The RML roadshow has moved from the darkened trails of Davidson, North Carolina, to the shady pharmacies of Tijuana, Mexico.
Quite a leap—from a two-time Olympian to an admitted drug cheat, but that’s how it worked out, I guess.
Anyway, our next interviewee is Christian Hesch.
Back to Hesch: In September of last year, he was given a two-year suspension for admitting to using the banned performance-enhancing drug, EPO. But since he wasn’t caught via a failed drug test, his suspension was reduced to 18 months.
According to this article, Hesch’s cheating shenanigans were first discovered by his teammates with Nike Team Run LA who chanced upon an empty EPO vial and confronted him about it.
So here’s about 45 minutes of Hesch in his own words over a year since the scandal broke.
RML: What have you been up to since you were suspended?
Christian Hesch: Since the sanction came down, I run about once a week, maybe twice a week if I’m lucky. I’m finishing up my pre-requisites for med[ical] school at UNM [University of New Mexico]. I got about a year and a half left on that—two years to my bachelor’s [degree] and what else? I’ll be putting a roof on my aunt’s house here shortly. That will be a fun project. That was what caused one of my injuries some time ago. [He laughs.]
What caused one of your injuries?
Putting on a roof. I seem to get hurt doing that.
Why did you move to New Mexico?
I’ve got a lot of family here. I didn’t get into UCLA. My choices were UCSB, UC Davis, or UC Irvine. Surprisingly, financial aid is less in California than it is out here. I’m here and I can cover all my school expenses and even use a little bit of my money to help defray some of the paybacks and whatnot. I even have a little bit left over to go camping now and then. It’s amazing what financial aid I can get here, and I’m out of state. I’m considered an out-of-state student. I’m pretty thankful. I do have a lot of family out here. I live with my aunt. I have a great place to live. There are 50 or 60 Hesches in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and the Las Cruces area.
Are you a fan of Breaking Bad?
I’ve heard there’s a television show named Breaking Bad. I’ve heard it was filmed in Albuquerque. I know there’s a guy named Walter White on it. Never seen the show in my life. I couldn’t tell you what it’s about.
It’s about drugs.
Yes, the irony is rich, isn’t it?
So you haven’t seen it.
Nope. I’ve never seen a single episode—not even a clip. Maybe some day when I actually have some free time, I’ll get around to watching however many seasons there are of it. I’ve never had a TV in my life. I don’t have a lot of time for it.
You want to be a doctor now?
Yeah. That’s probably what I’m going to have to do at this point. I thought about possibly going to P.A. school as a physician’s assistant. I think at this point it makes more sense to go the M.D. route. I enjoyed emergency medicine. I enjoyed working on the ambulance. There are a lot of tradeoffs. There are some negatives to it. By and large, there is a lot of variety in emergency medicine. You don’t get the same patient twice and you get off your shift. I don’t think I want to be a specialist, because I don’t think I want patients. I want to be able to go home at the end of my shift and not expect to get called back in three hours.
Your suspension is lifted I think in November of 2014. Is that right?
It will be officially lifted in four months. I will go ahead and serve it out to October or November. Officially, it will be up in March.
Are you going to resume a competitive running career or are you done?
I don’t know. That’s still debatable. The second-biggest question is if I will have time. The biggest question is if I will do it for the right reasons if I do. What I don’t want to do is go back just so I can put up some times and go, “Look, I can run this clean.” I would do it essentially as a way to put up a middle finger to a bunch of people. That’s not a good reason to come back. That doesn’t help anything. That doesn’t show any contrition. That doesn’t show any apology. Would I come back and make money off of it? Probably not in the cards at this point. Would I come back and run competitively? Possibly. As far as taking money for running: I don’t know if that’s the best idea at the very least for a year or more. If I came back, it would be advisable not to take any money regardless if I won any money for some time. Obviously, it’s my prerogative to do that, but out of it I must show contrition. I can’t say, “Ok guys, I’m back and I’m going to go back to sweeping up.” It’s just kind of tacky. I don’t know if I foresee racing for money again. If ever.
