Cheating: Worth the Risk?

Cheating at the top, maybe.

For elite athletes, the temptation of many incentives in combination is hard to resist, especially when you realize how many competitors are cheating – you are trying to compensate for a disadvantage.

Cheating among elite athletes is rife.  If you didn’t know how rife, consider a study that appeared in Sports Medicine in January 2018 on the prevalence of doping in athletics. It yielded a troubling result: a survey of 2,167 elite athletes at two different games found a prevalence of 43.6% in one and 57.1% in the other during the prior year, when the respondents were guaranteed anonymity. (For statistics fans, the 95% confidence interval was 39.4-47.9 at the first and 52.4-61.8 at the other.) You can find an abstract of the study at  The researchers concluded that “doping appears remarkably widespread among elite athletes, and remains largely unchecked despite current biological testing.”

Evidently the cost to the athletes is low enough that a high percentage of them are willing to take the risk of getting caught. In addition, punishments even for those who are caught are so lenient they fail to create a strong deterrent.

Cheating, per this study, occurs among elites at a rate (as much as 57%!?) that surprised me.  Then, I considered the incentives, both tangible (in the form of prize money, appearance money, sponsorship and product endorsements), and intangible.

Intangibles take many forms: recognition, respect, renown, admiration, awe, and even fame. At a group level (team, school, community, region, nation), the gratitude of the group plays a significant part. Just qualifying for acceptance into some group such as a national team figures in the calculation of whether to cheat. Taken together, these incentives add up to a powerful temptation. The numbers discovered by the study referred to above suggest just how powerful.  Continue reading “Cheating: Worth the Risk?”

Bring Back 20K, 25K and 30K? Is Revival a Possibility?

Commenting on Kenenisa Bekele’s win in the December 2017 running of the Tata Kolkata 25K, Bekele’s elite coach Jos Hermens was asked if perhaps the 25K and 30K distances should be run more often. Hermens said, “I think the 25 or 30K are extremely interesting, as only full and half marathon is quite boring and always concentrating on times. In the case of the 25K or 30K and also 15K or 10 miles or even 20K, there might of should be less emphasis on times, but more on racing!”

Music to my ears! “Only full and half marathon is quite boring,” absolutely. Over the years, I have been repeatedly disappointed by conversions of all those distances—especially 20K, when I was still racing—to half marathons.

Half marathons are everywhere! There are at least two national calendars that post nothing but half marathons! Since I post prize money races to Road Race Management’s Online Guide to Prize Money Races and Elite Athletes, I am almighty tired of constantly adding half marathons to the list.


Continue reading “Bring Back 20K, 25K and 30K? Is Revival a Possibility?”

Numbers Game: Road Race Rankings and Their Implications

Do Rankings of Races Matter?

Listings of Top 10 or Top 20 somethings can be fun to debate over a few beers: ten best quarterbacks of all time, ten best vacation spots, ten greatest rock songs, ten greatest movies, and so on. That includes footraces—road, trail, track, and now, mud.  Often these ratings are done by panels of “experts,” whose qualifications consist mainly of a lot of experience in the field, such as journalists, trainers, coaches, and the like.  Experience counts, but the subjectivity involved means that most of us are inclined to take these rankings with a grain or two of salt.

But does it really matter whether your race makes the cut to be considered?  Or, if you make the cut, where it ranks?

It does matter—if not to you personally, then to runners, the media, expo vendors, the semi-clueless nonrunning public, and, perhaps most importantly, the sponsors.  If you can put the “Top Twenty Best Marathons” feather in your cap, you might be able to loosen the wallets of those for whom prestige and name recognition are the deciding factors in choosing what event to support.

So, when a service comes along claiming to have compiled the definitive list of the Best Races in America,” and alleges to have built its ratings from actual participant votes, what do you make of it? Shrug it off as typical hype? What if their claim made the pages of Running USA’s online newsletter? Would you take a closer look?

Thinking it’s worth a closer look, I’ve toiled through a lot of detail below concerning the service claiming to have constructed the “definitive list.” Consider it an exercise in what we used to jocularly call LSD—Long Slow Distance (in running, a training fad that had its day before we discovered that mostly slow in training meant mostly slow in racing).

Does “definitive” mean definitive, or something a little more open-ended?

I’m Old School with the English language, which starts with pinning down what words mean as precisely as possible. (I mean in nonfiction, since we rightly give great flexibility to fiction writers.) Here’s the first definition of “definitive” from the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary: “Having the function or character of finality; decisive, conclusive, final; definite, fixed, finally settled, unconditional.”

Wow! Final! Unconditional! So, when someone asserts they have created a “definitive” list for public consumption, I consider that an extraordinary claim, and, as Carl Sagan used to say, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

If you think I’m too much into semantic quibbling, stay with me for a few more paragraphs. I think you’ll see that even when we soften the connotation of “definitive” to something more like “highly representative,” there are problems with the list we’re talking about.

To name names: BibRave, and the “definitive list,” the BibRave 100

A writeup in Endurance Sportswire announcing the awards ceremony for the BibRave 100 list (it was December 1st), calls BibRave “the new marketing solution for races and endurance brands.”

I’m confused. The outfit that is compiling the list is also marketing races? It’s key even to get considered for the ranking to get a large number of nominations.  Unless I’m mistaken, there’s a conflict of interest here.  For example, what better way to market a race than to encourage it to get a boatload of nominations for the BibRave 100?

Let’s go up the ladder you need just to make the list and get ranked, as follows.

Getting to the Bottom Rung: Nominations. Scads of them.

