In April 2012, Christian Cushing-Murray was the three-time defending masters champion at the Carlsbad 5000. But when “Cush” lined up on Grand Avenue that day, a new phenom was waiting in the 40-44 age-group wings.
Kevin Castille of Kentucky — unknown to most — finished 33 seconds ahead of Cushing-Murray, a former UCLA star who once ran a 3:55 mile.
“I just turned 40 on March 17 and wanted to start the masters off right,” Castille said as he pocketed $1,000 in prize money.
On Thursday, after winning $66,400 mostly on the age-group circuit and becoming perhaps the most decorated middle-aged road runner of the past decade, Castille was formally branded a drug cheat. He accepted a four-year suspension for doping, authorities said.
Now a 48-year-old Baton Rouge resident and the subject of several major-media profiles, Castille tested positive for steroids after winning the USA Track & Field Masters 10K Championship on April 28, 2019, in Dedham, Massachusetts.
“Anabolic agents have powerful performance-enhancing capabilities and can give an athlete an unfair advantage over fellow competitors,” said USADA, whose announcement set off shock waves in the running world — and a torrent of “I-told-you-so’s.”
Few were surprised.
“I lost a little money to him over the years, but fortunately haven’t lost any sleep about it,” Cushing-Murray said on letsrun.com. “The way I look at these things is this: Whether or not he goes to hell over this is above my pay grade. … Every race he’s run is, at least in my mind, tainted and negated, and he cannot toe the line ever again and expect his competitors to respect him.”
Coach Pete Magill, an author and record-setting masters 5K runner himself, has suspected Castille of doping for years.
“It’s not the performance that outs guys like Castille as PED users,” Magill said. “It’s the consistency of their top performances. They race week after week after week at a top level, while most masters runners (me included) find it hard to string more than a couple/few races together before the wheels come off and we need to recover.”
He contends that any masters runner who can race every week at a high level is cheating.
“If I’m a 15-minute 5K guy and some other guy my age runs 14:42, that sounds like a huge difference, but it’s really only 2%. But if it takes me three weeks to recover enough to run at a top level again, and the other guy can race in a week, that’s a 300% improvement over me,” Magill said. “It’s all in the recovery.”
Magill says Castille has been a masters thief from the get-go.
“He started by stealing $1,000 at Carlsbad in his very first masters road race. … My clubmate John Gardiner finished second to him in four masters national championships,” he said. “Think about that: John could have won four national titles! But instead the drug cheat got the titles, the money, the attention and the annual awards. Good riddance.”
Gardiner, six months younger than Castille, is a consulting engineer in Orange County who thinks he’s raced Castille about 10 times on the masters circuit.
“I heard through the masters rumor mill about a year ago that Kevin had failed this drug test in spring 2019,” he said. “I assumed there was some appeal occurring, but I was starting to wonder if we’d ever hear anything from USADA.”
Gardiner says he lost as much as $2,000 by taking second to Castille at USATF national road championships in the mile, 5K, 15K and half-marathon.
“I certainly had suspicions that Kevin was doping for years, but I try to keep an optimistic view of the world and assume people are innocent until proven guilty,” he said. “His times were fast – but not superhuman fast. His ability to recover fast and run American record level times week after week was the most suspicious for me.”
Greg Mitchell of Wilsonville, Oregon, is director of a college prep program for disadvantaged high school students. He says he took second to Castille at the 2014 U.S. Masters Half Marathon Championship in Melbourne, Florida, the 2016 Masters Club Cross Country Championship in San Francisco and the 2017 Masters Club Cross Country Championship in Tallahassee.
“I know he also beat me at least once at Bloomsday in Spokane,” he added.
“I probably missed out on $1,000-$2,000,” says Mitchell, 46. “I’m not really that upset about the financial loss. Yeah, it’d be nice to have that money and be able to break even on housing and travel, but if I was doing this for monetary gain, I’d have been done long ago.”
Instead, he says he cares more about the lost titles.
“Honestly. I thrashed myself in training and wrecked myself on race day trying to beat that guy, and now we know it wasn’t a level playing field,” he said Friday.
At the 2017 Florida race, he says, he and Gardiner were running side by side at the 2-mile mark in second and third with Castille barely in sight.
“Gardiner – who is notorious for his midrace commentary – turns to me and says, ‘I think he’s coming back to us.’ We laughed about it for about 100 meters,” Mitchell recalls. “Of course, he wasn’t coming back to us. It was Kevin Castille and he was just going to win by an embarrassing amount.”
With Castille in the race, he says, “it was difficult to believe you had a chance. It was almost comical.”
Mitchell, who heard the suspension news via texts from Gardiner and David Angell “pretty much simultaneously,” said: “I think it’s another example of the old adage: If it looks too good to be true, it probably is. If somebody is performing way above the norm, it is worth investigating.”