Do you miss racing?
No, I don’t. I don’t know if I should say this publically, but I never really enjoyed running. I enjoy the travel more than anything. I enjoy travelling. I enjoy seeing new places. I was talking with some guys today about that. Sure, the money is nice, but I don’t really care about that; I care about seeing different places that I’ve never been to before. I dig that. I totally get off on that. I love just seeing a place I’ve never been. I love seeing a different way of life. It’s a real great way to understand just how blessed you are—to live where you live. These places are economically so different. It’s like wow. I’ve never seen this before. This exists in America. I’ve seen this in the third world, but to see that it actually happens in America. You get to see a ton of beautiful places, too. How can you beat that? To get paid to do that on a regular basis week in and week out? At this point in my life I can’t live out of a suitcase, but when I was doing it, gosh it was sure fun.
You had mentioned paybacks earlier. What’s your status on paying back money that you were awarded in races when you were on EPO?
How about work in progress? Obviously, it’s not all going to happen at once. I don’t have a big chunk of bank account sitting around to dole out I’m doing what I can. That’s another good reason to come to UNM. I get to use some of that money for that. Some of it, and I’ll be frank, some of it probably won’t get paid back. Will I take some heat on that? Of course. Is that ethical of me not to? I don’t know. I think the devil’s advocate or the angel’s advocate, if you will, says, “Hey, you screwed up. Pay it all back.” I have a little bit of difficulty flogging myself by looking up and figuring out how to get a hold of the guy who ran 16:55 behind me at a Podunk cherry-pick 5K for 250 bucks or 500 bucks, and I ran 15 flat. And it was in August five months after I had done anything. Then it’s pretty difficult from a physiological standpoint to argue that there is any benefit at that point. Ok, it’s impossible. Now, caveat to that is that of course I’m always a month or a month-and-a-half accelerated in my training, so in reality, I should be a month-and-a-half behind where I’m currently at, so yeah, that is a fair contention, but when I jog 15 flat and I probably could have run 14 flat or 14 point, and the next guy ran 16:55, I’m just like, “Really?” Ok, so maybe if I hadn’t done EPO six months prior, maybe I run, I don’t know, maybe I run 15:10? 15:20? If I choose to run faster, obviously I could have run faster. At what point do I stop flogging myself? I don’t see that [paying back everyone] as absolutely necessary, but a lot of people would disagree and say I’m wrong. The ones that are important to me are the ones I will take care of. For example, a guy that finishes three seconds behind me in a race, I’m not for certain that I would have needed that, and it’s like eight months after my last EPO. Come on, I think I got a reasonable argument for that. But, it’s three seconds. That’s very easy to say, “Come on. How do I know that you were dogging it?” In my mind I could have run 20 seconds faster if I had to, But the next guy was 30 seconds up the road, because it was a half marathon. I’m not going to try and go after that guy for a $200 difference. But, it’s the appearance of it. Regardless whether I think I would have beat him or not, I think the best thing to do is to take care of things like that.
Do you have people hounding you for money?
No. Nobody is really hounding me. There have been a couple of people that actually got in contact—three people that actually got in contact. One of them I’m still in progress with. Another one, I shouldn’t say this, but another one kind of disappointed me with some of their public proclamations afterwards. They would have been a lot higher on the list, but I kind of went, “OK, I’ll put this one a little lower on the list.” Is that a piss-poor attitude on my part? Probably so, but I am human.
It sounds like you think you get to be the judge on who gets paid back and who doesn’t. So no one has come after you with a lawsuit? No one has filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of all these runners?
So no legal action has been brought against you for the money you won while you were on EPO?
