Full transcript of interview with Ulrich (Uli) Fluhme (Feb. 27, 2013):
C259: Uli, welcome to the cloud.
Uli: Thanks for having me, guys.
C259: First off, tell us a bit about Gran Fondo and your experience as a cyclist and a runner.
Uli: Gran Fondo is a cycling race for amateurs. We are going into the third year this year on May 19. We start in New York City, it’s 110 miles, the course goes to Vermont and finishes back in Weehawken. It’s a bit like a marathon in the sense that the guys in the front are racing, the guys in the middle are going for a PR, and the guys in the back are hoping to survive. We have 7,000 participants. It’s a fantastic thing. People from over 70 countries are coming. I think a comparison to the NYC Marathon but on bikes is the easiest way to explain it.
C259: In the last Gran Fondo you actually did some drug testing, correct?
Uli: Yeah we tested because it’s something that’s really close to my heart. It’s something I’ve followed it a lot over the last 10 years. I believe it’s unfortunately an important part of the sport but I feel if you put up a good race as a race director and you invite people to compete and train for that and do their best and you measure the course and you make sure nobody cuts the course, then drug testing is part of it, otherwise people will just take drugs and get away with it and would make it unfair. That’s why I believe drug testing has to be at any event of the size that can afford it.
C259: As a race director, what are the logistics of testing for drugs? Is this something that could be done at any race, or does it cost a tremendous amount of money? How does it work?
Uli: The cost is the biggest hurdle I’m sure. I said it before it has to be a relatively big event. Even for us it was a struggle to come up with about $15,000 to pay for in-competition and out-of-competition testing, but there are many large running events in the U.S. that could afford that. The financial issue is there, logistics – not a problem, really fairly simple and USADA takes care of that for the event if you pay for it.
C259: So basically you pay USADA and they take care of the testing?
Uli: That’s correct. Talk to them about what a good approach would be, what is in the budget of the event, what kind of testing would make sense, who you want to test, if you want to do in-competition, if you can even do out-of-competition testing, which is I think the more important one, and then you come up with a plan and they act completely independently of the event. They do the testing, they come back with the results and take care of it.
C259: For those unfamiliar with the actual test, what does it actually involve? For example, the in-competition, after the finish line, is there a tent and a blood test, a blood draw? How does it work?
Uli: Blood test you can do but these days you can detect most of the drugs by just peeing in a cup, which is what’s happening, so you’ve got chaperones they know who they have to what they call “catch” at the finish line. For example, the first five have to go to drug testing so there is a person designated to the fourth finisher. The guy comes across the line, they grab him, they go to a tent, and in this tent they get something to drink until they can pee. They pee in a cup. And all this is done by the chaperones under the supervision of USADA.
C259: Generally the athletes are cooperative and understand the reason, or do you have a lot of people who are very resistant?
Uli: In cycling, if you have a license from USA Cycling it’s like a USATF license, the same thing, then you agree to drug testing at any time, you don’t even have a choice. The easiest thing is, if you don’t even agree to getting tested then you automatically get a ban, so there is no choice in that. Most athletes they support that, and we had no problem with anyone refusing it. We did have positive tests. No one is going to say no because they know they would get banned at my event for life if they would do that and would immediately get a 2-year ban from USADA.
C259: Were you surprised at the positive tests? You had two positive tests, right?
Uli: Yes, I was surprised because in competition, as they say, you usually only catch the dumb guys, because, you know, there are so many ways to take the drugs so that they can’t be detected on the day, and there are many drugs that help you to get ready for the event, for the race, you don’t even have to have it in your system for the race itself to help you with training. The two that got busted one of them was Italian, he didn’t know we tested and the other guy he said he was just caught, he was not thinking he would get tested positive.
C259: This was EPO?
Uli: Yep, full-on EPO, two amateurs, in an amateur event, EPO, two out of ten.
C259: Could you tell us what the prize money at stake was for these athletes, and do you think it was the prize money, or other factors of general prestige that led them to do this?
