How many of my fellow amateur marathoners are taking banned substances to improve their performance during marathons? Are some of my friends doing it? A recent article in The Guardian got me thinking about this, and the issue of doping in amateur sports.
If you haven’t read the story, it centres on a woman, Claire Squires, who died during the London Marathon in 2012. It was later discovered that her water bottle contained a banned energy drink called Jack3d (still available for sale) that contained a stimulant called DMAA (dimethylamylamine). It’s not specifically mentioned on the World Anti-Dopting Agency (WADA) list of banned substances, but likely falls into the category of “other substances with a similar chemical structure or similar biological effect(s)” in section S6. STIMULANTS.
According to the article, it wasn’t known for sure if the woman drank the energy drink or not, but friends said she planned to drink it at 15 miles and that she wanted to post a better time than her previous personal best of just over four hours. That’s not a particularly fast runner, even for a woman her age (30). We’re definitely talking about an amateur runner here.
Based on tests of her blood after her death, it would appear she did ingest the drink, and experts suggest that it contributed to her death:
Prof William McKenna of the University College London hospitals trust, who reviewed Squires’s medical records, said he found “significant levels” of the amphetamine-like substance in her blood. The energy drink was, he added, “an important factor” in Squires’s death.
“In an apparently fit and healthy young woman who dies suddenly in the last stages of the London marathon, with no abnormalities identified to explain her death, the toxicology identifying an amphetamine-like substance does suggest its contribution to her [cardiac] arrest, particularly after excessive exercise,” he said.
“In the absence of further evidence, we think the irregular heartbeat is a red herring and the substance found in the blood is an important factor in the outcome.”
This is going to sound a bit like Lance Armstrong, but I’ve never taken any performance enhancing drugs or substances either during a race, or outside of one. I’ve taken hydromorphone (a WADA-banned substance) after my bike accident, and that continued for a few months after to manage pain around my physiotherapy sessions. I never took it during a race and never took it as part of pain relief program related to running.
I’ve also taken either ibuprofen or acetaminophen during races on two occasions. Neither substance is banned, and neither has performance enhancing properties, except that it might dull pain in the later stages of a marathon. I took it with that in mind during both the Niagara Ultra 50km race in 2012 and during the 2012 Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon. I think it helped my performance and I’m somewhat torn about whether that is okay.
How big a problem is this?
If Claire Squires was doing it, then others must be doing it.
I think the time has come to have athletes in races sign a statement saying they aren’t cheating by taking banned substances. And I also think it’s time to take a good look at amateur athletes and maybe start doing some random testing at larger marathons. I’d start with a blind study where it is clear that there is no way to correlate the athlete with the test. Ask a percentage of runners at the finish to provide a urine sample completely anonymously. Test them and see how much of a problem this is.
How about you? Have you ever taken banned stimulants or narcotics before a race or as part of your training program? Do you think we are at a point where amateur athletes should undergo random testing at some big events?