Tuesday 15 January 2013

You're Only Cheating Yourself

This Thursday will see Oprah Winfrey interview Lance Armstrong regarding the part that he played in the doping scandal that has swept the professional cycling world since the release of the USADA's damning ream of evidence against Lance, the U.S. Postal Service Pro Cycling Team, and indeed much of the pro-cycling community. I won't go into any details about it here, as people far more knowledgable than I have already dissected the report, and the conclusion seems to be pretty unanimous: the US Postal Service Pro Cycling Team did indeed run "the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen". 

Despite the evidence against him, Lance has always avidly denied cheating, decrying the USADA report as a "government funded witch hunt" (isn't that the same government that funds the USPS team?). But, lo and behold, news has leaked out that in the interview shot on Monday, Lance has finally admitted to cheating. Apparently witch-hunts aren't such a bad idea when there are witches abroad... 

(Hmm, that Terry Pratchett book was set in Lancre. Lancre... Lance... Coincidence?! I think not.)

The exact details of his "confession" will be a nice surprise when we actually see the interview, but it will inevitably prove to be a "heart-felt" PR exercise aiming to put Lance back on the good side of the public (Scott Dunlap has a written an intriguing post looking at this from a marketing point of view). He will be apologetic to the fans he has let down and those in the cancer community who may feel betrayed by his admission of guilt. He has in fact already apologised to the staff of the LiveStrong Cancer Foundation which he set up after battling against testicular cancer in 1997. But what he most definitely will not do is admit that he was culpable in the organisation of such a doping program, merely that he was taken in by the culture of doping that unfortunately seems to be endemic in the sport. There is too much at stake for him to admit this; He doesn't want to lose his money. He doesn't want to face a court on perjury charges. He doesn't want to be banned from ever competing again.

This morning I got in a discussion with some work colleagues about cheating, and the mentality that can lead somebody to do it. Personally I do not understand it. I could not imagine feeling that I hadn't achieved what I claimed. It would eat me up, not because I would be worried that I would be caught, but because I knew. I look back on times when I have cheated as a child (slipping a £100 note out of the bank in a game of Monopoly) and cringe. Last year when I found I had inadvertently cut a small section of the Pilgrim's Challenge, I was mortified and immediately went and told the Race Director to get a time penalty. The way I view my own achievements is much more important to me than the way others do. If you are running only to beat your own goals, then by cheating you are indeed only cheating yourself, and as far as I am concerned that is exactly a reason not to do it. But if you're in a race situation then getting one place advantage through cheating means that everybody else behind you loses a position. The idea that you wouldn't consider the effect even a small case of cheating might have on others is alien to me. 

Consider the case of Rob Sloane, who jumped on a bus at mile 20 of the Kielder Marathon and went on to come third. In the video, you can see the guy who actually came third looking a bit confused as to why he didn't get a medal. Nobody overtook him, but when he ran through the line he found that somebody else was already being congratulated and interviewed. Did Sloane look at all guilty during his interview? No. Did he feel bad about taking third place away from someone who ran better than him on the day? Probably not - I imagine he didn't even think about it. He has since apologised, but he is not sorry that he did it. He's sorry that he got caught.

But this got me thinking about cheating. What exactly does it mean to cheat? Geoff Roes posted a fantastic piece asking similar questions at iRunFar. The case of Rob Sloane above is a fairly clear-cut case, but what about something that comes up quite regularly in trail racing - cutting the course? To some runners, cutting corners on switchbacks for instance is perfectly acceptable. My own feeling on the matter is that it depends on the type of race that you are running. A point-to-point race or event, where you are simply told that you need to traverse between several points (for instance the 42 peaks of the Bob Graham Round) is completely open to personal navigational choices. But if you are running on a course that has been marked and measured, or if there is a clearly delineated trail, then I believe that this is the route that you should take. After all, if you are doing a 100 mile race but cut off some of it then you are no longer running 100 miles. 

