Drug Testing: Up Close and Personal
by Laurel Park, Jul. 21, 2002
Drug Testing: Up Close and Personal
It's not often that I get to experience something new in connection with road racing, but recently I had just that opportunity. By virtue of his top-ten finish at the 2002 Pittsburgh Marathon, my husband was drug tested.
Drug testing is a hot topic among the world's elite runners (which, until Pittsburgh, we had not considered my husband to be). Ten years ago, the list of so-called "banned substances" was organized into broad categories (stimulants, steroids, masking agents) and the list fit on the back of a credit card-sized "TAC" information card. Today, drug testing is handled by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), which produces a slick and glossy 34-page guide explaining the drug testing procedure and listing banned and permitted substances. Many of the banned substances require a degree in pharmacology to recognize, although a familiar word pops up now and then (caffeine, cocaine, marijuana, alcohol). Careful reading of the booklet leaves one afraid to eat or drink anything that has not undergone chemical analysis. What if my pack of gum rubs up against coffee beans on the way home from the store? One thing is perfectly clear after reading the booklet: If you are a world-class runner, you'd best not catch the flu because there is almost nothing legal that you can take to alleviate your symptoms except ibuprofen and Afrin nasal spray.
The tests conducted at Pittsburgh were urine-based, not blood-based, which meant that the USADA was checking primarily for stimulants and not the more serious (and controversial) substances like EPO, growth hormone, and blood doping. Until this year, blood testing was rarely conducted, but due in part to pressure from athletes like Paula Radcliffe (remember her sign at the Edmonton world championships: "EPO Cheats Out!"), all Olympic medalists are blood tested (pity the Russian cross-country skiers) and random out-of-competition blood testing of nationally-ranked athletes began in May.
The drug-testing experience itself was both fascinating and incredibly boring. Immediately upon crossing the finish line, Rich was greeted by Thomas, his USADA "chaperone." Thomas remain Rich's closest companion for the next 2-1/2 hours, accompanying him everywhere and watching his every move. We were escorted into the "doping control room" (the visiting team locker room at Heinz Field - the highlight of the experience for me), which was stocked with water and PowerAde. And there we sat, with 19 other dehydrated marathoners, their chaperones and coaches/agents, waiting for nature to take its course.
There is a certain kind of "bonding" that takes place in a doping control room, the sharing of a special and unique event. While I could never say that Rich became one with the Kenyans, for a while everyone was on equal ground, united by human physiology. And for what it's worth, Kenyans are not faster than Americans at everything. While there was a bit of chatting and socializing, for most part people were focused on the task at hand and getting out of there as quickly as possible. One of the women, who'd had a disappointing race but still finished within drug-testing limits, was having a rough time. Not only had she fallen short of her goal of qualifying for the Olympic Trials, she was severely dehydrated and had stomach cramps, which made swallowing the chilled fluids difficult. She needed to drink but couldn't. After about 45 futile minutes, she grabbed one of the specially sealed "specimen cups," motioned to her chaperone, and headed to the restroom. A few minutes later she emerged looking defeated, her cup containing about an ounce of what looked like maple syrup. She dropped into a chair and grabbed another bottle of PowerAde.
Rich sat in a corner, slowly and quietly consuming bottle after bottle of water. Finally, after about 90 minutes, he stood up and motioned to his chaperone. Emerging from the restroom, he triumphantly held up his specimen cup and headed to a processing table. After completing the necessary paperwork, the intricate procedure of dividing the sample into "A" and "B" cups began, as did analysis of volume and concentration ("specific gravity"). No one except the athlete is permitted to handle the sample until it is sealed in the "A" and "B" sample cups (the "A" sample is analyzed first, and if there are any irregularities the "B" sample is analyzed). Everything is double checked, including control numbers and bar-codes. As Rich finished sealing the sample cups, the USADA "doping control officer" checked the specific gravity. She paused. "Rich, I'm sorry, but it isn't acceptable," she said. "I need of reading of at least 1.5, and yours is 1.3." Rich slumped in his chair. "Now what?" He sighed. "Well," she explained slowly. "In these cases we opt for quantity. So I need you to fill another specimen cup." Rich sighed, grabbed two more bottles of water, and returned to his corner.
After another agonizing hour, we were free. Rich produced the required quantity and finished processing his sample. We bid Thomas adieu and headed out for lunch. Time required to complete the marathon: 2:28. Time required to complete the drug testing: 2:28. As we left, the unfortunate woman was still sitting dejectedly, her specimen cup holding about two ounces and another PowerAde in her hand.
While the drug testing process seems slightly absurd, the consequences of a failed test are not. While USAT&F has been harshly criticized by international athletic agencies (IAAF, IOC) for suppressing the results of a few high-profile athletes who tested positive, athletes at the lower end of the commercialization scale face a 2-4 year suspension from any event that is sanctioned by USAT&F, USOC, IAAF or IOC. And the chance of mistakenly eating something that would result in a failed test is frighteningly high (lemon-poppy seed muffin, anyone?). People have different metabolic rates and something that poses no problem for one person may be the kiss of death for someone else. I know of one runner who consumed a bottle of Coke prior to a race and ended up testing over the acceptable limit for caffeine afterward (ironically, Coke was an official sponsor of the event). Rich is judicious in taking medicines to begin with, and he limits his intake of coffee in the week prior to a marathon. Still, filling out the paperwork was a little unnerving. What if some bizarre, unknown spice had been added to Saturday's pasta sauce?
While not really anxious to endure the process again, it was definitely interesting and a learning experience. I imagine world-class runners arrive at races prepared, with a change of clothes, a small pillow, and several novels by Tolstoy to pass the time. For us, once was enough. Even the novelty of the visiting team locker room at Heinz Field wears thin after a while.