Pro Marathoner Noah Droddy on Chicago, Doping and Kingston Mines

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Next Sunday, Noah Droddy will line up in the elite corral at the Chicago Marathon for the second time. Like any professional athlete, his goal will be to beat as many of his competitors as possible, but Droddy doesn’t have pipe dreams of breaking the tape in Grant Park in front of tens of thousands of boisterous spectators. He’s a realist, and he knows there are a handful of other guys racing in Chicago that he just can’t beat, even on his best day. But he also knows that some of those guys unnatural advantages that he doesn’t have—nor does he want to have.

Droddy has been more outspoken than many of his peers on social media when it comes to the level playing field—or lack thereof—in elite distance running. With news breaking this week that Alberto Salazar—former coach of defending champion Mo Farah and current coach of co-favorite Galen Rupp—has been suspended for four years for doping violations, we wanted to get Droddy’s take on what it’s like to compete under those circumstances. And of course, we wanted to know what he loves most about Chicago.

-What’s unique about racing in Chicago?

It was my first big city race [in 2017]. The crowds are pretty wild. In 2017 they didn’t have any pacemakers, so everyone went out kind of slow and I was able to run with the lead pack until mile 15 or so. It was all one big group, which was a cool experience. Once they started making the big moves I couldn’t really hang anymore. The big city, major marathon atmosphere is something that’s unique to only a few races in the sport.

-Is your goal for next Sunday strictly time-based, or is it more about feeling a certain way?

It’s a mix of both. I ran the Rotterdam Marathon in April and it just did not go very well. I trained really well, and for whatever reason, I really sucked on that day. So going into [Chicago] I just want to have a good marathon experience and feel better later in the race. But the time goal is there too. We don’t really need the Olympic standard anymore for the Trials, but for my own sake, I’d really like to have that Olympic standard of 2:11:30 so that I feel like I belong.

-What was your initial reaction when you heard the Alberto Salazar news on Monday?

I’d known it was coming for about a month or so, so it wasn’t necessarily a shock. Obviously my first reaction was that it’s about time—we’ve known this has been going on all along. So it was kind of vindication. But once it sets in a bit, it feels almost unfulfilling. It’s like: oh great, Salazar is gone, but the damage has been ongoing. It doesn’t erase that, and also nothing really changes. All these athletes are going to continue to compete. And sure, Salazar is banned, but it’s not like he’s actually going to stop coaching Galen. So it’s great that it’s in the open now, but has anything really changed? If the athletes who are complicit in it aren’t implicated, does it really move the sport forward at all? As it stands, we haven’t accomplished anything.

-You said Salazar will just continue to coach Galen. Do you see any way that USADA, IAAF or USATF can actually enforce the ban, or does it all seem kind of hopeless?

I’m not an expert on the mechanisms that they may or may not have to enforce something like that, but it’s not like they’re going to be sorting through his mail and checking all his e-mails. Sure, he might not be welcome at Nike facilities, and they can prevent him from attending any official function, but are you telling me they’re going to stop Alberto from texting Galen workouts? That’s kind of hard to believe.

-You tweeted that you would’ve finished 19thinstead of 20that the 2016 Olympic Trials if Galen weren’t there. It’s funny to joke about, but it’s also sad that so many elite athletes always have those “what if” thoughts at that level of competition. How hard is it to stay positive when you see how dirty things can be at the upper echelons of the sport?

It’s something that’s always there. That’ll never go away—people will never stop cheating. But it also can’t be something that you constantly think about. I’d say that at the level I compete—I wouldn’t call myself world-class, but I can be up there in a national-level competition—I’m pretty confident that the sport is pretty clean at that level. I have a lot of faith in the guys I compete against on a regular basis. It’s really once you get to Galen’s level—the elite international level—that the doping choice becomes more and more prevalent. When I line up in Chicago, there’s a good chance that, even outside of Galen and Mo, there will be other athletes on that starting line that have doped previously.

That said, the whole reason I got into the sport in the first place was personal fulfillment. I want to run a marathon as fast as I possibly can. If I lose out on some prize money from dopers, that totally sucks, but if I find my absolute limit, then it’s something I can deal with. That’s how I deal with it personally, but it’s a really shitty way for the sport to operate. Fans don’t care if I’m personally fulfilled—they want to see a level playing field. But I’m not going to stay awake the night before Chicago thinking about all these guys who may be doping. I’m just going to worry about doing my own thing.

-There’s been a cloud over the Nike Oregon Project for a long time now. When someone like Galen shows up at a race, are you and the rest of the elites chatting it up with him or is he persona non grata?

Persona non grata for sure. I got into the sport pretty late and come to it from a bit of a fanboy background. So just meeting a lot of these athletes has been huge for me. A lot of them have become friends and a lot of us are pretty close outside of the competition. You’ll see athletes group up and hang out, but I’ve never said a word to Galen. I expect that to continue. I don’t think he knows who I am—not that he should.