Uli: It’s an amateur event so there was no prize money, however the winners they get an $8,000 bike, so you can think of $8,000 prize money. But prize money is not really why people dope. Sure in professional sports there are athletes even not all of them dope for the money; in amateur sports it’s not about the money, it’s all about prestige and wanting to win. When you talk to the people who get busted, the amateurs, one of our guys, he doesn’t need the money or the bike, he has enough bikes. It’s all about ego.
C259: So you think this is a big problem among amateurs generally, in running and cycling?
Uli: Yes I think so it is. I could take our event as proof. I could claim that 20% were on EPO, but just among ten guys, but I think it is, it is a problem. It is hard to prove it at this point because there are very few events that do testing among amateurs, but the supplement industry is a massive industry. People take anything, they put anything in their bodies to just improve whatever. Getting these drugs is very easy these days, having the Internet. You just go on Google, you put in the stuff you want, and you get it delivered to your door in a non-descript envelope. You can even Google how to take this stuff, so there is no reason why people wouldn’t do it. They go to great lengths, they train hard, they want to win at any cost. People do that, no doubt.
C259: If you could venture a guess, what percentage of NYC Marathon runners, of the amateurs, would test positive?
Uli: Well, you know, with test positive you’ve got to be careful, because if you look at the NYC Marathon field there are probably 90% in there, or 80%, who just want to finish. Then you have 19% or 19.9%, who want to beat their personal best, and then you’ve got very few who actually go for the win or are professionals.
If you’ve got someone who just wants to finish they may take some medication just because they do that anyway. Because it makes them feel better or a big problem now, I call it a problem in the U.S., is that if you are 50 and you go to a doctor and say you feel a little tired, they say well your testosterone is low, how about a testosterone supplementation? It’s just the general process of aging that you have a lower testosterone level, so it’s not something that is a medical issue, it’s just life. They may take testosterone, not as performance enhancing but just to feel better, they end up running a marathon they want to just finish in five hours and of course they would test positive. That’s not a positive doping test that we should be concerned about. We should be concerned about the people who are competing, the sub-elites, people who are competitive club runners in New York City, you look at the top 100, the top 200 guys who are bringing in the points for the teams. There I would really look closely at what they are doing. I would be looking at the Road Runners to do something there.
C259: If you were in charge, what would you do, if you were Mary Wittenberg?
Uli: If I were Mary Wittenberg, I would definitely take the larger races like the Scotland 10k or Coogan’s which is coming up this weekend and test the podium, test a few age-group podiums, two or three random tests, maybe 5-10 tests in competition, and I would also create a list of the top 200 runners from the year before and test them out of competition.
C259: Interesting. So you would vastly expand drug testing?
Uli: Absolutely, what I said before. The Road Runner races are fantastic races. I came to New York five years ago and got into the running scene and really enjoyed and got better just having all these competitive races – well organized, measured courses, it’s just perfect from start to finish. That motivates me, it motivates me to train hard, to go out there and train every day, and do my best. If you as a race organizer provide all these great races that are competitive, then you have to do everything, that is the obligation as a race director, to make sure it’s fair, which means you have marshals to make sure that no one is cutting the course. You also need to have drug testing, because that’s also a way of cheating, and I think it should be part of it. The Road Runners are an organization that is big enough to afford that.
C259: Do you think Uli that the costs will come down over time and make it more commonplace for this kind of testing to take place in smaller races outside of New York Road Runners? In other words, do you think we should expect as runners that over time we will eventually be giving a test at the finish line, even if we are looking for a masters award in a small race?
