October 18, 2016 | Issue 49
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the morning shakeout
Trailing behind. | Marin County, California

Good morning! Doping, distraction, not being dumb (and more!) on the menu this week. Let’s dig right in:

Out of the gray and into the black. 

Earlier this year I wrote, “The ‘gray’ zone of what some athletes will do/use to improve performance is a lot wider than most people think.” Well, some seven months later, the width of that zone is now pretty well known thanks to the fanciest bears in all the land. Therapeutic Use Exemptions, or TUEs, are popping up on many an athlete’s record across just about every sport imaginable, especially endurance-focused ones such as cycling and track, and the topic is the talk of the town. 

“Cortisone sits at that uncomfortable intersection between recovery and doping to win, situated on the graph somewhere between unethical and not quite illegal,” Suze Clemitson wrote recently in The Guardian. “But the question remains: should a doctor administer drugs to a healthy individual? And does a line exist between helping riders recover from the demands of bike racing (even in the modern era) and using drugs to create a super-athlete who can deal with the rigours of the sport?”

These are important questions, and there are numerous other prescription treatments that can be substituted for “cortisone” and applied to different sports, such as thyroid medications to elite distance runners, which was at the center of last year's Nike Oregon Project investigation. And while some of these prescriptions are for legit medical reasons, how many of them aren’t? Knowing what we know about motivations, behavior patterns and broken systems of control at highest levels of sport, my educated guess is: a lot. 

As former professional cyclist and admitted doper David Millar wrote in his excellent New York Times Op-Ed last week, “What was once a doping culture has become an antidoping culture, and the biggest races are today being won by clean riders. And yet there has been an elephant in the room during this period of transition: the T.U.E. culture.”

I believe the same holds true today in track and field (I include road racing in this classification), and that the TUE problem is just as widespread as in cycling. The sports have followed similar trajectories in regard to doping histories and methodologies, performance spikes and drops, and even corrupt governance. Why would TUE abuse be any different?

Interestingly, Lance Armstrong recently had Malcolm Gladwell on his new podcast, The Forward, and they briefly discussed the topic of TUEs, amongst other things. Now, I generally like Gladwell and find many of his takes on the sport interesting and insightful, but his belief that Galen Rupp and the Oregon Project can do no wrong drives me fucking bananas. “That controversy was so bogus,” Gladwell says in regard to last year’s aforementioned investigation. “The stuff they found is also incredibly tame.” Gladwell references Rupp’s TUE for asthma in 2009 but makes no mention of Rupp being a patient of Dr. Jeffrey S. Brown, the controversial doctor who diagnosed him with hypothyroidism, nor does he address the broader claims of thyroid medications being overprescribed to an inordinate amount of other athletes in the sport. The kicker for me was that Gladwell went on to more or less encourage the use of performance-enhancing substances across different domains (e.g. students taking adderall before a big exam even if they didn’t necessarily need it) so that people could function at a higher level than previously possible. He applies the same logic to competition, which is flawed in my opinion. “We’re at a stage now where it’s routine that at the highest levels of performance in many aspects of our society for people to understand that if you’re going to do something, try and perform physically and intellectually at a level that previous generations of people did not, you need help, right?” Gladwell tells Armstrong. “You enlist the best of science to help you through that.”

So what’s the solution to the growing TUE problem in sports? It’s not, as Gladwell seems to suggest, allowing everyone equal access to performance-enhancing substances and letting athletes literally run wild. Quite the opposite in fact. The system needs to be fixed, the gray zone must be shrunk and those who cross its ethical lines should be banned. “A T.U.E. should allow access to a performance-enhancing drug only if that drug is required for proven medical reasons,” Millar writes in his column. “Then a T.U.E. should permit its use—but only out of competition. If any traces of the drug are found by in-competition testing, then that should result in a ban. For an athlete’s own well-being, it is better to face the fact of sickness or injury and withdraw from competition. And for the sport’s well-being, it is better to avoid a system open to abuse and exploitation.”

Eliminate the dumb play.

The most common piece of advice I give my athletes heading into a big race? “Don’t do anything stupid.” Of course, the line between stupidity and intelligence can be pretty thin (and highly subjective), but keeping that simple guideline in mind will take you pretty far in life. “It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent,” writes Charlie Munger, Warren Buffet’s billionaire business partner. “There must be some wisdom in the folk saying, `It’s the strong swimmers who drown.’”

+ Along those lines, I discovered the EntreLeadership podcast last week and immediately added almost two dozen episodes to my listening list. The first one I queued up was this interview with legendary Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz in which he shares his thoughts on coaching, learning, leadership and success. Every coach should listen to it. “It’s not the great play that wins,” Holtz would tell his team before every game. “It’s eliminating the dumb play."

Quick Splits

— I’m a multitasker most of the week—and that’s not necessarily a good thing. “It’s the reason television shows we tweet through feel tiresome and books we pick up and put down and pick up again never seem to end,” Verena von Pfetten wrote in The New York Times earlier this year. “The more we allow ourselves to be distracted from a particular activity, the more we feel the need to be distracted. Paying attention pays dividends.” Interestingly enough, writing this newsletter into the wee hours of Tuesday morning each week is when I’m able to do some of my most focused work. Why? I suspect it has something to do with the pressure of a looming deadline but there are also fewer “live” distractions in the middle of the night such as phone calls, text messages and other audible notifications, which means there’s less shit scattering my attention all over place. The lesson here? Ultimately, it’s up to us to create the conditions in our lives that allow for focusing on one thing at a time, e.g., putting the phone away when having coffee with a friend, shutting the TV off when reading a book, writing after hours while the rest of the world sleeps, stepping away from the computer when talking to someone on the phone, etc.

— Every once in a while I’ll tune into Rich Roll’s podcast and I’m glad I did this past week. This recent episode with author Jonathan Fields, someone whose work I was unfamiliar with, really hit home to me and complements the theme of being more engaged, present and focused in your life that I first touched on in the previous item on multitasking/monotasking quite well. Give it a listen when you get a chance. “The secret is there’s no secret,” Fields says in a very Once A Runner-esque way. “The secret is just do it. The secret is getting out of your head and take action.” 

— “Roughly” 1.7 million people were expected to line the streets of Chicago for that city’s annual marathon two Sundays ago, according to pre-race news reports. Turns out that figure might have been a skosh more than a slight overestimation, a local math professor deduced afterward. “The point is that too often, the media disseminate quantitative information,” Mark Iris, a mathematical methods lecturer at Northwestern University, wrote in The Chicago Tribune. “Those data, because of their presumed precision, are too often taken at face value, with no questioning. The marathon is but one example.” Sensationalizing numbers is standard practice in many arenas but in this case I love that Iris’ column appeared in The Tribune, the same publication that intentionally overinflated the expected crowd size in the first place. It’s almost as if the editorial plan for the Chicago Marathon went something like this: “OK, here’s what we’re gonna do: Two days before the race we’ll publish a couple stories referencing a ridiculous number of spectators—everyone will get excited—then three days after the race we’ll run Mark’s piece calling us out on our own bullshit. It will be great for newsstand sales and page views on the website.”

That’s it for Issue 49. If you liked what you read here, do me a solid and forward this along to a friend and tell them to subscribe or share the web link on your preferred social media platform for everyone to see. On the flipside, you can express your disgust by replying directly to this email or publicly shaming me on Twitter.

Thanks for reading, 


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