Running Clean in a Sometimes Dirty Sport
Photo: Joe Viger

My father's example and my belief in the essence of competition are what have always kept me clean

As a youngster, long before I had dreams of being a fast runner, my first sport was basketball.

Growing up, my competitive side was sparked by the influence of watching my father, and I quickly learned winning was not something that came easy.

I mimicked everything I saw him do when he practiced on our backyard hoop: his shot technique, dribbling, all the way down to the shoes he wore. I learned that Pops was dedicated and intense, and you could see in his eyes (especially during competition, even friendly one-on-one pickup games) that he intended to win, exerting every ounce of energy he had ‘til the end.

That defined competition for me.

I followed his lead, bringing my own dedication and intensity when I would challenge my friends and go toe to toe in a game of one-on-one. When we were kids, we used what we were born with. Sometimes you had a natural advantage over another—whether it was height, weight, quickness, agility or just pure desire to succeed. Thanks to my father’s influence, hard work was usually the deciding factor for me, as most young kids were not extremely dedicated or even motivated to push themselves to the limit in the name of improving the craft of their favorite sport.

As I got older and found myself competing in a new sport, much was the same. Once I became a distance runner, I found that being devoted and working diligently could lead to amazing outcomes. Still, accomplishing goals became difficult and, at times, failure was more frequent than success. I thought this was something that happened to us all, even the crème de la crème. Again, referring back to my father’s example, I believed the only way to continue forward was to work harder.

Early in my high school career, though, I began to hear stories of athletes using “medicine” to gain advantage over their competitors. Initially I paid it no mind, thinking: “How could medicine help you, unless you are sick?” Little did I know, this medicine was not being used to treat the sick, but rather to unnaturally boost red blood cells in healthy athletes. The medicine I had heard of was EPO, and it had been around for years.

I came across stories of the great German cyclist Jan Ullrich, whom I was a huge fan of at the time. The fact that a human could hold such a high level of power over such a long period of time in a cycling race was astounding. Being that I was making my shift into endurance athletics, seeing such a performance was inspiring. Watching Ullrich gave me the idea that maybe one day I could accomplish endurance feats just as insane. I had no idea he was cheating by using banned substances. The very day I stumbled upon various articles concerning Ullrich testing positive for doping, my impression of amazing performances blurred. Many performances of my favorite athletes at that time led me to start questioning whether they were using the gifts they were born with—or giving the genetics they were born with a boost to achieve success, win races and earn money.

This was a devastating moment for me.

It was probably comparable to the moment when a child finds out Santa Claus isn’t real. I started to think certain feats in distance running that I wanted to achieve were also unattainable. My personal goals seemed unreal now. Confidence fled the scene like a criminal.

At the time, many thoughts crashed my mind, even thoughts of the benefits and how remarkable of an athlete I could be if I too chose to cheat. Would it be worth it? What would my family think if I headed down that path? What would I think of myself? How could I sleep at night knowing I would be cheating? What would my health look like 10 to 20 years in the future?

But none of it felt right, and I never went down that road in my high school career, college career or now in my professional career. Turns out Pops’ example was spot-on for me. Stay true, keep working hard and you will find success.

I actually think most athletes are competing clean, but that’s what helps expose the ones that are doping.

As a professional athlete, you hear stories, rumors of athletes cheating or those that cheated in the past. You notice patterns in training in relation to performance for athletes who test positive for banned substances. I had even met athletes in my past who had doped in their careers. Hearing their stories of glory, only to be pained later in life with the notion that they didn’t compete fairly was more than enough reason for me to avoid that path. Many of these athletes I have come across have had health issues of somewhat unknown origins. I’m talking about cancers, diseases and other ailments—with some linked to drug abuse with products such as EPO, steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs. If that wasn’t enough to deter, reading the stories from the few who were caught about how their lives changed drastically following the skeleton in their closet being exposed also served as a strong reminder of the negativity that follows a cheater’s lifestyle: Losing close friends, not being able to compete in the sport you love, seeing the look loved ones gave you following a positive doping test. All these things were a reality and a possibility.

As a professional athlete you can weigh the good and bad and, in my eyes, the bad far outweighs the good when it comes to doping. I’m not oblivious to the fact that many people have different value systems and beliefs. It would be ignorant to believe that principles that I value, which deter me from doping, are also valued by every other athlete. There are many athletes who do not care about the dangers of doping, or the negative aspects that will tag along in their lives long after they’re done competing.

I came across one such an athlete early in my professional career. My first experience losing to an athlete who later failed a doping control test was one of the most frustrating moments in my life. I had raced this athlete in the past and had never lost to him or seen him post stellar results. We toed the line in a half marathon on a crisp morning in California. He was aggressive from the start, but none of the guys in the lead group seemed concerned as we all expected him to drop back. But this day he was different. He was not coming back easy; in fact, he was continuing to distance himself from us halfway through the race. At first thought, I figured maybe he was injured or just out of shape when I had raced him in the past.

After talking with him and others who lived near him, I found out that was not true.

