Coming to a Consensus on Cheating

A recent New Yorker Magazine story about Kip Litton, a marathon runner who presumably cheated his way to dozens of impressive marathon finishes in the past several years, got me thinking a lot this week about how and where we draw the line in terms of what is, and what isn’t ethical in the pursuit of a desired result in running. As long distance runners we do all kinds of crazy things in hopes of achieving a better result on race day. I think it’s certain that the vast majority of runners don’t do anything that is illegal or against the rules of a particular race, but certainly not everyone adheres to these mostly self-imposed standards. Furthermore, why is it that certain things are deemed against the rules while other things which may give as much or more of an advantage are not? The line gets even further muddled when you consider that many things which might be considered “cheating” in one event are considered smart running in another.

In many trail races you are required only to start and finish in an exact location, and pass through all designated checkpoints along the way. If you find ways to shave minutes between these points you will be held in high regard among your competitors. When we run these kinds of events we often scout the course ahead of time, not just to know how to follow the route, but to see if there are any places to make the route faster than the obvious way. Conversely, in the majority of races (at least in North America), it is considered cheating when we follow anything other than the obvious/marked route. Many races lay all of these things out in their rules, but many do not.

Things become even more confusing when we look at the issue of doping, and what substances/practices are okay, and which ones are not. There are some fairly universal international standards which seem to be unofficially applied to most athletic events. In this way it becomes generally understood that eating a caffeinated gel in the wee hours of a 100 mile race, or taking some ibuprofen to get those fried quads through the last 10 miles, is not considered cheating, but that getting a blood transfusion because we’re unusually tired two days before a big race is. It gets really tricky here because the vast majority of trail races do not have any drug-related rules, and many of the drugs/practices which are commonly used for performance enhancing in athletics are not universally illegal. Once again, we come back to the reality that “cheating” in trail running is largely based on our own self-imposed standards.

If you’ve read this far you might feel fairly depressed about all this. Basically what I’ve said is that cheating happens in our sport, and that if you’re creative, resourceful, and bold you can do a lot of different “unethical” things to achieve some very impressive results (i.e., Kip Litton). The good thing, though, is that I think the vast majority of people have no desire to achieve a certain result through anything that they themselves would consider cheating. Where we most often run into trouble is when one person thinks of something as cheating and another does not. In many cases race rules or laws can address these discrepancies, but in many other cases a lot of gray area still remains. Again though, I think we have the huge advantage that most people don’t want to cheat. Maybe I’m being naïve, but I think it’s in our nature as humans to get more satisfaction from accomplishing something in a manner that is widely recognized as fair and ethical, than in a manner which causes our peers to question the validity of our accomplishments. In this way all that is needed to “police” the vast majority of people is a clear understanding of what is fair and what is not.

Achieving this clear understanding isn’t something that can happen overnight, but it is something that seems to be growing as the sport of trail running matures. Open conversations among runners and race organizers seem to be advancing this conversation. Even open forums like this website, which can often get a little off track and aggressive, have been extremely valuable in moving toward a clearer understanding of what is and isn’t “fair.” Most specifically though, I think races need to make it very clear to their participants what is and what isn’t allowed. Many races are currently going the extra mile to do this, but many more seem to have no interest in doing so. Certainly I’m not a fan of long lists of rules, just for the sake of having rules, and in a perfect world we could all just line up, say go, and race away with everyone on the same page. But the problem is what you think is fair might look like a blatant form of cheating to the gal one stride behind you.

In terms of what to do about the blatant cheaters, the Kip Litton’s of the world, the blood dopers: nothing! Disqualify them when we catch them, and then ignore them. If we continue to draw a clearer and clearer picture of what is and what isn’t fair in a particular race, then those who choose to break these rules have nothing to stand behind, and become more and more marginalized, and less and less regarded for their performances. After all, this is often what the blatant cheaters are hoping for: high regard and attention for their accomplishments. Does prize money not skew this entire notion, you ask? Sure it does to some degree. It adds a whole another motivation (besides simply regard and attention) to the potential blatant cheater. In this sense, I think it’s even more important for races that offer substantial prize money to be really clear about what is and what isn’t allowed. Do we need to do more than this though? I don’t think so, because again, I believe that most people don’t want to do anything that they know their fellow competitors will think of as cheating.

