Shelby Houlihan After Ban Is Upheld: “I Understand That People Don’t Believe Me”

The 2016 Olympian, who missed last year’s Games due to a drug suspension, can’t compete again until 2025.

2019 usatf outdoor championships
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Shelby Houlihan, who holds the American records in the 1500 and 5,000 meters, learned two weeks ago that her appeal of her four-year ban from competition for anti-doping violations had been rejected.

Houlihan, 29, told Runner’s World on May 23 that she is no longer doing any training with members of the Bowerman Track Club, and neither Bowerman head coach Jerry Schumacher nor assistant coach Shalane Flanagan is coaching her currently. She is still training, but less intensely than she had been, and making plans for how to support herself until she can return to competition in January 2025.

Houlihan also answered questions about whether she still thinks a tainted pork burrito was the explanation for how nandrolone got into her system and whether she has any regrets about how she handled telling her Bowerman teammates of her failed drug test. The interview has been condensed for clarity.

Runner’s World: What is your running looking like given the news you recently received?

Shelby Houlihan: Obviously I can’t compete or anything, not for another two and a half years at this point. But I’m still training, I enjoy running, and this is where I feel like I can kind of escape to, when shit’s kind of hitting the fan. That’s never really changed, that’s always kind of been my outlet. So I’m still training and kind of chipping away. I want to be in a space where I can jump back into things whenever I can compete again. The training hasn’t been as intense as it has been.

Are you running once a day or twice a day?

Mostly once a day. Every once in a while I’ll do a double run. I’m mostly still having those really hard workouts and efforts. I dropped my mileage from 85 miles a week down to like 70. And I’m not doing all the little things as diligently. I’m kind of giving myself a mental break as far as going to the gym three times a week and doing doubles and doing the full mileage. I’m having ice cream every night. Little things like that.

Are you currently at altitude with Bowerman?

I’m up in Park City, [Utah]. I’m not training with anyone. I have my own place here. So they’re also up here, but I’m not training with them.

Paul Greene, your attorney, had told me back in the winter you had checked the rules and for easy runs, there’s nothing stopping you from bumping into members of the team on a trail and logging miles with them, as long as you’re not on the track with them. What was your understanding of those rules?

That was basically our understanding of what we were told—I can’t obviously go to any practices, I can’t work out with anyone on the team. But if I happen to bump into them and we were running at the same place, then I could run with them. So that was our understanding.

I don’t do that anymore. Just because of things that have popped up in the last few weeks. [Canadian runner Gabriela DeBues-Stafford left the group in April and spoke publicly about how Houlihan’s presence around the team was the primary reason for her departure.] Now I just do everything alone. I don’t want anyone to think that I’m doing something wrong. And I don’t believe that I am. I’ve tried to be even more diligent about staying completely separate. I’ve done all of my runs by myself, all of my workouts by myself.

Are you good with that?

To be honest, it sucks. It’s really, really lonely. I love the whole process of running and working out. That’s always been such a fun process for me and I think like now, all of those fun aspects of working out with my friends and having a coach there, yelling splits and being encouraging, and that fun atmosphere just isn’t there any more. It’s just been difficult and wearing on me, and mentally and emotionally, it’s been really hard. I’m finding myself having a lot more bad workouts and having a hard time getting through those hard sessions and just not feeling as excited about it and not having as much fun, which is really hard.

You did a time trial over the weekend?

Yeah, I did a solo 800 at altitude, which really sucked. But I got through it. It was 2:03.47. It was fine. I’m okay with it. I wanted to run faster, but it’s not a bad time by any means.

And did you have anyone there holding the stopwatch?

I just had one of my little sisters. She came out to visit for a few days and so it kind of worked out that she was here when I was doing that and she came out and held the stop watch and cheered me on, which was nice. I have five sisters.

Is Nike still supporting you financially, and if not, do you have plans for a job?