This runner had been healthy and been training consistently for years with good but not great results. And here’s something you need to understand: Unlike the world of recreational running, injuries or lack of fitness are not usually factors in the elite ranks. Why? Professional athletes do not improve so drastically due to the nature of their lifestyle, family or work scenarios, which might play a role in their ability to train. Most pro athletes typically have the opportunity to prepare and train hard for extended periods of time, especially for races with a good amount of funding/prestige. They toe the line when they are ready, hoping to achieve optimal results. But top-tier contenders rarely show up out of shape for a high-level race.

That’s why the phrase “the athletes always know” rings true even before coaches, administrators or the media start asking questions or pointing fingers.

Typically athletes within the same tier know who the most likely dopers in their sport are. We know how our competitors are training, so when we see something fishy from someone whom has been on the racing scene awhile, we naturally become suspicious. When you see a monumental improvement from an athlete you’ve known for some time who wasn’t injured or was not merely out of shape most of their career, you immediately scratch your head and wonder.

Following the race I described above, many of us who had been beaten that day were left in shock without much to say about what we had just witnessed. During my cool-down run with a few other runners, the chatter started to heat up. A few athletes were questioning how this guy improved so greatly over such a short period of time. Where there is smoke—especially that much smoke—there is usually fire. Sure enough, time went by and one of his training partners was busted for EPO use. A little more time passed and the athlete who lit us up in that half marathon was busted for the same. It was a huge disappointment and also gave me a twinge of discouragement.

I knew I would wind up eventually receiving more prize money from that race, given the disqualifications. I also began to contemplate the use of PEDs myself. The moment of glory coming across the finish a position higher was stolen from me. Money couldn’t give me that moment back. This guy was not someone who should have been capable of even placing in the top 3 in this race, yet he destroyed the field. This left me briefly contemplating the benefits of PEDs. I was tired of having money taken from my pockets without the certainty that every athlete ahead of me was clean.

Before even investigating how to purchase performance-enhancing drugs, I sat there and asked myself a series of simple questions. Why am I in this sport? What do I want from this sport in the long term?

I loved running not solely for the competition or winning, but also because of the exploration and camaraderie behind it. When I’m older I want to be able to look at my career and say, “I won this race or ran this time with the gifts God blessed me with.” There is nothing more satisfying in my opinion than knowing that you’ve worked hard to earn every goal, gift, victory and personal achievement you collected with natural ability and work ethic. Anyone can cheat, but not anyone can work hard and handle intermittent failures only to rise again.

I always admired the athlete who could consistently compete with the best rather than the athlete who rarely competed with the best but once in a blue moon dominated the field. Not anyone can be consistent. Dopers usually aren’t consistent. The ability to be consistent requires a never-ending commitment to being your best and requires a strong mental state.

When you cheat you are basically succumbing to the idea that you have a weak mentality. Weak-minded athletes look for an easy way out, shortcuts or even excuses to underachieve. I’m confident that a study covering the relationship between mental toughness and doped athletes vs. clean athletes would conclude that dopers have mental instability to go along with a weak mentality. The answers and revelations to those simple questions reaffirmed who I was and were more than enough to leave me satisfied with my natural abilities and never taking the steps of crossing that road to cheat.

Sport is a gift that we are able to share with our community. Through sport we can show respect and admiration for others who also share the same passion. Doping is highly anti-sport, anti-community. If you truly love a sport and what it brings you, why slap your peers in the face and piss on your sport by cheating? I mean, after all that, who are you supposed to enjoy the sport with?

I compare my love of the sport to my passionate endeavors in gardening. I can’t truly call myself a gardener if I simply plant fully grown pepper plants from a store and skip the nurturing process from seed to plant. When you love your sport—in my case, running—you even love the struggle of being out of shape, the struggle to accomplish goals, even the days where you might have a bad workout as you become motivated to work harder. Taking short cuts only leads to an artificial feeling of happiness. A cheater cannot truly be happy with their feats because, deep down, they know they are dirty. In the end, as an athlete we have to live with ourselves, and our internal thoughts impact our lives far more than external appreciation from other athletes, media, rivals and supporters.

So, to truly be happy with what you accomplish and plan to achieve in sport, you must respect sport and the community surrounding it. Being genuine is simply being natural and pushing yourself to reach your potential. When you have to cheat to go beyond what is natural, then you have lost touch with the moral, ethical and existential fabric that holds sport together.

Keep it clean my friends, and run strong!

 

 

Joseph Gray
Joe Gray is a professional runner who excels in trail, road, track and snowshoe races. He won the 2016 World Mountain Running Championships individual title and helped the U.S. team to the gold medal and has won 12 U.S. championships since 2008. He and his wife, Christy, life in Colorado Springs, Colo. Gray is proud to represent numerous sponsors, including Merrell, Dhama Innovations, Garden of Life, sos rehydrate, Ultimate Direction, Action Potential Physical Therapy, Club Northwest and Fuel 100 Electro-Bites.
Photo: Joe Viger