As long as we don’t get to a tipping point in which so many people are pushing these boundaries of fairness, that things which are currently regarded as cheating become accepted as fair because so many people are doing them (i.e., the recent doping situations in MLB and professional cycling). And once again, the best way to avoid this is to create a very clear understanding of what the boundaries are, and that it’s absolutely not fair to cross them. Do we also need stringent testing, increased course marshalling, etc? No, I don’t think so, but we will eventually if the sport continues to grow the way it is and we don’t take the opportunity in the next few years to more clearly define the boundaries of what is fair, both within the sport as a whole and within individual events.

What can we then do, you ask? Talk about these things with your fellow competitors. Make sure you are all on the same page about what’s ethical and what is not. If you’re running a race that doesn’t clearly define something that is important to you, ask the race director to address this with you and the other racers. When you see or hear of someone doing something that you don’t think is ethical, speak up. Not necessarily in an accusatory way, but in a constructive way. A conversation will arise which will hopefully result in much more clarity going forward. With this type of collective effort we can assure a fair, pure, and thriving sport for decades to come, something I think we all have an agreed desire for.

Call for Comments (from Bryon)
It would be great to hear your thoughts on Geoff’s article. In contemplating the topic as well as drafting and publishing a comment, I ask you to (1) not make any unfounded accusations and (2) treat everyone (both commenters and those not present on the website) with the respect you would give someone if you were running on the trail with him or her. [Editor’s Note: Thanks to the first 8 people who commented in a thoughtful and constructive way. Let’s keep that up!]

So, what runs/standards need to be defined on a sport-wide or individual race basis?

There are 183 comments

  1. Pierre

    Altitude tent: not fair.

    Forget about your new 200$ shoes, now the other guy spends 5, 10, 15k on a tent !

    That's about 5 to 10 more hematocrit blood value that he would usually have. That's a good increase.

    I've done 20 years in triathlon, and one reason why i've stopped is the price of tri-bikes, which were getting too expensive for my budget.

    1. art

      so what's the difference between spending all summer up at Hardrock to acclimate and spending 3-4 weeks in an altitude tent ?

      not everyone has all summer to pull away from their normal life.

      maybe those who live at altitude should be forced to come down to sea level for 3 months before a big race to even the playing field.

    2. Michael

      I wonder if the people that think an altitude tent is wrong live above sea level already or not. I live @ 600ft and would not think negatively about using a tent. Not many runners can be 100% professional and live where they choose and make a living off running. Most are porfessional in something else and a tent only levels the playing field for races like Leadville and Hardrock ~ Reality it is a little less than leveling the playing field as the nothing replaces being able to train in the real deal.

      I was unaware that the trail side had no "Drug" rules, I feel I am always bound by USA Track and Field rules in training and competition.

      1. Pierre

        I live at 100ft. I didn't say it was wrong, only unfair. Living at alt. Is natural. Using that tent can create heart problems in the future.

        Anyways… We'll agree that epo is wrong. The problems with all PEDs is trying to police that and the typical punishment (bans) are not enough. How about some jail time ?

      2. Mike

        The difference between training at altitude and using an altitude tent is pretty clear–the former is natural and the latter is artificial. Efforts to artificially manipulate blood composition (i.e. use an altitude tent) amount to cheating in my book. Have been sad to see this used to "win" U.S. races lately.

        1. art

          I think that natural v.s. artificial is a bit more grey than you perceive.

          is it really natural for someone who lives at sea level to move to altitude for a month ?

          is taking gels during a race really natural if they are not part of your daily diet ?

          etc. ….

