Fagan's exit strategy a measure of his despair


ATHLETICS:The so-called loneliness of the long distance runner is not always a healthy thing and can lead to serious problems, writes IAN O'RIORDAN

THERE’S A cartoon in The New Yorker magazine this week where a woman with skinny supermodel looks is being sounded out by two slightly overweight friends. “Why is it that no one tells you when you get too fat,” she’s responding, “but everyone tells you when you get too thin?”

Perhaps that is how warped we have become, that it’s still not okay to show our concern about some things, yet perfectly acceptable to show it for something else – when there shouldn’t actually be any difference.

Not everyone is comfortable with the idea that open policy is usually the best policy, and if this means being slow to face up to some certain realities then inevitably there will be some cruel and sometimes brutal outcomes.

No wonder James M Cain wrote so many good stories – and no wonder there is that queasy sense of betrayal when the truth is ultimately forced out in the end, and in sport as in life.

When he sat before me in Mullingar last Saturday – framed by a large sash window inside the Broomfield House Hotel, and beyond that Lough Ennell, a beautifully tranquil backdrop – Martin Fagan knew he had some truths to tell, and a fairly desperate confession. It wasn’t just that he needed to admit he’d tested positive for erythropoietin, one of the most conventional and readily detected methods of performance enhancing, better known as EPO.

It wasn’t just that he’d willingly taken it too, ordering the EPO on the internet, then administering it to himself at his training base in Arizona, in such grimly crude circumstances that he felt the low of the junkie. It was more that Fagan needed to face up to another truth, and one that by all accounts since has left little doubt that he had become clinically depressed.

As it turned out, talking about the drug use and the cheating on himself and his sport was the easy part; what wasn’t so easy was admitting he’d recently found himself searching for suicide chat boards on the internet, what chemicals to take to die, with the least amount of effort, and pain.

Early on in our conversation, which went on for several hours and at no stage was “off the record”, Fagan jumped up to pay for the two coffees that arrived at our table. For a second I thought this might be some sort of subtle bribe, but, as anyone who has ever met Fagan would likely attest, this was the natural generosity of a young man who never looked for any great favours, or at least couldn’t easily ask for them.

It was the polite manner that might also have contributed to his sad downfall, from one of Ireland’s most promising distance runners, and 2008 Olympic marathon representative, to this week being handed a two-year ban. We now know Fagan has no issue whatsoever accepting the ban because he knows too that at age 28 that’s not what has most likely ended his career.

Later, towards the end of our conversation, and as unbelievable as some aspects of his story were, I found no way to doubt it, but rather somehow felt able to relate to it, at least in some small ways. If Fagan has got any sympathy this week it’s definitely not for the way he stupidly and very damagingly took EPO, and perhaps should have realised, no matter how depressed he was, that he was crossing an unforgivable line.

What some people can sympathise with, can relate to, myself included, is how the so-called loneliness of the long distance runner is not always a healthy thing, not when it turns to aloneness, and with a heightened sense of isolation that comes with living somewhere far away from home, such as Flagstaff, Arizona. Add financial pressures, career expectations, and a series of fairly crippling injuries, and there’s no such thing as an easy way out.

Trace the trail of any young Irish athlete that followed the American scholarship route, and you’ll find many similar tales of aloneness. For some it comes during those four years in college, even within the close-knit college spirit they’re surrounded by. I remember well coming home after my first year in America with absolutely no intention of ever returning. It was John Treacy, a family friend, who helped convince me to go back, admitting even he’d gone through some lonesome periods during his own college years. Whatever about some other regrets, there are no regrets about following his advice.

Trying to make it as an athlete in America, either in or out of college, is not just about dealing with the upheaval of being away from home but also dealing with the vastness of it all. They’re like the experiences Thomas Wolfe describes in Look Homeward, Angel – and what many other great American writers do too – and for Fagan there is little doubt his problems began once his four years at Providence College were finished.

Fagan told me how much he’d enjoyed running in college, could pound the roads and never once get injured, do whatever hard workouts were asked of him and always easily recover. He’d show up at college races not just confident of beating everyone, but “wanting to kill them” – and that was the sort of healthy competitive streak that saw him finish second in the American collegiate 10,000 metres, then in 2009, break John Treacy’s Irish half marathon record, running 60 minutes and 57 seconds for the 13.1 miles. That’s very quick, by the way, by any standards.

Then slowly but surely Fagan was unable to finish the same workouts he was doing in college when, at age 28, he should have been coming into his prime. If it wasn’t his Achilles’ tendon that was hurting him it was his ankle; if not his ankle it was his knee; if it wasn’t his knee it was his hip. When Fagan said he thought his injuries just seemed to rotate around his body I sensed most athletes could relate to that too.

In October, he’d run himself into total exhaustion in the Chicago marathon, and was reluctantly taken away by the race medics about a mile short of what most likely would have been qualification for the London Olympics. What happened next, and the desperate exit strategy that he pursued, will probably haunt Fagan for the rest of his life.

Fagan knows there’s no one to blame here but himself; not Athletics Ireland, not the Irish Sports Council and definitely not the people who did show their concern over the last year or so, the ones he stubbornly ignored. Perhaps no one but himself can fully understand the mindset he was in to let that happen, and perhaps it does remind us all the psychology of sport should be about dealing with athletes on the way down as it is on the way up.

For now the lesson not just for Fagan but for any athlete should be that it’s not okay to show your concern about some things, and ignore your concerns about something else – especially when the outcome here could have been so tragically or heroically different.