Uli: It wouldn’t be in a small race, and that’s not what I would be getting at. If the perception is out there that you could be tested, and there are certain bigger events that they are testing and people see actually see it, and you know there is out-of-competition testing there, and you know in your club, well, John got tested last week, he’s a 2:49 marathon runner and does all these club races, scores from time to time. I think it makes people more cautious with what they are doing. That makes people who are taking drugs maybe go away from the sport, maybe don’t go to those races, maybe they have to be more careful in what they take, maybe they can only take less, they have to start more micro-dosing, all this helps. We will never be able to get drugs completely out of the sport, but right now it is a free-for-all. Right now you can do whatever you want. You can take EPO until your blood is thick. If you go to 60% hematocrit, no one cares. There are enough studies out there, that if you are a 3:00 marathon runner, you take this stuff, you run a 2:50, that’s ten minutes, just by taking EPO. It’s possible right now. No one is going to stop you. If they are going to stop you it is because you don’t go over a timing mat because you cut somewhere in the Bronx, you took a cross street to not go all the way in the marathon and you only run 25 miles. You take the EPO, 10 minutes, no one is going to be able to tell.
C259: Do you think that the running clubs bear responsibility for keeping their athletes clean?
Uli: Yeah, I think education is what the clubs need to do. I don’t think the clubs could afford to test the runners, but they can do education, that is something that is missing, but that is definitely something that should be done. There could be education of any runner or in particular younger runners, growing up. In the long term it is not about winning or placing in an amateur competition. Competing and training is so much more than just placing tenth or eighth or twelfth or whatever.
C259: It’s interesting to hear you talk about this among amateurs. I never would have thought that such a thing would be possible, testing among amateurs, but it’s very interesting that you did that in Gran Fondo and I would welcome it. I think it would be fantastic if at the Scotland 10k the age-group winners or certain people would be picked out, would have to pee in a cup. The thought that the whole field was clean or cleaner I would welcome that, I think that’s great. People would be running for the right reasons and you might be saving some people from greater health or psychological issues down the line.
Now Uli, looking at the pro scene, do you think that running is in a bubble right now and that we may see some bad news in the next few years akin to what we’ve seen in cycling leading up to Lance Armstrong?
Uli: Yeah, from knowing running and cycling, the sports are too similar that you shouldn’t think that drugs are not as widespread as they are in cycling. I think we shouldn’t be scared about what could happen, I think we should welcome if more would come out, because right now everybody is just living in denial. Many races are just scared that they have a winner and then a week later they have to say well actually he was on drugs. There is this perception that you don’t want a tainted winner and you don’t want that risk so you’d rather not test. It’s kind of like just like looking away. It’s not sustainable, as we’ve seen in cycling. Pro cycling is going through a rough time because of that and I think running will too if we don’t really take care of it. Just before you spoke about what the World Marathon Majors were doing and you could call it a tiny step in the right direction, but they are actually not out-of-competition testing. I don’t think that you read that correctly. From my understanding they applaud it, that they think it’s good. But what I think they actually should do is come up with money to fund it.
C259: I think the release said there would be additional out-of-competition testing in Ethiopia and Kenya and biological passport testing and that they had not been doing that before.
Uli: This is not because of them. This is just happening by WADA. They applaud that it is getting done. I don’t think they are financing that program, and that’s what they should do, and they should go further they should go into amateurs as well.
C259: Some have said that some of the big money centers of the sport, the big sneaker companies should really get behind this.
Uli: Yeah, perfect. They too, absolutely. I’m always talk about the races because I am a race director and it’s easier to point fingers on others. Being a race director I put the money where my mouth is and I actually do it. We test, and I show that it is possible. I want the Road Runners, I want Chicago Marathon, Boston, I want the Competitor Group to test, because they can. If they say they cannot it is just they are too greedy, they are too cheap, they can do it. I show it’s getting done and there are other events, we aren’t the only one, we were the first ones testing out-of-competition. There are large cycling events in Italy that test amateurs.
