Relief to fore as athlete admits his race is run

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IF YOU believe the hardest decision an athlete will make is to take drugs, you might have some belief in Martin Fagan. Right now he knows he’s already lost that, probably all sympathy too, but he does want to offer some clarity on why he’s tested positive for erythropoietin – EPO – one of the most conventional and readily detected methods of enhancing performance.

Because right now he’s still seeking that clarity in his own mind: Fagan is now willingly admitting he took EPO, ordering it on the internet, and administering it to himself at his training base in Arizona. He admits too he was caught, with an uncanny sense of coincidence, by an out-of-competition test in December, 24 hours after his first and only injection.

What he doesn’t know is how he ever allowed himself to sink so low, and how at age 28, exactly four years after qualifying for the Beijing Olympics – and with every chance of doing likewise for London – he has almost certainly ended his career. The only reality in his own mind is he’d reached such a state of panic and paralytic fear he was contemplating the more desperate alternative.

What he understands now is it was a last resort; that he’d never once competed when taking drugs, doesn’t necessarily know of any other athletes that do, and certainly doesn’t believe for one moment that any other Irish athletes might be doing something similar.

“I’m not looking for forgiveness, or understanding,” he says. “I’m just looking to make people aware that this can be a reality, and I think can happen in any sport, because of the pressures that can be there. And that I think the stigma is also there, that it’s hard for any athlete to come out and say they’re suffering from depression.

“I got myself into a position where I should have talked with someone, but I just kept it all inside. I think some runners just do that, put on this brave front, look at the next race and think everything will be okay, once I get through that.

“I put my health second, and my livelihood first. It’s still not easy to talk about, even in the position I’m in now, because I’ve always felt the taboo, about mental health, depression. I didn’t know how to reach out, and didn’t feel I’d anyone to reach out to. I just know now that I should have.”

With the saddest sense of irony the chain of events that Fagan found himself locked into began when he qualified for the Beijing Olympics – running 2:14:06 in the Dubai Marathon in January 2008, a time that still ranks as the 14th fastest Irish marathon of all-time. Fagan went into that race carrying an injury, and came out of it with a triple stress fracture in his pelvis.

Over the four years since he sensed everything going from bad to worse: the injuries, the financial worries and ultimately the struggle with depression. He dropped out of the Beijing Olympic marathon around halfway, crippled with an Achilles tendon injury, and has failed to finish three further marathons since – most recently in Chicago, last October 9th, when he was well on course to run under the 2:15 that would have booked his place in London, only to collapse with exhaustion with just over a mile to run.

“That just broke me, physically and mentally. So near and yet so far. If I’d finished that race I could have taken two months off, to completely recover, maybe get myself right. Up to 25 miles it felt so easy. I actually went into that race totally under-trained, which makes me wonder as well was I just pushing too hard in the past.

“If I’d only got to the line I could have run sub-2:12, and a London qualifier. Instead I got nothing out. No money. A DNF next to my name. And no one cared. That really broke me. The final nail in the coffin, really.”

Fagan not only hit a new low, but actually stopped taking his prescribed medication for depression, which he’d started early last year, stopped taking regular sleeping pills too, which he suspected might have been contributing to his problems. With that came the more rapid descent, and the decision to cheat himself and his sport.

“I was just about surviving, financially. I know in every sport there are the haves and have-nots, but I was below the poverty line. My only hope was to qualify for London.”

His agent, Ray Flynn, got him a starting place in the Houston Marathon, which actually took place yesterday, plus a small appearance fee to go with it: “You get none of that money if you don’t show, but make the start line, just go on the gun, and you get half of it. I needed that money, whatever I could get. So Ray would ask me how training was going and I’d say ‘great, all great’.

“It was the same with my coach, Keith Kelly. He’s been incredibly supportive of me, and I know he’s been through hell, the injuries he’s had. He’d give anything to be back running again. I didn’t want to tell him I couldn’t run because my head wasn’t right. So I would lie to him, tell him training was going well, that I was doing the work-outs he was sending me, no problem. But I was in pain most of the day. My whole body.”

Around the same time Fagan broke up with his girlfriend. Then one evening in November, a couple of days after Thanksgiving, while searching some suicide chat boards on the internet, the exit strategy suddenly hit him.

“Do an internet search for ‘how to take EPO’ and you’ll get pages of results. I ordered the cheapest stuff I could find, some completely generic brand, and just put it on the credit card. I paid about $500, actually on some European website. I didn’t really know what I was doing. It was a two-week supply, but I do know you’d need to be on it for longer than that.”

