Mandy West, a 39-year-old professional basketball player-turned-elite runner who was attempting to qualify for the U.S. Olympic trials at Sunday’s Louisiana Marathon and ended up finishing first among women, was disqualified after she had a biker meet her at certain points with nutrition and liquids after being repeatedly warned it could result in disqualification, race director Jonathan Dziuba confirmed Monday.
West did not return a phone message or email Monday.
The Louisiana Marathon employed lead bikers to ride with the top three male and female racers to assure they stayed on course and for their safety.
Dziuba said his two lead bikers told him West first met the cyclist in the third mile of the race and grabbed a bottle. The lead bikers following her warned West that her actions could result in disqualification.
Three or four miles later, the lead bikers said they again spotted West’s cyclist, and one rode ahead to warn the biker that the actions were against the rules.
After West and the cyclist had been warned, West took aid from the bicyclist two more times, according to the lead bikers’ account to Dziuba.
“They warned her three times that what she was doing was against the race rules, and I don’t think it’s necessary for us to do anything more than that,” Dziuba said.
When the lead bikers warned West, they said West told them she had spoken to the race director and he knew she was there to try to qualify for the Olympic trials. Dziuba said he did not speak to West before the race.
“The race that’s happening at the front of the field, the people vying to win our race, I want the person who wins our race to have done it by the rules and fairly,” Dziuba said. “So the person that they beat knows that they were beat honestly and fairly.”
Entitled “Assistance to Athletes,” Rule 144 of the USA Track and Field rulebook states, in part, that, ”No attendant or competitor who is not actually taking part in the competition shall accompany any competitor on the mark or in the competition, nor shall any competitor be allowed, without the permission of the Referee or Judges, to receive assistance or refreshment from anyone during the progress of the competition.”
Though Dziuba said this does happen at parts of the race — families often set up tables with fruit and water in yards of subdivisions where the course runs through — West’s repeated violations warranted disqualification.
“If there’s an aid station out front with 6-year-olds handing out orange slices on a tray, and you take an orange slice, we’re not walking around and telling you you’re out of here,” Dziuba said. “The feeling of what we want this to be is still a fun, family race for everybody.”
Dziuba added that the course’s 17 aid stations are passed multiple times on the course — he estimated marathoners pass one every 1.1 miles — and all aid stations had water and Powerade. Every other aid station had Honey Stinger nutrition products.
Dziuba gave a twofold reason for the disqualification: the integrity of the race “up front” and the Marathon’s attempt to eradicate unofficial bicycles from the course.
While the marathon has never allowed spectators to bicycle on the course, there was never a “steadfast announcement” made to runners, so the rule was hardly enforced in years past, Dziuba said.
To remedy that, he sent a letter informing runners of the stricter enforcement on five occasions before the 2016 race and told all marshals and police officers on course to treat any unofficial bicycle as if it were a vehicle, removing it immediately.
“The runner safety component got to be an issue,” Dziuba said. “Runners were starting to complain. When people are riding, they’re only looking at who they’re riding next to. They’re unaware of the people that are behind them, unaware sometimes of the person in front of them and can sometimes ride a wheel on that person. Getting bikes off the course was to make the course safe for all of our runners.”
Dziuba added that West’s intentions were not harmful; most elite runners prefer to adhere to specific products and nutrition they used in training. He said it was made clear, though, that if runners wanted to have their own products, they would have to carry it themselves.
“I don’t think she’s a bad person; I don’t think she’s a cheater,” Dziuba said. “I think she had a race plan, and I think she was executing her race plan, and I think she made a poor decision when she was asked about it.”
West was a two-time first-team All-Ivy League basketball player at Penn who didn’t take up running until later in life. According to her LinkedIn profile, she spent nearly three years as a professional basketball player in Greece.
West played two seasons at Penn, scoring 1,076 points — good for 13th in school history. She left as the Quakers’ all-time leader in free throw percentage. She was a team captain in both of her seasons, 1998-99 and 1999-2000.
West unofficially finished the race in 2 hours, 49 minutes, 26 seconds, narrowly missing the female course record of 2:48:28.
Sunday’s controversy isn’t new for Baton Rouge road races. Jenni Peters, owner of Varsity Sports and a three-time competitor in the Olympic marathon trials, still has her race bib from the 1981 Great River Road Run framed in her office just behind the Perkins Road shoe store.
Below it is a photo of her receiving the trophy two days later. She was the second finisher in the race, beaten by Linda McCann. Several witnesses, though, saw McCann cut the course and enter the race in the last mile, where she out-ran Peters.
According to Advocate archives, McCann was awarded the trophy that day to hearty boos and jeers from onlookers who saw her cut the course. McCann returned her trophy to The Advocate newsroom that afternoon with a written statement that said, in part, “some sour grapes want to deprive me of my victory.”
“It was drama, more escalated than the current one,” Peters said Monday. “She went on the news station that night and she named several people she was going to sue for slandering her name and sullying her reputation within the community.”
Peters said she heard from several people that day that McCann cut the course at Aster Street.
“I would not have accepted the first place award unless I was 110 percent sure that she had not run the race,” Peters said. “And I can give you five or six pieces of evidence that made me know that. Otherwise, I’d say ‘It’s hers. She won it fair and square.’ ”