There is the so-called Five Stars league, which is five large Gran Fondos, they all have 5,000 to 8,000 participants, and they created a list of the strongest 200 cyclists from the year before. When they want to do one of those big five races, think of them as the big five marathons in America, they have to give blood in the morning. That test costs 50 euros. It is not a doping test, but they are creating a blood profile and they can see what’s happening. If they see a blood profile that is completely out of whack, they tell this guy look, you are not racing, you are not doing this, you’re banned for two weeks. Just the scare of giving the blood in the morning before the race and knowing you are getting monitored kept a handful, quite a lot of riders, actually, away from those events – those who were on the podium the year before, who dominated those events. Events got slower, the races got slower. It helped. It is a cheap way to do it because it is not actual testing, but it is another way. There are smart ways to do it. People always say well, we can’t do it for legal reasons, this and that. I’m lawyer, it’s possible. You just have to do it. Sometimes you’ll have to deal with the consequences, sometimes some one will fight you, but you can get through it.
C259: You have an opinion piece on slowtwitch.com, we’ll put a link to it on our show notes. It’s a great piece about age-group doping control, the very subject we’re discussing now. One of the comments you make that I love was when you say that the primary goal of testing is not catching the cheaters, it’s about deterring dopers from competing in the first place. I think that’s very correct, we’re obsessed with catching people, but it’s really about deterrence.
Uli: Absolutely. Catching is so much harder than to deter them, we saw that. When we announced that we have testing, there were some interesting no-shows, and that’s okay. If someone wants to take drugs, do it, take testosterone or whatever, if that’s what you want, I don’t care, but don’t come to my race. And that’s fine. It’s helped. And we had a few DNFs where we knew well, these people that’s kind of weird, where did they end up? You see them at the start and you know they are good, they should win something, and then they don’t finish. And I think that’s all we need, that’s all we need. I’m sure we had some people place who take drugs. You cannot avoid that, but you can minimize it, and it helps the people who try to compete clean, and it is still the vast majority who try to compete clean, and they get cheated by a few bad apples.
C259: In your opinion piece you mention TUEs, which are therapeutic use exemptions, and you talked about it a little bit with a 50 year-old guy getting some testosterone medication, and there are other therapeutic uses. Do you have an opinion, what should we make of a high-profile athlete who has a medical condition and is taking something that otherwise is considered a performance enhancing drug. In the swirl of accusations and innuendoes, there were articles from a couple of years ago pointing out that Galen Rupp has his own TUE for a thyroid condition and is getting treatment for that. Do you have an opinion on this area?
Uli: TUEs are important because there are some people who actually have to take something to live a life that is normal. They have a medical condition that is not pleasant, and they’d probably rather not take the medication and be healthy. The TUEs are really important. Are they abused? Of course they are. It happens, too. It happened in pro cycling where there was a time when more than 90% of the field had asthma, so they could take something. This is a small problem in the big picture because you won’t get a TUE for EPO, it’s very hard to get a TUE for testosterone, I think it’s almost impossible. You won’t get a TUE for HGH, for the stuff that really, really helps, you won’t get a TUE for that. TUEs are important, yes there are cases where you can question it, but I doubt that some one wins the race because of the medication he or she could take because of TUE. That should not something we should be obsessing too much over.
C259: Were a lot of the participants in the Gran Fondo grateful about the drug testing policy you took on?
Uli: Yeah absolutely. They want that. The vast majority want that. There were a few people who don’t want it, but, you know, there were some weird things happening that were quite suspicious, like, why don’t you want it? People said it’s too personal, it’s my hobby. Well, you know, unfortunately thank the cheaters that it’s now part of your hobby that you might get tested. But the vast majority loves it, they want that, it makes them feel better, because everybody sees some performances, especially from age-group athletes, 40 plus, that are almost impossible. They are freaks of nature, and the number of freaks of nature has definitely grown in the last 10, 15 years. To be honest, seeing this it really disgusts me to see these people get away with it. And I try to do my own thing but I’m a competitor, I like to compete, and sometimes it’s hard to swallow. First thing is always I think, well, he’s better, and then someone gets busted and I’m like, well, he wasn’t just better, and it’s not easy. It doesn’t matter if you are a 2:30 runner or a 2:20 runner or a 2:50 runner, it’s in all these levels. Once you are back of the pack and want to finish, then you really are only concerned about yourself, but the competitive level, that’s a lot of people.