They have told me they support and believe me, but I’m no longer being financially supported by them. I’ve been paying for everything myself. Luckily, I’ve had a lot of help with that, so that’s been nice. But what I’m doing is definitely not sustainable. Now that I have the answer on the appeal, it’s time for me to move forward and start job searching, figuring out what I want to do and trying to figure out how to make an income over the next two and a half years.

Do you have any leads on what that might look like?

I think it’s hard, I definitely wasn’t anticipating having to make that change so quickly. I don’t really know what I want to do. I’ve always just been a runner, and that’s always just what I wanted to do, and I wanted to do that as long as I possibly could. So kind of having to figure out other things I’m passionate about and love, it’s been something I’ve kind of been working towards in the last couple of years but not something that I felt like I needed to tackle right at that moment.

I really enjoy cooking and maybe there’s something there. I’m not really sure. I have a little experience helping out in a kitchen. I really enjoyed that. Maybe that’s an avenue where I’ll go. I don’t know, I’m just kind of seeing what’s out there and trying to figure out what to do in the meantime. But I still want to keep training, so it’s kind of hard to balance those things, but we’ll see. I’m kind of trusting that things will just kind of fall into place, hopefully, but trying to be intentional about figuring out what the next step is.

Do you still believe that the tainted burrito was the way that the nandrolone got into your system?

Yeah, I mean, it’s hard, right? I don’t know with 100 percent certainty that that’s where it came from. The only thing I do know is that I didn’t intentionally ingest [nandrolone]. For us, looking at all of the facts of the case—we tested all my vitamins and stuff like that, and we were really going through everything I ingested, and we were looking at this food truck.

We knew that nandrolone can be found in pig offal. The food truck served pig offal. I didn’t order that. I ordered a carne asada burrito, but it definitely was different than what I typically ordered. I didn’t think anything of it at the time. It was greasier, more rich. I couldn’t finish it. And then when you ingest pig offal, the peak levels of concentration in your body, they kind of peak at 10 hours after you eat it. And I had eaten it 10 hours before that test. Just all those different facts, I felt like, for us, added up to make some sense. And we didn’t really have anything else to go off of. That’s where our logic was.

Obviously it’s still not the most probable thing that’s going to happen by any means, but that’s not anything that we were ever arguing. This is what we felt like made the most sense. That’s the route we tried to prove. Honestly, I don’t know for sure where it came from. I’ve asked myself that question a million times.

I don’t know if someone gave me something I didn’t know about, which is scary. Maybe it was in a vitamin. I just don’t know. I think that’s kind of the worst part of it is not knowing, what if this happens again? What if it was someone around me and they’re still around me? What if it was a vitamin and I’m still taking it? That’s been a little unnerving. Yeah, the burrito thing, as ridiculous as it honestly sounds, it feels like it makes the most sense and those are things that kind of add up. We just don’t have any other leads I guess, if that makes sense.

In an Athletics Illustrated article, you had mentioned supplements and said some of the ones you had taken back at the time of the test, you didn’t have those batches around anymore. I just wondered given how loosely regulated the supplement industry is, was that possibly the source?

It was definitely something we took into consideration. We went out and tried to buy the same supplement at the same store that I bought it, to try to replicate that the best we could. I was drug tested two weeks prior to that as well and I would have probably taken that supplement for that drug test, and I passed that one, so it feels like we can rule that out in some aspect. Maybe not 100 percent. It’s hard to know, really. I’m not really sure what happened, and I guess that’s ultimately why I’m in this position. I couldn’t figure out what happened and how to prove that in a way that tipped the scales in my favor.

Are you still subject to random drug testing during the period of your suspension?

Yeah. I’m still being tested by USADA. I’ve had 10 tests since I was notified on January 14, 2021.

Did you have any TUEs that you would be willing to discuss, and is it possible anything got messed up there?

I don’t have any TUEs. [A TUE, short for therapeutic use exemption, allows an athlete who is sick or has a condition that requires treatment to take substances that are otherwise banned in sports.] Funny enough, I take a calcium gummy vitamin, I take a multivitamin gummy vitamin, a vitamin D gummy vitamin, and a B complex, and when I go to altitude, I take iron. That’s all of the supplements that I take. Sometimes I’ll take collagen and put it in my yogurt, but I didn’t take that at the time of that December 15 test. The vitamins that I took and we were trying to test for were the calcium, multivitamin, and B complex. I had declared all those. We tried to test them all and didn’t come back with anything that was helpful, unfortunately. We were trying to figure out what happened.

