Sunday, March 29, 2009

What's wrong with EPO

Michele Ferrari, Lance's former trainer, is quoted in Daniel Coyle's awesome book Lance Armstrong's War, describing cheese and naps as performance enhancers that should be banned. He is obviously kidding but uses the humor to make the point that there are no black and white lines in the performance enhancer discussion. God did not proclaim from Mt. Sinai that EPO is bad, Power Bar good. These decisions have been made by human organizations based on some arbitrary set of guidelines, yet they are treated as scripture.

To support banning substances like EPO and steroids, there are a number of arguments that are used.

The Unfair Advantage

EPO gives a grossly unfair advantage to those who take it, destroying the competitive playing field.

There are a lot substances and tools that give its users an unfair advantage, and all can be acquired if you have lots of $$. Using a $5,000 Trek Madone rather than a $1,300 Biachi Imola creates as much advantage as EPO or not EPO. Hiring a coach like Mark Allen or Chris Carmichael for big bucks provides significant advantage over self coached athletes. Training at altitude versus sea level? Huge. None of these are banned. And competitive athletes don't share training principles. The whole point is to discover the best secrets - the shit that kills - and exploit them to the max until the competition finds them. EPO is no different.

Health Risks

We must protect the athletes from hurting themselves.

It can't be disputed that while EPO improves endurance athletes' ability to process oxygen and perform at a higher level, it also comes with long term health risks. But bombing down a slick Pyrenean road on ultathin tires at 60 mph is no picnic. Every year one or more cyclists dies in a crash and the only move that cycling authorities have made to address the issue is requiring plastic helmets. Running 100+ miles a week isn't good for you. A muscle biopsy on a 25-year old competitor after the 100 mile Western States race revealed the typical profile of a 75-year old. Female endurance athletes stop menustrating because they lack a healthy level of body fat. A growing number of people are dying of heart attacks during the swim portion of triathlons. Clearly, even without EPO, endurance sports at extreme levels aren't good for your health but noone is advocating banning them or their $500 entry fees.

Save the Kids

If we don't ban performance enhancers, little Johnny and Jane will take them so they too can excel at sports.

The CW is that if we don't ban EPO and steroids, American kids will all be inspired to to take them just like their heroes. Is this the exact behavior that needs to be controlled and influenced - a desire to do well in sports? The two top problems affecting America's youth are obesity and flopping in the classroom. We are producing stupid, fat kids. Steroids usage is becoming more prevalent in middle an high schools but not as much as twinkies and X-Boxes
and we aren't trying to ban them. Are we really worried that Arod is the bad influence, not our fat and lazy parents?

The point is not to legalize EPO and steroids today; it's to examine what we really want in our sports, whether as competitor or observe. If the whole point is to push the barriers of human performance, why does the line we won't cross have to be at EPO? Are these arcane rules similar to the Cambridge Deans in Chariots of Fire who objected to a paid coach?

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Endurance Sports as Controversial Topic

I aspire to be a writer, but I am searching for my topic, my inner muse. In the book I Talk About When I Think About Running, Haruki Murakami compares his approach to writing to running. It requires work and daily dedication and focus unlike natural writers who just have the words flow. I understand this but it also requires that you be passionate about the subject of your essay or book. If you don't feel strongly about a topic, your writing will be stunningly boring. And an unread writer is like a virgin porn star - worthless.

For example, while in Israel, I hung out with Seth Freedman a columnist for the Guardian, a British newspaper. Seth is a former member of the Israeli Defense Forces, and writes a twice weekly column principally on Israel's policies in Gaza and the West Bank. It's totally understandable for a former soldier to have strong opinions on policies that he had to enforce for 15 months. His columns are very provocative because he makes his opinions known.

It is painfully obvious that endurance sports are my preferred topic for espousing. But is there anything that can be written on the topic that can stir emotions other than agreement? I read a number of endurance blogs but they all are pretty much the same - emotional summaries of a workout or race in which the man or woman discovered their inner chi, salutes to the solidarity of the endurance community and a few self deprecating comments to make sure no one thinks they are taking themselves too seriously. This summarizes 79% of my entries.