No. My follow-up to that would be: Have you ever seen that happen? Ever? I mean Lance Armstrong, sure, but that’s not actually for prize money. I guess you could almost put that one out. But you come back in time and look at anybody who’s ever been sanctioned, and I have yet to see a single person who has ever paid back any prize money. I am absolutely not saying that for what I am doing. I am merely half-rectifying my wrong. This does not fully rectify my wrong in any instance. You just don’t see that. Nobody pays back money. If there was some legal means, if our government would pass some legislation where there was some legal means to do that, yeah you can go to small-claims court or civil court—-good luck with that. Even that is probably not likely with the way evidence works in the legal courtroom, but if there were some way to regulate sport like that, to where, say a baseball player had to pay back his salary for that time, where a runner had to pay back his salary and/or his prize money. Things would go a long way to dissuading doping. When there are relatively no consequences it kind of sucks. Depending on your ethics, it’s a lot easier to cross that line. Obviously, if you have some crappy ethics like I did, then it happens a little sooner than it does for some people.
You had mentioned Lance Armstrong. Do you feel like you are the Lance Armstrong of the running world right now?
God, I sure hope not. [He laughs.] And if I said yes, then good Lord that would be an arrogant statement.
To put it differently, do you feel any similarities between your situation and his?
No. Not particularly other than we both lacked ethics, sure. I don’t know that I feel too much in common with him. I would certainly say I’ve never been treated that way. I could gripe about how I’ve been shunned by people and shunned by friends. But how is that not deservedly so, so you could say that is a similarity. That’s a stretch at best.
You talked about getting shunned and the negative consequences of your actions. Have you had people who are sticking by you that you are surprised that they are?
Yeah. It went both ways. With one or two caveats, I wasn’t surprised that anyone wanted to distance themselves or not have any association with me. I can’t blame them for that. I was talking with someone today, because I had to look in the mirror. I feel the same way—not necessarily towards dopers, but I have a big thing with drunks. There’s one fellow runner in particular that I just always had zero respect for the guy whatsoever, because he was a raging alcoholic. I kind of lumped those people a little bit in with drunk drivers, because invariably those people drive drunk. Invariably, we all go, “Ha-ha. Good thing you only took out that mailbox. Thank God nobody got in trouble. How about you thank God nobody got hurt? Thank God nobody got killed? And that kind of thing really hacks me off. I’m really judgmental about it. I’m so judgmental about this group of people that have their own transgressions, and I so I can’t not expect people to see me in the same way. You can’t have it both ways. I can’t blame it when somebody doesn’t want to talk with me. I was surprised with a couple. I was bummed, I should say, to lose a couple of friends. There was one in particular. She was one of my best friends. I would look forward to every time we would go to a race together. I would look forward to seeing her and her fiancé at the time. We were all really tight. I would stay with them when I would go to their town. When they would come to my town I would take them out to places. We just had a great time together, and it took a year until she would talk to me again. That was probably the roughest friendship of any of them that went away.
Can you tell me who this person is?
I don’t think it’s necessary, but otherwise, most of my friends that are my friends, they will still be my friends. To use a similar analogy, if one of my friends gets busted for drunk driving or he cheats on his wife I’m going to be incredibly disappointed in him, but I’m never going to go, hey Tim, I not talk to you or, hey Laura, because of one particular transgression. I feel that is kind of hypocritical of me to do regardless of my circumstances. We all have our skeletons. Not everyone’s skeleton makes the news. Some people have different skeletons; I just don’t know what they are. It’s better that way, because I can’t judge them. [He chuckles.]
You are someone who cheated and got caught. What do you think about the state of the sport when it comes to doping? You were one person who got caught. Is it prevalent? Have you seen any other instances of doping when you were doing it?
I can’t really say that I’ve seen a ton. My personal feeling is that it’s not. I’m trying to keep my own biases for athletics out of it. But I feel like it is at least in this country, I think it’s minimal. I’m a bit ethnocentric with that. But I think in other countries it probably is equally minimal. Obviously we are seeing spats of cases from certain countries. At the same time, look at us. We probably got ten people on current sanctions right now. Obviously, our population is 50 times bigger than country X or country Y, but the point stands that we got our own problems. In the distance community in America, I think, by and large, it’s pretty darn minimal. That would be my best guesstimation.