For starters, you have to get heaps of nominations even to get considered. How many? You know there’s a cut, numbers-wise, because it says in the FAQ: If your race isn’t on the list, it’s because not enough people nominated it for consideration.”

Enough can’t be known until the nominations period closes.

What “people” are making the nominations? Answer, also on the FAQ: “Anyone! [exclamation point theirs] can nominate a race” by completing a form on the website for as many races as they want, although not any one race more than once.

Are they kidding?  If “anyone!” means anyone, then a monk on a mountainside in the Himalayas could make a nomination, assuming he had access to the internet. So could a Russian oligarch, a deep-sea fisherman, or a bank robber (probably runs). So might your family and friends, and their friends—you can see where this is going. You don’t even have to create a chain email, you can find someone to post to a social media platform how deserving your race is for nominations. There’s no ceiling on the number of nominations a race with good marketing savvy could get.

You might get thwarted in places by some wet blankets reluctant to game the system, but there’s nothing in the rules to stop it.

Sheer numbers in the nominations process can work for you—or not, if you believe you should police yourself.  You might honor an implicit honors system, but who else will?

I’d bet that few readers of this blog would resort to pumping up their numbers by recruiting just “anyone” for a nomination.  But there’s no rule that disallows it. The point is not that a lot of races would try to jack up their nomination numbers to ludicrous proportions, but that there’s no way to qualify nominators, and there’s no way to know in advance how many nominations will make the cut.  It’s a public relations free-for-all.

Second Rung: a “Running Industry survey score.”

Suppose you meet the magic quota for number of nominations. What’s next? Per the FAQ: “The most nominated races will then be rated based on a Running Industry survey score, which will be combined with a general runner vote.”

What’s the “Running Industry survey score?” It’s a little vague, but there’s a clue in the description of “The Running Industry Collective.” That is: “Folks from across the running industry – running store retailers, race directors (BibRave clients and non-clients alike), race service providers (bib makers, chip timers, medal companies, t-shirt companies, registration companies, etc.), running brands, and more.”

What’s that? “BibRave clients and non-clients alike?” Ping! That’s the sound of touching the second tripwire for conflict of interest. The service (BibRave) that is compiling the list has clients and prospective clients in the bunch that is evaluating the candidate races.

Third Rung: “a general runner vote.”

It’s not quite clear if it is a poll of “general runners,” or a “general” poll of ordinary runners. It’s so vague it doesn’t make much difference, so we’ll settle on “general runner.” If you know what a “general runner” is, you are, if not omniscient, a far more acute observer of the road racing scene than I am. My guess: the “general runners” are from the BibRave community, a network of runners who exchange information on races. If so, it is a self-selected sample, and any statistician will tell you that a self-selected sample is probably not representative of a population, in this case the population of participants in all road races in America. That’s even if the sample consists of those with more than one race under their belt who talk to each other online, as you’d expect of the BibRave community. But until we have specifics as to what a “general runner” is, we really can’t know.

At this point, we seem to have moved away from the concept of “definitive” to—what? How about “highly representative of runner opinion?”

Are the Top Picks Representative? Let’s Take a Look

BibRave divided the rankings into four categories by distance: Marathon, Half Marathon, 10K, and 5K, and apologized for omitting other distances. There are so many races! Indeed.

Therefore, they’ve left out some of the most popular and prestigious races in America, all of which sell out and/or have lotteries. Here are some that immediately sprang to mind, listed in alphabetical order: Alaska Airlines Bay to Breakers 12K; Blue Cross Broad Street Run 10 Mile; Credit Union Cherry Blossom 10 Mile; Gate River Run 15K; Lilac Bloomsday 12K; Manchester Road Race 4.78 Mile; New Balance Falmouth Road Race 7 Mile; Utica Boilermaker 15K; Wharf to Wharf 6 Mile.

I’d think a “definitive” list of all races in the USA would have a few of those. They could have a special category: “other distances from 4.78 miles to 15K.” Would that be so hard?


But let’s give BibRave a shot with the four distances they have chosen.  I looked most closely at the marathon list (top 20, with the first 5 ranked and the rest in alphabetical order—good call there!). There are twenty marathons listed, which include those you’d expect to rise to the top: Bank of America Chicago, Boston, California International, Medtronic Twin Cities, TCS New York City.


The Missoula Marathon, in Missoula, MT, tops the list. It usually has a field of about 850 runners. This seems counter-intuitive, since most of the races are in or near big cities and have large turnouts. Say that 3% of runners in Boston would vote for it as best marathon: that comes to about 900 votes.  For Missoula to get as many votes, it would have to get more than 100%. A similar ratio (3% vs 100%) would roughly apply to account for all the runners who have participated in either event over, say, ten years. It sounds as if “general runner” might include folks who have never run in these races—the BibRave community, having heard of the race second-hand, could account of a lot of those.

Maybe the poll is comparing proportions of votes to the size of the race. That sounds fair. If Missoula got 425 votes out of a size of 850, then they’d have a percentage of 50%, and you wouldn’t expect Boston to come anywhere near that. (The same goes for the expanded pool—i.e. all runners in both events in the last ten years.)

There’s no doubt that Missoula is an excellent race.  It was once named as the top marathon in the USA by Runner’s World. If you go online to, you’ll see it gets five stars overall, and heaps of glowing runner reviews. If a third party with no stake in the results were brought in to rank the races (not gonna happen), Missoula might very well earn top spot.

As it stands, we’d like to know more about the methodology, the absolute numbers, the percentages, and the sample (i.e. “general runners”) to give credence to this survey. I went down the list and found a few outliers similar to Missoula, but I don’t want to get that deep into the weeds here.

Nominations in the “THOUSANDS.”  From where?

