Friday, February 3, 2017

The greatest disappointment of my life

I have something important, and difficult, to say....

After 7 months of tireless investigation, I am devastated to report that six weeks following my race at Ironman Australia on May 1, 2016, I was notified of an Adverse Analytical Finding (AAF) resulting from my in-competition drug test at the event for trace amounts of a substance called "ostarine". Ostarine, a WADA-banned substance, is a muscle-builder that is currently under investigation by the FDA after being found as a contaminant in multiple dietary supplements. 

As athletes, we are subject to "strict liability" in matters of anti-doping, meaning we are ultimately responsible for everything in our bodies, no matter how it got there. The penalty for an intentional anti-doping violation is a four- year suspension. Following a lengthy and expensive investigation on my part, the WTC (World Triathlon Corporation) has agreed that based on the evidence presented, my ingestion of ostarine was unintentional, meaning that I had absolutely no knowledge that the substance was in my body. However, without a definitive answer to the exact source of the ostarine, despite exhausting all options, I will still serve a two-year suspension from the WTC, which is the minimum possible sanction without definitively proving the  source of the ostarine. I do not intend to compete or return to professional competition as this has not only ruined my career, but my spirit as well. I will not say that I will never again toe a start line, as I hope one day to join my children in a turkey trot or fun run, but at this point, that is the extent of it. 

Ostarine contamination (being present in supposedly "safe" products where it is not listed), whether on or off-course, is a serious issue and I encourage you to read my full story below so that I may help others avoid the circumstances in which I have found myself. In the end, I take responsibility to act in accordance with the rules that I signed up for as a professional athlete, but I am still left with some questions, which I hope one day will be answered. 

To those who believed in me, supported me, or competed with me. I am sorry. Losing triathlon in this way, not the competition, but the lifestyle, the people & "myself", is the biggest disappointment of my life. 


So... How did I get here?

Well, a few background things for you to know: 
*I am a staunch anti-doping advocate and have spoken out publicly in the past against dopers (who are probably laughing at me) and for lifetime bans in sport for convictions. 
* I am in the USADA out-of-competition testing pool, meaning I make my whereabouts known every single day and am subject to drug testing at any time or location.
* I have never had a TUE (Therapuetic Use Exemption) for a banned substance or a whereabouts filing failure.
* I was tested less than 4 weeks prior to IM Australia, with clean results, when I placed 4th at Malaysia 70.3 on April 5th.
*The literature on ostarine indicates that it is a substance that one would "cycle" for 6-12 weeks for results. I do not believe it would assist you during an Ironman competition at all as it is a muscle builder. It has a half-life of 24 hours, which would make it detectable in urine for somewhere (I have read conflicting things) between 24 hours and 5 days. 
*As one of the race favorites for IM Australia, I fully expected to be drug tested not only on race day, but also likely in the week leading up to the event.
* I am a mother, but also one who hoped to have more children in the future. Aside from my strong anti-doping approach to sport, I would never take a potentially dangerous substance like ostarine.
* There is a significant and real issue in the world with ostarine contamination that has yet to be resolved. The ingredient is not listed on products, but may make its way into a legal/harmless supplement via tainted raw ingredients or careless manufacturing (e.g. not cleaning machines properly).
*I took (and passed) a licensed polygraph that specifically addressed taking ostarine or any performance enhancing substances. 
*I do have never taken any type of "red flag" supplement according to the criteria listed on the USADA website here.  I have taken electrolytes/salt, caffeine, whey protein, melatonin (for sleep), and energy gels (some including amino acids/caffeine), which are all considered supplements. I have taken significant care & precaution in researching each product I have taken prior to consumption.

Upon first receiving an email notice from WTC in mid-June 2016, my first reaction was disbelief. Although I have had at least nine in and out-of-competition drug tests since 2013, I never actually considered a scenario where a test would be positive. I, naively, looked at every blood or urine test not as an inquisition, but an indication that I was "good enough" to be tested and I was always enthusiastically proud of myself to be selected. During drug testing, I treated it similar to airport security- a serious, but non-threatening system and process designed to keep me safe and catch those trying to ruin sport.  

I didn't tell Luke about the email for two days because we were literally on the eve of his "A" race- Ironman Cairns, and knowing (or thinking I knew) that I hadn't taken anything "sketchy" and that he was not taking any 'supplements', I was not worried for him. I wanted him to focus on his day and I was also certain that there had been a mistake. It takes an "A" and a "B" sample (both from same day/urine) to both come back positive and I was sure that the B would not confirm the A. 