        2. Matt Smith

          OK then, any runners who wear glasses or have Lasik surgery should be banned, since they are both artificial aids.

          Seeing the trail with your 'natural' eyes should be a 'must-have' by your standards.

          Perceiving hazards while quickly moving down technical single-track requires excellent depth perception and any non-natural assistance should be disallowed.

        3. Meghan Hicks


          I really like the conversation that's being had here, folks weighing in on what it means to alter one's blood for the sake of competition performance, sharing their personal ethics. This is great and what I think Geoff intended with his column.

          I'd like to politely ask that everyone refrain from applying their personal ethics to a specific person or situation (Unless we're talking about an individual who has been penalized by a governing body for doing something illegal in competition, these situations are fair game for respectful discourse.). While your application was pretty non-specific and, thus, relatively benign, I comment here because I don't want this dialogue to go down an ugly road of "I think X person has done X thing bad…"

          Thanks, all.

  2. Brett

    I'm not sure I follow the article. I completely agree there are grey areas with supplements, but clearly getting a blood transfusion is cheating. And Kip Lipton didn't run courses, he cut road marathons on purpose catching rides in between chip mats…he didn't make an effort at all to run a course.

    1. geoff


      That's the point exactly. Blood transfusions and not running the entire course are really obvious cheating and there really isn't any need to analyze those things any further. i was using those as examples of things that really don't need further discussion, and that the things we need to be talking about are the things which aren't so black and white.

      1. Jacques

        It depends on what we consider to be drugs. Many Ultrarunners over the years haven't thought twice about taking all types of painkillers from overdoses of IB [I'll come clean, I've done it] to presciption stuff and cortisone shots before the run. Also I believe the ingredients in many energy drinks would earn someone a positive at an international blood test. Is this cheating? Just something to think about.


    1. CJ

      Since the whole thing with Lance blew up, I have wondered how many competitive runners-both road and trail-have been doping. I want to believe our beloved trail/mountain running is pure but now I wonder

      1. Guy

        The past couple years have seen a few instances of doping of the European mountain running circuit. In America though, there really still isn't much money in the sport, so I'd say it will be a while before this starts becoming an issue

        1. Meghan Hicks


          Thanks for your comment. So that everyone in this conversation has equal knowledge, might you take a moment to share the specifics to which you refer to as the "few instances of doping of the European mountain running circuit"?

          I know of one example, where Portugal's Jose Manuel Goncalves failed an in-competition drug test during the 2011 European Mountain Running Championships (Here's the press release from the WRMA with his disqualification announcement:….

          What are the others? And, thanks again!

  3. thomas

    If and when there is enough prize money in trail ultras, cheating (and different personality types) will almost certainly become more common. Humans are driven by incentives. Freakonomics, both the books and the film, provide a fascinating exploration of this concept. It seems that ultrarunners are motivated by many other factors than "winning". Perhaps that is why we are seeing a number of elites focusing on FKTs and other non-race endeavors. Refreshing!

    1. Sheamus

      Indeed, but those motivations will remain true only up to a point, certainly if you analyse other sports and use their progression as a template. Triathlon, certainly at the ironman length, used to be a very 'pure' endeavour, too, but inevitably as it grew and became more and more popular, and the prize money (and sponsorships) got bigger and bigger, PEDs crept into the sport. Nina Kraft's 2004 Hawaii Ironman victory and subsequent EPO failure (and ban) being a prime example.

      Hence, I think the only thing that can prevent PEDs finding their place in trail running is if the sport permanently remains under the radar. Everybody starts out with good intentions, but there's no logical reason to think that there's anything different from one sport to any other, certainly once it reaches the spotlight. It's only then that we can see those intentions – and motivations – properly tested.

  4. Sheamus

    It was suggested in one of the comments sections on IRF a little while ago that pros being allowed to have pacers, mules etc in many races is essentially cheating, especially if the amateur field is restricted from doing this. We all love fast times but it's hard to disagree in many respects. You'll forgive the comparison, but it's a bit like a golfer and a caddy in many ways – that sport is significantly harder when you have to drag your own bag and equipment around the course.

