There’s money in the bank: the physics of indoor track and “optimal” speeds

In January, there were two indoor mile races here at the University of Michigan with two distinct outcomes.  They were the first footraces held on U of M’s new hydraulically banked indoor track. The first race was the men’s mile, and it saw Nick Willis, a multi-time Olympic medalist in the 1500m, win in 3:57.99, out-sprinting compatriot Hamish Carson, who finished in a respectable 3:58.68.  Both men left a bit disappointed though, as they came up short of the Michigan all-comers record of 3:57.89, and more importantly, the 3:55.00 qualifying standard for the upcoming IAAF World Indoor Championships. The second race on the new track, however, the women’s mile, had a similar plot but a different ending.  Like the men’s mile, it ended up being a duel, with Nicole Sifuentes pulling away from Shannon Osika for the win.  However, over this 5,280-foot footrace, both Sifuentes and Osika went under the previous Michigan all-comers record and, more impressively, the IAAF world champs standard of 4:28.50.  The ladies stole the show.

With that performance, Sifuentes put herself at the top of the world-leading list for the mile in the 2017-2018 indoor season.  Interestingly, the man with the world’s fastest mile performance of the season at that time was none other than Hamish Carson, who had run 3:57.76 at Boston University a few weeks prior.  Carson was likely more fit for the mile race in Ann Arbor, but he wasn’t able to better, or even replicate, the BU performance.

Now, the BU track is a facility famous for facilitating infamously impressive footraces, with a reputation in the running community for being probably magical, possibly short, and definitely fast.  Later in February, the world saw Edward Cheserek blitz a 3:49.44 mile there to move himself to the #2 all-time best indoors, then, a few weeks later, on a single evening, 14 men went sub-4 at the BU Last Chance meet.  The Boston University indoor track boasts, among other characteristics, an incredibly steep bank on its turns, rumored to be 18-degrees.  U of M’s new track maxes out at 10-degrees.  Obviously there are many multitudes of factors that can take or give seconds in a given distance race on a given day, but this one begged an engineer’s mind to explore a bit deeper.

The Forces of Going Around a Turn

For an object to turn while moving at a set velocity, it needs an additional force: a centripetal force.  That force is the acceleration of continuously changing the direction of the given speed as the object rotates around the turn.  When running, this centripetal force is generated from the mediolateral friction (think side-to-side) beneath the foot.  It is proportional to the speed you’re running (squared!), and inversely proportional to the turn’s radius.  That is, the faster you go, the more centripetal force you need to generate to turn, and the bigger the radius (the wider the turn), the less force you need to generate.  This is why a flat 400-meter outdoor track (turn radius of 36-37 m) is easier to run around than a flat 200-meter indoor track (turn radius of 17 m or less) – it requires less than half the centripetal force.

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Now, as NASCAR drivers, cyclists on a velodrome, and Intro to Physics students working on their rotational kinematics problem sets know, something interesting happens when you tilt that surface you’re going around.  It involves another weird force aptly named the “Normal Force”.  The normal force is simply the force that the ground applies back to an object that is in contact with it (so that when you stand, for example, you don’t just keep moving downward into the depths of the earth).  It is thus equal and opposite (Sir Isaac’s Third Law) to the force you put into the ground.  So on flat ground, the normal force shoots straight back up (“normal” (i.e. perpendicular) to the surface).  But, on a tilted surface (e.g. banked turn), it shoots back normal to that surface, so off the angle of the tilt.  Why this becomes interesting when moving around a turn lies in the components of that now-angled normal force.  One component of it is shooting straight up (against gravity), and one component is now shooting inward, the tilted direction of that banked surface (and radially inward of the turn!).  The “tilted” normal force that the object (runner) experiences is thus the sum of these two components.

Now, how does this relate to that centripetal force we talked about earlier? Well, as you increase the tilt (angle) of that bank, more and more of that total normal force is directed inward rather than upward.  If the bank was at 45°, half the normal force would be inward and half would be upward.  Remember, for a given speed, there is a centripetal force inward required to move around a turn.  So, for a given speed, there is a magical angle at which the inward component of that surface’s normal force is exactly equal to the centripetal force required to turn.  This means that just by moving around the turn at that speed, you don’t have to exert a wasteful lateral frictional force to generate centripetal force and turn.

The “Optimal” Speed to Get Around a Bank

So how does this relate to indoor track? It means that every banked track has an “optimal” speed at which a runner can run so he or she does not have to exert any lateral force to turn.  Check out the free-body diagrams below:

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On the left, you have the flat track case, where the runner uses friction to turn.  In the middle, you have a strange case where the runner is running on a banked surface, but below the “optimal” speed for that bank and that turn.  The runner actually has to exert a force in the opposite direction just to stay upright.  Then, on the right, we have the case where the runner is running around the banked turn at the “optimal” speed for that turn and that bank.  No lateral force, inward or outward, is required to move around the turn. Rearranging the variables in the equation above, we get the relation at the bottom of the figure:

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So using this relationship and assuming a turn radius of 17.5 m (IAAF facilities recommendation), we can get an optimal angle for a given speed!

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Optimal bank angle for various speeds around an indoor track with a turn radius of 17.5 meters

Or, in a more helpful form, the optimal bank as a function of 200-meter lap times:

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Optimal bank angle for a given 200 meter split

If you’re running at Boston University, the optimal speed for running around their track is about 27 seconds per lap, whereas at Michigan, it’s 36 seconds.  A huge difference! Again, this is assuming a constant turn radius: if BU has tighter turns, that speed would go down a bit.  For example, if the radius was 16 m instead of 17.5 m, the optimal lap speed would be about 28 seconds.  Regardless, it’s especially intriguing considering the lightening fast men’s races you see at Boston, and the incredible women’s races we’ve seen at Michigan. When Sifuentes and Osika ran 4:27 and 4:28 for the mile at Michigan, they were moving just a bit faster than the “optimal” speed for that facility, and thus had to generate very little lateral force to turn.  When Erin Finn ran 8:58 for the 3000m the next weekend, she was running at nearly the exact speed best suited for the track!

Running Slower than the Optimal Speed?