A few days later, I contacted an attorney, and although he said he could help, he didn't sound optimistic that the B sample would show a different result and encouraged me to prepare for the worst. He mentioned several recent cases of ostarine contamination and that it was a serious issue facing supposedly ‘clean’ supplements.

This meant, first of all, sending anything I had come in contact with to a lab for testing. Although I do not take a myriad of dietary supplements, similar to many long-distance triathletes, I supplement during my long-distance races with electrolytes, salt, and caffeine. In my daily life, my only supplements are 100% Whey Protein from a 'trusted' source and melatonin to sleep. Each supplement I have taken is from a reputable company that sponsors many high profile athletes, ensures GMP (good manufacturing practices) and has 3rd party testing. They all proclaim to be "banned-substance free" and take care in assuring this to their consumers.

I had a different idea of what "supplements" are prior to this. Now, I know that the gel I take on-course IS A SUPPLEMENT as it may have added caffeine or amino acids or electrolytes. Most standard electrolyte drinks are supplements if they come in powder form (not Ready to Drink bottles- then it's a beverage). Salt pills? Even if it's just table salt in a capsule, it is a supplement. Did you know that in 2016, a popular energy gel in Australia tested positive for a banned substance? And this gel is still listed on the Australian Institute of Sport website as an available energy gel for athletes? The problem has been resolved and the company took full responsibility, but that doesn't change that there was an unintentional problem on the company's end. 

As I was on my way to the United States by the time I was notified of the AAF by the WTC (6 weeks seemed quite a long time to wait to notify someone who will need to recall and produce exactly what was put in their mouth before and during a 9+ hour race), I had to contact family to retrieve what I had left at our home in Australia and send it in to the lab. I also purchased unopened bottles/canisters of everything I could and sent them in as well to begin testing.

In early August, I was notified that my B sample was returned positive for ostarine with a similar trace amount (According to the lab packets, A &B ranged from 7 to 11 nanograms/ml- a nanogram is one-one-millionth of a milligram) . At that time, I returned my Kona slot in time for the final July qualifier (it was allocated to me as I had not yet been "sanctioned" of anything- and I actually would have been allowed to keep it until race day, but that, of course, did not seem fair or appropriate to me). 

From July to November, supplements were tested one by one (it is an incredibly lengthy and expensive process- each testing took 4 to 8 weeks depending on the product). I tested not one, but 3 (in most cases) bottles or packages of anything that could have possibly passed my lips. I left nothing unturned. In late October, I received a call from my attorney. They had found it! There was a "presumptive positive" for ostarine on an unopened package of salt pills that I had sent (these salt pills were in small sample packets with only a few pills per packet). The lab said that they needed to do "confirmatory testing" but that we could be optimistic with the finding, so we sent in more packets. My attorney has only ever called me once during this whole process (usually I call him or we email), but on that day, in the nail salon, I got a call- and finally it was good news. 

 I spent the next 4 weeks still destroyed, but at least at peace with that we had found the exact cause of my positive test. Unfortunately, in early December, I was notified that the lab was unable to "confirm" the positive finding on subsequent packets of salt pills. The report said that the detection in the two different samples of salt pills was either ostarine at a level that was "too low" for definitive detection or "an artifact". In a 3rd sample, they found 'no ostarine' (I have included the lab summary packet in the bottom of this post).  To this day, I cannot make sense of this. How can you get a positive for "something" on a substance that should really only be salt, and then have it disappear or become an artifact? Since the salt pills were in small sample packets, I suppose the times at which they were produced in the production line could have impacted whether some packets were contaminated and others were not. I can't help but think it may have been different had I had just one large bottle containing more pills that were produced at virtually the same moment. The lab couldn't say with 100% certainty that there was ostarine in the salt pills, as I understand this would hold some legal implications. 

So, I went back to the drawing board as this process requires strict liability (guilty until proven innocent) on the athlete, we needed concrete proof of how it was ingested to determine the athlete's 'degree of negligence'. I was willing to do anything to prove my innocence, so during this time period, I also took a polygraph as we were preparing a case brief for a formal hearing with WTC and an arbitrator who would decide the case. 

 To complete the supplement testing and try to close all doors, I even tested Gatorade Endurance- my sponsor at the time (which was not contaminated) as well as a random canister (from a pharmacy) of the brand/flavor of on-course drink (not Gatorade) that was served at Ironman Australia. In August 2016, I learned that another female pro triathlete, Lisa Marangon, also tested positive for ostarine at a race exactly three months before mine, also in Australia. Although Lisa believes that her case was sabotage, and it very well could have been, our cases have two similarities: Neither of us could pinpoint the origin of ostarine, and both races served the same on-course hydration beverage. I do not yet know if she was taking any salt pills or other supplements. Lisa is currently serving a four-year suspension and it has also ended her career. 