You go to a race and those guys are eating at a table alone with their management, or they’re going on runs solo. There’s just not a lot of fraternizing between them and anybody else—which always struck me as a little odd. When you see one of those guys in the elevator, you’re going to pretend they don’t exist. In my head I’m like: “Hey man, I know, and I hate that you’re here, but there’s nothing I can do about it.” So that’s kind of the vibe.

-Now it’s come out that even the CEO of Nike knew about these “experiments” that Salazar was doing, and they continue to support him. What does that say about a company that is the biggest player in the sport?

I mean, It’s obviously not a good look. It’s a win-at-all-cost mentality. They’ve got to have a whole team of salaried employees just to deal with this kind of thing. It’s not like Salazar is Nike’s first doping scandal and he won’t be the last. Just a week ago everyone was talking about Christian Coleman. You hate to see perhaps the biggest holder of the sport’s purse strings not get behind the clear vision of how to move the sport forward. I’m not in on their marketing meetings; I have no idea what they talk about there, but it’s not a good look. For the sport to move on and make it clear that these people aren’t welcome, everyone needs to be moving in the same direction, especially the power players. That means shoe companies and race directors. I’d say especially race directors because they hold a lot of power—more power than the shoe companies in a lot of instances.

Athletes have been afraid to speak up about Nike athletes because of how powerful they are and the kind of legal damage they can inflict. Do you feel like this week has turned a corner and maybe empowered you guys a bit more to speak your mind?

Yes and no. I’ve always been critical of Galen. At the same time, did I have any hard evidence? Was I there? A lot of it is conjecture and what we hear. So I’m never going to be comfortable tweeting doping allegations about someone who hasn’t been officially involved in some sort of investigation. So I think you’re seeing a lot of people speak out now because it was something that we all talked about, but it wasn’t something we could say publicly because it’ll all come back at us. They’ll be like, “What’s your proof?” And we’ll be like, “We don’t have any.” It’s just the stuff you hear being in the sport for so long. All I could say before was, “I heard this from so-and-so.” That doesn’t really stand up. I’m not going to go on some tweet-spree about other athletes I think might be suspect—I don’t think that’d be right of me to do. But with something like this, we get to express how we actually feel in the aftermath. I’m not sure how productive that actually is.

-It’s never a good look for a sport when there are doping investigations, but there are also a lot of misconceptions that only athletes from certain countries are doping. In distance running, you see a lot of accusations toward East Africans. In swimming it’s all about Russians. Do you think something like this can help open people’s eyes a bit that athletes cheat regardless of where they’re from?

I would agree and disagree with that. You can cheat anywhere and cheating has no nationality. But there are definitely places where it’s much easier to cheat, and places where testing is so much more lax. There are places where governing bodies don’t really care about enforcement. If Asbel Kiprop is used to bribing doping control in Kenya, then can’t we be more suspect of Kenyan athletes because we know their doping control is kind of a joke? At least USADA is testing people in a somewhat consistent way. So anytime I see someone disappear to rural Kenya or Ethiopia, it’s just like, hmmmm. Anyone can cheat, but there are definitely places where it’s easier. And I think there’s more cheating happening in those places.

-Whether it’s Lance Armstrong or Salazar, none of the big busts have come via testing. It takes whistleblowers; it takes law enforcement; it takes more than testing. But does the fact that USADA won in court give you more faith in their capabilities, or is it the opposite because it took more than four years for all this to come out?

I’m glad it came out and that they got him. But do I have a whole lot of faith that they’re now going to catch every body, and that this is the beginning of a new era? Not at all. It’s a nice feather for the anti-doping cap, and it’ll kind of just churn along until the next big thing happens in a few years. I’m not sure we’re doing it the right way. I don’t know what the right way is, but testing doesn’t work.

-Especially if there are no implications for the athletes, nothing has actually been done.

Exactly. Galen and Mo will almost definitely beat me in Chicago. Imagine if they weren’t there—that’s two spots I’d be bumped up. That’s thousands of extra dollars in my pocket. That changes something real for me. Salazar being banned does nothing for me as a participant in this ecosystem.

Enough doping talk. Let’s bring it back to Chicago. What are you most looking forward to about visiting the greatest city on earth next weekend?  

I’m from Indianapolis and I lived in Chicago briefly after college. It’s close enough to Indy that some friends and family will come up. The Midwest is home to me, so I’m just happy to get to go back there and race.

I lived in Old Town and I really loved Kingston Mines. That was my favorite place when I lived there. Last time I was in Chicago we ended up there after the race. I really love Blues music. You go into a time warp when you go in there. My mom used to go there decades ago and she told I should go when I first moved. I was like, “Yeah mom, you’re super old.” Then I went and I was like, “Yeah, this is something different.”

-you can follow Droddy on twitter @IBuiltTheArk

-photo courtesy Saucony

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