Last year there was some controversy at the Speedgoat 50K as Kilian Jornet was seen to cut some of the switchbacks. This appeared to highlight a fundamental difference between rule-sets in European and American races. In European races (particularly those in the International Skyrunning Federation series), cutting switchbacks is often seen as the norm. However in American races, runners are mandated to stay on the trail, often due to restrictions of races being held in National Parks and to protect the environment. However, the Speedgoat rules did not explicitly prohibit cutting the course, and so Kilian ran in his usual way (i.e. straight down the quickest route!). The upshot was that Kilian was given the win from the ISF, but the prize money and official win for the race went to Ricky Gates. Had there been something in the rules, it would have been a clear case of cheating, but as it was it seemed to be a case of cultural differences. My own feeling is that you should assume that you can't cut the course if there's any ambiguity (not that you can), but that's just my own belief. Either way, unless I know for a fact that there is no specific route to follow I will do me damnedest to stay on it (navigational mishaps aside of course).

So what about the cheating that kicked this post off; what about the use of drugs like Erythropoietin (EPO)? EPO is a naturally occurring hormone in the body that controls the production of red blood cells. Increased EPO is beneficial in endurance sports such as cycling as it promotes improved VO2 max due to the higher oxygen-carrying ability of having more red-blood cells. But synthetic EPO is a performance enhancer. It is not some form of super drug that can instantly make anybody into a cycling God - you still need to train insanely hard to see any benefits. EPO just gives you an edge. Is that any different to other fitness supplements such as creatine, protein supplements, B-vitamins, amino acids, and even caffeine. All of these are supplements that enhance naturally occurring mechanisms in the body, but the trick is to incorporate them into your training schedule at the right times. Is a rugby player taking creatine and whey-protein to aid muscle regeneration after a game any different than a cyclist using EPO to improve oxygen transport?

The answer to me is obviously yes, and for one clear reason; EPO is a banned substance. There was a time when caffeine was a banned substance at the Olympics due to the huge benefits that it can give to performance, but was removed due to its ubiquitous nature in modern life.

The question of whether or not people should be taking supplements (the closest I come is a glass of chocolate milk after a run) is a completely different discussion. As soon as something is expressly forbidden, then that's it. You shouldn't do it. The argument that we have heard over and over from the cyclists implicated in this scandal (and will doubtless hear on Thursday) is that "everybody was doing it". The problem is that this is not entirely true. Racers such as Christophe Bassons were staunch anti-doping campaigners but were ostracised for speaking out. You could say, "Hell, if everybody wants to do it then what's the problem? Let's let them dope themselves up to the eyeballs and give us the super-human spectacle that we crave." Ignoring the ethical issues with that (pft, ethics), if even one person does not want to dope ("pan y agua" in the parlance) then nobody should. How many great cyclists have been unable to win a race purely because they failed to join in with the culture of cheating that pervaded the sport. The implications for riders who chose not to dope was that they would never have a chance. Add to that the bullying and threats that seem to have been part and parcel of things and it's no wonder so many people joined in. 

But no matter what the reasons, it will never change the fact that cheating is wrong; you are gaining an advantage that others do not have. You're not only cheating yourself; you're inevitably cheating somebody else.  I discussed this matter with my Dad recently, and the question of the murkiness of what constitutes cheating came up. Jumping on a bus is clearly cheating. Having a cup of coffee clearly isn't. But where does sensible training end, and cheating begin? Is using supplements cheating since they give you an advantage over what you would have gained naturally without using them? But you could get similar benefits from a carefully selected diet. Is training in an altitude tent cheating (as was suggested in the comments of the Geoff Roes piece) as it gives you a benefit for a race like Leadville that other runners may not have? But you could just go and live somewhere at high altitude. The key, as my Dad said, is intent; they know that what they are doing is wrong. You know when you are breaking the rules, and that is when you know you are cheating. You might not care however, and some people just seem to be wired this way.

I'm not naive enough to think that our sport is free from cheats (look at the disgraced winner of the Comrades ultra last year), but I would hope that we don't devolve down the same road as professional cycling. Certainly, while large prize-pots are not on the table, there is little reason for anybody to race an ultra that doesn't just have a love for running. But with prize purses like those seen at Run Rabbit Run gradually sneaking in, will we start to see people attempting to get that edge over their competition? Man I hope not. For now, I'm going to carry on running my races in my own way - sticking to the rules and being able to sleep at night. After Thursday, perhaps we can just put Lance to bed - then never speak of him again. Until he makes his way to ultrarunning of course.