For Edward Cheserek’s 3:49 mile at BU, he was running close to that optimal speed for the track, but still slightly below it (and perhaps closer than the above graph indicates if the turns are tighter).  That means that even he along with the dozens of guys who ran under 4 minutes there this season may have still had to generate a bit of frictional force outwards just to stay upright.  This is an interesting situation, as it represents a muscular challenge that’s very distinct from that which a runner is habituated: generating inward force to turn left on a flat track.  This got me thinking: does a steeper bank cause a runner to increase his or her pace?  Does a runner subconsciously speed up a bit to lessen or attempt to mitigate the vestibular challenge and foreign muscular demand of staying upright?  That is to say, does the bank neuromuscularly “egg-on” the runner to go a bit faster?  I don’t think there’s an answer (yet), but a cool study would be “self-selected running speeds around turns with various bank angles”.  A good study for a facility with a hydraulic, variably banked track…

Another important consideration on the opposite end of this spectrum would be the detrimental effects of running slower around a steep bank.  Those strange lateral forces and stresses may create a new injury risk for runners spending a lot of time on that steeper bank.  This probably isn’t an issue for the isolated cases of racing, but if a team is doing a lot of intervals on a bank and jogging slowly around the curves during recovery, perhaps it may become an issue? Again, not sure there’s an answer here, but something to consider and something to explore.

Regulations

Are banks regulated by the IAAF or the NCAA?  While there are conversions from the NCAA for 200m flat-to-banked and 300m flat-to-banked, it treats the bank as binary (index of facilities).  Curiously, they do have a regulation on banks, with the upper limit being 18-degrees.  Per the NCAA Rulebook, Rule 1, Article 1, Section 1e: “An indoor track may be banked. The angle of banking should not be more than 18 degrees for a 200-meter track.” Interesting. Furthermore, the IAAF follows the same vein, where it mandates that official competition venues be banked, but doesn’t specify what the requirement is.  They’ve published a “facilities recommendation ” document that suggests a bank of 10-degrees and a turn radius of 17.5 meters.

My first thought was, “How ridiculous! By suggesting facilities bank at 10 degrees, they’re losing an opportunity for awesomely fast times, both in distance races and sprints!”  Then I considered the case of running slower than the optimal speed for that bank, and that banking tracks steeper would detrimentally affect some of the women’s distance races at the international level, and all sorts of races at the collegiate or high-school level.  Thus, a 10-degree bank ensures that just about all the elite races, male and female, sprints to long distance, will be running faster than a speed that would cause them to have to generate that weird force to stay upright.  I’m not sure if that was the logic or calculation of the IAAF, but 10-degrees seems like a justifiable all-purpose high-performance  bank to me.

Here’s where hydraulic banks would be a huge opportunity: they can be adjusted to several levels. This is the case at U of M, but it maxes out at 10 degrees!  This is the same with other hydraulic facilities in the country, and Mondo, one of the major companies that manufactures and installs these surfaces and systems, specs their hydraulic offerings at a 10-degree max.  This is what really bums me out – the ideal case would be a system where you can tune the track to the race being run!  Some guys want to go for sub-4? Set the bank to 15-degrees! Somebody wants to go after the world record in the 400? Crank it to 25!  Some ladies are trying run a fast 5000m? Bring it back to 10! I’m not sure if the companies that make the hydraulic systems max them out at 10 per the IAAF recommendation, or if maybe there are some engineering challenges associated with designing a hydraulic structure across those ranges of angles (i.e. would designing and building a system that can go from 0 to 15 degrees instead of 0 to 10 be an exponentially greater structural and mechanical design problem?).  I’m not sure what the rationale is, but as it stands, that might be a huge opportunity lost right now.

Takeaways

  • For athletes and coaches: Plan ahead and pick your target races based on the facility best suited to the speed you’ll be racing.  As discussed, more is not necessarily better when it comes to a banked track.  The BU track may be great for guys at the high end of the performance spectrum, but a shallower bank is going to be much better for even some of those guys racing a longer distance.  For ladies, a 10 degree bank may be incredible for some distance races, but some girls, a lighter bank will be optimal.
  • For coaches: if you’re training on a banked track, be aware of the physical challenges of running slowly around a steep bank.  Some coaches are aware of the danger of running a lot of unidirectional laps around tight indoor turns, but the forces in the opposite direction on the steep bank could be a hidden devil.  Change directions, or better yet, if you’re jogging slowly on recovery between reps around a bank, jog on the flat interior.
  • For the NCAA (because they definitely will be reading this): Document and publish the bank angles and turn radii of your member institutions’ indoor facilities! That way athletes and coaches can plan and target races accordingly!

Final Thought

After running two heart-breaking miles in 4:00 and 4:01 on back-to-back weekends at U of M’s new facility, former NCAA Steeplechase champ and Michigan harrier Mason Ferlic jokingly asked me if I had any biomechanical advice for getting under that mystical four-minute barrier.  I sarcastically replied, “increase the magnitude of the instantaneous time-derivative of your center-of-mass’s horizontal displacement vector!” (or rather, “Run faster!”).  Now, I have some better biomechanical advice: buy a plane ticket to Boston.

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Going Home, Via Chicago: Lakefront 50-Mile Preview

It’s a strange thing to have left something you love so much for so long.  This likely holds true whether that separation was by choice or by external imposition, but regardless of the cause, when you’re about to be reunited, that anticipatory period is maddening and exciting and scary and beautiful and just so totally and completely wrought with anxiety.  Will the relationship, the experience, the fit be the same?  Is it as great as I lionized it to have been?  Was it worth the separation, the fight for reunion?

The answer to those questions are likely “No”, “Probably not”, and “Hopefully”.  We change, things change, and our selectively memories have an amazing ability to filter out all bad stuff associated with something that brought us joy. That last bit is likely an evolutionary adaptation of the memory encoding process to keep us coming back to the good stuff, hopefully.  And that’s the final piece, hope.  We tend to trust that our instincts keep us striving for love that’s worth strife.

Why am I waxing romantic about relationships and separation? Well, on Saturday I’m racing an ultramarathon again.  It’ll be the first time in 11 months.  Those 11 months were riddled with injuries, hiccups, stress, and resentment towards the task at hand.  For much of that time, I felt so distant from the person who could, just the year before, run so far so freely.  I’ve been running and racing for nearly two decades, with plenty of injuries and disturbances, but never for so long and never with so much confusion and complexity regarding the etiology of the injury.  The path to get back to that runner, that human, appeared to not exist.  It felt like I had dug myself into a hole and covered it with a series of padlocks that changed combination every time an adjacent one was opened.  I realized, after several failed rehab and reboots, that I just needed a long break.  I stepped back and retooled.  I accepted that nothing was going to change in the near future – not in a week or a month, and certainly not overnight.  There was no knot that was going to come undone and relieve the pain, no single muscle group that could be strengthened to restore my stride.  Only hope for improvement, and that if I improved enough from that wretched, impotent, unrunnable state, I could get back and eventually feel the groove I loved.  As Mr. Harbaugh continually reminds us, “better today than yesterday, better tomorrow than today”.  There was and is no end, no answer, no solution, just a hope and a goal for improvement.  So, I am running again.

