitted in the rules of the sport, while the other is not. To me, that makes it clear with which options I, as an athlete, am ethically okay.

    I am trying to be a professional athlete in this sport and part of being a professional is agreeing to abide by the rules put out by the governing body. Whether I (or anyone) agrees with those rules is another issue.

    WADA and USADA have a basic outline for how they decide what substances/practices are banned. From my recollection of the 6 hour online course I had to complete last year, they pose 3 questions:

    1. Does this enhance performance?

    2. Is this safe?

    3. Is this “in the spirit of the sport”?

    If the substance/practice answers YES to two or more of those, you’ve got yourself a ban.

    Now, obviously, there’s a lot of subjectivity – particularly in #3, as the “spirit of the sport” seems like an ever-changing and hard to define concept.

    But somewhere, someone took those 3 questions and applied them to Iron and B12 and altitude tents and testosterone and prednisone and for whatever reason, some of them were deemed okay, and some weren’t (I’d guess it had to do with the safety issue as much as the “spirit of the sport” issue, but that’s just speculation).

    Long story short, I think that part of the deal with making a living as a runner is that you have to accept to abide by the rules put forth (in this case, by WADA/USADA). Every time you go to a race and accept prize money, you sign a legal document that says you haven’t broken any of those rules.

    So, to me, that’s where I draw the line. I’m also a competitive person and I’ll do a lot to try to improve my performance, but I see the rules of competition as a hard line that I’m not willing to cross. Part of this is the simple negative incentive of being caught cheating, but I would have a huge ethical problem with knowingly violating the rules of fair-play, whether I’d be detected/caught or not.

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