    Re performance enhancing drugs in ultras, there's simply not enough money in the sport for that to be worthwhile or common. Inevitably a few people have experimented with this in the past but to get the sort of benefits seen in MLB, cycling and other sports where the top competitors earn fortunes costs tens, and sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.

    All that said, and reading between the lines, I'm curious, Geoff – was this article inspired by Kilian's recent misfortunes at Speedgoat?

    1. Trail Clown

      Probably the article content was inspired by the upcoming RRR and its lucrative prize money. Now that the money is out there, the cheaters will follow. Exactly what I've been saying for years on this site: with the good comes the bad. I just wish I was good enough that cheating could put me over the top. I'm so middle of the pack (and old) that no amount of cheating could help me gain any advantage. But if I was top-ten and trying to make a living on running, and a "huge" prize purse was out there for the taking, you can bet I'd be trying to figure out how to gain every advantage, ethical or maybe-not-so-ethical. Hopefully most runners are not despicable like me…

        1. Bryon Powell

          Phil and TC,
          This is preemptive (as the thread has been wonderfully constructive), remember to play nice. Even tone can take things in the wrong direction. You both rock… just trying to keep this positive and on topic.

          1. Trail Clown

            Sorry about the tone Bryon. FYI, I wish I could remember to "place" nice. That's my problem, always placing near the back in races…not so nice!

        2. Trail Clown

          Just contentious. I'm just saying that if we want the sport to grow–and I am one of those who would like it to–we will have to deal with cheating. I will never know how I would behave, I would like to think ethically.

    2. geoff


      not inspired by speedgoat at all. didn't even think of that until after i had finished the piece. to be honest i didn't really follow any of the fallout regarding that incident, just heard some 2nd and 3rd person accounts of it.

  5. stack

    I think it might help for people to list what they feel could be construed as cheating and weigh in on if they (and others) feel like it is cheating or not.

    I also feel like most rules/races should almost have two separate standards… one for the elites and one for the rest (like how some races allow pacers but not if you plan to get an award of any kind).

    Starting a list…

    -cutting switchbacks or the course in any way shape or form

    -getting aid outside of an aid station area (i'm not talking about miles from the aid station but literally 50-100 yds maybe to avoid busy aid stations)


    -assistance when course is improperly run (ie. person runs way off course and could get a ride back to where they took the wrong turn giving them no advantage but lessening their mess up that already caused them a distance & time penalty).

    -pacers – i like that this is now up to the RDs but I know some would just assume do away with pacers for the elite levels altogether so I'm including it.

    -smart phones or electronic assistance – either carrying one yourself or having crew report to you where others are on the course in relation to you.

    -performance enhancing drugs (maybe only test -randomly- the winners or top three in some of the bigger races?) does anyone know if the USATF Championships in the ultra distances are tested?

    -GPS watches? ( – one thing not addressed in Bryon's article was the thought that someone could save the course in their watch and use it to guide them around the course so they wouldn't miss turns and be able to see the actual elevation profile while running and not just distances, pace or current elevation.

  6. Sabine

    There is indeed a fine line between training/racing smart and cheating. For example, there are different factors influencing the blood hemoglobin

    1) Beeing born / living in high altitude

    2) Training in altitude before a race

    3) Using an altitude tent

    4) Blood transfusions

    5) Using EPO

    All of us would agree that (1) is no cheating at all, whereas (5) is cheating. On the other hand, someone who was born and raised at low altitude could argue, that he has a genuine disadvantage to a guy born and raised at altitude, and that he would use methods (3)-(5) just to compensate that.

    My personal oppinion to this is, that with my sports and training above all I want to see what I can achieve. I don't want to see what the pharmaceutical industry is able to perform. It's about me and my own development. And it's about my health. Therefore I would also refuse to take ibuprofen in a late stage of a race. I want no artificial anything in my everyday life, and so I also want no artificial anything in my training and racing. I may be a bit old-fashioned in that, as I also prefer real food over gels and sports drinks.