Chicago-City-Horizon-Skyline-Lakefront-Trail
Chicago Lakefront Trail
On Saturday, I’m going to Chicago for the Lakefront 50/50.  50 miles along the lakeshore path, broken into four 12-mile out-and-back segments.  50 miles along Lake Michigan.  50 miles in a city that has always held a strange magnetism for my psyche.  Maybe it stemmed from the Wilco discography holding exclusive residence in my car stereo and correspondingly my imagination (and occasionally subletting its space only to Kanye West’s ‘Graduation’) throughout the high school years.  Maybe it was because it was a tangible metropolis for a Northern Michigander, a sort of melancholy midwest mecca.  Maybe it’s because I first fell in love with ultrarunning reading about Bernd Heinrich’s record-setting 100km race along this same lakeshore path.  Heck, maybe it’s because it has the largest population of Polish people outside Poland, and though I have no heritage, there’s definitely a constant subconscious yearning for Bigos and Oscypek cheese.  Oddly enough, I’ve never made it a point to spend much time in the Windy City since reaching adulthood and attaining the ability to travel there feely, and don’t really have much of a desire to do so anymore.  Not out of malice or disinterest, just no need.  Still, it has a hold on me as a place that gave life to so many things that felt close to me.  So, I’m going to head there this weekend for a reawakening of sorts in the place about which Jeff Tweedy sang and Bern Heinrich wrote. I’ll be spending the morning running along its lakeshore; hopefully I’ll get 50 miles in on the day. 50 miles of joy? No. 50 miles of torture? Probably not. 50 miles of freedom? Hopefully.

I suspect my competition will be historic.  Not in the sense of being a legendary field, but probably the opposite.  That is, I’ll be racing against ghosts of ultrarunning’s past.  Indeed, the main impetus to come run this race is that it’s the site where Barney Klecker set the still-standing American Record and then-World Record of 4 hours and 51 minutes back in 1980.  That’s absurd.  Klecker was a 2:15 marathoner, and there’s a reason that record hasn’t even been sniffed in 36 years.  Moreover, it’s where the ultra legend and Comrades King Bruce Fordyce came to set the still-standing World Record of 4 hours and 50 minutes in 1984.  Bruce dominated the Comrades Marathon, winning it 9 times, and there’s a reason that hasn’t been sniffed in 33 years.

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Fordyce on his way to a 50-mile world record along the lakefront path in Chicago
Only 3 Americans have ever run under 5 hours and 10 minutes for 50 miles, and they all did it in 1980.  Heinrich ran 5:10 during that 100km run in 1981.  In fact, Zach Bitter was the first American since 1981 to run under 5 hours and 13 minutes.  He set the Lakefront 50 course record in 2013 with a 5:12 mark. So, I may be racing against Zach and Bernd (and maybe even making Geoff-of-old nervous, as the unofficial 50 mile split from my 100km debut was 5:03), but I suspect Bruce and Barney will be a bit up the road… this time time around.

Zach Bitter Lakefront 50
Zach rocking the Lakefront 50 in 2013
And the elephant in the room: the Sub-5 Hour 50 Mile.  It’s the sub-4 minute-mile of ultras.  The symmetry is so beautiful: sub-6:00 miles for 50 miles, 5 segments of 10 miles in under an hour each.  Only 2 Americans have ever seen the other side.  Before ever racing an ultra, I marveled about this feat of natural beauty and decided that an ultimate career goal was to get on the other side of 5 hours.  I’m not sure if it’ll fall on Saturday.  I don’t know if I’m back at that level of fitness yet.  But I suspect if I ever want to do it in my career, it’ll be there in Chicago, so I might as well go give the course a whirl.  What’s the goal for Saturday, then?  Damn. Well, I’m going to try to run 50 miles as fast as I can.

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man”.

Somewhere around 500 BC, Heraclitus gave us that astute observation.  Coming back to something you loved, you can’t template the experience and expect to pick up where you left off.  We weren’t the same person we were then; our love isn’t the same love we loved then.  Experiences can’t be replicated.  On Saturday, I’ll be putting on a race bib to dip my new toes in a new river.  These new toes have seen a lot of weary times since they last got soaked, so regardless of the outcome, the bath is welcome.  For, as hopefully many know, running –  trying to cover the ground as fast as you can – is a unifying human experience.  That joy of movement, when taken from us, is death, but when realized, is a pure expression of life.  Another astute philosopher, this one a bit more modern and residing himself in Chicago, rightly told us, “You gotta learn how to die, if you wanna feel alive.”

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Actovegin: an unfortunately legal Performance Enhancing Drug

Have you ever wondered what Usain Bolt, Ronaldo, Michael Jordan, Paula Radcliffe, etc. all have in common? Obviously athletic super-stardom and its many physiological underpinnings and financial perks.  However, there’s an underlying thread that connects all of them, and it’s likely been a significant facilitator of their super-human sporting prowesses.  That underlying connection is the drug Actovegin and its primary peddler, Dr. Hans-Wilhelm Müller-Wohlfahrt.  Below, we will examine this magic and its magician.

Lately, the state of global athletics has had the gears in my mind spinning full bore about athletes, namely runners, at the extreme ends of the performance spectrum and the potential doping-related activities that may be knowingly or unknowingly supporting them.  A recent piece in the New York Times (link) discussed the sub-2-hour marathon project, and in it, it chronicled the struggles of world record holder Kenensia Bekele in his attempt to return to racing form.  The article mentioned a German doctor, Hans-Wilhelm Müller-Wohlfahrt, and a distant bell was rung in my brain, as I had heard this name associated with other big athletes (the article even mentions Usain Bolt) and his unconventional treatment methods.

After digging a bit deeper into this guy his main treatment go-to, Actovegin, a lot of pieces across a lot of sports unfortunately connected.  Many previous reports have tossed around mention of this drug, and usually just leave it at ‘ambiguous’, ‘questionable’, or ‘gray’, and move on.  It actually gained prominent media attention in 2000, when Lance Armstrong and the US Postal Team was caught trying to get loads of the stuff across the French border.  Since then, most people in the sporting world have acknowledged its use, but shrugged it off as homeopathic voodoo.  However, after reviewing some recent scientific literature on the drug (most notably a crazy study published just a few months ago, which will be discussed below), it’s benefits should absolutely not be ignored.  Given that this doctor has penetrated literally all of global athletics (Michael Jordan, Usain Bolt, Ronaldo, innumerable soccer stars, etc. etc.), it appears that the effects of Actovegin might just underlie most major world-record and Olympic performances in running, as well as many many other sports.