You might wonder where all the nominations for Missoula came from. The BibRave website says Missoula got “THOUSANDS” of nominations—how many, it doesn’t say, but you can interpret upper case THOUSANDS as meaning, lots. If you got half the runners who have run Missoula within the last five years, you’d get .5 x 850 x 5 = 2,125. That’s as if repeaters didn’t exist—that is, a fresh field every year. With the repeaters you’d expect from such a fine race, that number might get cut in half. Without repeaters (the larger number), then you’ve got “THOUSANDS”—as long as you call barely 2,000 THOUSANDS.

So many nominations come from an expanded pool of everyone who has ever heard of the Missoula Marathon.

But there’s a simpler explanation. There are two big clues as to how Missoula made the nominations cut—whatever it was.

Clue Number One: As we’ve seen, “Anyone!” can send in a nomination.

Clue Number Two is BibRave’s description of the winner: it stresses community, and how local runners wrote in about “how this event has changed their community, inspiring thousands to become active.”

Missoula has a population of 72,000.  Put together Clue One and Clue Two and you don’t have to be Hercule Poirot to pretty confidently infer where THOUSANDS of nominations came from.

Also, as to the voting on candidate races, we are not given just how many “general runners” voted for what. Why is BibRave so silent on the actual numbers?

Is it really as bad as I’m making it out to be? Maybe not, but it’s not transparent, and not fair

My assessment of the BibRave lists is pretty harsh. Maybe too much so. I’ve grown cantankerous at age 71, and inclined to scoff at overblown claims, where it appears that marketing generates a lot of hoopla without necessarily a lot of substance. Having taken a statistics course and learned additional stats tricks on my own, I know that the first questions you ask about a claim involving statistics are, what is the methodology, and what is the sample? If you don’t even know the raw numbers, much less the methodology and the sample, you don’t know much.

I do concede that BibRave is an interesting and valuable contribution to the running scene. I give them credit for trying to build a tool that can help runners discuss and choose their races worldwide and instantaneously, or even just argue about them for fun. But we can say their list is not a “definitive” picture of the best road races in the USA.  It excludes a number of wildly popular races because they’re the wrong distance. Not to say that they are acting in bad faith, but there are too many uncertainties in the method and the sample to give the list solid credence.

Or even much credence. I happen to know that one of the most inarguably successful half marathons did not even make the top 20 half marathon list. (I admit to bias, but not to being wrong.)

BTW, if you make the list you get an emblem to put on your website, sort of like an EnergyStar label. The difference is that EnergyStar uses actual, lab-tested numbers.

Once more, the nominations and their implications for a race’s image

First, there are no qualifications asked of nominators—so long as “anyone” means anyone.

Next, lack of transparency: if your race misses out on consideration because your nominations fall below an unknown threshold, just too bad. You could have the best race in the world, but if you don’t find a way to generate big nomination numbers, you don’t even get to the first rung of the ladder.

What do you tell prospective sponsors who may also be considering a race across town that takes place the preceding weekend, when the other race makes the cut, and you don’t? All because you didn’t play the nominations game cleverly enough–a game that may have little to do with the quality of your event. A listing can make a splash with local media (one of the best races in America!), raising the profile of the event and pleasing sponsors even more.

This is mainly a problem for small races, where a sponsor can make the difference between continuing the event at all, or not. My opinion is, that the BibRave rating system closes off options for many of these races.

I don’t have a last word here.  Anyway, you may have already had your fill.

Thanks for completing this marathon post.

Getting the Armchair Runner into Your Event

Recently I came across an FAQ on a website for a half marathon that both amused and irritated me as a sign of the times. The fact that I haven’t entered a race in a quarter-century probably had something to do with it.  Still, it reflected a comical aspect of modern-day road racing, that, had I never seen this FAQ, I would never have dreamed of.

Two Q&A’s on the FAQ appeared noteworthy:

1) Q: What to do the finisher medals look like?

    A: All finishers receive an awesome race-themed finisher medal!!!

2) Q: Have you considered adding any kind of virtual event?

    A: We have considered, but do not offer, a virtual race at this time.

Question One on finisher medals seemed to imply, that an unsatisfactory-looking finisher medal might disqualify your race from consideration by the questioner. Apparently, the website had neither an actual photo of the medal, or even a piece of artwork.  Shame on them! This explains the slightly defensive tone of the reply, in which the respondent not only declared the not-yet-prepared medal to be awesome, but also added three exclamation points to underscore its awesomeness.  The “race-themed” description also identified the medal as unique product, not just any old off-the shelf theme-deprived chunk of metal or wood.  !!!

Question Two on virtual events suggests that the questioner would like to participate in the race without running the actual course, with all its inconveniences such as: other runners, independent timing devices, mats to verify that the course was completed, inclement weather, waiting in a corral for your wave to start, snatching a cup from the water table without spilling it, etc.  It suggests that the questioner might picture running the race on a treadmill equipped with a VR headset with speakers providing applause all along the way that might be missing in real Reality. Then getting an awesome race-themed medal for his or her pains.

If this sounds a bit like buying a medal for a race you never have to run, that’s exactly what it is. According to the website of Virtual Strides, with 44,000 subscribers, “we ship medals to everyone who registered but never submitted their results, so if you don’t complete your run . . . you’ll still get your medal.”

In fact, submitting your “results” shouldn’t be much of a sweat, since Virtual Strides accepts results “on the honor system.”

