Excerpted from "Life Outside the Oval Office: The Track Less Traveled" by Nick Symmonds. Copyright © 2014 by Nick Symmonds. Published by Cool Titles and reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Whenever someone in track and field cheats, and subsequently tests positive, the sport of professional track and field dies a little bit.
The entertainment value of our sport comes from watching people test the boundaries of their own human limits. This entertainment value goes to zero if competitors test the boundaries of drug amplified superhuman limits.
However, in eight years as a professional runner, I can honestly say that I have never personally witnessed anyone using a banned performance-enhancing drug, nor have I ever used such a drug myself. Many of these drugs destroy your internal organs and shave decades off your life. I have always felt that temporary glory and success are not worth the subsequent long-term health effects.
Furthermore, what sense of personal achievement can a person get when he or she knows they only won with the help of pharmaceuticals?
Perhaps I should take a minute to clarify something. Cocaine is not typically thought of as a performance-enhancing drug, but it can give an athlete a sudden burst of energy, a surge of confidence, and a loss of inhibition. For those reasons, the World Anti-Doping Administration (WADA) and the United States Anti-Doping Administration (USADA) lists it as a banned substance in competition.
I would be lying if I said I had never personally witnessed people using this particular drug. Perhaps the most memorable instance of this was in the spring of 2007.
That year I had just won my first US national title indoors, and my star in the world of track and field was rising quickly. After my win, I was asked to go to Los Angeles for a few days to shoot some photos for an advertisement. The company that had asked me to come even put me up in an expensive Hollywood hotel. I was excited to explore the city and to see a few college buddies who had recently moved to the area.
One of those friends was my usual partner in crime, Cooper. The shoot went well, and after, Cooper and I decided to celebrate. One of our good friends had just moved into a beautiful apartment building in Marina Del Rey, a few blocks from the beach. That night he was having a barbeque, followed by a little get together with some European girls he had meet in his building.
Cooper and I showed up at the apartment with beers, rib-eye steaks, and an eight-ball of cocaine. I have never purchased drugs and had not bought them now. Cooper, on the other hand, had developed a taste for the bitter white powder on the Costa Rican trip we had taken together during college, and he occasionally still made the financial transaction to acquire the illegal substance.
Once at the party, we popped open the beer and shared college stories. Our host then began to tell us about the women we would hang out with later that evening. They lived a few floors up and attended a local college. As dinner wound down, Cooper pulled out the small plastic bag of white powder. The powder was dumped out on the polished coffee table in the middle of the living room.
Some people then proceeded to take turns passing around a rolled dollar bill, snorting the powder up into their nasal passages. I watched as the small white lines were greedily inhaled, one by one. The curious part of me wanted to join in the fun, but the responsible side of me said no. When the cocaine was gone I grabbed all the beer I could find and the party headed to the elevators. We made plenty of noise as we walked through the apartment complex -- to the huge frustration of the neighbors, I'm sure.
We were led to a door that appeared identical to the others in the complex, and knocked. Before long a tall, stunning woman answered the door. She introduced herself and then welcomed us inside before introducing her roommates, who were equally beautiful. We spent the next few hours chatting up these lovely foreign neighbors, but eventually the cocaine wore off of all who had taken it, and we returned home. I had a restless night and woke up after just a few hours to the rising sun.
I felt as terrible as most of my friends and a buddy and I decided to sweat out the effects of the night before. We laced up our trainers and stepped out into the bright California sun. Outside, the light seemed overly bright and harsh and slammed into my retinas. I took my first few tentative steps. As my foot struck the cold, hard pavement I felt the concrete reverberate through my bones. My dehydrated muscles fought me each step, even though I tried to focus on the beauty of the marina as I plodded along.
Eventually, my body warmed up and I felt more like myself. I started to sweat and felt very good about that. Not knowing about my night's activities, Coach Gags had previously suggested I run 12 miles that morning. Wanting to punish myself for the night before, I figured I would do at least that. As we clicked off the miles, my body adjusted to what was being asked of it. I made it to mile seven feeling pretty good, but that's when things took a turn for the worse for my friend.
He had been overly enthusiastic with the Bolivian marching powder and reached for his nose. When his hand came back, it was covered in blood. We stopped running, as he pinched his nose and tipped his head back. We walked for a few minutes and then resumed running. Blood, however, continued to pour out of his nostrils. He stripped off his white cotton T-shirt and held it to his nose as we walked and jogged back toward the marina.
For the next thirty minutes we did our best to jog back to the apartment while the T-shirt held to my friend's nose slowly turned from white, to pink, to deep red. As we passed people on the bike path they looked at him like he was a leper. A few asked if he was okay. He nodded and we pressed on. When we finally got back to the apartment the bloody shirt was tossed in the garbage, and my buddy's nose was packed with tissue. When it was my turn to use the bathroom I stripped down and stared at the mirror.