What is Actovegin?

The common phrase to describe it is “calf’s blood”.  I think this rhetoric is why most people simply dismiss it and leave it at that.  However, it’s not as if it’s just an injection of calf’s blood yanked straight from the cow (which would then be a really dangerous and kinda gross form of blood doping).  It’s much more complicated than that: the blood goes through many rounds of ultrafiltration processing, including vacuum distillations, titrations, and electrophoresis verifications.  The result is a substance that’s had all the protein removed, and leaves a soup of molecules that have been pretty tricky to pin-down.  Some studies have attempted to ID all the different compounds within it, yet there is no identified ‘active ingredient’ of any sort.  It seems to be a mess of protein fragments, intermediaries of steroid hormones, amino acids, sugars, electrolytes, and other organic compounds.  It’s an approved pharmaceutical overseas, but hasn’t been approved for use by the FDA.

AV1

What does it do?

Put simply, it enhances cellular metabolism and respiration.  That is, it helps get glucose (fuel) into the muscle cells faster and helps the mitochondria (energy producers) in the muscle cells burn that glucose more efficiently.  It’s marketed as a drug overseas for diabetic treatments (as it has an insulin-like effect of getting sugar into muscle cells) and is also used to treat patients who suffered from hemorrhages, strokes, or muscle injuries.  One pilot study of soccer players who suffered hamstring tears found that those receiving conventional treatments took 20 days to return to play, whereas those receving Actovegin injections returned after only 12 days.  It’s role in enhancing energy production in the cells is well documented in rat models, but until recently, purely anecdotal for humans.

Legality of Actovegin

Currently, it’s not on the World Anti-doping Agency’s (WADA) prohibitied substance list.  However, WADA does ban injections of any substance, including Actovegin, exceeding 50 ml every six hours.  Prior to the formation of WADA, the International Olympic Commitee (IOC) banned the use of Actovegin in December of 2000.  They had noticed that a multitude of countries had brought it to the Sydney Games, and it appeared to be a mainstay acorss many teams in that year’s Tour de France.  They proceeded to ban it in December as a performance-enhacing substance.  However, they curiously lifted the ban 2 months later in February of 2001 pending further research.  WADA’s current stance on it: legal, but illegal to inject more than 50 mL (which is 25 times higher than the amount that’s been reported for muscle tear rehabilitation).  It should be noted that this is completely arbitrary, as if someone were to want to use it along these guidelines, they could concentrate it to any dose they’d like and inject multiple times per day.

To further complicate things, WADA’s code now bans “any growth factor(s) affecting muscle, tendon or ligament protein synthesis/degradation, vascularisation, energy utilisation, regenerative capacity or fibre type switching” as well as the nebulous “spirit of the sport” legality, prohibiting “… the potentially unhealthy abuse of certain substances without therapeutic justification based on the mistaken belief they enhance performance is certainly contrary to the spirit of sport regardless of whether the expectation of performance enhancement is realistic…”.  The use of Actovegin certainly seems to violate even these somewhat foggy guidelines.

Unfortunately, because there are no identified “active ingredients” (which has been one of the reasons the FDA hasn’t approved it), it would be pretty difficult to develop a test for it, even if WADA wanted to.  There’s no scientific consensus on what’s in it, let alone how to identify it in an athlete.

Does it Enhance Performance?

“It’s a powerful performance-enhancing drug” – Victor Conte (BALCO infamy)

As stated above, it’s effects for athletes are two-fold: it helps get fuel into the muscles faster and helps them burn that fuel more efficiently.  Why would you want to be able to get glucose (fuel) into the muscles faster and more efficiently (hint: insulin helps with this, and is in fact a banned substance)?  Think recovery: restock the muscles’ energy supply so you can give another maximal effort, or so you can really “carbo-load” to the maximum.  Preparing for a marathon, riding a stage race, back-to-back tennis matches, repeated soccer games, rounds in track championships, and just day-to-day training recovery.  Moreover, because it has an insulin-like effect of enhancing glucose uptake into muscle cells but doesn’t seem to have the downside of increasing glucose storage as fat in fat cells (the other job of insulin), it seems like quite the gem for the athlete.

The other benefit, which was until recently, more anecdotal, was the effect that the drug had on energy production within the cells.  A study published just last January showed, for the first time (link), a clear enhancement of cellular respiration and energy production in human muscle cells.  The efficiency of the mitochondria in the cell were enhanced in a concentration-dependent manner (i.e. the more you take, the greater the benefit), meaning, essentially, that the muscle cells could burn more oxygen faster after being exposed to Actovegin.

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Maximal rates of in vitro energy production in human skeletal muscle (Sondergard et. al.)

So for comparison, the infamous performance-enhancer for endurance sports (and likely many other sports) is EPO.  As we all know, EPO increases the number of red blood cells in your body, thereby delivering more oxygen to the muscle cells.  Actovegin essentially helps the muscle cells use that oxygen more efficiently.  This ability to enhance O2 flux and glucose-derived energy-utilization on the mitochondrial level may be ringing bells for the scientific minds out there.  Indeed, this mechanism is similar to the drug that most recently dominated headlines: Meldonium.  Maybe Maria Sharapova has a ‘legal’ alternative (though one can’t help but suspect it may have already been in the medicine cabinet…)!

So, it seems like it’s benefit is two-fold:

1.) it increases the energy-production capacity of the muscle cells, meaning more bang for your energetic buck.  It does this by getting fuel into the cell (like insulin, which is banned, but doesn’t have the potential downfall of fat storage or metabolic disruption associated with too much insulin) and then using that fuel more efficiently by enhancing the mitochondria (like Meldonium, also banned).

2.) It seems to be a powerful injury recovery aid (anecdotally and in rodent models), maybe through these metabolic enhancements, or maybe through other growth-factor related pathways that haven’t been explored.  Again, the stuff is a tricky, not-completely-understood chemical soup!

Who uses it?

