Jim Nowicki found out earlier this week that the top male American finisher in the last two Subaru 4-Mile Chases, the race Nowicki has run for more than a quarter of a century, was a cheater.
Christian Hesch of Hollywood, Cal., recently went public with a confession that he used erythropoietin (EPO), an illegal substance that improves red blood cell production.
“Probably sad. Disappointed,” Nowicki said about his reaction to the news.
Hesch’s story was a bit startling. It’s naive to think that performance-enhancing substances aren’t used in running by some, but it’s still a surprise to see a runner who competed in a race on our area’s streets to come out as a doper.
The 33-year-old was a good runner by any standard — not one of those who earn big dollars at the sport’s highest level, but who certainly could pick up some spending money at races around the country. He was hit by a car while riding a bicycle in May 2010. Hesch missed several months of training and decided he needed help to return to his old form.
Therefore, he drove to Tijuana, Mexico, bought some EPO, and injected himself for the first of 54 times over the next two years or so. That means he was a user during both of his Subaru runs, although a report from the New York Times said that his performance level took a good-sized jump only in August of this year.
However, a teammate from Nike Team Run LA recently found an empty EPO bottle and raised the issue. Hesch then went public with an open letter published by competitor.com.
“Two years ago I made a choice that will disappoint, sadden and, perhaps anger you,” Hesch wrote. “I chose to use EPO. I won’t expect anyone who’s cheered for me over the last few years to lack a feeling of being cheated, betrayed, and let down.”
The reaction was quite swift. The United States Anti-Doping Agency is investigating the story, and Hesch is facing a two-year suspension.
Todd Witzleben, a member of the University at Buffalo track and cross-country coaching staff, is a longtime friend and former teammate of Hesch.
“I talked to him ... to let him know that I will always be his friend, but I feel that his racing career should be over (at least racing for money),” Witzleben wrote in a public forum on buffalorunners.com. “Christian has always over-raced. The guy would run three races in a weekend, but then find himself injured. Over the past two years, he has been able to keep his routine up without setback. That should have been our first clue.”
That brings us back to Subaru. Race director Nowicki has kept an eye on the winning times over the years, looking for a performance that is much faster than what could be expected as a sign of possible doping. He hasn’t seen anything suspicious.
“All of the times over the years have been pretty constant, give or take 10 to 18 seconds,” he said. “It’s the same for the women. If someone breaks a record, it’s eye-popping. There was nothing to lead me to suggest that hanky panky was going on.”
Alas, it was in this one case. When asked if he’d ever let Hesch back in his race again, Nowicki gave a long pause before answering.
“If he gets cleared by a sanctioning body … I’d have to give it some hard thought,” he replied. “I couldn’t make that decision right now, because I want to see what the other people are doing. I want to talk to other people in the industry, ask what they would do, and come to a consensus. I’m for second chances, but I’d have to see how serious a situation this is.”
Then there’s the matter of rewriting the results well after the fact.
“Three months have passed. Do I say, ‘Christian, I want the money back’?” Nowicki asked. “That’s another good question. I’m going to have to think about that. It’s not a lot of money ($500). But if the guys who came in second and third get wind of this, would they file a formal protest? I guess I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it.”
The Subaru application does mention the possibility of drug testing of winners after the race — and that has happened at the race in the past — but the odds of winners of any local race being tested by national organizations are quite small. Nowicki says this episode will make him think about testing the prize-winners.
“That’s a definite. I will look into the cost,” he said. “We’re a low budget race. But if it’s financially doable, I’d probably do it.”
The veteran race director has one final comment on the Hesch’s situation.
“If you’re going to cheat for $1,000, shame on you,” he said.
• Bob Ivory Run (News’ Runner of the Year Race), 5K, 845 Kenmore Ave. in Tonawanda, 9 a.m. today, 270-4113.
• Paint the Village Pink 5K, 4925 Main St. in Williamsville, 1 p.m. today, (516) 641-3587.
• BuffaloRunners 10K, Chestnut Ridge Park Casino in Orchard Park, 9 a.m. Saturday, 649-1530.
• Joe’s 5K, 2909 Transit Road in Newfane, 10 a.m. Saturday, 778-4603.
• UAW Veterans Appreciation 5K Run, 524 Walnut St. in Lockport, 12 noon Saturday, 632-1540.
• Making Tracks for Families 5K, 2909 South Park Ave. in Lackawanna, 10 a.m. on Nov. 4, 634-1058.