When you were doing it, you never saw anyone else doing it?
So you were on your own?
Entirely. It had to be that way, because if anything ever came out, which, go figure, I didn’t want anyone else to be involved with it. I didn’t want to ever put that on anyone else and have it stain anyone else. It had to be entirely on me. There was no nobility in that whatsoever. It was simply I just didn’t want my crap to stain anyone else. That’s the last thing you want to do, especially when somebody is more or less unawares.
You did old-school EPO—shot-in-the-arm doping. What do you think about the complexities of these supplements that all these athletes are taking these days? They may not be banned substances, but you have been bringing up ethics a lot, so I was wondering what you think about athletes out there who perhaps come close to the ethical line in terms of medications they are taking and maybe they shouldn’t be in order to run faster.
Yeah there’s a lot of debate out there that seems to have flared up recently. You know what, unless it’s prohibited—and this was one of my gripes with the stone throwing with my case—is that I feel like I deserve every stone that came my way; however, throw it out equally at every single doper. And you can kind of take that a little further and go, “OK, if you truly feel that way and you are willing to vocalize it so loudly, then you think it’s responsible to vocalize it about every other doper as well. Now, transfer that attitude to, “I don’t think this medication is right; I don’t think people should be allowed to use medication X or Y.” Then lobby the system. Start doing some grunt work. Try to get WADA [World Anti-Doping Agency] or USADA [U.S. Anti-Doping Agency] to change it. Do a study on whether or not it shows performance enhancement. If you truly believe that athlete X is getting unfair advantage because of whatever, then go take that medication and prove that it has some kind of benefit and take it to USADA and lobby them to change the prohibitions. Until then, I’m not going to sit there and go, “Well that guy is pushing it.” Maybe he is and maybe he isn’t, but he’s working within the rules and if he’s working within the rules, then I’m thankful he’s not doing what I did.
You talked about going and doing the grunt work and making changes in the sport. Has anyone come to you to help out? You went to these pharmacies in Mexico. Is anyone coming to you to help shut down these places and this shady system of buying EPO?
I’ve had discussions about that. I’ve had discussions with individuals as far as things that will actually make a difference. There are discussions I’ve had with USADA of course. How much can really be done in terms of stopping someone from going across the border and doing that? Not a whole heck of a lot the way it is with our current border security. The most effective way to do this is to increase testing and more targeted testing—more effective testing. This thing with announced-race testing is ludicrous. It’s good and it is a necessary deterrent. I won’t say it’s a waste. It’s definitely not a waste. However, is it the best use of funds when everyone knows that they just need to stop a couple weeks before the race and they aren’t going to test positive at the race? It defeats the purpose—especially when you publicize it. That’s the biggest thing. I remember a U.S. championships race. It was a couple years ago. I liked this guy [the race director] a lot. He’s a good guy. He means well. He does a lot for the sport and is just an all-around good guy. The only time in my life that I’ve ever been pissed off at him was when he publicized it. [He said], “And there will be testing.” I was like, “Gosh dang it. What the heck are you doing? You just gave a free card to anyone that wants to [dope].” There were a couple athletes there that I’m rather suspect of. It gave one or two athletes who may not have the same ethics as us a free pass by announcing it. You can’t do that. You cannot do that. There has got to be an absolute surprise, because otherwise it’s just far too easy. Once that starts to come into vogue and it becomes a little more surprising, I think you might see a little difference. There’s a big marathon majors race in this country that I think they have had one positive [result] in the last 8 or 10 years. However, probably 10 of the guys who have raced at that race in the last 8 or 10 years have eventually turned up positive. Are we really to think that those 10 went to this particular marathon, as big as it is, and were totally clean unless they happened to get caught? Come one. The one guy they caught: That was just pure stupidity—absolute stupidity. That was simply an IQ test that he failed.