Track and Field Current/Former World Record Holders:
Paula Radcliffe (for over two decades)
Usain Bolt (since he was 16)
Kenensia Bekele
Meseret Defar
Patrick Makau
Maurice Greene

That’s just from a quick Google search – by the sounds of it, many of the overseas agents/physios direct their major stars towards this before and after injuries

Other prominent persons:
Michael Jordan
Christiano Ronaldo
Ronaldo
Andy Murray
Vladimir Klitschko
Luciano Pavoratti
Bono

Again, those are just people mentioned by major articles from news outlets.  From reading about Dr. Mueller-Wolfharft aka Healing Hans (more below), it seems like just about every soccer player in Europe goes to see him for Actovegin treatments (among other injectable enhancements), and many prominent athletic figures around the globe go seek his services.

Natural vs. Unnatural

Some supporters of the drug’s legality may make the claim that because it’s a ‘natural’ compound from calf’s blood, that it’s somehow distinct from a drug like EPO or testosterone.  Flawed argument.  One, it’s no more ‘natural’ or ‘unnatural’ than something like recombinant EPO, which is made via bacterial cell culturing (which one could say is more ‘natural’ given that that comes from human DNA, rather than a foreign species).  Two, it’s not like they’re just injecting cow-blood into their veins; the blood goes through many rounds of industrial pharmaceutical processing steps to get the final drug.  Third, the fact that it relies on the method of injection should raise eyebrows for it’s claims of being ‘natural’ and within the spirit of the sport.

The Doctor: ‘Healing Hans’

The doctor at the center of all this is Hans-Wilhelm Müller-Wohlfahrt.  ESPN’s Outside the Lines did an incredible profile on him a few years ago (link), so I won’t go into the depths of his backstory (highly recommended read).  The cliff notes are this: He’s a German doctor who relies primarily on injectable treatments outside of the mainstream, regulated pharmaceutical and medical industry.  He has been in practice for many decades, and has been using Actovegin and other methods for 40+ years on a clientele of almost exclusively elite athletes.  However, though he claims his methods are completely legitimate and in fact, superior to most traditional medical treatments, he has not offered any of his findings or methods to the scientific community.  Despite having a global impact, he has no publications in medical journals or any other peer-reviewed outlet.  Most of this magic occurs behind closed doors in his Munich office.  He was the team doctor for the Bayern Munich soccer club and German national team for many years, and seems to be basically an institution across European soccer.  Through his career, he has worked his magic on global sports stars from all over the world.  Track fans have probably often heard about Usain Bolt repeatedly flying to Germany for treatments from Healing Hans, and Paula Radcliffe regularly got his magic for the better part of two decades.  I wouldn’t be surprised if many NFL and NBA stars make the trans-Atlantic flight to consult with this ‘wunderheiler’.

Hans-Wilhelm-Mueller-Wohlfahrt
The Actovegin must be keeping that 72-year-old Flow ripe (source: Getty)

Final Thoughts

World Record holders (Paula Radcliffe, Usain Bolt, etc.) and other sporting megastars openly admitting to regularly using a drug that seems to be definitively performance-enhancing.  It really bums me out that this is legal, as it seems to be no different than any other injectable PED in terms of its unnatural enhancements.  Obviously, there’s no way to test for it, which further bums me out.  I guess my takeaway is that it’s at least informative to identify a cornerstone piece of the frustrating puzzle of what makes seemingly super-human performances indeed super-human.

Links:

Søndergård, S. D., Dela, F., Helge, J. W., & Larsen, S. (2016). Actovegin, a non-prohibited drug increases oxidative capacity in human skeletal muscle.European journal of sport science, 1-7. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17461391.2015.1130750

Buchmayer, F., Pleiner, J., Elmlinger, M. W., Lauer, G., Nell, G., & Sitte, H. H. (2011). Actovegin®: a biological drug for more than 5 decades. Wiener Medizinische Wochenschrift, 161(3-4), 80-88. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10354-011-0865-y

Lee, P., Rattenberry, A., Connelly, S., & Nokes, L. (2011). Our experience on Actovegin, is it cutting edge?. International journal of sports medicine, 32(4), 237-241. http://europepmc.org/abstract/med/21271496

Lee, Paul, L. Nokes, and P. M. Smith. “No Effect of Intravenous Actovegin® on Peak Aerobic Capacity.” International journal of sports medicine 33.4 (2012): 305. http://www.pilarmartinescudero.com/nov13/actovegin_picomaxoxigeno.pdf

Incredible pieces from 2011 by ESPN OTL on Muller-Wohlfart:
The Doctor They Call ‘Healing Hans’
Making the Rounds with ‘Healing Hans’

USATF 100k National Championship – Race Report

The Background:

On April 9th, I walked into the wild.  I made my debut at the 100k distance (62 miles), racing the USATF 100k National Championships in Madison, Wisconsin. This undertaking was no less than 50 kilometers further than I had ever run (having run a couple 50 km races, I had dipped my toes in the ultra running waters, but was by no means initiated).  Thrilling, brutal, and overarchingly long, the experience was singular.  Luckily, I walked out (or hobbled), and I walked out a champion.

This race had been a long time coming for me – I was pushed to start racing ultras last year by my running co-pilot and 50km national champ, Zach Ornelas; it was pretty apparent through all of high school, college, and beyond that I had an engine and recovery capacity that suited the longer and longer and longer training and racing.  So, going into the race, I had the confidence that this distance might capture my abilities in a way previous racing endeavors hadn’t.  

My primary goal was to qualify for the World Championship team, which would require either a victory or at a very good performance and time.  I figured if I at least came close to the course record, regardless of victory I might stand a chance to get a team selection.  That time was 6 hours and 44 minutes (6:29/mile).  Weeks leading out from the race, this pace had been on my mind quite a bit, and I had this sneaking suspicion that I could handle that pretty well.  I even had a little voice in my head suggesting I could scare the American record someday (6 hours and 27 minutes – 6:15/mile).  My rational, analytical side would brush these quiet ambitions off, as it seemed a little arrogant to think I could do something like that with literally no supporting data, no experience in anything even close to that race distance.  

In terms of potential failure mechanisms, my nervousness/apprehension/terror was two-fold. First, the fuel depletion – not knowing where this bankruptcy would occur (35 miles, 45 miles, 55 miles?) and for how many minutes or perhaps hours I’d still have to produce forward movement after going broke.  Second: the mechanical destruction – just the thought of running for 6 or 7 hours on hilly pavement will make most individuals cringe, and the effect it would have on my performance was totally unknown and not at all something I could prepare for.  What both of these boiled down to was the fact that, unlike all shorter running events (and most athletics in general) you really just cannot completely simulate these conditions before the competition.  Unknown territory, or simply, the wild.

