All my friends have shoe deals. From the time I was fifteen until my left achilles and both my tibias finally gave out, I was single-mindedly focused on making the Canadian olympic team in the five thousand or ten thousand metres, or maybe one day in the marathon. That didn't happen, but as I hobbled down to Los Angeles to start a new career, my peers and teammates who stuck it out began to fall in with professional groups. When they relayed their experiences to me, I was struck by a few things. First, we realized we'd underestimated how monastic the professional runner's life is: a run and a workout every day, physiotherapy and gym work when necessary, and sleep. That's about it.
Second, these men and women are under intense financial pressure. I had the vague idea that the rank-and-file professional runners lived modestly, but I didn't expect sponsor companies to be so brazen in telling the athletes they could be cut at any time if they didn't race up to standards. (There are a couple of shoe companies that have proved to be an exception to this; if you're a rep who's figured out who some of my friends are, let's assume I'm talking about yours.)
And third: doping is everywhere, but hard to define. I don't know anyone on the inside of the Oregon Project, and while the scale and sophistication is almost certainly unique to Salazar's crew, the reports about legal drugs used in off-brand ways and legal procedures being pushed to ambiguous limits had the ring of familiarity. There is, to be clear, a ton of capital-D doping as we understand it—EPO and so on—but there is also an unknowable amount of this grey quasi-doping.
While I think about doping constantly, I don't know exactly what my stances are when it comes to testing and regulation. As I get at in the story, I don't feel like any of us in the West could really claim the moral authority to tell someone in the Rift Valley that the 12:55 that would buy his mom a house is not worth the positive test. I'm also intrigued by the quote from Haile regarding shoes. Who's to say which technologies or other advancements have the biggest impact on how times improve from decade to decade? Who's to say which ones we should all, collectively be okay with this? This is not identical, but is adjacent to discussions about race conditions: why can the world record only be broken in a sanctioned race, rather than in a variable-controlled time trial?
I ultimately wrote this piece to challenge my own thinking on all these matters. I don't want the marathon record broken in a time trial—I want it to be in a real race. But why? And while it can seem futile and even morally shrill to ramp up drug testing, I worry that more permissive attitudes toward it put athletes' health and autonomy at risk. So where can we find the right balance? I'm not sure we'll have a hard answer in our lifetimes, but I am sure we'll see a marathoner break the two hour barrier, and maybe that's better. Or maybe it isn't.