Karen Smyers



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Confessions of a Poppy Seed Addict

by Karen Smyers

The IOC recently announced that it is adding marijuana to its banned list of drugs and triathlon’s governing body will follow suit.  (When the IOC says jump, the ITU says “Altius?”)  I find it rather ironic that their reason for adding a non-performance-enhancing drug to the banned list is that athletes must be good role models.  The ironic part is that nobody including all of the young impressionable fans of Canadian gold medalist, whochamacallit, would ever have known he had anything to do with marijuana (primary or secondhand smoke-wise) if it weren’t for the IOC’s testing.  Now the overriding impression of snowboarders is that they are “potheads.”

Anyway, I don’t mention it because I am encouraging people to smoke marijuana, I just don’t think it ought to be tested for if it is not performance-enhancing.  The reason we need to test for steroids, EPO and other harmful substances is that we don’t want athletes to be required to damage their long term health in order to compete with the best.  There is no need to test for things that are good for you and performance-enhancing (like more sleep, vitamins, training at altitude) and things that are bad for you and performance-detracting (lack of sleep, excessive alcohol, junk food, and marijuana).

It isn’t as simple as that however.  Sometimes, things are on the list because they are masking agents for a banned substance and sometimes detection of a substance can be misinterpreted.  Take for example, my own close encounter of the banned kind. . .

“Karen, I have some very bad news for you,” said the Very Important Person at USA Triathlon ominously, “you had a positive drug test at the N.C.C. Cleveland race.”  My hand holding the phone started to sweat and my stomach did a triple lutz.

“Positive for what? Budweiser?  I do usually have one the night before the race but if anything I should get bonus points since it’s kind of the opposite of a performance-enhancer, ha! ha!, and…”

“Karen,” he interrupted my nervous babbling, “this is a very serious offense.  It carries a ban of two years.  You tested positive for morphine.”

“Morphine!  How does one even take morphine?  Pill?  Needle?  Baked in a brownie?  There must be some mistake…maybe they mixed up my sample with a Chinese swimmer’s sample.”

My attempt at humor was misguided as he was dead serious.  He went on to tell me that I had the right to be present at the testing of my “B” sample so I could see for myself that it was indeed my sample.  And he advised me to keep the whole incident as quiet as possible (as this would undoubtedly tarnish my reputation as a “morphine-free” beer-drinker.)

As I desperately pondered my predicament, I went over the Cleveland event in my mind: how I had shared a room with the Wingnut on the Club level which came with a free breakfast (an unusual perk); how I had had my usual two cups of coffee and a small piece of poppy seed bread since our race didn’t start until 11:00 a.m…Wait a minute!  While I was eating the bread, someone said to me, “Careful, you’ll test positive for opium!”  I had laughed it off thinking surely athletes would be aware if something as common as poppy seeds could cause a positive drug test. (Keep in mind that this was before the Seinfeld episode in which Elaine tests positive for opium from a poppy seed bagel…now roughly 75% of the world’s population knows it.)

I quickly called the USOC drug hotline and asked if they knew anything about poppy seeds causing a positive drug test for morphine.  Nope.  They’d never heard of it.  I called a woman on the USAT Medical Control Committee–she’d never heard of it.  My husband tracked down some toxicologists in the Boston area.  The first one said, “Sure, but you’d have to eat three cups of poppy seeds.”  Blech!  Finally, I got two confirmations that a piece of poppy seed bread could cause traces of morphine to show up.  This was somewhat of a relief, but the rules state that it is up to the athlete to avoid ingesting things on the banned list whether they are performance-enhancing or not.

Opium, morphine, and codeine are all derived from the poppy seed.  When you ingest the seed, the morphine shows up in your urine but you don’t get the narcotic effects that you would get by taking morphine: numbness to pain and inducement to sleep.  So if I had actually taken morphine, I would have had no problem pushing through the pain threshold, but I may have had to take a nap in the transition area.

I tried to assemble a “dream team” for my defense; unfortunately R. Shapiro, F. Lee Bailey, and J. Cochran were indisposed with some other rinky-dink case.  I had to create the “poppy seed defense” all on my own.  Training for the Ironman fell by the wayside as I compiled all the information I could on the matter.  As it turns out, a study had just been completed for the USOC investigating ways to distinguish between morphine present in a urine sample due to poppy seeds and that due to the narcotic form.  No conclusive method was determined–although with the narcotic form, there will usually be codeine present which was not found in my sample.

My appeal consisted of a copy of the USOC study, a letter from the pastry chef (a.k.a. “the pusher”) at the hotel indicating that he regularly serves poppy seed bread on the Club level, and a letter from my massage therapist vouching for the fact that I wasn’t competing with a broken leg for which I would need morphine to mask the pain as I “hopped” through the 10K.

To my great relief, my case was dismissed based on my appeal.  At the same time, the USOC raised the limit on morphine from “any” to 1000 ng/ml which was high enough to cause my “B” sample to test negative and will hopefully do the same for future cases involving poppy seed ingestion.  Beware though, for I have heard that repeated poppy seed use can lead to more hardcore food groups like  chicken “pot” pies and Sugar “Smacks” cereal!

Posted by on November 18, 2010.

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Categories: training

One Response

  1. That’s too funny! I wonder if corn-beef “hash” is on the list of foods that will nab you!

    by Bob on Sep 5, 2011 at 2:25 pm

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About Karen Smyers

When Karen Smyers, over age 50, lines up each year at the start of the Ford Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, she competes against gen Y-ers. And she beats most of them in the race, which consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run. (In 2010, she was the […]more →