When Asmae Leghzaoui approached the starting line of the Sallie Mae 10K race in the District seven weeks ago, she was afraid. Afraid to see how her body would respond in her first race after serving a two-year suspension for taking EPO, one of the sporting world's most notorious performance-enhancing drugs. Afraid, too, that others would think she was still a drug cheat, would not believe her when she said she was now clean, that she made a horrible mistake, that she was sorry and wanted a second chance.
Her performance, as it turned out, required no worrying. Leghzaoui, a 28-year-old Moroccan, won the Sallie Mae in a course-record time, and then ripped through the American spring road-racing circuit. In six starts she won five races and set four course records.
Public perception, though, has been less yielding. When Leghzaoui won the Lilac Bloomsday 12K race in Spokane, Wash., runner-up Kathy Butler told the Spokesman-Review she thought EPO users should be banned for life, not courted by race officials. And in advance of tomorrow's Freihofer's Run For Women 5K in Albany, N.Y., Leghzaoui's status as an invited professional athlete caused four high-profile runners to withdraw. The controversy attracted media attention from as far away as England and Australia and prompted race organizers to bring in a team of drug testers from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, a relatively rare step for a U.S. road race.
Outside the small community of distance running fans, Leghzaoui (pronounced LUG-zow-ee) is virtually unknown in the United States; neither her suspension nor her return attracted headlines until last week's developments. And yet, at a time when performance-enhancing drugs are debated on sports-talk radio and in Congress, when bona fide track stars such as Kelli White and Alvin Harrison are serving EPO suspensions of their own, Leghzaoui's case offers a look at the debates that could greet the return of proven users. She passed four random tests during her suspension, and said she wants to apologize to the running community and try to clear her name, a task some have said is impossible for any drug user.
The critics say they understand Leghzaoui has served her time and they don't object to her participation, but they want to discourage other road races from inviting, promoting or paying the expenses of athletes who have tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs.
"I don't think you should promote convicted drug cheats," said Dutch agent Pieter Langerhorst, whose wife and client, Lornah Kiplagat, was one of the athletes who withdrew from tomorrow's race. "Before you put a needle in, you should think about the consequences, and this is one of the consequences."
Leghzaoui said she did not think about those consequences when she injected the endurance-boosting synthetic hormone into her arm in early 2003, did not think of anything except being able to run faster, leading to a positive test at the world cross-country championships that spring and the two-year ban.
While she was serving her suspension, Leghzaoui gave birth to her first child -- a daughter, Mayar -- and continued to train; she ran 40 minutes on a treadmill several hours before she gave birth, and resumed serious training within a month. Her agent, Hussein Makke, said he agreed to work with her again under the condition that she promise to be clean and talk publicly about her story; Makke has tried to attract media interest in Leghzaoui's apology for several months.
Which is why Makke and Leghzaoui's husband and coach, Mohammed Ar-Ar, sat with the 5-foot tall, 95-pound athlete in a small Pennsylvania office this week and together translated Leghzaoui's words.
"I feel guilt, I feel guilt for what I have done to the sport, to my family and to myself," she said. "I hate the time I used it, I hate who's using it. . . . I sat down with myself. I said the mother, when her son makes a mistake, she punishes him. Then, if he accepts the punishment, he says 'I'm sorry, mom, I admit what I have done.' This is what I felt. I take my guilt. When I come back to competition, I'm saying sorry to everybody."
Leghzaoui switched from Arabic to halting English: "Give me another chance."
Leghzaoui's parents -- observant Muslims living in Fes -- objected to the idea of women baring their arms and legs to run, so during high school she carried her books in her arms and stuffed her book bag with running clothes and running shoes. First her high school coach and later a club coach called her parents and explained their daughter's talent, and as she began competing in national events her parents gradually dropped their objections.
By 1999 she was representing Morocco at world championships in the 10,000 meters and cross-country, finishing seventh in the short course. She was 18th at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and seventh again at the 2001 world championships in the 10,000 meters.
By then she had met Ar-Ar and married, and yet this was not the most important part of her life: First came the sport, then herself, then her family.
"This is the way she is," Ar-Ar said. "She is born like this, something inside her."
Her life was devoted to running faster and winning, and when she succeeded she was "like a baby when you get a little toy, and you look in their eyes and you see the joy," Ar-Ar said. "You don't see it, you feel how happy she is."
By 2002, she said, she understood she was more talented on the road than on the track. She told Makke, the agent she met around this time, that she would give anything to attain a world record. It happened in her first race in the United States that year; she outdueled Kiplagat to win the New York Women's Mini Marathon 10K in a world-record time.