The Course:

A ten-kilometer loop repeated ten times.  The symmetry would be beautiful if it weren’t for the fact that this 10 km loop was like a strip of bacon.  The first 3 miles rolled uphill, the next 1.5 rolled back down (so the descent was a little steeper), and then the last 1.5 were flat but garnished with a cheeky headwind.  Now, these aren’t elevation changes anywhere near the scale of what you see in trail ultramarathons (i.e. mountains), but constant ascent and descent over asphalt, not matter the grade, becomes pretty troublesome when the mileage totals are in the double digits.  Last year, I ran the 50k race at MadCity, so I had some familiarity with the course.  Last year, I bonked and broke down on the final downhill in the 50k race at MadCity, so I had some Pavlovian-esque terror associations with the course.  To round out the experience, the temperature was a über-brisk 22 degrees at the start, and barely broke above freezing by the race’s end.

The Competition:

I knew it was going to be a tough go with the other men in the race.  There were three characters I was expecting to contend: Mike Bialick, the reigning champ; Nick Accardo, a former champ; and Patrick Reagan, a debutante like myself who, unlike myself, boasted credentials of a 2:18 marathon and a 1:04-low half-marathon.  In the weeks leading up to the race, I figured it was going to be a ten-round title fight, and I thought I maybe had an outside chance to win, and if I did, it would come late in the game.

The Race, Part 1:

The things about which I had spent weeks fretting: fueling, the course, the competition, the temperature, etc. were all absent from my mind as I popped out of bed on the morning of the race.  I zipped over to the start, and decided to jog a mile to warm-up (I refrained from doing any strides or drills, deeming those warm-up staples relatively inconsequential for the task I was about to undertake).  After I started moving, I was pretty surprised at how easy I was running.  Normal runs take me quite a few miles to get rolling, let alone ones at 6 am, so to be moving so fluidly so easily felt kind of exciting.

The race started, and immediately the guys packed up with 6 or 8 of us bouncing along in the pre-dawn.  The pace felt pretty soft, but my plan was to stay really comfortable and un-taxed for the first loop or two and just work into it, planning on running even a few minutes slower than the goal pace of 40-41 minutes per lap.  Up the first hill, I was surprised to find myself drifting away from everybody despite trying to hold back, and by the first mile I was probably 50 meters clear of the group.  I really did not want to lead the race at this point, as I had no idea what I was doing, but I knew the rhythm I was on felt just about right, so I committed to what was going to be a potentially very long and very lonely day.

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About a half mile into the race – right before the solo flight began. photo: Larry Iles

Keeping this pace going, I put a lot of ground on the field in the first loop, and coming into its finish, I couldn’t hear or sense them at all, as I think they were now several minutes behind.  Not having looked at my watch through the first loop at all, I was blown away when I saw 38:27 on the clock. This was what I had imagined, in an ideal world, trying to run over my final loop, after having run 9 of the of them significantly slower.  So, I backed off, and tried to keep a very relaxed rhythm.  I figured I might have an outside shot at running low 6:30s if I slowed a bit and maintained.  Wonderful realization! So, the next loop went by (again, trying to back off a little and stay relaxed) and it was 36:45. I really felt like I was holding back (which maybe is what it’s supposed to feel like and I was just ignorant to this key detail), but running any slower was going to feel uncomfortable.  At this point, I was kinda grinning for awhile while running, and all that was running my mind was, “Que sera sera… game on.”

So, I popped along and remained oblivious to splits (I hate checking splits in races, as my number-crunching mind starts to go crazy and turns vicious).  I actually had to stop on the third lap to download a brownload, but I figured it was a necessary evil of 6-7 hour race, and that earlier was favorable to later.  I must have been rolling pretty good, because even with that stop I still knocked out a 36:25.  By the time I came through 50k, I saw 3:04 on the clock.  Now, I had been refraining from calculating exactly what I was running, but the math couldn’t be ignored here.  The world record is 6:10, and it is the oldest world record in running. I literally laughed out loud (an actual lol) when I saw this.  My mind jumped to my friends, who I knew were following it back home.  I knew they saw it, and I knew they were probably staring at their freshly-refreshed web browsers with a big “What The Francis?” expression.

As I realized where I was at in the race and the context of what I was doing, the magnitude sunk in a little bit.  I didn’t want to be self-limiting, but it was admittedly pretty absurd.  And I, fortunately or unfortunately, told myself that.  However, I had no intention of making a conscious effort to back off (though perhaps my subconscious was plotting otherwise).  Going into the second half, my sentiment was, “I have no idea what’s going to happen, but I’m not backing off.”

First half 10k splits: 38:27 – 36:45 – 36:25 – 36:25 – 36:17
Course Record pace: 40:20 per 10k
American Record pace: 38:45 per 10k
World Record pace: 37:00 per 10k

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photo: Wayne Gruhlke

The Race, Part 2:

The second half of the race is pretty hard to re-imagine, as much of it was spent in a pretty awful place mentally.  However, the sixth and seventh laps were still feeling very smooth, and I semi-merrily rolled along.  I could feel an augmentation in the effort required to move forward, and for the first time on the seventh lap, I could really feel my legs loose fluidity.  This was likely their way of requesting that I cease the ridiculous adventure that they were being forced to drive.  Also, I hadn’t warmed up yet, as my fingers had been rendered free of blood and nearly immobile from the first lap onward, and I still had goosebumps on the legs.  These factors started to frustrate me (as 4+ hours into a 6+ hour race, you apparently relish the opportunity to get mad at things, and probably understandably so), though retrospectively, being too cold is likely less disastrous in an ultra marathon than being too hot (but can’t we have it just right!). Literally from the first lap, I dreaded each time I came around the loop to grab a water bottle, as this meant exposing my crippled fingers to the cruel air in attempt to open and consume a gel that had taken on the viscosity of silly putty.  Not to mention the water that would inevitably spill on my hands and sleeve, which after a couple laps, had frozen into a nice ice-cuff.  

So, by the eighth lap (less than 20 miles to go!), all these factors, coupled with the increasingly difficult uphills and really painful downhills, and just the general fatigue brought on by running an absurd and arguably suicidal pace up to that point, really started to snowball.  On this eighth lap, I was thinking I could push through the discomfort and try and nab a good 50 mile time (I was on pace to run well under 5 hours, which until a few hours prior, had been a pipe dream of a goal).  However, gastric distress struck again, and I had to stop for the second time at about 75k to download another file.  While this brought relief, I had markedly less determination once I started again, and I settled into what felt like a protective pace.  Now, I honestly was not sure if I was going to crush the American record, run over 7 hours, or crush my body and not even finish.  I’d say until that point in the day, my racing and pacing was Golden State Warriors offense, and then after that for the last two loops, I was running gloves-up defense, just hoping to finish.

