Today I sat on a fire-ant-hill. Or Safari Ants. I’m not sure what they are called exactly, but they were ants and they got all in my clothes and bit the hell out of me. What followed was a white flash of Mzungu across the front lawn of the house, along with a couple yelps and laughing children. Apparently the ants ‘like’ Mzungu skin. I’m not sure what that means, but from now on I’m staying away from that shady spot, with that particular tree, that sits atop a particular mound of dirt.
I tried to tempo the senior men’s 12k provincial championships for Nandi County today. I started out easy, real easy, dead last. Through 4k I was smiling and calling back at the crowd; the announcer kept calling me the foreign runner, which is accurate enough, but I called out I was from Canada, they like knowing where the Mzungus are from. I probably passed about 20 people who had taken off way too fast for their fitness level and overtook runners who were DNF’ing left and right.
At about 6k the familiar heavy feeling started to settle into my legs, and my tempo was turning into a very tough effort. I still had good pop in my legs, but my breathing was hard, and I was starting to struggle. My head was wobbling forward, my vision was starting to tunnel, and I was starting to make deals with myself. Initially I wanted to do the entire 12k as a solid long tempo effort, but, after such a big week, it was looking like I was going to dig a pretty big hole by finishing it. So I decided to hold out to 8k, the race distance I’ve been completing lately. At 8k I knew I was going to stop soon, but didn’t want to stop in front of the crowds. The stadium at the track (the race this time was in Mosoriot, on our home track and adjacent field) was full of spectators, and a good portion of the loop was lined with people who I wanted to avoid after dropping out. The crowds behave like any crowd at a sporting event, like soccer in South America or Hockey in Canada; they yell and jeer and chant; it’s pretty intense. So I kept running probably closer to 9k, and pulled out under the shade to cough up all the phlegm and crap in my mouth and throat; the altitude does weird things. It was pretty hot, and most of the races’ times were slow, some were thinking that the loop could’ve been a little long. There’s no real way of knowing.
After the race Simon gave me the run-down that Nandi County has the strongest runners in the country. A team of 6 runners will qualify for Nationals then a bunch of individuals will find their own way to Nairobi (nationals). He said it’s likely (and usually happens) that the 6 team members finish in the top 10 at nationals. Then from around the country there are a few others who break up the Nandi dominance. It made me realize the depth that I’ve been competing against. It’s like World’s. In the junior men’s race it’s even more obvious; only because the top 30 guys running probably have an average age of 28. I tried spotting for what I thought would definitely be a junior runner, he seemed to be back in 40th or so. Most coaches and officials kind of laugh it off. I think it contributes to the running dominance in Kenya, these guys continue to compete into their late 30s to get full years in senior divisions. Easily. I don’t hear about many western runners who do that. Regardless, racing here is tactical, difficult, and eye opening.
Maybe to keep me relevant, maybe because of a serious interest of my thoughts, or maybe for my reflections from here in Kenya, my Coach sent me this article; http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/8904906/daring-ask-ped-question
It’s a serious, frank, refreshing and developing look at the doping conversation in professional sports today. What struck me most was the sour realization that there is a dark reality to our sports, many of our heroes and likely; the kind of results we get excited about the most.
The topic of doping and performance enhancing drugs has come up before in conversations with my Maasai friend Simon. According to him, most if not all of the top level athletes dope. It comes from the managers that pick up these athletes, and who, like the athletes and their families depend on winning to finance everything, so doping helps gain that edge. Talk about doping is a lot like talk in Canada about the newest, lightest shoes. When an athlete does better than expected, sort of out of the blue, others speculate that it must be a new drug, from this or that manager (who is known to give out PEDs to his athletes). Some hope they can get their hands on it. Simon knows it’s wrong. But he sees it as a problem for those Kenyans who know it’s bad and chose to stay away from them. It results in athletic, economic, social inequality and an inability for people to have a fair shot at success (there’s a word I can’t think of that fits nicely into this, damn it).
What it comes down to is that this guy Simmons is right. Doping should be a hot topic in sports, and commentators should be talking about it more. I think the secrecy of the topic reflects on how the greater public knows that it damages and ruins the sport but they’d rather not talk about it, and just enjoy the wonder. The discussion does need to happen. It’s weird for me to be so close to it. Simon told me that there are a couple guys in our group who dope. All they do is the hard stuff he says, they don’t jog, they don’t use their bodies, almost like they are zombies. It’s something I don’t really want to believe, but sometimes the signs are too obvious.
It’s scary when you dwell on it for long. What about our track heroes? If some are doping, and they get beat, and our heroes are the ones who come out on top, what does that say about them? Should we be suspicious? Should we talk about it? Most of our heroes are from track, and most likely competed in the last Olympics, which according to Simmons, clears them (thank goodness). But the world of track and field is its own, just like Basketball is its own.
Somehow, us distance runners are caught in a loop where we don’t see a lot of money come from our running. But, managers dealing with Kenyans and the like have found a way to make a very good living, and become wealthy off of their athletes. There’s a lot of money somewhere. The drugs in our sport easily reflect the competitiveness of our world. So, how is it that we are caught in this vacuum where funds slip through our fingers and syringes are forced into our forearms?
Not everyone dopes. I don’t. I’ve never been offered drugs, nor have I seen someone inject themselves. Most users are pretty secretive of it. I knew of it in my old school, and I know it’s around here. It’s an unfair advantage that makes a lot of people a lot of money.
The organization that I’m here with is hosting a marathon in about a month’s time (after I leave). The winners of the men’s marathon and women’s marathon win tickets to Canada for two weeks. In this time they’ll race Toronto Waterfront Marathon. I doubt the organizers for the Marathon here have set up any kind of doping control. This is one of the last things on their plate. But, just like water-stations, starting and finishing lines and marshaling areas have become a must at races, so too I think doping control must become a regular thing. Once the athletes know and realize that they will be regularly tested, fans will be more at ease with the presence and talk of doping and its control. If that happened, our sport would be clean in a year.
If I come back to Canada and run 30 minutes flat for 10k, most will say it’s part of the regular progression, and maybe altitude didn’t really work as well as some would hope. I’d say if I ran 29 flat then most would start saving and planning their trip to Kenya on the spot. If I go and run 28 it would be out of that regular progression, amazing, and some might think suspicious. Maybe altitude did wonders. Maybe training full time and resting properly is what I needed. Maybe there’s a darker side. But regardless, I would probably have to be tested for the latter two results. This kind of thing doesn’t happen everywhere or at all competitions. But it should. There’s obviously enough money to do it.
I hope I run 29. 28 would be dandy. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.