Hopefully this whole debacle can ensure that the doping culture in cycling (and in sport in general) is curtailed. We obviously can't rely on people's morals to keep things fair, so maybe getting everything officially out in the open will help to make things more transparent and make it harder to get away with (something that seems to have been frighteningly easy in the past). Team Sky had a fantastic year last year, and have made a public pledge of anti-doping with riders signing to say they are clean. Bradley Wiggins' win has certainly brought cycling into the public eye in a much more positive light. With sideburns like that, how can we possibly doubt him!


  1. Great post Sam. My view on cheating in sport is something people have to live with. Like you I couldn't, and if somebody wants to claim a fastest known time or a win through cheating then to me they aren't sportsman and good luck to them living with the "what ifs" and the "could I have really won?" I'd rather come second and know I achieved it. That said, I'm not at the bleeding edge of the sport or at the top of the field and nor do I expect to be, so some would argue that it is easy for me to say this as I won't get near to a win anyway.

    Ultimately there is always a line to draw somewhere and there will be activities very close to that line. I agree with your father, it's about intent, but how do you prove intent? The result is we can only look at actions which is probably why each activity close tot he line results in such black and white opinion from people.

    An example here is on the switchbacks issue we probably slightly differ on. Having been out ont he weekend to recce the first 26 miles of the Lakeland100 I noticed a clear trod cutting the corner off the main path. This probably saved 20 footsteps, but I'd argue it was fair enough because the course isn't marked out and it was a clear trod despite it deviating from the 6 foot wide path. Further on we came to a section where there was a less clear trod cutting off a bigger section of path, but still less than 50 steps. It was much steeper though, so whilst it was quicker one has to ask at what cost and how many of those decisions will come back to haunt you at the 80 mile mark.

    The Edale Skyline presents an interesting case study. Last year's winner (Lloyd Taggart I think) drops down on the final section into the valley and then climbs back up again, the other chap who was neck and neck with him knew Lloyd would beat him on the uphill so went around the top. Lloyd beat him by ~90 seconds - cheating? Having seen the down and up I'd say no, I'd say "loony!" then take my hat off to the chap.

    For me, where the course is marked out then there is no question and if the organisers think there is a significant benefit by cutting in places they merely need to make a statement about it or mark that section (we do on the Sandstone Trail Challenge race I help organise). On something like the lakeland100 people will also make navigational errors so the distance is undoubtedly evened out.

    As you say, the fine lines are always ripe for debate; what Lance did isn't.

  2. That's a very good point about the fact that the shortest route (so cutting the course) isn't necessarily the fastest or most efficient route. Runners like Kilian can get away with running straight up/down, but for most mere mortals taking the switchbacks as they come will likely result in the best outcome.

    Your point about Lakeland is valid though, and this exact question was posed to the race organisers last year on Facebook. The organisers were quite vague that you should just take the clear path, but granted a clear trod like you describe may fall under this description. In the half that I ran, I stuck to the main path and got overtaken by runners on sections like these which was a little grating, but it is probably just another case of differences between cultures. Lakeland skirts the boundary of trail and fell (in as much as the trails that you run on are at times somewhat less well defined, and sometimes non-existent), so there is more ambiguity. There are some sections where there really isn't a path at all (at least to me untrained eyes - I remember from our BGR recce that my definition of a path is very different to regular fell runners!), so you really are just running from one point to another and runners were taking completely different lines with no one "correct" route. Something like UTMB on the other hand has very regular trail markers to delineate the course, and taking even an obviously well-trod cut here is more easily definable as going "off course".

    I guess the point is that there are many grey areas, and people will disagree about which are the light greys and which are the dark. But I know that I would feel better about my race on a personal level by sticking to the main path, even if it may cost me a few minutes over the long run.

  3. Nice post. So many interesting questions raised. If you have people that cheat and just don't care - maybe some people are just like this. Going on from this, if you really don't actually care, then are you cheating yourself? Do those that 'cheat' and not care feel the same sense of achievement that those who don't?

    To someone that would never cheat, it is an almost impossible perspective to comprehend, but perhaps if there are people that are just fundamentally different in that way, then we will always have cheating. We know for example that people on the autistic spectrum have issues with the processing of subtle emotions. It is not beyond comprehension, that in an area as grey as this, constantly shifting with advances in technology and understanding of human physiology that 'cheating' occurs, and those that do so, raise no alarm bells in their own conscience.

    As an aside, I think that lots and lots of people run ultras for something other than a love of running. But that's a whole other kettle of fish. :-)


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