So it’s stupid to get caught with announced testing. What about USADA banning Christian Hesch for life instead of this two-year thing that he got? Would that help?
I think it probably would. It wouldn’t completely eradicate it of course. There are always people who will chance it. Would I have chanced it if I had known it was life? Probably not. At that point, shaving off a month or two until I can race again: That’s not worth a lifetime. It’s a statistics problem. Your expected value is a heck of a lot higher than the chance of getting caught. You think about a lot of people who are off by themselves. You hear that there are whole groups doing it. Maybe that’s a little bit riskier, but you are still kind of protected. I think it would help. It wouldn’t completely eliminate it, but it would certainly help. Maybe it would cut it down by 50%.
Do you think that the running world should give you a second chance? Would you like a “do-over” card?
Hmm. Well, define a second chance.
You talked about people shunning you. There is a lot of anonymous hate out there aimed at you on Letsrun. There are a lot of angry people out there. Do you feel like you would deserve being able to run again for money competitively and be accepted back into the community and not as some shunned person who doped and got caught?
I don’t know if it’s reasonable to expect people to support me again. I think that is where a lot of the hate mail comes from is when you emotionally invest in someone. You go out and cheer someone. You look at the race results—follow the race results, send the nice Facebook message that says, “Hey, way to go, nice job!” It’s the high five in a race. The cool down together. You at least feel like you made a bit of an investment in someone. And then when someone betrays you so coldly, how can you not feel like that? That’s not going to thaw out overnight. It won’t necessarily thaw out in over a year. It would it be nice to be buddy-buddy with people again. I think that is potentially a little unreasonable. Would I appreciate equality and the way they treat me versus the way they treat everyone else? Absolutely. That’s the only thing that really gets me a little disappointed. I don’t have much of a leg to stand on with this—to gripe about it, but I do see it from time to time. It’s an easy example to pick on, but why not? It wasn’t the only one, but it was the most obvious and most blatant. There was a guy who wrote a diatribe about me shortly after it happened. So, the [Lance] Armstrong news had already come out, but we hadn’t seen the full dossier yet. They hadn’t dropped the full 1000 pages. So, Armstrong’s news comes out. My news comes out a week or so later. He writes a diatribe about what horrible person I am, blah, blah, blah. And about a week after that, they drop the full 1000-page report on Armstrong and so the guy Tweets out, “Well, left wrist finally bare. First time in ten years. Gotta say I’m a little disappointed.” I’m like what the—-. Are you kidding me? Come on. Come on, dude. I mean, I know you love Armstrong, but come on. Seriously? It’s like whatever. I don’t mind being lambasted, but I respect so much when people lambast everyone. I don’t want to use the words, “Oh I feel picked on,” because come on, that’s just bullcrap, but when it’s not blatant. Ok, so it’s a different sport, but I had this guy who totally ripped on me afterwards. Understandably so. We’ve raced together a few times. He was always a reasonable enough guy, but I saw him Tweet out something like “so proud of [George] Hincapie blah, blah, blah.” He was at a race with Hincapie and I guess Hincapie did some new style of racing or something just for fun. So he Tweeted that. Really? Really? Come on, dude. Come on. [He chuckles.] Oh well, what can you do? You can’t win them all. All I can do is hopefully show some more positive actions than I’ve shown in the past. I’m not going to change everyone’s mind. But my hope would be at least if someone is going to hold on to any grudge or disappointment, that they would at least be willing to say it to my face and talk with me about it. I’ll have a chat with anyone. I’ll explain things not that there’s much to explain, but I’ll be happy to give a personal apology to anyone—to clear up anything that they might think like, “Oh, first you stole a whole bunch of money and then you stole more by selling your story.” Wait, really? Selling my story: That would have been great to have been paid to do that. You could route the check to me, because I never saw it. But, hey, whatever. If someone wants to espouse that and spread it around, that’s fine. Just go ahead.