  7. David T

    This is far too simplistic and its goals are neither attainable nor desirable. I love the Skyrunning series as it is run in Europe. I have no expectation that they will change their rules in regard to routes and switchbacks to match our norms and rules in the U.S and I don't want them to. Likewise, I don't want U.S. races to begin allowing runners to cut switchbacks.

    How about this: No one is allowed to break a race rule. Leave it there.

    MUT running is incredibly diverse and I love it that way. There are norms and customs that are specific to each form and within each form there is great diversity among the various races.

    The last thing we need are a bunch of rules forcing each race to look like the others. Run the races you want to run and obey the rules of each race you run.

    1. stack

      You've summed up how I feel about it better than I ever could. the beauty of this is people can vote with their feet or wallets (as long as races let their rules be known well in advance).

    2. geoff


      I agree with you completely. I don't at all think that all rules should be universal. in this sense i think it becomes really important for individual races to be VERY CLEAR about what their rules/expectations are so that hopefully all runners can be as close as possible to being on the same page about what is and what isn't allowed.

      1. David T

        Thanks, Geoff.

        And to clarify, my comment was more directed at those commenters above who were creating laundry lists of what ought to be universally outlawed.

        Also I should have written: "FOR EXAMPLE, I love the Skyrunning series…." As I was just citing that as an example, the issue goes far beyond the cutting of switchbacks.

  8. Capn_Q

    All excellent comments thus far…

    I would simply add that the rules exist to ensure an even competition. Cutting the course, aid station protocol, pacers, crew and mules are all race specific and lend to each event's allure. Those rules define that experience. Break the rules and your performance cannot be compared to the field – ergo, DQ.

    Cheating by way of performance enhancing is a problem that obviously pervades much of sport. As the purses grow, the problem will grow. Test the money winners as a matter of course and the desire to go to such immoral lengths in the name of notoriety and payouts will diminish.

    I used to be one of the people defending long distance running against the charge of doping, but I now believe that is a naive stance, and I hope the sport does not suffer in the same vein as baseball and cycling.

    My $0.02 – thanks to Geoff for pushing the debate, and Bryon for hosting the forum.

  9. Ian

    People keep saying that doping will show up when prize money appears. Its already here in the sport. It doesn't take money, just ego and vanity. Just go down to your local gym to see what i'm talking about.

  10. art

    seeing that the mental aspect of ultras, especially 100's, is such a big component, I personally would like to see pacers banned.

    pacers are basically doping for the mind.

    the one exception might be a safety pacer for those over 65, but pacer would have to run behind his runner.

    1. stack

      this is where I think the elites would have a different rule… say no pacers unless you don't want to be considered for top X (10, 5, 3, whatever you want to use to divide us commoners from the elites).

    2. Loic L

      I agree. I think pacers allow the racer to shut their mind off. Then it becomes purely physical. The mental challenge is what makes Ultra running so great compared to hammering out races on the road.

    3. geoff

      i agree, but I don't see any need for pacers to be banned universally. i think we're starting to see more and more races where pacers are not allowed so at this point if someone wants to do a race without a pacer, but not feel like they will be at an unfair advantage they will have that opportunity.

  11. Patrick McKenna

    I'd like to think that PED's aren't being used in this sport. If they are, I would prefer to not even know about it (a sad but true statement). If they are being used, it doesn't change the results of my race at all.

  12. Tony Mollica

    I don't understand why anyone would cheat like the marathon cutting guy? Even if other people think you accomplished something good, you would know that you really didn't. I don't see how one could take pride in a fake "accomplishment"?

    1. geoff


      Exactly. this is how you, I, and the vast majority of people feel, and in this sense if we can make the line as clear as possible in terms of what is and what isn't allowed then fewer and fewer people will do anything on the bottom side of that line, because their sense of pride in their accomplishment would be so diminished.

