'Injecting myself, thinking this is how the junkie feels'
IAN O’RIORDANtalks to Martin Fagan and hears how he let himself go from Olympic marathon runner in his prime to testing positive for EPO
THE MOMENT Martin Fagan cracked open the small plastic vial, pressed the half-inch needle into the tight belt of muscle under his belly button, and injected himself with EPO, he knew it was over – and in more ways than one.
“I remember, injecting it, thinking this is how the junkie feels. This is how low I’ve let myself go.
“That’s really when I realised I just shouldn’t be in this position, that it’s telling me something, that I really do need help.”
How Fagan let himself go from Olympic marathon runner, five-time Irish champion, always beautifully talented and still in the prime of his career, to testing positive for EPO, is not just a sad fall from grace – but another increasingly familiar tale of the conflicting pressures and anxieties that often make up the elite athlete, or any so-called sporting professional.
It was the loneliness of the long distance runner gone wrong, in ways never meant to be: he felt desperately alone, and severely depressed.
“I can handle the blame, what it’s done to my career. But I hate what it’s done to all the other people, my family, the other Irish athletes.
“Because it’s all my doing, purely selfish. But when you’re contemplating suicide you just don’t think about all those other things.”
That’s ultimately what led Fagan to the moment – why just weeks after coming very close to qualifying for the London Olympic marathon, and without a whisper to anyone around him, he pursued his desperate exit strategy, ordered EPO on the internet, and straightaway went about ruining all the respect and credibility he had tirelessly earned over the 28 years of his life.
It was the moment in November when the struggle had become too much – not just the series of debilitating injuries he’d battled over the previous four years, nor the financial ones too, but also his severe depression.
It wasn’t just a vicious circle either: it was one which left him spiralling downwards, and even though he tried to address it by getting himself on prescribed medication nothing seemed to work, only sent him from bad to worse.
During the darkest and loneliest days in his apartment in Flagstaff, Arizona, he found himself searching for suicide chat boards on the internet, the array of messages, and responses: what chemicals to take to die, with the least amount of effort, and pain.
“When you’re already on medication you’re in that mentality, that I can take something to get through this, to fix this,” he says.
“That’s when I thought of EPO. That was my medication, the chemical I needed. I never would have even contemplated that before. That was something else I know I should have spoken to someone about, but I didn’t think I had that option. I only cared about the running, not the Martin Fagan. It was my last hope.
“And I never once thought I was taking EPO to cheat, or to break a world record, or anything like that. I didn’t even take EPO to win anything. I just wanted to feel good again, to get back to normal.”
He’d reached such a low he wasn’t only struggling to get out of bed in the morning: whenever he did find the mindset to go running he’d get five minutes down the road and want to turn back. Yet still he put on a brave front, concealed it from those who most needed to know – including his family, his coach, and his agent.
All Fagan could think about was his next race, looming on the calendar: the Houston Marathon, January 15th, 2012 – probably his final chance to qualify for London, and perhaps finally break the vicious circle.
“And I started panicking. I just felt so committed to that race, that it was my last chance. I was so stupidly stubborn about it, and that was my downfall. But I was very confused. I know that’s no excuse, but I was only semi-knowing of what I was doing. I was not in the right state of mind. That’s when I should have reached out. But that was my only reality, I was in a dark place, and knew it. I can only ask myself how I ever got there.”
Where he is now is back in Mullingar, and tomorrow in Dublin he will attend an adjudication hearing before Athletics Ireland and the Irish Sports Council to account for the positive test he gave for EPO in Arizona in December: that’s the easy part because he’ll readily admit everything, doesn’t want to know about testing the B-sample, and will openly accept the two-year ban they’ll inevitably throw at him.
“This positive test, the ban, is only the small issue. The bigger issue for me right now is getting myself mentally right again. I know that’s going to take time but I know I’m around the right people now, my family, and friends.”