You’ve been through a long storm. How have you coped with this? Some people would turn to religion. A lot of people would turn to drugs—
[He laughs.] Oh the irony of that.
You want more irony?
I’ve never been drunk or high in my entire life. How is that for irony? But I’ve done EPO. Go figure. Go figure.
So what has been your rock to weather this storm? You’re not running and running is usually good therapy. What are you doing to help?
Every so often I go run, but I’m pretty darn busy with school. In the immediate aftermath, I was working for my father—helping with [home] remodels, and that can be pretty darn busy. Getting set up to move here and be in school and everything lined up for that kept me busy, too. I really don’t have a lot of free time to sit and dwell on it. You talked about people hating on me, but the ones that I’ve actually had a discourse with have been pretty civil. I had a kid who is from here, Albuquerque. He doesn’t live here at the moment. He was posting up and down on my Facebook page. “You’re such a douche bag this” and “You’re such a douche bag that.” He had every right to. Those were reasonable statements that he was making. And we had a chat offline and I don’t know if I’d say we were friends, but we’re pretty darn cordial. When he comes to town we go for a run. If I make it up his way, then we’ll go for a run and have a beer. I hate to say this, because it will sound arrogant, but people who are reasonable about it, I’ve had no difficulty with or issue with. It’s an action. It’s a crappy action, and if you want to, call it a heinous action, but so are a lot of other things in life. If you want to extrapolate far enough you could say that the guy that cheats on his taxes, if enough people do it, it causes a social welfare program to go under and so the government can’t fund it. So that means a poor person who is barely surviving and gets assistance from some social service that is cut. How heinous is that? That’s a pretty big stretch to make, but if really want to go that far, you can. Do you really crap on the guy who cheats on his taxes? Not really. It’s like whatever I don’t do it. People say, “Well that’s a pretty dumbass thing to do, but I’ll still be your friend.” It doesn’t mean, “I’m going to go tell everyone what a great guy you are,” because you aren’t necessarily a great guy in every aspect. I just really haven’t had to deal with a ton of crap that’s undeserved, because I see the stuff that comes my way as something I deserve, because it is. I just don’t see what there is to really get down about. It wasn’t something like, “Oh, I lost my job and that sucks. I can barely pay my bills.” It wasn’t something out of my control. It was completely in my control and they were my choices and so you deal with it. That’s all you can do. I suppose you could try to run away with some coping mechanism, but that’s just never been my M.O. in life, so it’s never really been an issue.
I went to your Twitter account and see that you have a photo of you running on the track. Where you doping when that photo was taken?
No. That was probably close to ten years before the first time that I did.
I’m asking that question, because I’m wondering if you still identify yourself as a runner? People usually put things on Twitter that they identify with.
I’m not sure exactly which picture you are talking about, but I’m pretty sure it’s a board-shorts picture in the background.
Yep. It’s a background picture of you running in board shorts on the track.
That was like 2001. I don’t know that I really take an identity from any one thing. Ok, so maybe that’s my coping mechanism. It’s watching Seinfeld or something—
[At this point my phone died and I called Christian back a few minutes later.]
So we left off with your identity and how you cope with the effects of the doping.
I’m a very pragmatic person. The [doping] situation was entirely due to my decisions and choices, so you deal with it. It wasn’t like something that just happened to me randomly. It didn’t just happen randomly. It was a direct result of my decision. It’s my decision. It’s my problem. I deal with it. That’s why it was just something I never get down about. It’s just something to be dealt with. I’m thankful for in a way that it happened, not for the way that it happened. I’m thankful that it finally got me out of the sport and finishing up school, because who knows how long I would have kept milking along just eking it out—putting off school another year, another year. At some point, reality had to be faced. I was actually done a big favor by all this happening.