It gets even better.  Per Virtual Strides, the participant can even register for, and get medals for, past events. Say that half marathon you declined to enter because of a heat wave last summer turned up some really slow times when run in the stifling atmosphere that day. You can move up through the pack by entering post facto and running the distance on a nice cool day in November with no wind, and post some fine results to Virtual Strides—that assumes you have even bothered to complete the distance and timed it accurately. You get a medal anyway (as long as they haven’t run out, which they claim is rare), and you can boast you ran the half marathon that happened on a day (not necessarily the day you “ran” it)  when the black bulb temperature hit 103!  (It doesn’t matter what time of day it hit that temperature; this is after all a “virtual” event. It also doesn’t matter if you ran the distance on the flat when the physical race was chock-full of hills.)

You can even purchase a “real, professionally-printed, tear-resistant, water resistant custom bib within days of placing your ordering!” And wear it to bed with you.

This got me to wondering, how many of you race directors out there already stage a virtual version of your race?  If not, what’s stopping you? It expands your revenue stream at minimal expense: you add registration fees (minus the cut by a subcontractor who handles the mechanics) while eliminating many of those pesky physical requirements—extra water, extra barriers, extra corrals, extra volunteers, bigger expo venue, etc.—that are called for when bringing in more flesh-and-blood customers (once we get into the virtual racing frame of mind, we can stop thinking of them as runners).

All in all, the era of the virtually competing armchair runner seems to have arrived. Why not make the most of it?



Golden Gate Lane Closings for San Francisco Marathon: Terrorism Shadow Lengthens over Road Racing

I am reluctant to raise this topic because of the argument that any publicity given to terrorism encourages the terrorists. But when I heard of plans for closing northbound lanes on the Golden Gate Bridge for the San Francisco Marathon, silence seemed inappropriate. This development feels like a tipping point in our approach to terrorism, if only because the bridge is an icon recognized throughout the world—breathtaking in size and beauty, a monument to Art Deco design, once named one of the “Wonders of the Modern World” by the American Society of Civil Engineers, it blends aesthetics with utility, and for 27 years held the title of longest single span of a suspension bridge (4,200 feet).

Now, defending thousands of runners on The Bridge against terrorists potentially armed with trucks, cars, bombs and other weaponry, opens an ominous new chapter in the sport, pointing back to the grim prologue in Boston four years ago. Other races are working hard to protect runners and spectators, but the high profile of the Golden Gate action casts a cloud over the sport from the public’s point of view.  That the measure is prudent and pragmatic rather than alarmist emphasizes still more the loss of innocence. It is no consolation to think of how much more vulnerable Europeans are to these horrific attacks, and still more vulnerable are people in the Middle East and northern Africa where terrorist and government atrocities are a daily occurrence. If there’s anything good to be made of this development in San Francisco, it’s our growing sense of kinship with those on other continents whose peril is greater than ours.

There’s an unwelcome side effect of the lane closing on the Golden Gate. At a time when more communities are protesting closing of city streets for road races, the restriction of traffic on a bridge that carries tens of thousands of vehicles a day takes some shine off a celebratory event.  Few in the public will consciously resent the lane closings—knowing it is being done for safety of the runners—but in the unconscious, the marathon will come to represent inconvenience as well as drama.

I will be holding my breath on the 23rd with hopes that the San Francisco Marathon will end happily. The final stage of the Tour de France ends in Paris on the same day, where masses of fans will constitute a much riper target for terrorists, of whom there are plenty in France.  Moreover, the Tour is the pride of all of France, and a deadly attack on it would be a deep wound to the national psyche. Every July I wonder, knowing what monsters lurk in the French capital, will this be the year that the unthinkable strikes the Tour?  And every year I thank the French police and their allies for having held dark forces at bay. Let’s hope their success, with the help of a lot of luck, continues, and that the Golden Gate Bridge will convey joy, not sorrow.

Breaking2, Take 2: the Man and the Machine

He Did It!

Skeptics (like me) and cynics (like me) found themselves cheering on Eliud Kipchoge in the closing minutes of the “Breaking2” two-hour marathon attempt, once it appeared that he had a slim but plausible chance at hitting the target. This observer, following by TV in the wee hours of Eastern Daylight Time, found himself choking up at the spectacle, made dreamlike by the camera work showing Kipchoge’s long fluid stride and unfaltering rhythm right up to the final sprint. Whoever watched this thing who was not chanting the equivalent of “go, go, go—you can do it” for the last lap is a person without a heart. That he did not technically break two hours mattered little—he might as well have run two hours. Being one second per mile off the crucial pace was like a pitcher missing a perfect game by an infield error with two outs in the ninth inning.

The skepticism came from a reckoning—made not just by myself back in December but also by plenty of folks with a lot more expertise than I—that the two-hour marathon was physically impossible at this point in the sport.  The cynicism came from the feeling that the Breaking2 project was as much a marketing tool for Nike as it was a test of human limits. “Science or Stunt?” I painted it back in December.  It turned out to be both and more—but to get the “more” I think you had to have watched it in real time, when no one knew the outcome and the suspense built steadily to a crescendo. Not as hair-raising as watching Secretariat win the Belmont Stakes, but in the same realm.

 “Moon Shot” on solid ground

What most struck me was the counterpoint between the flesh-and-blood man—Eliud Kipchoge—and the machine of many parts that Nike put together.  That machine was constructed by a team of scientists, engineers, sports physiologists, shoe and clothing designers and materials experts over at least two years of preparation, given the best technology and physiological and psychological preparation Nike could buy.  The most obvious elements on the scene itself were the carefully chosen venue, the pre-dawn start to optimize temperature and humidity, the pace car gliding with silent, spooky constancy , and the arrowhead formation of six human pacers, just far enough in front that no one could claim for certain that Kipchoge benefited from their draft, but close enough to give him companionship—and a shared sense of purpose with the team-of-nine pacers who came and went by threes, lap after lap, with uncanny precision. (We were later to hear that the seamless pacing maneuvers had, incredibly, not been rehearsed!)

