It should be pretty obvious that a return to national or international racing here in 2020 almost assuredly will not be happening. Here are just two examples to consider: the Boston Marathon and the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii. Boston's opening up has been pushed back to September 7th -- coincidentally, a week before the already-rescheduled race. To the public and racing community, the race director is very bullish on the race happening the following week. However, ask him off-the-record what he really thinks and you'll probably get an answer akin to "Chances are slim to none, and Slim just left town." For Ironman, Hawaii already has a trend of zero new Covid-19 cases. The island state is one of the safest places on the planet. Yet, extreme nativism is digging in and taking root. There's a faction that does not want to open the state back up to other USA citizens, let alone the rest of the world. If nothing else, weeding through this will slow down the dominoes falling in a return to normalcy.
But, larger scale, here's why big races won't be occurring in 2020. Opening things back up at a local level -- forget about larger scale -- will happen iteratively. Using Boston as the example, let's say the city does materially open back up by September 7th. Raise your hand if you believe a week later that 40,000 runners from around the world and about one million spectators will be allowed to congregate. What we are seeing and hearing is a lot of trying to think out-of-the-box to find a way that an event could happen. I commend the effort, but the execution of the ideas presented just isn't tenable.
So, it's time to relax. Stop focusing on trying to remain race-ready for the magical day the world opens back up. Instead, turn your attention back to the basics and be disciplined enough to shore them up. Challenge yourself to let go of what will almost assuredly be the empty promise of a return to racing national and international events in 2020.
As endurance athletes, we’ve largely lost our way, being fooled by very compelling – and expensive – marketing tactics and strategies. We’ve been tricked into believing that by focusing on the shortcuts we will reach new heights previously deemed unattainable. That we must focus on sharpening the tip of the spear. And, if we don’t, then we will fail at our own peril. Think of building a house. The structure itself can be constructed of all the latest-and-greatest materials and have all the modern efficiencies possible. But, if that house is built without a foundation, then it will fall apart like a house of cards at the first strong wind or storm. For example, if you’re not sleeping enough (foundational), then no superfood or magical supplement is going to provide you with more energy or better performances.
And, here’s another dose of reality. For the vast majority of endurance athletes, focusing on the final 1-2% at any time is immaterial. They don’t matter at all. Unless you are already at the top of the athletic pyramid where 0.5-1% is all that stands between winning and finishing off the podium, then obsessing over the minutia does us little to no good. Rather than spend $1,000 or more on the fastest, most cutting edge wetsuit to shave time off your triathlon swim, choose to work on your stroke technique to gain efficiency and log more time in the pool to increase your endurance. Because then the $300 wetsuit will serve you just fine (really, it will). For the same type of analysis on the bike, you can read another article I wrote on the Cost v Benefit of Aero Equipment.
Now is the perfect time for endurance athletes to shift their focus to the structural foundation of what they do – to the 98-99%. In fact, in our lifetimes there has never been a more perfect time to do so. The more solid your foundation, the more you will be able to build upon it.
The biggest challenge is that we exist in a world of immediate gratification. The gadgets and the hacks and the super secrets of the pros are very attractive because they provide us with the promise of shortcuts. Why train multiple sessions a day and put in many hours of dedicated work every week if instead we are promised the same results in less than half the time? Where the argument of the quick fix falls down is that it assumes or even portends that innovation and creativity occur in the absence of a basic foundation, when in fact it is precisely that foundation which unlocks the power of the innovation. The foundation is prior or existing knowledge; the innovation is a potential iteration of that foundational knowledge. See what I mean?
If your diet is terrible, then the best supplement in the world will only start to make up for the holes in your diet plan. It sure won’t boost your performance. If you heel strike and hunch over like Quasimodo when you run, better to work on your form before you invest in expensive shoes. If you ride an ill-fitting bike, then you must first address your position before you slap on a set of $2,000 race wheels. Yet, we are programmed to do the complete opposite. We look for improvements in all the wrong places. Because the investment of money is so much easier to rationalize than the investment of time.