Through the ninth lap, it was all about just continuing forward progress.  I knew if I ran, no matter the pace, I’d still actually wind up with a respectable time (though I had no idea and no capacity or interest to figure out what that time might be).  On the tenth lap, I didn’t take my gel or water, as my stomach’s and head’s sentiment towards food and drink was pretty much exactly the same as it has been following an evening of too much merriment and ethanol.  Vomit would surely ensue.  So, the last lap became a farewell shuffle.  I actually blew kisses goodbye to several of the mile markers. Psychosis may have been setting in.  

As I rounded the final turn to the finish line and task completion became a feasible outcome and victory likely, I felt like someone hit me with fourteen epi-pens. It was the most potent stimulant I have ever felt in my life: an overwhelming and overflowing cocktail of pride for the work had I put in, relief for the suffering that was over, and joy for the success that came of it.  

Second half 50k splits: 36:54 – 38:21 – 41:57 – 44:54 – 44:07
Final Time: 6 hours 30 minutes 37 seconds
Championship Record and Course Record
3rd Fastest American Performance All-time (fastest on US soil)

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Joy of joys! photo: Larry Iles

The Denouement:

After the race finished, I was bouncing around (or had the perception that I was bouncing around – I was probably disjointedly and semi-frighteningly stumbling), talking to the officials and volunteers.  Timo Yanachek, the race director, puts on such an incredible event and The MadCity Ultras are truly the best races I’ve ever run.  There are no big sponsors, no annoying coupons in your packets, and no nauseating expos.  It’s truly an ultra marathon for the passionate by the passionate.  And the excellent conversations and kind words from all the incredible individuals at the finish  line affirmed this.  

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Movement functionality is operating on low-power mode

While I was buzzing with excitement, I was still freezing cold, so I bundled my body up, packed my equipment up, and took off for what would certainly be a shower to empty the water heater.  The stairs at my lodging were a formidable opponent, but I was not to be deterred.  Cleaned up, I went and capped the morning/early afternoon in the most proper of post-run fashions: massive brunch.  Despite still having some lingering food aversion, I made quick work of some eggs benedict (having had hollandaise on my mind for laps 4 through 6), and then some extra bacon, and then some extra bacon-and-cheddar grits.

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Victory Feast, part 1
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All still there!
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Because the best trophies require white gloves to hold them

Reflecting back on the race, it was a surreal experience of the highest order.  I felt an electricity the whole way, even in the darker parts, generated from the realization that I found a calling.  Moreover, for the first time in my running career, I ran truly uninhibited and unrestrained; I was irrational.  Going out into the wild, into a physical state void of certainty or survival, was not something I ever do. I’m really glad I did.

5

A Silver Lining to the Doping Crisis

News of widespread doping, corruption, and collusion within the Russian Athletic Federation and the IAAF (organizing body) has rocked the Track & Field world the last few days. My reaction (and likely that of anybody within or close to the sport) was a blasé, “Duh”.

I credit HBO’s The Wire and a passion for mafia-genre film with turning me into a jaded skeptic of any power structure, thus putting me somewhere along the analytical spectrum of pessimistic realist to conspiracy theorist while assessing any political, business, or athletic story. That being said, the Russian Federation and IAAF’s complete and systematic cheating was a bitter validation of my not-at-all-novel suspicion (Cycling fans are yawning right now) that the top levels of endurance sports management (and likely all sports, probably even more so that endurance sports… FIFA, NFL, MLB, etc. I’m looking at you) are nothing more than organized crime.

To WADA’s credit, this investigation was by all accounts a success. Going after Russia was a bit like being pitched a beachball underhand and getting to swing with one of those Vortex bats, but happily, they hit a home run by identifying all the key components: financial transactions, athlete testimonies, shadow labs, evidence of destroyed samples, etc. So, after they seemingly got full points on the exam’s gimme-question, it remains to be seen if they can move onto the tougher sections of the test. Organizations like Kenya and Jamaica clearly emit similar stenches, but it may be trickier to take down these federations characterized by less infrastructure and more starpower, and further federations like Morocco and the Soviet-Established Ethiopian Federation (yes, the Russians set up sports in Ethiopia… Why they have flown under the radar through all of this is beyond me, but I guess even Burger King got to laugh as the world demonized McDonald’s) will be even trickier given their smaller comparative size (and thus less expansive organization and easier cloaking). And then the final Bowser – certain corporations with expansive influence and financial interests in absurd athletic performances…

If the Prohibition Bootleggers, Tony Soprano, or Al Pacino collectively taught us anything (geez, does this mean that Sebastian Coe is our Michael Corleone – the suave, politically correct figurehead to transition a corrupt machine into the next generation?), it’s that inadequate regulation coupled with large profit-potential will create organized and systematic disregard for the rule-of-law. The victims in these systems are the citizens (the fans here), and punishments are quickly doled out to the mercenaries doing their job (the doped athletes). The guys pulling the strings are untouched and the guys trying to make an honest living (the clean athletes) might succeed, but many are just killed in the wake.

So, how do we reconcile with this depressing realization that athletics is a mafia-esque criminal organization? Give up sports and pick up the piano or origami or something, I guess. No, there has to be a silver lining to this madness. The reason athletics are so appealing and so beautiful in the first place is that physical competitions are a raw expression and celebration of humanity – they are tests and displays of our own our uniquely human machinery, both physical and psychological. This is clearly the reason doping is so offensive – it dirties this purity with a definitively non-human element.
Amidst the disgusting and saddening reality of cheaters in the sport, it’s hard to find a positive takeaway. I mean, not only have people been robbed of medals, prize money, sponsorship, and fame, but races themselves have been manipulated and dictated by those under the influence of aid. Therein lies a paradoxical benefit – they’ve forced the clean athletes to up the ante and push themselves further than what they otherwise would have thought possible in effort to compete.

Said another way, the dopers have expanded the perceptions of human limitations for the clean athletes. When an athlete toes the line, he or she has to try and beat everybody in the race, period. Without knowing 100% whether someone is clean or dirty, the clean athlete aspiring for greatness can only take everyone for what the world takes them as: innocent until proven guilty. Therefore, the cheats put on extraordinary performances and essentially tow (figuratively and perhaps literally) the clean athletes with them. They expand the sense of what is possible.