After doing research of the on-course drink, the safety standards of this electrolyte drink are no higher than anything I have personally taken and there are no additional lengths taken to ensure safety for competitors (I can't find any evidence of batch testing, etc). Although the drink powder is produced "in-house", that in-house manufacturer also manufactures for at least 5 other supplement companies and hundreds of different supplements.

At the race site, batches are likely mixed from powder and water in the morning of the race. Although none of the three other competitors who were drug tested at my race tested positive, I know that that doesn't categorically mean that it wasn't on the race course. Personally, I took two 20+ oz bottles of the on-course drink- both from the same aid station on the bike. On a course with 10+ aid stations over 70 miles (race is 140.6 miles but you do some laps), it is not necessarily likely that these competitors who were tested took the on-course electrolyte at that SAME (& relative same time period) aid station rather than cola, water, or nothing. Sharing the course with over 2000 competitors (an IM & a 70.3), batches may be used and cycled throughout the day. 

I am not saying that this is how the ostarine entered my body (as I do believe it was the salt pills), and even I believe this sounds far-fetched, but I believe it is possible. After my exhaustive search in finding an answer from my end, I need to bring this up as a potential concern as the door is not closed. I made a formal request to the WTC to test, or give me information to test, the exact lot numbers (batches) of the drink that were used on course, but my request was denied. Whether they could not or would not supply it, I don’t know, but this was incredibly frustrating and again left me feeling powerless. Dead end. 

In the end, on some level, I need to take responsibility because it is my body and per the rules, I am responsible for what goes into it. I believe that the evidence points to the fact that I would never choose to take a performance-enhancing substance and I hope that some people, I know not all, but those who know me, will believe me. For those who don’t, I understand. We should be skeptics when it comes to doping in sport, and we have been fooled too many times to believe every story. I, for one, cannot say exactly how I would react if I read about this from one of my competitors. I also don’t think I should be believed because I “seem nice” or because of my nationality or background. I want people to look at the facts that we do know, and decide for themselves.

To my sponsors, family, friends, and competitors who have been inadvertently hurt by my case, I apologize from the bottom of my heart. To Michelle Bremer, Dimity-Lee Duke, and the other women who raced Ironman Australia- I will absolutely call you the true winners and I am devastated that this was in my system, however it got there. Michelle, I will get you the trophy. 

The most difficult moments for me have not been missing the start lines. The things that hurt the most have been saying “no” to speaking on several women’s panels & podcasts and retreating from my authentic self who enjoys sharing and growing with others, especially on social media.

For me, triathlon was never about winning, or even really racing. It was about connecting, pushing, believing in myself and finding a lifestyle and the people that I never knew existed before I was 28 years old. From the day I hopped on my bike and started my blog, I fell in love with the holistic sense of triathlon. I can honestly say that winning was never my motivation. I didn't even believe that I had to win "for my sponsors" or even for my family. I truly believe that from the beginning, my sponsors have been there because of who I am and how passionate I am about promoting women in sport, not how many wins I have tallied. For letting you all down, I am deeply sorry. 

I have several ideas to help other athletes avoid the situation I found myself in and will detail those in a coming post. I will also be contacting both USADA and the WTC to discuss what we can both do to protect clean athletes and the integrity of the sport. I am determined to find some greater good from this. 

Thank you for reading. Please feel free to reach out to me at bethgerdes1@gmail.com with any thoughts, critical or not. I can take it and I expect it. I don't plan on doing interviews (and I am sorry for those I have blown off in the past 6 months- I didn't feel 'myself' and now you know why). I feel I have said here all that I need to say, and now I need to focus on moving on. I have steeled myself for this moment for months, and I know the coming days won't be easy. In some way, with the love of friends and family, I will continue in a different direction, and find a new way to make a positive impact.

Sincerely and wholeheartedly, 
Beth

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The link below will take you to the summary document the lab sent to us showing the low levels of ostarine (or a molecule that "looks like" ostarine) in 2 samples of salt pills, but not a third (again, I didn't have one large bottle, just various small sample packets  to test so each pack or combination of packets could have been different). This was not enough evidence for the WTC to lower my sanction. 


https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B3as8PinK4ciZGhkckJrUnI2dG8/view?usp=sharing




The words in this post are my own and should not be used for re-publication without my written consent.