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Staff Blog: Anything For Eyeballs

  • By Mario Fraioli
  • Published Oct. 15, 2012
  • Updated Oct. 21, 2012 at 10:57 PM UTC
Christian Hesch pounds out a few pushups before the finish of the Rock 'n' Roll Providence 1/2 Marathon. Photo: Competitor.com

Christian Hesch has never been one to shy away from attention.

Whether it’s racing around the track in board shorts, crossing the finish line with a surfboard in hand or stopping meters short of winning a half-marathon to knock out a few pushups for the crowd, the road racing regular from Hollywood, Calif., always manages to find a way to keep things interesting.

So it should come as no surprise that Hesch, who last night publicly apologized on competitor.com for using EPO, is basking in the limelight of his most recent sideshow, recently admitting to doping despite never having failed a drug test.

Last Tuesday, I received an e-mail from Boulder-based journalist Stephen Kasica, who pitched an exclusive story with the subject line: “Exclusive with sub-4:00 miler admitting to using EPO” where he went on to say that he was interested in “an elite runner who recently admitted to me, on the record, that he’s been taking EPO intermittently since 2010.” Kasica revealed that this athlete, whom he would not name in the original e-mail but did say was over 30 years old, out-kicked two elite Ethiopian runners to win a half marathon in August, the day after he ran a 4:00 mile. A quick check of August race results revealed that Hesch, 33, won the Rock ‘n’ Roll Providence Half Marathon on Aug. 19 in 1 hour 7 minutes and 5 seconds — outkicking Ethiopians Fikadu Lemma and Demesse Tefera — some two days after running 4:00.1 to finish fourth at the Inaugural GNC Live Well Liberty Mile in Pittsburgh.

Blown away by what I had just read, I immediately replied to Mr. Kasica that yes, we were indeed interested in this exclusive story. I then sent a text message to Hesch, who, up until late last night I considered a friend, asking him to give me a quick call at his earliest convenience, which he did. Hesch, who spoke to me twice last Tuesday for a total of 32 minutes, would not go on the record with me regarding anything we had discussed over the phone.

After getting off the phone with Hesch, I wrote Kasica again telling him that I had just gotten off the phone with Hesch. I offered Kasica the assignment for competitor.com, letting him know that ”length is flexible (go as long as you need to go with it based on your conversation with Christian), for which we can reimburse you [X amount of $$]. I’d like to publish this as soon as possible, so let me know how much time you might need to turn it around.”

Kasica, who in his original e-mail informed me that “I know Runner’s World Magazine staff-writer Scott Douglas is following this story, but doesn’t have access to this athlete,” replied that, “I’ll be honest with you, I’m still shopping the story around. But I really like Competitor Magazine, and Hesch said he trusted you so let’s continue. How soon could you publish an article like this? My biggest concern is finding an outlet that can get it out before Runner’s World does.”

I wrote Kasica back telling him that, “I need a yes or no tonight if you’re going to pursue this story for us. If not, I will move forward on it tomorrow,” to which Kasica replied, “I’m going to pursue the story for you; but I’m still gauging if I can get this story done in less than a week. I’ll give you an update of where I’m at tomorrow after I interview Hesch again and his teammates. I think we can do the Friday deadline though. Again, I’ll send you an update tomorrow.”

On Wednesday I received an update via e-mail from Kasica, who said, “The story is going really well. I’m just in the process of double- and triple-checking the facts that Hesch has told me, I’m also doing some off-the-record background research and talking with a researcher who specializes in doping detection sciences. I’ll have a air-tight story for you on Friday, I’ll be glad to catch Lance’s wave after today’s news. What time do you want it in?”

I e-mailed Kasica first thing Friday morning, “checking in to see how the piece is coming along” and asking, “Can you send it to me this morning?” I got a reply saying, “I’m hung up on some things that teammates said that don’t quite add up with Christian’s story. I gotta be 100 percent sure about Hesch’s case since it is dealing with USADA. But I did learn that one teammate who spoke with Scott Douglas talked off the record, he agreed to go on the record with me, so I’m not too worried about Runner’s World beating me to the punch now. How much more time can you give me?”

That was the last I heard from Stephen Kasica, the same guy who authored this piece that was posted to the New York Times website last night, until he Tweeted at me this morning that he “didn’t feel comfortable writing the story for you after the way you tried to manipulate me” and “threatening to swoop in a take a freelance journalist’s story from under them is not how a professional acts.”

It was not the last I heard from Hesch, however, who I texted with intermittently through the end of last week and talked to again over the phone with last Friday afternoon for 26 minutes. That conversation stemmed from a text message I had gotten from Hesch earlier in the day asking me, “Did you really tell steve ur going w/ the story this tues? he’s a bit upset i believe…” to which I replied “I told him ASAP. I don’t know what he’s upset about. He told me earlier in the week he was “still shopping it around” until I told him we wanted the exclusive on it from him or I would have someone else write it.” Hesch replied, “thats fine but i don’t see it getting done in less than a week. besides that, why wouldn’t you just link to it if he went w/ a print media?. even if he went with letsrun, you could still be the first to link to it and i’d be happy to give u some extra quotes after he’s finished writing it….”