To be clear, nearly all endurance athletes are not at a point in their progression where worrying about the 1-2% makes any sense. You must first master your craft before you focus on becoming the best-of-the-best. It is in that pursuit of ultimate excellence when focusing on the minutia will yield measurable return. Understand the basics and why they are important. Nail them. Come back to them frequently.
This path is very simple to both find and follow – sleep more; eat whole, real food; train consistently and tick all the energy system boxes. The problem is that the best advice isn’t sexy. It’s not sleek and shiny and full of buzzwords. So, it doesn’t sell.
Which is unfortunate.
I don’t mean physically tired, but rather mentally. Not in a futility sort of way, but rather an “I can’t believe some people can be in such foolish denial” sort of way. Specifically, around our sporting heroes, favorite teams and favorite sports.
There’s a broad spectrum when it comes to belief. On one end, you have a group that is supremely cynical and which might say something like, “Every elite athlete cheats. They’re all on PEDs.” On the other end of the spectrum, you have a group that is so starry-eyed and naïve that it might say something like, “(My favorite team/athlete) is achieving success through so much hard work and wanting it more than the competition. Their system is better.”
Both ends of the spectrum are incorrect. On the spectrum of cheating, from 0% to 100% of athletes being cheaters, the only statistical percentage we know for a fact is not possible is 0%. That said, it is very, very highly improbable that all elite athletes are cheating; we just can’t prove that all are not cheating.
So, why am I mentally tired? Because people are more apt to believe in fairy tales than they are to apply scrutiny. We are inclined to apply a filter of nationalism or tribalism to any scrutiny we do apply to athletes or teams or sports. Rather than taking a step back and looking at a situation objectively, most people apply whichever filters they choose that will result in the narrative which provides them comfort, which allows them to put the performances in question into a neat, tidy box to be filed away and forgotten.
Well, this isn’t how sports works. If we strip away the filters and the biases, and really strive to look at elite sports with an objective eye, the problem is that we won’t like what we see.
The biggest misconception is that athletes are innocent until proven guilty. The problem is that sports is not subject to the same justice system as typical societal crimes. A failed drug test results in a ban for a period of time and sometimes a fine. There are more cases of athletes not failing drug tests yet being doped to the gills than can be counted. There is a growing number of retroactive positives in frozen samples when athletes’ A samples showed up negative, indicating at the time the popped athletes were doping in an at-the-time undetectable manner. There are well-known periods of “glowing” – the window of time during which athletes would test positive because the drugs are still in their system – that athletes and their doctors have mapped out so the athletes’ systems are clean come the time for competition. The actual anti-doping tests are woefully inept at being current and all-encompassing to catch cheats in the first place. Athletes and teams are gaming the anti-doping and TUE systems, exploiting loopholes through which you could drive a semi truck. Even in the case of professional cycling, when athletes release their power data or physiological test results, we see a snapshot in time or a sloppily-performed test protocol that renders the data itself completely and utterly useless. And on and on.
We should put zero credence in passing doping tests. Multiple studies are showing that a far greater percentage of elite level athletes are doping than what people are willing to admit. On the low end, around 45-50% is accepted; on the high end, 65-70%. So, half to two-thirds of elite level athletes in a given sport are very likely cheating. So, tell me how or why we should care about negative drug test results. We should not.
“But where’s your proof? If you don’t have proof, then shut the hell up and crawl back in your hole!” Yep, I’ve been told variations of this many a time. I’ve even been personally disparaged when I suggested Masters athletics is no less dirty than elite level sports. I’ve been told I suck as an athlete and am a whiner because anyone who beats me must be a doper. Nothing could be farther from the truth and this sort of personal attacking also speaks directly to the ignorance of those taking issue with my skepticism. These folks know nothing of my own sporting history or palmares, and they tend to sit on the far end of the “belief spectrum” where unicorns prance and leprechauns shower the rainbow-splashed hills with gold. And that’s OK. Believe what you will. But to personally attack me – aside from me not caring – only weakens a person’s argument. To think that Masters athletes are as clean as the driven snow or that “less than 1% of us cheat” (as one critic fired back at me), demonstrates the tribal lens through which my critics are viewing all this. To be clear, I’m all for healthy debate and open dialogue. The more this type of stuff is discussed – with open minds – the better. But this requires that we take off our tinted lenses and open up our eyes.