Possible themes of controversy could include:

  • Prefabricated and expensive race experiences
  • Endurance bloggers and the disease of me
  • Defense of performance enhancers
  • Endurance lifestyle versus the endurance athlete
  • Occupied territories of running (OK - this doesn't exist but I need some bridge to the fascinating, intense topic of the Middle East)

There have to be more because endurance sports are like any drug - there is an upside and downside to it, depending how it is administered.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Cheap, smart or stuborn

When I first started running 123 years ago, my dad would not buy me a pair of running shoes until I proved that I was committed to it. There is nothing more intimidating than a skinny white kid running a leg of a mile relay in high white socks and low top basketball shoes. Since I was denied a good pair of running shoes at the beginning, I coveted them and was very excited when I got my first pair of Nike waffle trainers. After that I wanted everything that my parents money could by me - Goretex jackets and pants, fancy watches, fancy running shirts, racing spikes, etc. I didn't get everything I wanted (I actually got very little) but it didn't stop me from wanting and even dreaming about a specific pair of Nike racing flats.

Fast forward to adulthood and I now have my own money and I can buy whatever I want. I still get excited when I go to a bike or running store and see all the cool gear and clothes. I just got a new pair of olive LiveStrong shorts and am in ecstasy. So the wanting hasn't stopped. However, I get slightly nauseous when I go to Ironman races and I see the people with their $5,000 bikes and $500 bike outfits (on which they are ironically providing free advertising for someone), particularly the people who don't even have a shot at beating me. I understand that equipment can help improve performance but will an incredible bike really make a difference for someone who is 40 pounds overweight?

So I am now at the point where I am trying to decide what stuff is actually worth the investment to help me improve as an endurance athlete. Given that I haven't ran and swum in over a year, I think my5-year old $1,200 Bianchi Imola bike and $20 Tyra goggles and suit will suffice for now. I go through new Asics every 15 weeks and still mostly run in Old Navy shorts (besides my aforementioned LiveStrong fetish). So I seem OK in the status quo.

But what about things that I have never really tried? How will I know if Zensah compression socks will help me or if PureSport drinks can really make a difference over the long term. Have I become a caveman fighting against electricity?

Monday, March 02, 2009

How do I go sub 3.30

If I am going to qualify for the 2010 Boston Marathon by running a sub-3.30 marathon this year, I have to make sure I follow a serious training plan. It won't be easy as 2007 when I ran 3.27.40 because I am not willing to go off Creatine in order to get my weight back down to 170. I know I can qualify at 180 if I train smart. But what does that mean?

1) Don't run more than 8 miles more than once a week. In the past I have gotten too hyped up about long runs and have done several 10+ mile runs in a week. This pushes me closer to getting injured and ends up killing me mentally. Even though it's only 16 minutes longer than an 8 mile run, 10 is much tougher and slowly eats away at my motivation if I do too many of them.

2) I must do at least a 10 mile run every week, even if it means before work. Just as too many 10 milers is brain numbing, not enough can kill me too. The benefits are more for my mental stability because if I have done a 10 miler the previous week, a 16 or 18 miler won't seem that much longer.

3) Do some speed work at least once every two weeks. As I get older, I am still running sub 8 minute miles on all my runs but it seems harder. This doesn't mean I have to go to the track and rip of 20 quartes at 65 seconds. I just need to get to the point that I can consistently rip off a 5 or 6 miler at 7 minute pace, which will make 8 minute pace a walk in the park. There are 10k races in the Bay area almost every weekend. I also need to do several Yasso's at 7 minute pace just to be one of the cool kids.

4) I need to make sure I have some balance. One of the main reasons I am not doing triathlons anymore is I wanted to make sure I had some semblance of a life, and when I trained for the Ironman I let it take over my life. Training for a marathon takes half the time if not less as training for an Ironman - lots of time for a life.

5) Fitness needs to be more than just the marathon. One of the goals of working out is to qualify but I also can't be afraid to test myself physically in other areas like Cross Fit or long bike rides. One of the reasons I don't want to go off Creatine is I like feeling strong and fit, but I am still tending to demonstrate that just by lifting and runnning. It's time to incorporate Angie, Barbara and Chelsea.

6) Have a goal post Boston. Once I do qualify for Boston, what I am I going to have left as a goal. One of the reasons I stopped doing triathlons shortly after the 2006 Lake Placid Ironman is I didn't feel like doing another one would be motivating unless I had a big goal out there like going sub 12 hours. I don't think I am prepared to do the hard training needed to go much faster than 3 hours 30 minutes, but will I be happy trying to qualify for Boston a second time?