This was my first suspicion that something funny was going on behind the scenes. I wrote Hesch back, saying, “Why would I want to link to another source if I was one of the first to catch wind of the story? The only reason I’m not writing it/breaking it myself is out of respect to you.” Hesch, who was in the process of catching a flight to New York Friday morning, told me he’d call me when he landed and “you could but it won’t write nearly as well if you don’t have my quotes….i went with steve for a good reason, you and i are too close so he’s best choice~call u in a bit…”

Hesch, who called me when he landed in New York on Friday, was adamant about Kasica writing his story, but told me he had “only talked to him twice” and was unaware that the writer had been offered compensation for the piece. I was equally as adamant about wanting to be the first media outlet to break the story, and offered to Hesch the opportunity to break the story himself on competitor.com, with his own byline, and in his own words. He readily agreed to this proposal, shed a few tears, thanked me for being a good friend and told me he would get to work on right away and have something for me by the end of the weekend, Monday the latest. Hesch said he wouldn’t tell Kasica about the first-person arrangement we had worked out, and I agreed to keep quiet as well, but would tell Kasica that the assignment was off if he got back in touch with me over the weekend — which he did not.

Most of the weekend passed without incident, until Sunday morning, when while sitting around with friends after a long run from Seaside Market in Cardiff, Calif., a local runner and his wife mentioned that they had heard at a party the night before that a runner we were all familiar with has been admitting to people that he was doping. I kept quiet and texted Hesch, asking him how many people he had told his story to. He texted me back questioning the name of a local coach here in San Diego and told me “you will have ur Op-Ed/Personal apology by tonight or tomorrow morning….be ready to post it….i’ll send a pic or 2 as well…i know u have RnR pics but just for extra~”

On Sunday evening I received another text message from Hesch, who told me that the piece was in my inbox. He asked me to let him know what I thought and remarked that “its a bit long, but i think its necessary.”

After reading the piece, I noticed that in the PS Hesch referenced an article in the New York Times, and would also “unequivocally state that the facts stated in the NY Times article, as well as those stated here, are true, accurate, and honest, and paint the most clear picture of my poor actions.” I texted Hesch back inquiring if the NY Times was doing a story, to which he replied, “didn’t realize he had such a good contact….spent 4hrs shooting photo today, its on tomorrows paper. please don’t post it til its up. thanks.”

Livid, I texted him back asking, “Who Stephen?” to which he responded, “Yeah…i figured we still had a few days…found out at the end of the shoot, been writing straight since i got home~”

Even more outraged now, I wrote Hesch back, dropping a series of angry profanities, to which he replied, “Dude, i did the best i could to keep you guys even…i don’t like being the one in the middle. i’m telling you stiff i shouldn’t because you’re my friend. he’s looking out for himself, u can’t blame him~ that statement only gets approved if u wait on me, i can’t burn more bridges all over the place…i’m [sic] enough, don’t want more people hating me….thanks~ and i’ll buy u a beer or 4 for doing this…and a few more burritos~ :-)”

Yes, he ended that text message with a smiley face. After a couple more F-bombs on my part, I told him, “I think your apology needs to go up tonight.” Hesch replied, “Manana~ still needs edit/imput…..”

If you were online last night, you saw that Hesch’s public apology got posted on this site. About 10 minutes prior the New York Times piece, which included photos shot yesterday in New York where Hesch changed wardrobes twice, was also posted. In that article, he admitted to winning nearly $40,000 in prize money over the last two years, a period during which he injected himself with EPO 54 times. He went on to describe what it felt like to race on EPO (“Your running feels like what you imagine when you see all those Kenyan runners floating down the road,” he said) but later in the article maintained that “he never raced on EPO but used it to recover from injuries.” As professional runner Scott Bauhs tweeted earlier today, “I think it’s more like saying you smoked marijuana but didn’t inhale.”

Hesch texted me before I posted his apology to tell me that he was stressed and not to add to it. He encouraged me to relax, have a beer, eat some food and he’d talk to me soon.

That was the last I heard from Hesch, who last night posted links to both his apology and the New York Times piece on the oft-visited message boards of Letsrun.com, where he has been known to post with regularity and oftentimes anonymity. This morning, I received an e-mail from Scott Douglas, editor of Runner’s World Newswire, the “publication he felt forced to mislead.” Douglas, who has been following this story since September, twice interviewed Hesch, who denied doping on both occasions. In his own piece for Runner’s World Newswire, Douglas reveals details of text messages and e-mails received from some of Hesch’s former Nike Team Run LA teammates, who wrote to USADA summarizing Hesch’s case that they caught him with EPO, he admitted usage and offered to turn himself in.

Until the odd twist of events of last night, I considered Christian Hesch a friend. In the past two years that I’ve known him we’ve swapped numerous stories about training and racing, dined together on more than one occasion, and I even let him crash in my hotel room the night before the NYRR Dash To The Finish 5K last November in New York. I’ve always found his actions and antics to be a bit unorthodox, but I had a lot of respect for the guy, his immense running talent and easygoing, Californian nature. Last week, after our initial phone conversation, I told him that as a friend I was disappointed in his actions, but forgave him for his mistakes. I’m having a hard time, however, wrapping my head around the fact that he would hand pick a writer to shop his story around to the highest bidder, play the role of puppet master behind the scenes while misleading and manipulating someone he considered a friend, all to bring the spotlight back onto himself even under the most damning of circumstances.

I don’t believe Christian Hesch will ever dope again, but I don’t doubt that he’ll continue to find a way to bring attention to himself. I can only hope he does so in a positive light moving forward. As the title of this post suggests, the man will do anything for eyeballs — and perhaps a few dollars.

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Mario Fraioli

Mario Fraioli

Mario Fraioli is a senior editor at Competitor magazine. A cross-country All-American at Stonehill College in 2003, he now coaches the Prado Women's Racing Team in San Diego and was the men's marathon coach for Costa Rica's 2012 Olympic team. His first book, The Official Rock 'n' Roll Guide To Marathon & Half-Marathon Training (VeloPress, 2013) is available in bookstores, running shops and online.

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