(A note on drafting: cyclists are aware that noticeable benefit from drafting kicks in at just about the speed Kipchoge was running, and to realize it at such low speeds you have to be directly behind the wheel ahead at less than a bike length.  I’d guess the aerodynamic benefit Kipchoge got in the “arrowhead” pacing configuration was .5% at best—bearing in mind that .5% of 120 minutes is 36 seconds.)

You knew Kipchoge was at his limit for the last half hour, but was so smoothly conveyed by the flawless machine, and so in his Zen-like zone of concentration that there was little sense of struggle. The oft-invoked “Moon Shot” metaphor was apt: the Apollo astronauts were extraordinary humans doing extraordinary things with a calm unthinkable to most of us earthlings, while their achievements were enabled by extraordinary technology.

I was tempted to entitle this post “The Man in the Machine,” but Eliud Kipchoge transcends the notion of an experimental subject in a technological bubble, as much as the Apollo astronauts transcended the United States.

But was it a two-hour “marathon?”

What Kipchoge ran was not a “marathon” in any conventional sense, for all the reasons discussed above.  It was more like a 26.2-mile time trial, especially since the “field” of three fell apart far before the hardest challenges arose.  It was a “singular” event in more ways than one.  As impressive as Kipchoge’s achievement was—and he is probably the only man on earth who could have come so close—I will be more impressed if he breaks 2:02:00 in an actual “standard” marathon race. And I think he could do it at Berlin.

“Consumer Direct Offense” – Nike going Amazonian

Nike is poised to deliver another punch in the gut to the retail industry by launching their “Consumer Direct Offense.” It’s a pivot toward more online selling, and will cut 1,400 jobs.  Ouch!

Of course in the long run, with robots cruising swiftly around warehouses of shoes and clothing, still more jobs will be lost. By the way, Amazon has 45,000 robots in its warehouses as of January 2017.

It won’t be just Nike. It’s a trend, in running as much as bookselling. It’s a business reality—Nike doesn’t want to go the way of The Sports Authority. Having just written an article about how stable the running expos have been (which will appear in the June issue of RRM), I can now see this development punching holes in the expos where local retailers as well as national brands set up booths.  “Disruption,” indeed.

What About “Feel?”

The feel of a shoe is just as important as style, size, color, and all the attributes a manufacturer claims will improve your speed or your running experience. (Or make you look more cool.) I would never buy a pair of shoes of any kind without trying them on. Especially since I’ve found that with running and biking shoes, there can be a world of difference between brands. They might look identical on a computer screen, but one pair will feel perfect and the other—pah! Switching to online means buying shoes that you’re not sure would work for you, and returning them if they don’t.  If the replacements don’t work, then back they go. . . .

Another ploy for the consumer is to go to a retail store and try on shoes to find what you like. If they cost less online, you can go home and order them online.  In fact, you could even whip out your smart phone and order them while standing right in front of a store employee.  (Few among us could be that mean, but there seem to be some in high office who might welcome the opportunity if s/he had a grudge.)

Moral Dilemmas? Are We Talking about Forms of Cheating?

Does the second scenario (using the store as a test) pose a moral dilemma any more than the first? I believe so, because it directly robs the salesperson of time that might be better spent with another customer. But the first method, cutting out the retail store altogether, could be just as bad in that it robs the store of any opportunity whatever to maybe steer you to another brand or model that works better for you, or even saves you money. This is one of the sources of pleasure in going to a running store: the interaction with employees, virtually all of whom are runners. You can chat about shoes and rain gear while getting the scoop on the nearest half-marathon.  Interpersonal engagement and the ability to touch a variety of products, make for value added, and you should be prepared to pay for it.

 Complete Amazonation of Nike? Probably Not. But We Are Losing Something.

It’s doubtful Nike would go entirely the way of Amazon, because Nike has long been a distinctive brand in itself, and Amazon has embraced so many products it has become an online department store (can you see Nike selling food processors?).  Still, the move seems sad, and not just because of 1,400 people losing their jobs. We are all losing something, maybe several somethings. Gone is the interpersonal engagement, and gone is the chance to see, feel, and try on various options which you might find superior to the shoe you went looking for—in look and feel. When a drone delivers your new shoes, you will feel them for the first time, and the only comparison is the shoes you already have.

This kind of disruption strikes me as a distancing from physical reality—a divorce, especially from the sense of touch. Virtual Reality is now a Big Thing, but I haven’t heard of VR advances in the sense of touch. Touch is vital to the running experience—blind people run road races, but I can’t imagine someone running who has no sense of touch. Someone who wouldn’t respond to the feel of new shoes. Thanks to Nike’s “Consumer Direct Offense,” we will have one more source of deprivation dictated by corporate bottom lines.

“Heavy-Handed” Proposal Divides Record-holders and Administrators

Think Paula Radcliffe’s marathon world record or Hicham El Gerrouj’s 1500m world record should be expunged? That is what could happen if the IAAF carries out a proposal to axe world records that took place before current doping controls were implemented in 2005. The proposal was made by a European Athletics taskforce. The IAAF has agreed to consider it in August, and it has some people hopping mad.

According to a report in The Guardian (May 1st), IAAF President Sebastian Coe supports the proposal. “World Records” set prior to 2005 would be downgraded to “All-Time.” (It should be noted that Coe’s past middle distance WRs would be subject to the same downgrading.)

