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Something amiss when the greatest joy is in stopping

It says something for the darkness he was in that when Martin Fagan tested positive for a banned substance, it felt more like a blessing than a trauma.

It was over. The long battle with his body, and with long-distance running, was finally over. He could leave it behind; he could do something different; he could begin again.

It is a poignant, disturbing story. Last Monday he bared his soul in The Irish Times. It was a riveting account of a downward spiral into a desolate place. It was a reminder that for all the joys and inspirations of elite sport, it can also become a black hole where some of its servants get swallowed up and lost.

Elite athletics is a cruel regime. The aim is simple and puritanical: to go faster. Faster than you were yesterday, faster than you were last season. It is an eternal race against the clock.

The world's great athletes have historically been pioneers for the musculoskeletal system, test drivers of the human engine in every generation. They subject it to maximum pressure and, if they're lucky, survive long enough to achieve a new frontier. Just when it looks like it can go no further, someone somewhere comes along to push the envelope again, to shave another fraction off the old record.

In doing so they are also breaking the previous pain barrier too. And in their slipstream everyone else must follow, subjecting themselves to ever greater volumes of work just to stay in the chase. It is a savage business. They are right on the edge, perpetually walking the tightrope between supreme physical fitness and imminent physical breakdown.

They all, at one stage or another, fall off that edge. The system cannot continuously take the strain. Injury is reality. In dealing with it they become students of their own anatomy; they get to know their personal physiology better than any medical specialist. And mentally it becomes part of the hardening process. The anxiety of a long lay-off is debilitating but they learn to cope with the frustration of having nothing to do when their work ethic is screaming at them that they should be doing something. It all goes into the making of these exceptionally tough sportsmen and women. They can withstand horrendous setbacks and disappointments.

The danger maybe is that they can withstand too much; that they become obsessed with the struggle. In an environment that is about the survival of the fittest, it is stating the obvious to say that this is a Darwinian world. But Martin Fagan seemed to end up in something closer to a dystopian universe, where the walls were closing in around him and he couldn't find a rational way out.

From Mullingar, the 28-year-old represented Ireland at the Beijing Olympics. Capable of world-class times in the marathon, he still wasn't high enough up in the talent pyramid to enjoy a major breakthrough and the rewards that would come with it. He qualified for Beijing at the Dubai Marathon in January 2008. The cost was a triple stress fracture in his pelvis. He dropped out of the Beijing marathon with a ruptured Achilles tendon. He failed to finish two marathons in the years after. The repeated physical breakdowns had psychological consequences: some 12 months ago he began taking medication for depression. He was also taking sleeping tablets.

In the Chicago marathon last October he collapsed from exhaustion while well inside the qualifying time for the London Olympics. There was just a mile to the finish line. "That just broke me, mentally and physically," he said. "If I'd finished that race I could've taken two months off, to completely recover. Instead I got nothing out (of it). No money. A DNF next to my name. And no one cared. That really broke me. The final nail in the coffin, really."

Financially he was living "below the poverty line" and falling further into debt. His agent secured him a place in the Houston marathon on January 8. He needed the money; he convinced his coach and agent that everything was fine. "But I was in pain most of the (time). My whole body."

He was alone and isolated, living in an apartment in Arizona. He'd stopped taking the prescribed anti-depressants. He started searching the internet for suicide message boards. "That's when I thought of EPO. That was my medication, the chemical I needed." He ordered it online and in December administered what he says was his first and only injection. By coincidence or otherwise, officials from the World Anti-Doping Agency called on him for an out-of-competition test the next day. But he says he knew he was going to get caught anyway: cheating athletes use much more sophisticated methods these days. Injecting EPO is ten years old and primitive.

He admitted the offence immediately and last Tuesday accepted a two-year ban. It might be trite, and sceptics might say it's naïve, to see his use of performance enhancing drugs as a cry for help. But it looks that way and Fagan, while feeling a lot of guilt for the hurt caused to his family and friends, sounded like a free man last week.

"Already," he said, "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."


Sunday Indo Sport