Small road race directors struggle with detecting doping
For third place at the 2015 St. Louis half-marathon, Krista Arnold got $300. It should have been $1,000. She can blame that on the doped runner from Kenya who raced off ahead of the pack.
The foot doctor from Edwardsville, Illinois, is among the recreational runners who were cheated out of places and prizes by Lilian Mariita, a second-tier Kenyan athlete who made her living from small U.S. road races, got busted twice for doping and was the focus of an Associated Press investigation published last week.
The story shows how sport's doping problem has trickled down to the non-elite, amateur level. Suddenly, a practice more usually associated with Olympic champions and Tour de France cyclists is hitting close to home for runners like Arnold.
''You don't have to be elite to be knocked off the podium and out of your deserved place,'' she told AP.
Mariita's way of life ended last July when the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency showed up at a small race in Kentucky - the Great Buffalo Chase 5K - drug-tested the runner from the tea-plantation village of Nyaramba and found steroids in her urine. The positive finding, her second in eight months, earned an eight-year ban from competition - the longest of any Kenyan runner - that effectively ended her career.
The AP investigation found that Mariita continued to compete - in nine races in eight states - from April to August 2015 even after the Kenyan athletics federation told her that she shouldn't.
The AP also reported that the International Association of Athletics Federations, the sport's global governing body, is working with USADA in an investigation of the agent who organized Mariita's racing across the United States, former elite Russian athlete Larisa Mikhaylova.
Mikhaylova concedes that she should have cut Mariita loose after the runner's first failed test in 2014 and not believed her explanations that the positive test for the banned endurance-boosting drug EPO was nothing to worry about.
''If I'd have known, I would not have worked with her, for sure,'' Mikhaylova told AP in response to its findings. ''I'd have said `Goodbye, Lilian, I won't work with you, you're not a good runner.'''
She added that she has nothing to hide.
''I want to fight,'' she said. ''I want to show anyone the evidence that this is not my fault.''
She may not get that chance. A growing number of race directors said they are shutting out Mikhaylova and her runners, mostly from East Africa, that she manages from a two-story house in Newport, Kentucky. She finds and enters them for races she thinks they can win, in exchange for 15 percent of their prize money. Races she entered Mariita for told AP they were too small to be able to afford expensive drug-testing.
Nancy Lieberman, who runs the St. Louis half-marathon that Mariita won last April when provisionally suspended, said she denied Mikhaylova's recent request to enter runners next Sunday.
''It is an issue of trust,'' Lieberman said. ''She knowingly sent a banned runner to our race who collected the prize money.''
Arnold can't quite recall, but thinks she probably put her $300 third-place prize ''in my kids' college tuition penny bank.'' Mariita got $1,500 for winning. Had she not competed, as instructed, then perhaps Arnold might have managed second, for $1,000.
She'll never know.
''The most maddening part is thinking back to all those workouts when I get up at 5 in the morning to run before I go to work and I've got my kids still sleeping,'' she said. ''I'm doing this all the right way and there people out there cheating, you know?''
The realization that more must be done to detect drug use is hitting many others in the world of small, friendly U.S. road races - 5 and 10Ks, half and full marathons that often benefit charities and are filled with thousands of weekend joggers, fitness enthusiasts and even a good number of elites who aren't at the Olympic level.
When Mikhaylova emailed race organizers in Carmel, Indiana, last week, they responded that her athletes would no longer be eligible for prize money at their events later this month, race director Todd Oliver said. Mariita won the half marathon there a year ago, pocketing $500.
She also picked up a far smaller $50 prize, as the fastest women in her age group, racing in a 4-miler in Buffalo, New York, last July - another race she should have sat out following her failed test.
The race director there, Jim Nowicki, acknowledged that drug testing is probably too expensive for smaller races like his, and said he'd like to find a ''better, cheaper and easier way to eliminate the issue.''
Because of the vast number of road races across America, there is no umbrella licensing process for runners. USA Track and Field has long looked into such a licensing process, but the logistics and cost have been a deterrent, said spokeswoman Jill Geer.
There are more than 10 million finishers in road races across America each year. One of the main running associations is the Road Runners Club of America. Its 2,400 member clubs put on almost 10,000 races a year for nearly 5 million runners.
Jean Knaack, the RRCA's executive director, said that not paying foreign competitors could help keep races clean. They are advising their member clubs to offer Americans-only prize money if they cannot afford to drug test.
That might have helped Sarah Crouch. She placed third, one spot behind Mariita, at the Great Buffalo Chase 5K in Frankfort, Kentucky, last July.
Race organizers later paid Crouch the $500 difference between third and second place.
''Sadly,'' she said, ''the knowledge that they are stealing money and glory from clean athletes doesn't seem to be enough to discourage these athletes and agents.''
Leicester reported from Paris, France.