A week later it arrived, and Fagan opened the neatly packed box to find the 12 vials, labelled only with the words “Made in Taiwan”. The plan then was to go to Tucson, in south Arizona, stay with a friend for two weeks while he got down to the dirty business. This wasn’t some reckless gambling splurge or alcoholic binge: this was a completely irrational decision that Fagan always knew would end his career.

“I’m not a doctor. But I was already in meltdown. And I know no one takes EPO anymore this way. Maybe 10 years ago, yeah. But it’s so silly, the way I did it, because you’re certain to get caught.”

What he didn’t know, or at least expect, was the Irish Sports Council’s anti-doping unit had been watching him: Fagan had missed a doping test back in 2007 (for some “silly” reason), then last summer received an e-mail saying he needed to update his “whereabouts” more regularly, that if he wasn’t careful he could lose his grant: “And I wasn’t even getting a grant, so I was pretty angry about that.”

That was all part of the pressure: in 2009 Fagan got €12,000, and again in 2010, but he lost all assistance in January 2011. There was pressure in other areas too; in 2009 he appeared to bounce back from Beijing when running 60:57 for the half marathon, breaking John Treacy’s national record, only to retrigger the injury to his left Achilles tendon. He was told he had Haglund’s Syndrome and would essentially require surgery, then possible a year and a half of rehab. Fagan felt he couldn’t afford even one day off.

He’d moved to the high-altitude training base in Flagstaff, Arizona, in 2007, but because of visa issues wasn’t able to work to supplement whatever small grant aid or sponsorship was out there. So he fell further into debt, going back to college days in Providence, as he’d been effectively borrowing for everything, his apartment, his car, food.

“I had to accept that. I knew I didn’t reach any of the grant criteria. I just felt this was the time we really needed the support, the year before the Olympics. I sent Athletics Ireland a letter in June to see if they was anything they could do, and I didn’t hear anything back for about a month. All they said was they’d be looking at the situation again in January.

“But I’m not going to blame Athletics Ireland. Of course they’re going to be more concerned with athletes in Ireland. My problem was I felt very isolated in the US, but that was my choice. I chose to live there.”

Then on that fateful day in early December, when he found himself in the bathroom of his friend’s apartment in Tucson, injecting the first generic vial of EPO, he was finally contacted – by the World Anti-Doping Agency, or Wada, who had been alerted by the Irish Sports Council that it was probably time Fagan was given an out-of-competition test.

“They called to my apartment in Flagstaff first looking for me, then my roommate called to tell me. Straightaway I told them where I was. So they called back and said they’d be down that evening. Of course I was thinking afterwards: ‘how did they show up so soon? Were they watching me that closely, somehow know I was ordering it? Was this an Interpol thing?’ But it was just crazy coincidence.

“It’s actually very easy to miss a test. I went out for some food that evening in Tucson, and was thinking I could just sit here, not go home, they won’t find me. But I was already in over my head, in such a dark place, I didn’t even care.” So he went back to the apartment, and when they knocked on the door he sat in the darkened room for about 10 minutes, not moving, his mind flooded with thoughts.

“I didn’t have to answer that door. But I was shaking, felt this overwhelming guilt. I thought about my family, my friends. But this was it, my way out.” So he got up and answered the door.

“In my head I’d already packed up my stuff, packed up my running. I was leaving America. I had to come home.” He binned the rest of the supply, and never contemplated any other outcome: his career was over. Fagan could no longer fool himself about that, or the more pressing issue: if he didn’t get himself sorted quickly his life could be over.

So he came back to Mullingar for Christmas, waiting on the inevitable. When the letter arrived last week – notifying him of the “adverse analytical finding” – he was already braced to face the outcome. He’s no idea how the finding leaked out before tomorrow’s adjudication hearing, and he doesn’t particularly care.

“I’ve made a terrible mistake. It’s cost me my career. I know I never done drugs during a race, but it’s over now, for me. I’m not bitter about it because I know it’s my fault. There will always be athletes talking about drugs, and it’s very easy to be overwhelmed by the drug talk. And wonder, ‘what if?’ There’s always some suspicion there, finger-pointing. But I have never once been offered drugs, and I’ve never seen another athlete take drugs. And it’s definitely not the reason I took EPO.

“For me it was about not reaching out, being stuck in your own head, which is exactly where I was. I know there are resources out there, people to talk to, places to go, but I didn’t look at them. I want to tell people of that, and I also want to apologise to the other athletes for what I’ve done.

“But already I wake up in the morning with a great sense of relief that I don’t have to go running. If I never run another race again I don’t care. That might change down the road, and I would like to get that passion back, just the joy of running, but right now I have other problems to sort, just get myself mentally stable again.”

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