Are you required to declare vitamins like that?

It’s advised. You don’t have to. I just declare everything that I take because I want to be safe.

You keep saying that the system has failed—what would you like to see change?

I definitely think things weren’t handled in the right way. The process wasn’t what I felt it should be.

What did you feel it should be?

I felt like there should be a mutual interest to find out what the truth is. When this all happened, obviously I was absolutely terrified and depressed that this was going on, and I didn’t have any explanation as to what happened, but I was trying to put my trust in the drug testing process because it’s put in place to protect clean athletes. I trusted that after they kind of dug and did an investigation, they would ultimately see that I was innocent. That’s kind of what I thought was going to happen. That’s not at all what happened. There was no investigation at all. They didn’t dig or anything. It was basically just me trying to figure out what happened and them trying to poke holes in what I was saying.

To some degree, I do understand that I have the responsibility for things that are in my body, and I definitely accept that. But in these cases of possible contamination, it’s almost impossible—unless you have the original food source—it’s almost impossible to prove where it came from.

I guess something that I would love to see changed would be in these low-level possible contamination cases, I think the burden of proof and intent should be equally distributed between the athlete and the governing body. Yes, as an athlete, I need to try to prove where it came from. But I also think that they should be trying to prove intent, that I intentionally cheated, because it feels like an equally impossible task. I would much rather have them dig through my life, my phone records, my bank statements, and my web searches, and like literally rip apart every aspect of my life. I would have felt better about them doing that than doing nothing.

I think kind of divvying up those burdens, because yes, I couldn’t prove where it came from. But I don’t believe that it’s fair to give me a four-year ban that’s equivalent of me intentionally doping when there was also no evidence that that happened either. If I can’t prove where it came from, and they can’t prove intent, give me a year ban or a two-year ban, whatever feels appropriate. [On May 24, Houlihan posted on her Instagram that she was offered a three-year ban instead of four years if she admitted guilt. She declined.] But I don’t agree with having a four-year ban and being treated as if I intentionally doped when they never had to prove that.

I also think more than one expert opinion should be required. The expert that tested my sample was also the scientific expert for the case. I feel like that’s a huge conflict of interest. She’s not going to go up there and say that she did the science wrong. She is trying to back up her own science. I think having more than one opinion should be required. I think the athletes should have a right to request testing done with their own sample. Us asking for the pharmacokinetic analysis to be done. We felt that would help prove the source. That was denied and ignored. I’m not really sure why. I feel like if it’s going to give you the truth, shouldn’t that be important? Just having that right to request testing done is important.

I definitely think there should be more communication between the governing body and the athlete. I got notified on January 14, and we kept sending in all the results we were getting, asking for updates, asking for a timeline, and they weren’t responding to anything. We would get an email back that would say, “Acknowledging receipt of your email” and never having them answer any of our questions, which was really frustrating, and it felt, like, super disrespectful. Because here I am with my life up in the air and I can’t even get any email back about what is going on with my case. Ultimately we were forced to take it to CAS [the Court of Arbitration for Sport] to intervene. So we had to forgo that first trial with the AIU [the Athletics Integrity Unit, which handles doping cases for World Athletics] altogether just because they weren’t responding to us.

I just don’t feel like that was right, and I don’t feel like personally I was treated very well. I’m sure other athletes going through that process probably have felt the same way. I definitely think there needs to be more communication and [athletes should be] given a timeline so you kind of know what is happening.

One last thing I kind of would like to see changed: I think there should be mental health resources in place to help athletes who are going through this process. I had such a great support system, and I feel really lucky I did. But it feels incredibly isolating and lonely. And it’s really hard. Having to go through this and having everything ripped away from you, I think that’s incredibly difficult.