For a summary of the proposal and possible fallout, see:

A stunned and stung Radcliffe (whose 10 Mile and 10K WR’s are also in the wind) called it “heavy-handed.” Onetime middle distance WR holder in three distances Steve Cram called it a “PR exercise.” Jonathan Edwards, whose 1995 triple-jump WR is in jeopardy, said, “I thought my record would go someday, just not to a bunch of sports administrators.” Both Radcliffe and Edwards characterized the proposal as “cowardly”— see

Radcliffe has publicly castigated drug cheating for years, and has pushed for prosecutions where there’s enough smoke to justify looking for fire—that is, to find positive proof. It is especially ironic that she should be placed under a cloud of suspicion, given that if she ever was proved to have cheated, the hypocrisy would destroy her entire career. What sane person would run that risk?

Of the athletes harmed by the policy under consideration, the proposal’s chief designer Pierce O’Callaghan said, “apologies to the athletes; we never intended to damage their reputation and legacy. “

Which begs the question of: what is the actual intent? O’Callaghan’s answer: “[The proposal] is intended to give the public belief and credibility in what they are watching in the sport.” It’s an image issue. Too bad for the likes of Radcliffe and Edwards, et al, whose fates he characterized as “collateral damage.” For his remarks see:

My own take on O’Callaghan’s statements is a tad more blunt: “We’re sanitizing the sport’s history to present a cleaner face to the public. To show it , we’re taking records away from people for whom there’s no proof of doping. Just in case those record holders might have cheated.”

It turns on its head the presumption of innocence (still the rule in U.S. jurisprudence, although not in that shining example of judicial probity, Russia). For having set records at a premature time, athletes would see their records erased, or recast as the suspect “All-Time.” Punished for perhaps having done something wrong, although we can’t prove it and don’t know quite what it is.

In the U.S., at least, “cold cases,” where investigators suspect that a not-convicted perpetrator of a long-unresolved past crime wrongly went free, evidence of guilt must be produced—suspicions, no matter how strong, are not enough to convict. Shouldn’t this—absent a confession— be the policy in athletics?

How this would play with the public whose perception Mr. O’Callaghan would like to shape is open to question. If they see the authorities addressing the doping issue with a meat cleaver rather than a scalpel, they (the public) might get the picture that the authorities in the sport don’t really know what they’re doing. After all, the public of 2017 is more interested in what is going on now rather than what happened more than a decade ago. . . and what is going on now cries out for solutions that cut to structural problems more serious than problems on paper.

By the logic of it, performances prior to 2005 going back to the beginning of record-keeping would lose the prestige of the World Record” designation. Those of us who like to look at progressions of records over time—think of a sloping graph with spikes in it here and there, as with Radcliffe’s marathon—are left in a quandary as to what progression is more legitimate: the “World Records,” or the “All-Time.” Was Bob Beamon’s phenomenal long jump in Mexico City really due to the thin air, or talent, or was he cheating?

Rewriting history is a tricky exercise. How you look at this may depend on your political philosophy, which may reflect a divergence in continental European and Anglo-American points of view: the former emphasizing the good of the collective (enhancing the overall image of the sport); the latter the rights of the individual. For myself, despite the excesses to which individualism has been taken in my native country, the answer is clear: world records set prior to 2005 should stand, unless proof of cheating is found. If that’s too late to have caught some cheaters, so be it.

As for the new testing protocol itself, a world record would only be ratified if the athlete had been tested “a number of times” before the performance. That would probably preclude a record for a prodigy such as Zola Budd, who set a putative World Record in the 5000m at age 17. It was not ratified because at the time she was South African running in South Africa; a year later as an English citizen she set the official record with a time 13 seconds faster (14:48.07 in 1985). Under the new rules, a 17-year-old phenom who ran a WR time would probably not have been drug tested “a number of times” before the event. With records now approaching what is humanly possible, such an episode seems highly unlikely. But at least the rules would be clear going in; applying new rules retroactively is another game altogether.

Therapeutic Use Exemption: Gray and Grayer

Mark Heinicke is the Associate Editor of Road Race Management and is responsible for most of the statistical surveys that appear in the newsletter. Mark has followed the sport as a participant and a writer for over 40 years. With gimpy knees forcing him on to a bicycle in recent years, he observes running in a frequently more detached but analytical manner, which provides a fresh perspective for those of us who spend most of our waking hours in the trenches.

Does the Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) for competitive athletes enable legalized cheating, or is it just a complicated means to “level a playing field?”

It may depend on a specific situation, the drug in question, or whom you ask. Case in point is the furor that erupted last fall in the pro cycling community, when the mischievous Russian hackers “Fancy Bears” released records showing the use of the steroid triamcinolone by Sir Bradley Wiggins prior to his competing in the Tour de France in 2011 and 2012 (which he won), and the 2013 Tour of Italy. (The records were hacked via the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) database; WADA has been scrambling to improve its security ever since.)

In all three cases, Wiggins was granted a TUE for triamcinolone to treat asthma and hay fever.  Triamcinolone belongs to the group of glucocortisoids (a class of corticosteroids), all of which are on the WADA banned list.

Prominent members of the cycling community pounced on the news with opinions ranging from absolutist (no use of banned substances whatsoever), to calls for reevaluation of the rules by which TUEs are granted (one of those calls came from former Sky teammate and three-time Tour de France victor Chris Froome, himself the beneficiary of a TUE in the 2014 Tour de Romandie ). No one seemed willing to stand up for the TUE procedures as they now exist. For a report on the controversy last fall, check out the following link:

Black-and-White versus Shades of Gray

The absolutist position—call it the Black-and-White position—is the easiest to understand and simplest to implement. A banned substance is banned for a reason. The reason may be performance enhancement, ill health effects, or both. The reason should hold for all. Using a banned drug? You’re out. Asthma or no asthma. End of story.

