Doping and running for a decent living

Doping and running for a decent living

Hesch, a ‘profligate road racer,’ said that over two years, he injected himself with drugs 54 times

With one end of the rubber band between his teeth, Christian Hesch cinched the tourniquet tight around his biceps. The thick veins in his forearm quickly surfaced, and he carefully grabbed the syringe.

Hesch, 33, a competitive runner, had bought the banned blood booster erythropoietin, known as EPO, at a pharmacy in Tijuana, Mexico, and was driving home to Hollywood, Calif. He ordinarily preferred to do pushups to prime his veins, but he did not want to pull off the highway so close to Tijuana.

With one hand on the wheel, he recalled later, he slowly inserted the needle into his forearm. He pressed the plunger into the barrel and forced the clear liquid into his vein. After removing the needle, he put down the syringe and rubbed his finger over the puncture mark. After three years, he was proud that he had never left a bruise.

Hesch, a self-described ‘profligate road racer,’ said that over two years, beginning in August 2010, he injected himself with EPO 54 times before an empty EPO vial was found in his bag and he was reported to anti-doping officials. In that time, he won nearly $40,000 in prize money in more than 75 races, including international competitions, US championships and local road races.

“You get a little money at one race, maybe $1,500 at another,” Hesch said. “And it adds up quickly.” Last week, the US Anti-Doping Agency released details of what it described as a sophisticated doping scheme involving Lance Armstrong, the latest among many cases in recent years that have linked star athletes to doping. Hesch’s story illuminates a different end of the sports doping spectrum, away from the power, money and glamour of Tour de France champions, home-run kings and Olympic gold medalists.

Hesch, who has been a competitive runner since 2001, said he wanted to publicly admit to doping for the first time because he was facing punishment from anti-doping officials.
His justification for doping stemmed from this harsh reality: A few runners obtain lucrative shoe contracts and compete in a handful of high-profile, televised races; the rest are ordinary weekend runners. On Saturday mornings they lace up their running shoes and slip on dry-fit T-shirts like anyone else.

Hesch exists somewhere in the middle. He supports himself running full time without a sponsorship by cherry-picking road races across the country, favouring the ones with the largest purses and the least competitive fields. This job does not come with workers’ compensation. In May 2010, Hesch was cross-training on his bicycle along California 1 between San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay when he was hit by a car. “It was one of those instances I should have been dead,” Hesch said.

He picked himself off the road and received only six stitches to his left elbow, a few deep bruises, minor road rash and a dislocated shoulder. He was able to walk away from the accident but was not able to train adequately for nearly five months.

For the fall racing season, he decided he deserved some extra help to get back on track. “My justification was that if I used it for three weeks, was running three weeks after that, then I’ll race in another two to three weeks, and, theoretically, I’ll have all the benefits out of my system,” he said.

EPO is a hormone that stimulates red blood cell production and, thus, oxygen-carrying capacity. Quietly obtaining it in Southern California was easy, Hesch said, and cheap. He made the two-hour drive to Tijuana three times. On this first visit, another runner recommended pharmacies that other Southern Californian runners preferred. But since then he has chosen to find his own.

He bought a month’s supply: 18 vials holding 1 cubic centimetre of concentrated EPO for $400. Athletes say they feel dramatic effects after six doses, or six vials, said Dr Michael Ashenden, director of the Science and Industry Against Blood doping research organization.

In the privacy of a bathroom stall, Hesch held the vials against his inner thigh, secured them under his shorts with plastic wrap and walked back across the border. On the next two trips he simply stuffed the vials into his pockets. “You get a little nervous when you just brought it back into the country,” he said, recalling the first trip. “You just want to start driving and get away from the border because you feel the dirtiness of what you just did. Yet you have the EPO in the seat next to you, and you can’t escape it.”

Some knowledge

In 2009, Hesch had been studying to be a paramedic, and this experience equipped him with some knowledge about how to administer his own doping programme, he said. The first day would include two shots, one in each arm. He would give himself a shot once a day for the next two days. Then he would end his three-to-four-week programme with shots every other day. In mid-September 2010, a month after starting the first programme, he found that the percentage of red blood cells in his blood shot to 51.7 from 44. Monitoring the red blood cell levels was easy, too. A county health clinic offered anonymous testing, and Hesch got his blood work back by making up a story about having just returned from altitude.

Taking EPO in this amount and in this frequency is “a huge programme,” Ashenden said.“But it’s old school,” Ashenden added. “No athlete would dare do that programme nowadays if they were subject to testing, as they’d be blown out of the water. You only need six injections to get pretty dramatic effects.” But it took two more years and two more regimens, each lasting four weeks, before Hesch’s performances showed drastic improvement, Hesch said. “Your running feels like what you imagine when you see all those Kenyan runners floating down the road,” Hesch said about competing with the aid of EPO. “And two to three weeks in your cycle, you start feeling like that yourself.”

When USADA officials confronted him by phone in late September, Hesch was initially inclined to fight the accusations. Over the last 2 1/2 years, he said, he was never required to perform a drug test at any race, including the five-km national championships and the Fifth Avenue Mile in New York City. He also was not tested when he represented Team USA at the Armagh International Road Race in Ireland. But as he followed USADA’s case against Armstrong, he decided to come clean. “It would be fairly expensive if I wanted to fight it,” Hesch said. “USADA only brings cases when they’re pretty sure, and this is coming from a guy with a pending case.”

He faces a ban of up to two years. Regardless of what USADA decides, Hesch said he will regret losing many of the privileges and friendships that allowed him to live a running lifestyle. Many races do not allow athletes who have been caught doping to accept prize money or free room and board.

“I fully accept whatever punishment I have coming,” Hesch said. “It’s my bed. I made it. Now I get to sleep in it.”

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