Sunday, October 7, 2007

The Gray Line of Cheating

During our post-run breakfast today, we talked about Marion Jones' doping confession. We discussed the ethics of ingesting substances that purportedly enhance performance, even if they are legal. There is a gray line between what's acceptable, like a strong cup of coffee before a race, and what is borderline cheating, like pills to boost endurance before a race (if the boost comes from the placebo effect, is it cheating?).

I guess it all comes down to the reasons why you run. If you run for purely external gratification (a medal, a money prize, fame, being top 10 finisher) you are more likely to be tempted to cheat. I can imagine that when you are a professional athlete, it is easy to justify it by thinking that everyone else is doing it, so why should you be at a disadvantage. I also imagine that professional competition can change the meaning that running has to you so dramatically, that cheating is so much more tempting.

Cheating is not a temptation that only professional athletes experience. Amateur runners frequently experience windows of opportunity to cheat at races. For example, at trail races. It is so easy to simply skip a section of the course, to 'miss a turn'. It is common to run by yourself for long periods of time, no one would notice if you cut 1-2 miles (that's anywhere from 8-25 minutes off your finishing time).

For amateur runners, the biggest gratification is the knowledge that you did it, and that you did it well. You don't get money (you pay money, and these days, you pay a lot), you don't get fame (except within your small circle of family and friends), and you get a finisher's medal (sometimes) that you can hang at the office. But the most important prize is, you did it! If you cheat, you don't get your prize.

All professional runners were amateur runners at some point (very talented ones, but still amateurs). It is sad that doing what you love for a living can corrupt its meaning so much.

I had a training buddy who didn't like to drink anything but water when running, because he felt that drinking sports drink was cheating (a little extreme for me, but that was his rule). So while he was drinking water and eating saltines for our long runs, I was 'cheating' by washing down gels with Gatorade :-)

What are your thoughts? What do you consider cheating? What things do you allow yourself to boost your performance? Which ones are out?



John Rankin said...

Things that are OK - anything that will prevent an injury (I'm thinking bodyglide, strategically placed bandaids) due to chafing, etc. Energy gels and electrolyte drinks like those provided at a race. Medication to alleviate some pre-existing condition so that you as an amateur can simply participate... (e.g. inhaler for asthma sufferer, tylenol for recent minor injury)

Not OK - medications or substances that extend your natural endurance or strength.

John Rankin said...

Never mind the grey line... this guy stomped all over the bright neon line of cheating. A politician disqualified from the Berlin Marathon. Rose Ruiz's long lost cousin ????

wendy said...

Wow - I've never really thought about it. I drink water, gatorade, eat, use tylenol, etc. If I could opt for an early start, I might even run another marathon. =) Trust me, I'm in no danger of being confused for a winner - an early start just allows me to finish before ALL the aid stations have packed up. =)