Some observers of that race said they had suspicions about a virtual unknown beating a field of international stars including Kiplagat and Deena Drossin; Leghzaoui insisted this week that she was clean when she set the record, and said she was tested throughout this time at world championships and at European track events. Later that season, she set a world 8K record in Kingsport, Tenn., and her winnings helped support her family as her father, a tailor, began to lose his eyesight.
But she was still being outkicked at the end of world championships, and she wanted to medal instead of finishing seventh.
"Seven was not satisfactory," she said. "What is seven? I wanted more."
Running acquaintances told her about EPO, describing it as a magic recipe that could make her run faster. She knew of cyclists who had succeeded with EPO, which sends a message to the body's bone marrow to produce more oxygen-carrying red blood cells, thus increasing aerobic capacity and endurance. It also thickens the blood -- "like a Slurpee, almost," said Chuck Yesalis, a professor of health and human development at Penn State -- and is thus associated with heart attacks and strokes.
An acquaintance took Ar-Ar to a black market dealer in Morocco, where he said he purchased two syringes of Eprex 4000 -- a form of erythropoietin, or EPO -- for about $600.
"We didn't think about it's good or bad," he said. "Thinking about using it, that's it."
Said Leghzaoui: "Before I injected I was thinking about a medal, thinking about winning, but when I did it this is when I got afraid."
They said they were told to inject the EPO into Leghzaoui's arm, leaving a space of several days between the injections. They left Morocco to train at altitude in New Mexico, then traveled to Lausanne, Switzerland, for the world cross-country championships about four weeks after the injections, they said. Leghzaoui finished 12th in the short course. The next month, she called Ar-Ar from an airport en route to a road race in California. He told her she had tested positive, and she collapsed on the airport floor.
"I made a bad decision and I lost my life, I lost my family and I thought in that second I had lost everything, all I had worked for," she said. "I made a mistake to the best thing I love."
A High Price
During her suspension, Leghzaoui and Ar-Ar moved back and forth from Morocco to West Chester, where Makke lives and where they stay in a tiny studio apartment with barely enough room for a bed and futon couch. Ar-Ar, himself a former athlete, said he could earn a few hundred dollars running road races in Europe, but he suffered inflammation under his knees and could not continue. They borrowed money from family and friends and, after the birth of their daughter, began making plans for Leghzaoui's return.
Makke, who said he never knew about her drug use until after the test, said if he had "one percent doubt that Asmae is dirty I would never represent her. I'm against drugs. How could I support someone who cheated already and maybe is willing to do it again? It's absolutely against what I stand for."
And yet her critics are angered that a biography that has been used by some race directors describes Leghzaoui as taking time off for maternity leave.
Makke is reluctant to engage the critics but said that he does not want to hide anything, does not want to cover anything up and specifically requested that Leghzaoui be tested tomorrow in Albany, which race officials confirmed.
Regardless, race organizers said they are put in a difficult position.
"She's eligible to compete in the Olympics and all other international competitions, so it seems a little silly to say 'But you can't run in our race,' " said Don Kardong of the Bloomsday race, who said he didn't know of Leghzaoui's suspension until race day. "The other issue is do you invite her and pay her way. To me, that's a little different."
New York Road Runners officials said it would take extraordinary circumstances to invite a proven user.
"We're in a position where we have to take a very strong stance because we have to stop this drug thing," Road Runners President and CEO Mary Wittenberg said. "There are risks associated with inviting someone like that that we're not wiling to take."
Others said they cannot continue to penalize someone who has shown no evidence of continued use.
"It's like saying to someone who spent jail time, you're never going to work again in your life," said George Banker of the Sallie Mae race.
Officials with tomorrow's race in Albany, who said they knew of Leghzaoui's drug suspension when they invited her and have since released a statement decrying drug use, said they don't want to do anything to encourage cheaters, which is why they're spending several thousand dollars to bring in drug testers.
"I don't know what else we can do, we're not in the business of making drug policy," race director George Regan said. "We're not making any judgment one way or the other about IAAF rules; we're just taking them as they are."
Which is all that Leghzaoui wants. She said she visited Moroccan tracks during her suspension, telling young athletes to stay away from drugs. She said she will never cheat again (a second positive would bring a lifetime suspension). She said she will submit to a drug test at any time, even though few American road races have testing. And she said she hopes others will use her story as an example.
"We want to send a message to the world that athletes can reach a high level without EPO, that with training and talent you can achieve," she said. "I hope anybody who listens or reads this will learn from my experience, because I paid my price. I don't wish for anybody to pay that price."