  13. Clark

    @Stack's list: I can only agree with PEDs (but only hardcore like EPO/'roids = if it can be bought OTC at GNC or wherever I say whatever); purposeful shortcutting (US rules); and muling (carry your own). Outside of that, I'm indifferent.

    Regarding GPS/electronics, I would argue exactly the opposite. In fact I would prefer the more difficult races to actually PROVIDE GPS units with the race course already baked in (like chip timing), it's a win win for everyone. Unless it's an orienteering event and/or Barkley, the idea is who is the best, not who can read a map the best or who has the time to pre-run the course more than somebody else. GPS units would not only help keep runners on course, but also assist the race directors/S&R in keeping track of everyone, not to mention potential real-time race tracking for fans. Think about it.

    1. Pete

      Shoot even with a gps sometimes it does not help. I ran a small 50k this past weekend and had a gps on as I always do. I use it more for info and stats then during the run. But when running i sometimes become so immersed in my running and so focused that i don't even realize I have the watch on let alone the ability to follow flags apparently. Had a chance to win and got lost. The mental battle is always there no matter what instrument is on ones wrist. I don't think a gps adds any advantage and frankly it could save ones life and help them get out from being lost badly. Obviously orienteering and barkleys have a unique set of rules so there it is different. I guess this follows along the guide line that each race has its own rules so follow them. And for christ sakes keep the dope away. Sadly though it exist every where so the only way to regulate that is by blood testing. Not even urinalyses can detect everything.

  14. mountainman

    i believe that the rules should be very clear and precise. But each race should have it's own set. They should be the same for the whole field in the race. Just following each races individual rules would make it more fair and more fun.

  15. Brian

    Thank you for this article. I have been doing a lot of thinking about this subject, especially since Lance was stripped of his titles. I agree that there is a need well define the rules in trail racing is important, only from the point that if they are not laid out now, a culture similar to cycling will develop, especially when more money is available. Introducing monetary incentives definitely changes behavior and if there are not well defined rules based on the ethics of the sport, there will be those who will cheat.

    I think the biggest issue, for example, with both cycling and MLB is that much of the discussion of what was illegal and allowable occurred after the fact and the punishments were retroactive.


    I'm being provocative here but I was just wondering and maybe every runner should ask themselves these questions: "Would I still be running if there were no longer any organized races out there?" "What forces us to enter a race?"

    Maybe this whole business of race results and ranking runners doesn't make any sense except inflate one's ego to astonish the world where vanity is the rule. Racing and what it entails i.e being better and faster than the others might also be the start of a kind of doping, albeit very minimal like the thin end of the wedge, and a by-product of our consumer's society. It's the racing that brings about the doping.

    This maybe a little far-fetched but I was just thinking…

  17. art

    Regarding PED's

    I'm assuming this discussion is all about leveling the playing field.

    What follows is said facetiuosly, but with a serious intent as well.

    Allow All PED's that are not clearly illegal substances.

    the international race federation (or whatever) should provide these substances to all athletes at nominal cost.

    I say this for two reasons :

    1. what actually constitutes a PED is a grey area that changes over time (wasn't caffeine a banned Olympic substance several years back).

    2. if the mess in cylcing proves anything it proves that their will ALWAYS be those, and possibly a significant number, who will go to any lengths to use them.

    it simply can not be stopped.

    leave it up to each athlete to decide what they will use.

    1. Pierre

      That's what i believe too. It cannot be stopped. Unfortunately, its everybody for themselves out there in today's world. Sad…

      I, on the other hand, take great pride when finishing in the middle of the pack knowing it was all 100% natural.