He added: “Hopefully this discourages any masters out there from going down the wrong path. There is a chance you’ll get caught. I do think masters USATF has a ways to go, however. I’ve won 11 U.S. masters titles and been on the podium another half-dozen times, and I’ve never been drug tested.”
Bill Vanos of Orlando is vice president and senior counsel at Marriott Vacations Worldwide.
He says he finished fourth behind Castille in the 2018 Houston Half Marathon, but second in the 45-49 age group.
“Masters money went to the top 3, I believe,” the 48-year-old said Friday via Facebook.
“In 2017, I finished as the third masters finisher and second in the 45-49 age group at The Gate River Run, which serves as the USATF 15K road championship,” Vanos says. “Fortunately, I did get to run Gate again and get the masters win in 2018.”
He concedes that Castille’s times from his younger days were “honestly a class above mine, so some might say he would have beaten me in those races clean.”
“But when you look at his times in high school and college, even accounting for his lifestyle at the time, they don’t really show the potential to be as good as his open times indicate, and certainly didn’t show the potential to run American masters record times. It raises the question of when he started doping.”
In San Diego, where Castille also won a Rock ‘N’ Roll half-marathon title in 2016, local running coach and San Diego USATF President Paul Greer said he was saddened because Castille robbed his competitors of potential winnings.
“What perplexes me the most is what real advantage does a 48-year-old achieve from cheating?” Greer said via email. “At his age, there is no professional contracts nor an Olympics to take part in so it all come downs to an individual who allowed his ego to get the best of him.”
Said Dan Cruz, a longtime running publicist associated with the Carlsbad 5000: “As a fan of the sport, you just hate to see another headline about doping. And you have to feel for those athletes who have been cheated out of prize money over the years.”
Veteran British sports historian Andy Milroy is secretary general of the Association of Road Racing Statisticians, which tracks prize money in the sport.
He says rigorous and consistent dope testing is necessary across the sport, “especially where prize money is on offer.”
“Smaller races often cannot afford the expense, and may therefore be targeted by runners who use doping assistance,” Milroy said Friday via email. “Support for such races from a wider support group of more wealthy events or even federations to ensure universal doping controls would greatly aid the fight against the use of such drugs.”
In 2016, Castille became the oldest male qualifier in the history of the U.S. Olympic Trials marathon, helped in part by the $10,000 raised on his behalf via a GoFundMe drive. (He dropped out of the steamy Los Angeles race after 69 minutes.)
On his 45th birthday in 2017, Castille set a masters world track record in the 10,000 at 29:44.38. Three months later, he ran a track 5,000 meters in 14:11.09 — a stunning 12 seconds better than the listed world age-group record by French Olympian Lucien Rault. But that mark at the Music City Distance Carnival in Nashville was never ratified.
At the time, I wrote on my masters track blog: “Kevin’s times have been under a cloud for years, though, since he’s a former admitted cocaine dealer. But as Charles Bethea details in his amazing 2014 profile of Kevin, the doping doubts have been addressed: ‘The more records he breaks, the more he’s been accused of using performance-enhancing drugs.’”
Cushing-Murray of Tustin, who coaches at Century High School in Santa Ana, told Times of San Diego that he recalls how in the 2012 Carlsbad 5000 race he was “hoping the guy ahead of me was a younger dude” in a different age-group race.
“The funny thing is I actually raced Castille in a local [high school] all-comers meet four years before and outkicked him in a relatively slow 2-mile,” he said of the runner he called a “shy soft-spoken, decent dude.”
But on the awards stand that day, he was stung by a Castille remark.
“When they gave him the mic, I remember him saying something like ‘It’s time for a new winner’ since I’d won the previous three years,” Cushing-Murray said. “I thought it was slightly poor form since I was on the podium right next to him.”
It later occurred to Cush that Castille was paying him back for losing that earlier 2-mile race.
“It was basically just the two of us, and I was hoping to just maintain 70s each lap as long as I could, with or without him,” he said. “But he kept getting in front of me, then slowing down, and he even bumped me a couple of times as he surged around me to take the lead after I kept passing him when he slowed down.”
After a few laps of “being fairly annoyed,” he thought: “If you’re not going to get out of my way, then I’m just going to sit on your ass and roll you down” in front of high school kids cheering for him all around the track.
Gardiner says news of the suspension — ending in 2023 — brings him a sad sense of closure.
“I’m certainly glad he was caught and I hope this discourages other potential dopers,” he said. “But I think anytime a doper is exposed (masters or open), it hurts the credibility of the sport. This is a fun hobby for most of us where we enjoy some friendly trash-talking with our clubmates and competitors. I have a hard time understanding how doping would enhance that experience.”
Said Cushing-Murray: “For my own peace of mind, I assume my competitors are clean, and my post-race beverages generally taste just as good win, lose or draw.”
Updated at 3:55 p.m. July 17, 2020