On the face of it, the absolutist position is the best way to go. Why? The basis is as follows.

The counterargument is, that if the drug, in the judgment of medical experts, does no more than “level the playing field” by undoing the effect of a disease such as asthma, without conferring any other competitive advantage, then its use should be permitted for certain sufferers under special conditions.

Every TUE requires review by a panel of medical experts—minimally three doctors/scientists by the rules of the WADA. Each panel is chosen by the governing body of a particular sport: in pro cycling, the Union Cycliste International (UCI).  So we’re already into a gray area: the qualifications of the experts themselves, and the qualifications of who is choosing them.

This is not to say that anyone is operating in bad faith. But the ambiguities surrounding the qualifications of doctors in the panels, compounded by the incomplete understanding of how many of these drugs work, undermine the credibility of the process.

The language of the IAAF on this issue does not inspire confidence: the panel consists of  “at least three independent and experienced physicians with sound knowledge of clinical, sports, and exercise medicine.” Sound knowledge?  It is a purely qualitative judgment.  There’s no requirement that, for example, each physician show proof of having kept up with the latest developments in a rapidly changing field. Whoever chooses them may insist on it, or not, but there is no requirement under the rules.

The IAAF language mirrors that of the WADA “International Standard for TUE,” which you can find at in section 5.2a.

As for the confusion as to how these drugs work, we need look no farther than the triamcinolone that was injected into Bradley Wiggins.

Doctors Weigh in on Triamcinolone: the Catabolic and the Anabolic

Interestingly, in the case of triamcinolone, three doctors in the field of respiratory illness, quoted by journalist Tom Cary in last September’s  Sport Cycling section of The Telegraph, all doubted that triamcinolone, could enhance performance. Furthermore, its side effects—such as cataracts, high blood pressure, diabetes, bone-thinning and Achilles tendon rupture—raised health risks that would make it a drug “of last resort” for the treatment of asthma. For details see:

Dr. Brian  Lipworth of the Scottish Centre for Respiratory Research, pointed out that triamcinolone is a catabolic steroid that breaks down muscle, as opposed to anabolic steroids that add muscle. He said there was “no scientific reason” why the drug would be performance-enhancing. Would it relieve asthma? Yes, but that’s only leveling the playing field for a player such as Sir Bradley Wiggins.

Lipworth brushed off anecdotal accounts of the performance-enhancing benefit of triamcinolone, such as the pronouncement of pro cyclist David Millar (banned for doping in 2004) that the drug was the most potent thing he took in his career. Said Lipworth,  “the fact that [Millar] was taking EPO and testosterone at the same time” meant that “the anabolic effect of the testosterone probably counteracted the triamcinolone.”

Incomplete Sports Medicine Knowledge

Probably counteracted? Dr. Lipworth is careful with his words. He is an expert on airway allergy and COPD, but he is not an expert on sport. For example: Glucorticoids (or corticosteroids) can bring about weight loss, and weight affects performance.  For pro cyclists faced with the immense climbs in the European grand tours, muscle mass imposes a weight penalty, and a catabolic steroid that breaks down muscle just might provide the lift to make you fly. The trade-off between gaining muscle and losing weight creates a delicate fine-tuning act for a pro cyclist in a stage race with big mountains.

Muscle mass aside, the reddest flag with triamcinolone, as well as other glucorticoids, is that it suppresses inflammation (in the case of asthma, inflammation of the airways). And minimizing inflammation is key to recovery from strenuous exercise. Who is to say that a drug that reduces inflammation to any degree is not a performance enhancer? Do we know that triamcinolone affects only the airways?

For a deeper shade of gray, you might look at the part of the IAAF rule that expands on what I quoted above: “The chairman of the IAAF TUESC may decide in appropriate circumstances to delegate responsibility for reviewing TUE applications to a single experienced physician.” (Emphasis mine.) When you add to the vagueness of “appropriate circumstances” the possibility that the decision could be in the hands of just one physician, you increase the potential for misjudgment.

(The language for the IAAF rule is taken from the “IAAF Medical and Anti-Doping Department Advisory Note – Therapeutic Use Exemptions, 2013” downloadable from the IAAF site as a .pdf. )

Numbers Game: the BADTUEC.

For a model of what a TUE Committee should look like, we might take a page from The Bahamas Anti-Doping Therapeutic Use Exemption Committee (BADTUEC). You can find it at

The BADTUEC has the least ambiguous language regarding a TUE committee that I could find through a web search. The committee should consist of six members, each of whom is appointed for at most three years (they can be reappointed). The exclusions cover such conflicts of interest as connection with an athlete or a sporting organization.

As specific as the rules are, there remain (at least) three questionable aspects of the BADTUEC. One, there are no specifications as to qualifications other than the term “duly qualified.” Second, there is nothing in the conflicts of interest clause that excludes members with interests in a pharmaceutical company. Third, the means by which the committee reaches a judgment is not specified. Unanimity could be a tough nut with six members. Majority rule leaves open the possibility of a 3-3 stalemate.  Could the committee chairman, appointed by the commission, have the final say, whatever the breakdown between the six members?

The deeper you look into the TUE process, the more fraught it is with ambiguity. It’s hard to avoid the inference that the principle of the TUE itself is flawed. It seeks to level a playing field which is already warped with the uncertainty and complexity of what individual drugs do, compounded by interactions with other drugs both legal and illegal. Moreover, the experts reviewing a case are not explicitly required, at least in the case of the IAAF, to show proof of current expert knowledge.

The most level playing field is where everyone follows the same rules, and prohibiting the use of banned drugs altogether gets it about as level as you could hope for.

