EPO And Senior, Highly Competitive Endurance Athletes
(by Donald B. Ardell) EPO or "erythropoietin" is a naturally occurring glycoprotein. A genetically engineered EPA compound was first approved by the FDA in 1989, for the purpose of treating anemia. This hormone is produced by our kidneys. It regulates the production of red blood cells. Synthetic EPO, when injected, boosts red blood cell production. This fact has led athletes and sports scientists to wonder:
• Is there evidence that EPO enhances performance in endurance sports (e.g., cycling, triathlon, running)?
• Is there evidence that use of EPO by athletes could or does pose health risks?
• Is EPO beneficial for senior age group endurance athletes?
• Is there any evidence that senior age group competitors are using EPO?
This topic is complicated. Readers seeking a scientific treatment of the above questions are invited to peruse scholarly journals, read the testimonies of experts called to testify at the trials of banished pro cyclists or go to any number of excellent websites that treat drug-related issues comprehensively. This essay offers but a simple overview, based upon random perspectives from a survey of senior but highly-competitive endurance athletes.
I polled a sampling of senior athlete friends on these questions. I asked for the views of a sample of fellow racers about the issues. I specifically asked for their opinions, regardless of what they knew to be true as facts. In this manner, I got provocative responses. None knew anyone in the senior category who was running, cycling and/or doing multi-sports events on the juice.
Let me preface a sampling of the comments I got with my own perspectives on EPO. Do I believe some seniors are using EPO, that it would provide a winning advantage and that it would pose health risks, if taken? "Yes," to all three questions. My sense is that some are indeed using EPO but I don't know for sure. It probably does help, at least in the short run. If nothing else, it gives a psychological edge, just as would prayers or rain dances, if someone thought such appeals were a big help. As for the risks, yes, I think there are substantial dangers.
Anyone using EPO, young or old but particularly in later life, is exercising poor judgment as well as major muscle groups by combining juicing with exercise. The race payoffs pale in comparison with the health hazards. It's probably a very foolish, non-wellness oriented thing to do, since even winning 100 percent of the time as an age grouper is not likely to bring fame and/or riches, not that either would be worth dying for. Many people do worse things for less advantages than wealth and glory, so it would not surprise me at all if a few top or even middle-level age groupers were shooting up.
I hope I'm mistaken, that is, that not a single senior competitor is doing so, but this would surprise me. Enough about my biases, let's turn to the feedback section. A top 60-plus cyclist, Bob L. said he had no knowledge of age-groupers using performance-enhancing substances, but would be willing to bet the farm that some are popping pills or injecting themselves.
Bob said to take performance-enhancing substances would constitute cheating and gave a few illustrations of why he thinks situational ethics must be applied to the matter.
You are an elite bicycle racer. You have dedicated many years of your life to winning the Tour de France, and you now actually have a chance to win. You know, but cannot prove, that almost all the top competitors are using an as-yet-undetectable, performance-enhancing substance that boosts endurance by ten percent or more. You have the opportunity to use it. Should you? My answer is a qualified "Yes." Qualified because there are a number of other considerations I haven't mentioned, such as potentially harmful side-effects, or the possibility that you'll be busted and disgraced a few years from now when they come up with a blood test for the substance.
My serious answer is — it's cheating. There were other comments among the many that I had shared with all those who had responded to my survey. Sandy was one of those respondents. Sandy is a champion cyclist in her late 60s, who found it hard to believe that a senior competitor would take EPO, or do any kind of doping. He wrote: “I can certainly understand the motivation that might drive a pro or a national class athlete vying for the Olympics to take EPO. There is lots of glory and cash directly related to the level of performance. But, can you as a world-class athlete even name the person who won your age group at the last nationals or worlds? Probably not. It is difficult to conceive of an age grouper playing with his health for a result that probably won't even make his local newspaper. I broke two time trial state records in December. One by 29 seconds, and the other is the top time in the nation. It was not worthy of even a sentence in the local paper. Am I going to dope to impress my friends? I don't think so. I need one example to the contrary.”
I would find it very interesting if there was a modicum of evidence that any age group athletes takes EPO. I have actually never even heard about it brought up as a possible issue. There is one local rider who many think was on juice for a long time. He is now suffering many physical maladies which some feel is the consequence of years of taking substances. Interestingly, that very rider once told me that he has an abnormally high hematocrit reading which he believes would flag him as a doper if he were a pro rider rather than someone competing in age group competition in masters 55+ age group (he is 61). I personally don't believe that one attains an abnormally high hematocrit reading sans external aid(s).