The burden of proof lies with the athletes and teams. Full stop. We should not believe athletes who say we should trust them. We should not believe athletes who say they have not failed a drug test or will never fail a drug test. We should not believe athletes who say they have done nothing wrong. If anything, these types of statements require us to apply even more scrutiny and skepticism. We should absolutely look at “alien-like” performances and “once in a lifetime” athletes with a raised eyebrow and shake of the head. Because if it is too good to believe, then we should not believe what we’re seeing.
Why? Because we’ve heard and seen it all before. What many people don’t seem to comprehend is that patterns are proof. History repeats itself and, in the case of cheating in sports, over and over and over again. Cover ups for positive doping tests happen quite literally all the time. Athletes have forever not failed drug tests while absolutely doping. TUE submissions have skyrocketed; it is as if elite-level sports is now the stomping ground of medical invalids. In cycling, the team trains annihilating all comers on mountain stages of the Tour de France during the EPO era have eerily returned. Mountain climbers being able to time trial as well as time trialists, and time trialists being able to hold their own on the climbs is another EPO era redux.
In any sport, we have been told to believe that “clean can beat doped” and that the best in the world are even faster than known dopers who served bans and returned to competition – as if doped athletes rely solely on the PEDs to propel them to victory. One has to look no further than a “Top 10 Times of All-Time” to see how many red lines can be drawn through known cheats. And, when those athletes are stripped out, there are still more who need to be, but we leave them in the “clean results” because they’ve never failed a drug test. We see power numbers in cycling creeping ever closer and even up to the EPO era values. We see NBA players looking like NFL linebackers. We see elite level mid-packers transform into world best performers at an age when their lot in life had already been cast. We see athletes who served multi-year doping bans return to competition, supposedly clean now, and they are bigger, faster and stronger than ever before – yet without the drugs this time. Apparently.
And this is just barely scratching the surface of it all!
There are no new super secret ways to train; there really aren’t. Sports science has not progressed by leaps and bounds. Technological disparities between athletes and teams are non-existent. One athlete’s coach or one team’s R&D and access to doctors is no better than another’s. At the tip of the spear, we look at a fraction of a percentage of difference in physical ability across the top athletes in a given event or position or sport. A coach may direct one athlete to be the world best. Maybe even two. When that coach is directing a cadre of athletes or an entire team to the pinnacle of an event or sport, that is such a huge red flag. Yet, few apply the skepticism. Instead, we label these coaches as “transformative” or “masterminds”. Look at the coaches who are linked to a list of world best athletes and you will be looking at a dodgy system. This is not to say a team cannot be greater than the sum of its parts. However, if the majority of team members are punching above their weight, that’s a surefire red flag.
All of this and much more has occurred over the past multiple decades, so what is the basis for believing all of this is not occurring today? Because omerta is strong and the pundits tell us so? Because athletes tell us their particular sports are cleaner now than ever before? Why? Seriously – WHY? There are ZERO rational answers.
And we haven’t even gotten to the inherent spiderweb of corruption infiltrating top-level sport – from the IOC to the world governing bodies to the national governing bodies to the who-is-connected-to-whom-and-what-protection-does-that-connection-offer, and more.
So, do we just roll over and accept that this is the way of the world? We should not. Blatant cynicism cannot overcome our desire to aspire to clean sport. And, blatant naivete cannot overrule our ability to ask hard questions, pull back the rug and see what’s been swept beneath it. With the media largely acting as coddled, spoiled infants, indeed, it is society’s greater responsibility to apply the proper scrutiny to sport if the desire is for the status quo to change. Because until this occurs, rampant cheating will be the status quo.