Distance runners now facing scrutiny

Positive tests by Rita Jeptoo and Liliya Shobukhova are watershed moments in marathon running. Getty Images

Our collective attention to doping sometimes reminds me of the Eye of Sauron in the "Lord of the Rings," swiveling this way and that as events dictate. In track and field, our gaze has been steadily trained on bulked-up sprinters and throwers for decades.

The last year demonstrates that quiet on any front is illusory and no discipline is more immune than any other when it comes to performance-enhancing drug use. They all involve human beings and money and temptation.

Distance running has largely avoided our telescopic glare up to now. That time is over.

Doping cases involving two of the world's highest-profile female marathoners threaten to discredit winning results in nine major marathons since 2006. Five of those victories -- including repeat championships in Boston and Chicago the last two seasons -- belonged to Kenya's Rita Jeptoo, whose 'B' sample analysis last week confirmed a positive result for erythropoietin, or EPO, in a sample collected out of competition last September. Kenyan authorities will hold a hearing next month to decide on what sanctions to impose, and Jeptoo can still appeal the findings to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Russia's Lilya Shobukhova was stripped of her three Chicago championships (2009, 2010 and 2011) and her London 2010 victory last April after a biological passport conviction. She has appealed those disqualifications and her two-year suspension. Earlier this month, German documentary makers and the French daily sports newspaper L'Equipe reported that Shobukhova had bribed Russian officials to cover up doping violations, then demanded reimbursement of the payoff when she was suspended anyway.

Last week, an arbitrator imposed a four-year ban on American distance runner Mo Trafeh, who was building the kind of résumé that points toward eventual success in the marathon. The 29-year-old Trafeh won national titles at 15 kilometers, 10 miles, 25 kilometers and the half-marathon in 2012 and 2013.

Trafeh didn't test positive. Instead, he was detained at JFK Airport last February on a trip back from his native Morocco after Homeland Security agents confiscated six syringes of a substance later identified as EPO. A few days later, Trafeh missed a random doping control and hauled out the old sick-grandmother excuse.

In March, Trafeh told the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency he'd purchased and self-administered EPO since early 2012. He promised to work with the agency to nab other athletes in return for a reduced sanction, then backed out of that agreement and released a statement saying he was retiring but had never used the performance-enhancing drug. He didn't bother to show up for his arbitration hearing last month and was convicted in absentia.

The marathon is the original Olympic event, draped in myth and (for the men) usually accorded the special status of folding into the closing ceremony. It has the strongest connection to the masses. So many millions have run one. So many more have stood by the side of the road searching for one face in the multitude, huffing along the same course the spindly-legged pros conquered earlier in the day.

There is a romance to it, a "Wizard of Oz"-style journey that appeals to brain and heart and spirit. Marathons belong to all of us in a way other races don't, and some of the event's leading characters have acquired the patina of folk heroes.

That aura, and a few other factors, have helped the marathon (and distance events in general) evade the magnifying glass applied to other endurance events. Busts of elite marathoners have been scarce in general and almost nonexistent in the United States; Eddy Hellebuyck, who told his story to Runner's World a few years ago, is a notable exception.

Unlike sprint events on the track, a marathon start line doesn't feature action figure physiques that lead to speculation. Everyone is scrawny. They only run the event a couple of times a year. The banned substances that would help them train harder and recover faster are less apt to transform them outwardly.

Every road course is different on a given day, with a zillion variables of conditions and group tactics. Yes, cycling is that way, too, and suspicion flourishes over out-of-the-saddle attacks or out-of-whack power numbers on Tour de France mountainsides. It's harder to make accusations based on a late kick or a crazy-fast split here or there over 26.2 miles.

The surge of East African marathon winners that began in the 1990s was frequently chalked up to genetics, home-country altitude training and greater competitive hunger bred in a poor country. Those factors undeniably play a part, but they also obscure some 2014 truths about doping.

First, smothering dominance is inherently suspect, whether by a country or an individual. Second, natural talent is not a prophylactic against cheating. Unfortunately, testing efficacy still varies wildly between countries. Finally, much PED jurisprudence is still imperfectly overseen by sport federations which both police and promote, and thus have a disincentive to topple their stars.

An international effort to increase testing in Kenya is well-documented and starting to have some impact. The athletics federation there has suspended a few dozen athletes in recent years, including Jynocel Basweti, a runner who won 17 smaller-market marathons in the United States. He, like most Kenyans popped recently, was a baitfish rather than a big fish, but that is the case across sport.

Jeptoo's case is a watershed because of her prominence, her nationality and the timing of her "A" sample announcement -- on the eve of the New York City Marathon, where she was set to pocket a $500,000 bonus for winning World Marathon Majors series. The six-race consortium implemented its own anti-doping policy in 2013 as an overlay to established international practice.

I interviewed 2014 Boston Marathon winner Meb Keflezighi a few days later. He told me he advocated lifetime bans for dopers, and mentioned that he had finished second to Trafeh at last year's USA Half-Marathon championships, a title that will be stripped from Trafeh and pass to Keflezighi.

Keflezighi said he felt sad for Buzunesh Deba of Ethiopia, runner-up to Jeptoo in the celebration of resiliency that was Boston this year.

"That day could have been [Deba's] day in terms of media opportunities, exposure, potential growth in confidence, so much,'' Keflezighi said. "I'm shocked [about Jeptoo], but I'm not surprised. If somebody can run 4:48 or whatever it was [at Mile 24] -- she's a female, I don't care how downhill that is.''

Then Keflezighi repeated something he has said at least once before: that he deliberately pushed himself to pass Brazil's Marilson Dos Santos in the last 500 meters of the 2012 Olympic marathon in London in order to move up from fifth to fourth place, just in case someone in the top three were to be disqualified later by a positive doping test.

"I'm not naïve,'' said Keflezighi, the 2004 Olympic marathon silver medalist who was motivated by the idea of becoming the only American besides Frank Shorter to collect two medals in the event.

"That's a hard way to live, Meb,'' I said.

"It is a hard way to live,'' he said. "I hope they're never dirty. But if you get a medal, you're not gonna say no to that.''

The marathon, with its singular power to include so many, may never be just another event. But it is like every elite sporting endeavor in this sense: There will be times we won't be sure of exactly what we're seeing.