FARGO – The coach of the 2014 winner of the Fargo Marathon is being linked to her runners testing positive for performance enhancing drugs, which has spurned the following question: Was Peter Kemboi clean when he crossed the finish line in front of the Fargo Theatre?
Running coach Larisa Mikhaylova is under investigation by the International Association of Athletics Federations-the world's governing body of track-according to reporting by the Associated Press. Mikhaylova is Kemboi's coach.
Mikhaylova, in an interview with the AP, denied giving performance enhancing drugs to her runners. Kemboi, in the same article, said he had never seen drug use in his association with Mikhaylova and that he would submit himself to a drug test anytime.
The Fargo Marathon is subject to random drug testing by USA Track & Field, which sanctions the Fargo event, but that has yet to happen, said marathon executive director Mark Knutson. At issue with smaller marathons is the cost of testing and not being able to afford it, which perhaps makes them more vulnerable to runners not playing by the rules than the bigger marathons.
"Maybe we'll start to see more of that," Knutson said of testing. "I suspect it's tough to police it, just think of the number of marathons around the country. And not just marathons, but there are half marathons with big prize money out there. Maybe there will be little more of a push."
Knutson suspects the relatively low first place prize of the Fargo Marathon, $1,500, is not enough for a runner to risk illegally winning it.
"So we're fortunate in that we're just under the radar screen in terms of the big prize money," he said.
Some races, according to the AP, have banned runners under the guidance of Mikhaylova, whose home base is Newport, Ky., located across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. Knutson said Fargo has not done that. He also said nobody from Newport has entered this year's race, set for May 21.
Kemboi and Arturs Bareikis from Crestwood, Ill., dueled in one of the most exciting finishes in the 11-year history of the Fargo Marathon, with Kemboi slowly pulling away in the last mile. Kemboi became the first native Kenyan to win the Fargo Marathon finishing, about a minute and a half ahead of Bareikis.
Attempts to reach Bareikis were unsuccessful.
It wasn't as if Kemboi's performance was any great shakes and his history in the last couple of years is one of slowing down. His winning Fargo time of 2:26.55 was far removed from his personal best of 2:09.21 set in 2007. He also ran a hectic schedule-three weeks prior to Fargo, he won Martian Invasion of the Races marathon in Dearborn, Mich., in 2:33.05.
Kemboi was 34 years old at the time of his Fargo win. He's still at it, winning the Five Points of Life Marathon in Gainesville, Fla., in February in a slow 2:41.03 to earn the $900 first place prize, a stretch in which he ran three marathons on three straight weekends. Before that, he finished third in the Tallahassee Marathon in 2:42.44.
He told the Gainesville Sun newspaper afterward that he had run more than 200 marathons and ran the Five Points marathon with two other runners that he lives and trains together with in Newport.
"For me, it was never so much a matter of how fast they ran but how frequently they could run fast enough to get to the podium," said Eric Sondag, a former Fargo marathon winner and race analyst for Forum Communications. "Their recovery was always the key because that's how they maximized their profit. Very fast times are detrimental to their recovery so there is a tendency to run to the level of the competition."
That being said, like Knutson, Sondag doubts Fargo and its low prize money is attractive enough for runners using PEDs. The drugs are not cheap, he said, relative to the small prize money "so I think a guy like Kemboi is probably clean."
The AP reports three runners working under Mikhaylova have tested positive for steroids since 2012, but Sondag said he has never been suspicious of any of the Fargo races.
"Groups like these do the analytics just like any good business and decide how they are going to approach it," he said.
On the elite level, Kemboi would probably be considered a second tier runner. His best finish in Grandma's was 23rd. Generally, the winner of Grandma's finishes in the 2:10 to 2:12 range with Dominic Ondoro of Kenya setting the course record of 2:09.06 in 2014.
Grandma's drug tests runners randomly, said race executive director Shane Bauer. The 2006 women's winner, Halina Karnatsevich of Belarus, tested positive for a banned substance determined by the IAAF to be the anabolic steroid stanozolol and was disqualified. At the time, it was the fourth time the USATF selected Grandmas to be tested and Karnatsevich's $8,000 first place prize was withheld.
"The only way to control it is to do random tests," Bauer said. "They go straight from the finish line and are escorted to a testing room. It's the only way to do it. We want to have the sport as clean as possible and it's not something anybody condones in road racing."