    2. geoff


      good constructive use of the devils advocate approach.

      the reason i belief we don't need to go in this direction is that I don't think the rampant widespread use like what happened in MLB and cycling will ever happen in any sport again. they happened in those settings and at the times that they did because there was no legitimate universal belief that it was legitimately wrong. Yes, a lot of people believed it was wrong, but a lot of people just didn't care. they wanted to see people hit the ball further or ride their bikes even faster… and it really didn't bother them how that happened. Well, now these scandals have happened and I believe the collective response to it is that people just won't stand for it anymore. the widespread use of PED's became the norm in MLB and in cycling for a period of time, and even though the PED use was widely suspected at the time, most people (myself included) still considered these athletes to be heroic and impressive. We've moved beyond all of this though, and I just don't believe there is space within the collective consciousness of humanity to ever again see anything like what was seen in MLB and cycling.

  18. Don

    personally for me taking pain-killers is cheating. Also what about races such as UTMB where you're not supposed to get any food or drink from helpers outside the designated feed-stations. I know for a fact that one of the top 5 was breaking this rule. How do I know? – because he was doing it brazenly in front of another runner who wasn't happy about it.

    1. Meghan Hicks


      Can your comment be substantiated beyond the second or third-person hearsay you provide here? If so, please provide it. If not, accusations without evidence are inappropriate.

      Thank you for making an effort to keep this conversation as clean and honest as our sport should be.

  19. James @RedDirtRunner

    For me the criteria is simple. If you wouldn't do it with your parents, spouse, kids, church, neighbors, co-workers or fellow runners watching then it probably is a bad thing. But I guess it is what gets done when nobody is looking that matters.

    1. art

      the only problem with this is not everyone has the same concept of what they would not do. think one of Geoff's points is that the concept of right and wrong itself is somewhat grey.

  20. Mike Hinterberg

    I think it's fine to run without a pacer. And I think it's fine to run with one (when allowed). The "cheating" and "commoners vs. elites" comments regarding it get kind of annoying to me. It's ironic, to me, when we also have discussions about bringing money and fans to the sport. Pacers and crew make up much of the spectating in the U.S., bringing people that are integrated and involved in the race, shutting these people out is going to make ultra finish lines even more of a ghost town. Pacing has a long history in the sport, and provides a gateway for those who are shutout of increasingly-competitive lotteries. If the pacing helps mentally, then you get the absolute best human performances out of people. This is true in races, and this is true in some pretty stout mountain traverses (Nolan's 14 and all the 14ers in Colorado, for example) and mountaineering in general. You also get some pretty cool stories and pictures from pacers as well that I think makes the sport more colourful (check out Leadman Lucho's big smile during the LT100).

    If someone wants to define the sport as one person tackling the wilderness, then why not consider aid stations "cheating" as well? Self-supported runs would be an even burlier challenge, and it's less of a mental challenge to run from stocked aid station to stocked aid station on a well-marked course, isn't it?

    Geoff's comment about "not feel like they will be at an unfair advantage" is a good balance, because Leadville is an example where (because of muling) not having a pacer is considered a distinct disadvantage. In that respect, I'm in favour of most races that allow pacing but not muling, so people can make their own decision.

    For me, it's pretty simple: sometimes I like training alone, often I like running with buds. In a race, it's fun to run with buds, too. And your spouse and your kids. It's fun to get them involved. I don't apologize for that or really worry what other people think about it.

      1. Jeff Faulkner

        This. I have paced and have been paced. It's wonderful to have a pacer when you are so tired and feeling shot. Most of us aren't contenders for a win, why would a front of the packer care how I get to finish line as long as I ran the same exact course? They probably don't.

  21. KenZ

    Totally agree. Races should state the rules (yes, even if that makes them 2 pages long). Runners follow them. Most people don't want** to cheat.

    **I worked an aid station at a large (not to be named) ultra this summer. Quite a bit of switchback cutting and littering… but not by the elites. It was by (a select few) back of pack people desperate to make cutoffs. I'm only partially taking them to task; at hour 25, exhausted, desperate, you sometimes make very bad judgement calls. Should they be DQ'd (no course cutting or littering were rules)? Absolutely.