Breaking2: Science or Stunt?

Mark Heinicke is the Associate Editor of Road Race Management and is responsible for most of the statistical surveys that appear in the newsletter. Mark has followed the sport as a participant and a writer for over 40 years. With gimpy knees forcing him on to a bicycle in recent years, he observes running in a frequently more detached but analytical manner, which provides a fresh perspective for those of us who spend most of our waking hours in the trenches.

Nike’s project, Breaking2, to help a man break two hours in the marathon by spring of 2017, has been getting heaps of media attention. And that, I believe is the point of it—since failure of this attempt is virtually guaranteed, the best explanation for the project is that it gets a big media splash, I mean swoosh. Why bother with an extraordinary but vain effort, except for the hoopla?

It is being billed as a science project of sorts—testing the limits of human physiology. That makes sense for a clothing manufacturer, presenting the latest in electronic wearables, as the runners—for scientific purposes—will have their vital signs and other key stats monitored, and where else to have monitoring gadgets but embedded in Nike plumage?

Adidas has its own two-hour project under way and under wraps. They announced it to the Wall Street Journal four days after Nike’s announcement, but released no details. One wonders how much Adidas rues letting Nike upstage them. Or how much they might chortle with glee if and when Breaking2 breaks bad.

Nike’s project has been described as “bold,” “audacious,” “wildly ambitious,” and “a moon shot.” Nike executives are eating up this rhetoric like holiday candy.

OK, you think I’m deriding Nike for sensationalism on the basis of the near-impossibility of breaking two hours in the next six months. What’s my reasoning?

Is breaking two hours possible? Sure, sometime. Physiologists have calculated it’s doable, eventually. Definitely if we were to breed runners like racehorses, which might be not so farfetched. By the end of this century, if we haven’t destroyed civilization, a physical specimen will come along who will be to marathoning as Secretariat was to horse racing, and could even get under 1:58:00.

Then again, by that time there may be competitors so augmented by genetic engineering as to make records meaningless. (At least, meaningless to us living in the Dark Ages of high-tech. With disruptive technologies jabbing the body politic on a daily basis, by the year 2100 norms, standards, and values may have evolved into forms unrecognizable to us.)

Back to Breaking2. Is success possible for the spring of 2017? Well, it depends.  As experts have been pointing out, it will depend a LOT on the conditions in which it is run. Optimizing it for temperature, humidity, road surface, and minimal and soft turns, all seem fair (although who knows what psychological effect it might have on runners to be waiting around for that Perfect Day). But, if the course has an elevation drop or start-finish separation outside of IAAF rules for records, it won’t go in the record books. It will look like the science project that Nike is advertising—oh no, it was never about the time, it was about discovery. Once the result gets run through the Nike spin machine, it’s a triumph either way.

But, say the course falls within the IAAF rules for records, and the athletes are not chased by a pack of wolves, what’s the chance of success?

Just about zero. Here’s why:

Consider first, how much the world 1500 meter record on the track has changed since 1998, the 5000 record since 2004, the 10,000 since 2005. In each case, not. Those records delineate the near-limits of the possible. It’s the area of diminishing returns, a few seconds gained from years of advances in training and equipment. The records will be broken, but not by much, and they will come slowly, barring the arrival of a superman.

During that same period, the marathon record has dropped six times, from 2:05:08 in 2002, to 2:02:57 in 2014, sometimes by increments of 20-30 seconds. Striking! Makes you think 2:00:00 is nearly within our grasp. But where does that trajectory actually take us? There’s a cool graph in Runner’s World online that gives you an idea at:

Runner’s World’s graph implies that, even if the record continued to drop in a straight line, it won’t hit 2:00:00 until around 2030. But the advances won’t continue in a straight line, because the athletes are entering a phase where the line begins to flatten out toward an asymptote, just as has happened with the shorter distances on the track.

Instead of looking at the world record progression starting in 2002, let’s look at the stats in another way. Fourteen marathons have been run under 2:04:00. The fastest, 2:02:57 in 2014, is separated from the fourteenth, 2:03:59 in 2008, by 62 seconds. Sixty-two seconds in six years = 10.3 seconds per year.  Also, seven of those fourteen performances belong to just three guys: Wilson Kiprotich Kipsang with three, and two each for Emmanuel Mutai and Dennis Kimetto (WR holder). You can look it up at

Add to this picture the fact that there’s been no progress in the last two years, and you get a sense of diminishing returns as runners gasp in the rarefied atmosphere beyond two hours, three minutes. Which makes the idea of a three minute gain in six months on a record-eligible course kind of outlandish.

Of the three runners picked by Nike—Eliud Kipchoge, Lelisa Desisa, and Zersenay Tadese—only Kipchoge (2:03:05) has come close to the current WR.  It was razor close, indeed, eight seconds off in London this year. Tadese did run a WR 58:23 half marathon, but that was back in 2010.

From all appearances, Kipchoge is the Chosen One, to be spurred on by the other two. He won London last spring, was untouchable in Rio, and he’s won seven of the eight marathons he’s run, the exception being second in Berlin 2013. He’s mentally tough as nails, having won Berlin 2015 in 2:04:00, even though his shoes (made by guess-who) were coming apart. See (with a photo) at Wall Street Journal:

Perhaps it’s on the basis of that performance that Nike has chosen Kipchoge as its Two Hour standard bearer. (They ought to make sure he gets a better pair of shoes for that attempt.)

At age 32, Kipchoge’s at the zenith of his career. Another of his strengths is his comfort with running alone, as Rio attested to. He’ll have to do a lot of running alone to break two hours.