"What a stupid drug!" I thought to myself. I looked at myself and realized that if I wanted to become one of the best in the world drugs like that could not be a part of my life. I made a promise to myself to avoid that dangerous, corrosive white power, and it is a promise I have kept.
Later that day I said goodbye to my friends and boarded a plane for Eugene. I was grateful to be going home and excited to get back to my routine. As the plane cruised over California at thirty-five thousand feet I looked out the window and replayed the events of the weekend. There had been some really fun moments, but I knew that the Los Angeles party scene was not for me. The plane touched down in rainy Eugene, and I caught a cab back to my home.
As soon as I saw my front door I was reminded that I needed to update the USADA (United States Anti-Doping Agency) of my whereabouts. I am required to do this at all times to keep in good standing with the various federations that hold professional track and field competitions. Once inside I pulled out my laptop and sent an email to alert them that I would be at my Springfield, Oregon residence for the next week.
Back at home I fell into my normal routine of training hard and eating healthy. It felt good to be back home, living the pure lifestyle I had come to love. When a DCO (doping control officer) caught up with me several weeks later, I provided him with the samples he requested. As always, I breathed a sigh of relief when the samples came back negative -- for everything. In the course of my eight-year career as a professional runner I have been tested more than 100 times, and I have never once tested positive for a banned substance.
The procedure of collecting a sample from an athlete is rather invasive. First, I am required to tell USADA where I am at all times. There is a website where I list my place of residence and my training location. I must do this for all 365 days in the year. I am also required to provide them one 60-minute time slot every day, with an exact location of my whereabouts during that slot. If a DCO comes to this location and I am not there, it is an automatic missed test.
Athletes are only allowed three missed tests in an eighteen-month period. Three missed tests results in a doping failure and typically a two-year ban from the sport. When a DCO does find and identify me, I am required to provide them with a sample of urine, blood, or both. Failure to provide them with the samples they are after also typically results in a two-year suspension. When the DCO arrives, he or she asks for a form of identification, and then tells me what samples he or she is required to collect.
If they need blood, the rep will have brought along a phlebotomist to draw several vials of the precious red blood cells I have been working so hard to build. If they want urine, then a DCO follows me into the bathroom and asks me to wash my hands. The DCO then asks me to pull my pants down to my ankles and lift my shirt up to my armpits while he or she stands inches away to watch the urine leave my body and enter the little plastic cup they have provided me with. Needless to say, this can take some getting used to.
I absolutely hate this part of my job. I find it to be a huge invasion of my privacy. I frequently list my 60-minute time slot as being from 6:00-7:00 A.M., typically because that is the only hour I know where I will be: at home in bed. When the knock on my door inevitably comes it jolts me awake and I know that my peaceful night's rest has been ruined. I am not the most chipper person in the morning, but when I am woken up by a DCO I am even less pleasant. I'm sure they dread coming to test me as much as I do seeing them in my doorway.
Drug testing is a necessary evil, though, and I try to remind myself that it is not their fault that they barge into my home uninvited. Rather it is the few dirty, cheating people in the sport who rob us all of privacy. I continue to subject myself to the monthly tests because I know that one day I will no longer be a professional athlete. Regaining my privacy will be one of the sweetest parts of retirement.
There are, however, loopholes in the policies and protocol of the anti-doping agencies that make it incredibly easy for a cheater to dope undetected if he or she decided to do so. The many ways that crafty cheaters have beat the system are legendary.
There is the story of the Russian women who put clean urine into condoms and insert them into their vaginal canals before being tested. When it comes time to provide a sample, the women break a condom with a fingernail, and 100 milliliters of clean urine flow into the cup.
Men have been equally clever. I have heard of men who put flakes of soap under their fingernails, then flick the flakes into the sample to throw off the tests. There are also tales of athletes who use a product called The Whizzinator to beat drug tests. A Whizzinator is a fake penis attached to a plastic bladder via a catheter. This bladder can be filled with clean urine, which is then dispensed through the fake penis for a waiting doping control officer.
Cheaters will always find ways to beat the system. The cat-and-mouse game between the anti-doping agencies and these fraudulent crooks will always be a part of professional sport. To keep ones sanity, a clean athlete must try to ignore this unfortunate side of sports.
There are times when I lament the fact that I have never been ranked No. 1 in the world, but never once have I considered cheating to get there. I take pride in the fact that at night I can collapse onto my bed after a hard, honest day's work.
I also take much joy in the fact that when I lie down in my bed, I don't have a fake penis hidden in my underwear, along with a bag of someone else's urine strapped to my leg.