I assume you had health insurance through the tier system?

Yeah, I did.

Do you get to keep that?

No. That got terminated after I announced last summer. I’m paying for my own insurance now, so that’s another expense.

I wondered if you had felt any regrets about how in some ways the Bowerman Track Club seems to have splintered. I guess a lot of women were making plans to leave before this, but do you have any regrets about how some people on the team seemed to know and some didn’t? Would you have done anything differently?

I personally don’t think I would have done anything differently. A lot of people did end up leaving, but I don’t believe they left because of this. They were planning on leaving anyways, the training wasn’t really working for them, they needed something different for themselves.

Only a handful of people knew because, at the time, they were the people I was living with. So it was just like I needed where I was living to be a space that I could just process it. And so that felt important to me, so I did tell the girls I was living with at the time. And that was really helpful for me. I needed that support system and people to lean on.

I didn’t want to tell everyone because it was so stressful and I know it was stressful on those girls as well. I didn’t want to add to any of their other stresses by any means. That’s why I didn’t end up telling people, I didn’t want it to affect them. I didn’t want them to be worried about it and stressed about it. I don’t really regret not doing that. It’s hard. It’s hard to know what to do in those moments.

Is Jerry still going to be writing your training?

No, he’s not coaching me anymore now.

Is Shalane?

No. I’m kind of coaching myself. I have six years of training logs, so we’re just winging it. It’s made a really difficult situation even more difficult. I’m just trying to do the best I can.

Anything else you would want the average track fan to know about you or this situation right now?

Ultimately, I just want people to keep an open mind. I understand that people don’t believe me. There have been so many athletes who have gone through this system and have lied about it. That sucks for me. They’ve taken away the [possibility] of being innocent. I think keeping an open mind, asking questions, doing research. I think it’s really frustrating to see people read a headline or one article that might not have all the accurate information and they feel they know the truth—they ultimately reach out to me and are being cruel and saying really mean things. You don’t have the right to reach out to me and be mean, because ultimately you don’t know what the truth is. I mean, I really just hope people are kind and respectful and keep an open mind and do their research before they make any solid opinions.

Have you been harassed?

Oh yeah. Oh yes. Luckily, when I announced last summer, I deleted social media off my phone, I put my sister in charge of my account, and she was blocking people. And even now, every time I post, I get messages, comments on my Instagram. I go through when I post now and I delete comments that are just bullying or harassing. You can go somewhere else to say whatever you want, but you’re not going to do that on my Instagram page. I’m going to delete those, and I try not to read the comments outside of my Instagram page. So I don’t know truly how mean people are being. I’ve definitely have gotten a lot of comments and messages that have been not great.

Previous to this experience, were you ever judgmental about other athletes, especially in your event? There have been some people who have made huge jumps in their times and done some incredible things on the track. I’m just wondering if you were skeptical before this and now if you still have those feelings or if it has changed the way you’ve looked at that?

I try not to be too judgmental, because ultimately I don’t know. Even before all this, I definitely had my skeptical opinions for sure, but at the end of the day, I don’t truly know, so I don’t try to make solid opinions about people. But I think going through this process, it has unfortunately made me distrust the system a lot. I don’t know what to believe at this point. Now I’m giving every benefit of the doubt to athletes. Who am I now to judge someone that’s having a lot of success on the track? Maybe they do just work really hard? Who am I to make a judgment on that?

And also people who are getting caught in the system, now I’m questioning: Are they really cheating? I don’t know. Or they financially don’t have the means to defend themselves. Could they not prove where it came from? I think that’s what’s really hard about it—I should be able to trust this system and I just don’t anymore. I’m just questioning everything.

I’m going to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. That’s how I was before. I don’t know if people are cheating, and I know what I’m doing, and I know I’m doing the right things. That’s all I can control, I’m going to go out there and see if I can beat people anyway, even if they are. So that’s kind of the mindset I’ve always had going into it. I didn’t want to think they were cheating because I felt like I was giving myself an excuse to not try to beat them.

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