For example, after the 1990s and subsequently early 2000s, there was a glut of runners running under 13 minutes for the 5000m, with 12:50s becoming commonplace for success in major international races (the world record being lowered to 12:37! Ha!). It’s pretty likely that most of these performances were chemically aided, but the result was that it forced the clean athletes to accept that they had to run that fast to be successful. Today, we’ve seen some guys who are most likely clean run under 13 minutes, and certainly many more clean guys in the 13:00s (whereas in the early 2000s the US couldn’t even get 3 guys under 13:20).

The effect goes beyond just absolute performances – the drug-aided training raised the bar for the clean athletes. Lance Armstrong going out and crushing 6-8 hour sessions on the reg likely redefined training for a lot of aspiring cyclists (both clean and dirty!). Maybe some recognized that he was dirty and that they couldn’t match that, but it may have inspired them to go from 4-5 hours a day to 5-6 hours. The same could be said in running; if kids coming out of college in the US were used to the idea of running 90-100 miles per week to be successful, but they hear that guys in Africa are logging 140 miles a week, it may seem absurd, but it makes 120 seem reasonable. Furthermore, in attempt to replicate or come close the the intense training that the dopers put together, clean athletes have been forced to optimize recovery strategies in ways never examined before. Shortcomings in diet, sleep, and muscle maintenance are forced to be addressed in effort to keep up. Without drastic re-districting of human limits by other questionably-human competitors, the clean athletes would not have had the stimulus to yank their way up the development curve. This natural performance evolution therefore happened on a much faster timecourse than what would have otherwise progressed. In a Darwinian sense, dopers created an artificially hostile environment that sped up natural selection and evolutionary adaptations in training and racing!

Now, I’m not making the claim that because something is possible with drugs means that it could then be theoretically possible without drugs, but rather that human performances to date are far below what could be possible. Therefore, if we imagine a long-term scenario where you reach the absolute edge of human output in an event, drugs could surely push that edge a little further, but I think we are so far from that edge that drug-aided performances actually psychologically pull everyone, clean athletes included, a little closer to it.

In this vein, it’s my firm belief that in running, and perhaps other endurance sports (but especially running, given the completely self-powered and self-supported nature of the output), the human body is capable of SO much more that what has been done currently. The biggest variable affecting performance in a trained athlete isn’t his taper, recent training patterns, exact sleep schedule, etc. but rather the mental state that he or she is in and what he or she believes to be possible (which can often be dictated or framed by the aforementioned factors).

Finally, apart from the de facto psychological and perceptual contributions of dopers to the sport, there is an actual physical barrier they’ve literally sliced through for all competitors: the air (i.e. breaking wind). This effect is a little different across the sports. In cycling, this effect would have in significant tactical implications: you could imagine race scenarios where dirty teammates pull along clean teammates or a clean athlete uses a dirty athlete’s slipstream to close a time gap. There’s a fun thought experiment in ethics for the clean athlete… In a track race or a road race, a clean athlete can tuck into the slipstream or zone out behind a doped athlete, theoretically being provided an artificial benefit. Second-hand doping?

The initial implications of that notion make me sick to my stomach, but I reconcile by putting those mobile Petri dishes on the same level as a pair of shoes or the track surface – external physical components of the competition. If this seems a little inhuman, deal with it, as those bastards already forfeited their homo sapien card for the epo sapien variety when they pumped their blood with extra RBCs and gave themselves a few more androgens than nature dictated.

These infinite mental scenarios, bottomless speculations, and confusing extrapolations are one of the reasons we hate drugs so much – they introduce confounding variables to performances and races in sports that should be beautifully simple combats of human physiology. In a cycling race defined by mind-boggling complexities of tactics, cheaters can blow everything up and have obviously altered decades of plotlines dramatically. How many people in championship track races have not only been kept off the medal stand, but left out of the finals due to absurdly inhuman scripts written by chemists?

The aforementioned “contributions” of dopers to the sport are merely my own sadly optimistic attempts to reconcile with an otherwise atrocious problem. The drug culture has ruined lives, robbed honest heroes, and tarnished beauty. Why doping offenses are not prosecuted criminally as theft is still beyond me, given that the cheaters are breaking the law of the sport and literally monetarily robbing the person behind them (not to mention the intangible emotional larceny). So, it’s with extremely bittersweet sentiments (think like 95% cacao dark chocolate – just barely palatable) that I muse over this “silver-lining” of enhanced perceptions of ability afforded to us by the cheaters.

Maybe the true silver-lining of doping is ultimately the less-tangible psychological benefit enjoyed by clean athletes. That is to say, they do not have the stress of managing their “cycles”, the anxiety of test results (even if they’re 99% sure they’d be in the clear, there is still a psychologically taxing sliver of doubt that would be in their minds), or the logistical challenges of maintain and transporting all these chemicals. I get overwhelmed by the complexities of training and recovering without having to deal with all that nonsense. Think about not only having to decide when and what workout to do, but how that stimulus is going to interact with when and what chemical you’re introducing. The potential for error is exponentially magnified, and the probability of enhanced performance is certainly tapered below our assumption of absolute benefit. Further, the subsequent anxiety seems kindof undesirable, and this isn’t even touching on the long-term health effects with which the dopers are going to enjoy in the coming years (like multiple heart-attacks before age 50).

I have to believe that being clean is so much less stressful, and I really hope that the clean athletes embrace this small win, don’t not get worked up about what they can’t control, and revel in the stress that they haven’t imposed upon themselves.  Heck, think of being clean as the counterfactual: you’re avoiding performance-degrading hormones! This begs a nearly comical thought-experiment: if an athlete is injecting hormones (EPO, testosterone, etc.) into his system to benefit his performance or enhance his training capabilities, the stress (even if it’s subconscious) from the complexity and illegal-nature of this regimen likely causes an uncontrollable rise in undesirable hormones (namely cortisol) as a response, thereby negating some of the benefit. No masking agent for stress?  Sorry I’m not sorry.

So, maybe there are a few nuggets of positivity for the clean guys and gals to reflect on. Having to do business in an industry controlled by the mafia must be more than a little frustrating, but I really do think that despite the couple percentage points gained by drugs, humans are actually capable many more percentage points naturally, we just haven’t realized it yet. So, to everyone out there doing it clean – you’re better than you think you are and enjoy the lack of complexity-induced stress that accompanies drugs. For these athletes committed to training and performing without chemical aid, a corrupt playing field may be a tough pill to swallow. But that’s the beautiful thing about the clean athletes – they choose not to swallow it. They’ll keep doing what they do for the same reason recreational athletes do it – for the love of the game, for the thrill of venturing into the physiological and psychological unknown, and for the indescribable joy upon discovering that we can be better than we ever thought possible.