C259: Have any race directors followed your lead for other cycling races and started drug testing?
Uli: Yeah it’s definitely something that thanks to us doing this, and I’m tapping my own shoulder because I like that it’s happening, it has helped and other events are following suit, not as many as we would like but it definitely starts working. CRCA, which is the racing organization for cycling races here in New York is starting testing, and there is a large triathlon organization called Rev3 who plans to do age-group testing. USA Cycling, which is the cycling federation like USATF, is working together with USADA on an amateur doping control system for all of the U.S., thanks to what we did. So there is a movement, it’s happening, and I really hope that the other large organizations that run great amateur events like the Road Runners follow suit and see that it is something that has to be done.
C259: One last question. Would you link the striking improved performances that we’ve seen among the elites in the marathon and the half marathons that we talked about earlier in the show to a lot of people getting away with taking drugs?
Uli: Yeah, that’s probably one of the reasons, yep. You named the other ones, that people are younger and it’s just more competitive. At the top of the end of it, if you have someone really young who comes from a 2:09 to a 2:04, that’s pretty rough. To get to a 2:09, people from East Africa, they don’t have access to drugs. I’ve been to Iten, I’ve trained there (or run there, I wouldn’t call it training) for two weeks, and if you see how a 2:12, 2:13 runner lives there, they have nothing. They don’t have access to drugs. But they get to a race, they run 2:09, and then they get to those training camps and then they have managers and that’s the point that they get access to drugs, and that’s where the next step happens. Those training camps, how they function is not good. The managers get a portion of the winnings, which of course is to a certain extent normal, but the incentives are maybe a problem there.
I really hope that New York Road Runners, Competitor Group, IronMan in triathlon, the organizations that have the money that are stepping up now, will also start testing among amateurs. I think we amateur runners we deserve that. We train so hard, we pay those entry fees, we want to race the other guys and we want a fair competition. Like you guys talking about it, there need to be more people stepping up and saying why don’t you test me? I want to be tested. Our whole club CPTC we want to be tested. We want to show we do this clean. We want to prove we do this clean. I think just saying we know you can afford it, it can be done, there are other events that do it. What do we need to do? Also, go to the race director and tell them, you should do it. Many race directors don’t know how to do it, what to do. Offer the help, say, let’s go to USADA together. Talk to them, they are really helpful. You go on a website, you go on the contact form, you write them an e-mail, you call them, they help you out, they tell you what’s possible and what’s not. It’s really easy if you want it, and I think just shunning away from it and closing your eyes and hoping nothing happens isn’t the way to deal with it.
C259: Uli thank you so much for joining us tonight and for your insights on both the amateur and the elite scene. We can’t let you go without asking for a training tip. You as an accomplished 2:33 marathoner, what is something you’ve done, besides having obvious talent, that’s helped you get your times so low?
Uli: Yeah it’s all talent I actually should be running 2:15, right? I can say I’m 6’1’’ and I weigh 165 pounds so that’s not really that much talent for a runner, so I’m quite heavy. I’m kind of old school. Sometimes I run with a watch, when I do a tempo run or intervals, but usually I run without a watch. I start my run and look at the CNN sign at Columbus Circle, and go for a run in the park and come back and look at the time again and write down the time. I think keep it simple, just run, and what I’ve learned from CPTC is you need to run hard from time to time. You need people who push you. CPTC is a great club because for everyone there is someone who is going to beat you and is going to make it hard for you. Don’t race every workout, but some workouts we have to hurt. A book I recommend reading is Matt Fitzgerald’s “Brain Training for Runners.” It’s all about getting the brain into the right frame of mind, of hurting yourself and getting used to it.
C259: Thanks for joining us and we’ll have you back if the doping situation develops of if we can’t get another guest we’ll have to get you back in either case…