Even those athletes with freakish VO2max numbers typically test "normal" when hematocrit is tested. They often have abnormal capabilities to not only consume oxygen but to rid their bodies of lactic acid very quickly. Take that, add EPO coupled with intensive training and you have a champion athlete. I wish there was some incontrovertible evidence that even one age grouper is taking EPO. Then, opinions as to how unwise such activities are would make an interesting discussion.
My problem with this at the moment is a discussion regarding something that perhaps either does not exist or exists in an infinitesimal number. The pros rationalize #1 with the argument that "everyone is doing it, and one must dope to stay competitive." That would be a rather weak argument for an age group athlete. Make me feel that this discussion has relevance. I, for example, desperately want to win. I thrive on competition and believe that a silver medal is indicative of being the first loser.
I train hard. I have not missed a day of cycling year to date, I have just under 7000 miles logged this year, and I have not had one week under 300 miles. Do I take cycling seriously? Re-read the third sentence in this paragraph. If someone approached me and indicated that they would sponsor me by supplying me with the latest high tech "aids" which would assuredly allow me to win a world cycling championship, would I take it? My answer would be 'no,' for the two following reasons: 1) I, in my heart of heart, would know that I cheated and hence my win would be meaningless, and 2) The evidence is rather clear that one is playing Russian Roulette with their body by taking these substances. I would think that the dangers would be amplified for someone in their late 60s.
To balance things out, I'll leave you with the perspective of my triathlete friend Dave G., a highly competitive "young" senior (45 but he looks much older). Here's Dave's take on the issues, including an insight on why people do things that are not always rational: Yes, I am convinced of it. I don't know anyone doing it, but I have known triathletes who have taken other stimulates. So, why not EPO? I know one senior cyclist who admitted taking EPO - he said it was like the fountain of youth. Today I rode in the hills with a fast crowd, and there were a few climbs when I sure as hell wished I had a shot of EPO! (Kidding.) Why should anyone risk his or her health if there were no money involved? Well, ask yourself this: Why would anyone drink and drive? Why do people smoke? Why do people eat junk food and become obese? It's about addiction. Just look at all the people who do Ironman races over and over and over again. Most have no chance of winning their age division, but are addicted and thus give other reasons (e.g., want to better their times, see new places, get endurance highs, see God, etc.). I know people who have either quit their jobs or were fired because they insisted on more time to train for Ironman races. If you're that addictive, then taking EPO is an easy stretch. I am convinced that many Ironman athletes would be alcoholics if they didn't do 20 hours/week of training.
Jon, another champion 70-plus triathlete, weighed in along similar lines:
If a 70 year old will cut the course at a world's competition, as did a German in 2007 just to get on the podium, some others will probably take illegal, dangerous substances for that imagined edge. (By the way, the cheater was caught and banned for life by the German federation and the ITU.) I think age groupers are taking steroids (growth hormones and probably testosterone). These are cheaper, more available and easier to use than EPO.
Finally, noticing that I had overlooked a woman's point of view (other than my wife's, who always agrees with me - ha), I asked Wendy S., a highly competitive 60-plus triathlete and exercise scientist, about the likelihood of age groupers using EPO. Here's Wendy's take: My view is that they will use it if they can get their hands on it. Not all, of course. But there are enough loonies out there whose dreams of glory and desire to win are way out of line with reality or reason. When you see so many zealous seniors overtraining, eating poorly and thinking that it's cool to cross the finish line and pass out, why doubt that they would take drugs to enhance performance?
The triathlete magazines are full of ads for bogus stuff represented to enhance performance. Obviously the stuff is selling, which supports my theory that people will put anything into their bodies that they think will make them faster or stronger. It's naive to think the people you are writing about would decline something reputed to enhance their results. Most act like they are immortal though they know better, in that they seem not to believe the ill effects mentioned in warnings apply to them. What about those of us who are witnessing our own slowing, and who are bombarded with 'anti-aging; ads? Are we now so much wiser that we can accept gracefully the fact that we can't run as fast as we used to? Few of us are, as the success of the ant-aging stuff demonstrates. Do I think that those in the upper age groups would take EPO? Yes - and anything else that promised to prevent or postpone the inevitable. Do I know anyone who has taken EPO? I have not asked, and no one has told me.
What do YOU think? Comments welcomed and appreciated, especially regarding the one big question for the 50-plus age grouper: Do you or would you take EPO? Why or why not? Be well.
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