On June 18, U.S. Track and Field held its Olympic trials in Eugene. But Beaverton-based track star Shelby Houlihan, a U.S. record holder in the 1,500 and 5,000 meters, wasn’t on the starting line: In December, she failed a drug test for the anabolic steroid nandrolone.
It was an abrupt end to the Olympic aspirations of a remarkable athlete, a 28-year-old middle-distance running phenom from Sioux City, Iowa, who moved to Oregon to join Nike’s elite Bowerman Track Club, boasts a sleeve tattoo of the globe on her right arm and, according to a profile in Women’s Running last year, drives her cat Miko around the country in a red Volkswagen bus she calls the “Houlivan.”
Shortly after the bad news broke in June, Houlihan was shoved off ESPN’s splash page by Olympic sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson, who tested positive for cannabis and admitted she had taken some weed to cope with the stress of the trials.
Houlihan had an odder explanation for her failed drug test.
In an Instagram post, she wrote: “We concluded that the most likely explanation was a burrito purchased and consumed approximately 10 hours before that drug test from an authentic Mexican food truck that serves pig offal near my house in Beaverton, Oregon.”
While she said she ordered a carne asada burrito, Houlihan told Women’s Running through her legal team that she must have instead been served a pig stomach burrito—a menu item she said the food truck also offered. She said she noticed a greasier texture than she had anticipated as evidence that she may have gotten the wrong order.
And, Houlihan explained, pig organs can trigger a false positive for nandrolone.
While it was an unusual explanation for a failed drug test, it’s not impossible. In fact, the World Anti-Doping Agency has warned about trace amounts of nandrolone in pig organs having the potential to trigger a positive test for that steroid, much the same way poppy seeds can trigger a false positive for opioids in drug tests.
Jules Woolf, who studies performance-enhancing drugs at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says a positive result from pig organ meat in a burrito is technically possible, but adds that the World Anti-Doping Agency considers the possibility of a false positive when issuing sanctions.
For us non-Olympic hopefuls, Woolf said, pig organ meats are safe to consume, and that he’d eat them himself. “I don’t have any reason not to,” he says.
Houlihan’s predicament set off speculation in the sports and science press: Could the wrong lunch really cause a runner to fail a test for performance-enhancing drugs?
We had a different question: Where could we get that burrito?
Houlihan has never named the food truck, and neither her agent, Chris Layne, nor her legal team at Maine-based Global Sports Advocates responded to WW’s requests for comment. We set out to find the burrito, searching for Mexican food trucks in Beaverton and around Nike’s headquarters, where Houlihan trains.
The Beaverton area, which includes Nike headquarters, is home to a few dozen Mexican food trucks.
WW searched for vendors open on Monday evenings, because that is when Houlihan says she bought her food last December. We looked for trucks that serve both burritos with pig organ meats and carne asada, to match Houlihan’s December order, and that seemed authentically Mexican, per Houlihan’s statement. We also searched for burritos that weighed enough to plausibly contain 300 grams of meat—the approximate amount needed for a false positive.
Good news for Houlihan: At least three food trucks within a 10-minute drive of Nike match all of those conditions.
We went after 8 on a steamy weeknight, and all three trucks had a steady stream of customers. At our first stop, Taqueria El Gordo, moronga—a blood sausage encased in pig intestine—was crossed off the menu with a piece of peeling blue tape; the cashier seemed unaware it had ever been offered. We ordered a carnitas burrito instead (total weight: 684 grams) and tried, unsuccessfully, to save room for more likely menu options.
Cocina Mexico Lindo #2 had the anticipated buche burrito (527 grams), which a cashier confirmed contained pig stomach. The meat was smoother yet more gamy than our previous carnitas burrito, and you could identify the ring-shaped hunks of stomach. It wasn’t extremely oily, though the texture and mouthfeel were different from that of burritos with non-organ meats.
“Buche is not extremely popular but it sells,” says Jenny Saldanas, owner of Cocina Mexico Lindo. She sells nine carnitas burritos for every buche burrito, and says she has never heard of nandrolone—or Houlihan’s claims. “We purchase from legitimate meat providers....They are well recognized and work under all rules and regulations.”
At the busy corner where La Morenita is parked, an even longer line stretched through the parking lot, even at 10 pm. This buche burrito (593 grams) was our favorite, a combination of ingredients that each seemed to be treated well. Was the meat marinated or specially spiced? Were the onions brined in vinegar a bit?
It was impossible to tell, but this burrito was well worth its slightly higher price. Again, chunks of meat were large enough that it was fairly easy to discern a smoother texture and a taste that differed from carne asada or carnitas burritos we’ve tried in the past.
In short: Not only does such a burrito exist, it’s delicious. Worth sacrificing a shot at Olympic glory? Perhaps not.
Robin Donovan is a freelance science journalist in Portland. Her work has appeared in Vice, The Scientist and other outlets.