    As an aside, I generally place pretty well, but am running my own race. I personally couldn't care the less if the people who beat me are using PEDs. Not saying they should be legal, just that I personally don't care.

  22. Mike

    The lasik/eyeglass example is a good one, Matt, and as someone who appreciates his contacts over his old foggy glasses, they do enhance my performance so that I am equal to an average runner (I refuse to give them up)! But as Art put it, we're discussing the "grey area" so the lines are blurry. I would say that getting eye surgery so that you could see at night without a headlamp would be cheating, but getting your vision corrected to normal or just eating a lot of carrots would not. To me, training at altitude is getting an advantage naturally, like eating those carrots. Lasik surgery is artificial but just makes you even with the average person. But sleeping in altitude tent crosses the line in my book and is cheating–it's an artificial way of making you better than normal.

    1. Rochelle Williams

      Unfortunately not all of us live at altitude and can afford to train there.Altitude sickness is real and really trying to run an ultra or any long distance at altitude deserves the training it deserves.If you do not live where there are hills and you train using a treadmill is that cheating because it is not natural.

      The use of blood transfusions , steroids, epo are obviously illegal and dangerous..

      We all run because we enjoy it and some of the most beautiful races are at altitude and life is really to short to miss that experience when an altitude tent is not illegal.For some people the increase in their blood values or hematocrit does not make them faster at the elite level, it helps them to acclimate to altitude which would make the race a more pleasant and safer run for them.


    2. Matt Smith


      Your natural eyes, without correction, are 'normal' for you. You are using an artificial aid to enhance your vision to improve your performance. Whether or not one is sleeping is not a relevant point.

      Seeing at night without a headlamp is superhuman, and a bit hyperbolic in this context.

      I think that your definitions of 'normal' and 'average' are not well defined and you use them in a flexible way to justify your own behavior and condemn others.

      What if someone slept with a blanket pulled over their head to simulate a low oxygen environment? Cheating? Is this different than a tent?

  23. Matthew Bryant

    Number 1 is exactly right. I couldn't race the TdF under those rules since: 1) I use an asthma inhaler and those are considered PED's in cycling, and 2) I am a horrible cyclist.

  24. Chris

    I don't understand it either, but I do understand human nature. People will go to great lengths for fame. Watch any reality TV show like Big Brother or Survivor, etc. Put the right prize in front of most people and they will do whatever it takes.

    I for one am truly happy to run for the love of it. No watch, no Garmin, just trail running and smiling. Don't care to win, race or compare my times with anyone.

    1. geoff

      i agree that people will go to great lengths for fame, but if there are clear boundaries set as to what is right and what is wrong I think most people will draw the line at things that they are know are much more likely to bring them shame than fame. people will do whatever it takes to win as long as "whatever it takes" is widely accepted by the masses. the crazy stuff you see on reality TV exists not because people are cutthroat and willing to do unethical things to achieve fame and money, but because so many millions of viewers around the world tune in and judge them as heroic and valuable for doing so.

  25. Michael

    I would say non-USATF performance enhancing drugs are very common – Red Bull, 5 hour energy and ibuprofen to name a few. I would guess it would be hard to get enough caffeine to be over the USATF amount to be banned – but since there is not any testing ?

    Other drugs are likely used, but racers may not be awarre. Sudafed is a banned drug or anything effedra based. Going into the race with a lingering cold and use sudafed – If you got tested you would fail. There are other more normal drugs that people unaware or some very aware take that would fail a USATF drug test.

    As a member I have sent in what I normally take a couple of times to make sure I am not taking something unaware.

    One thing not banned – Hypoxic Tents

  26. Michael

    Desire fuels cheating in absence of ethics. Some people desire money over all else. For other people, the glory of winning or being a top runner, regardless of money fuels a strong desire. Not everyone is fueled by money and I would say not many of the current people doing ultras have desire fueled by money. I think it's niave to think there is not enough desire to perform better in the sport of ultra-running that it could not fuel taking "Banned" substances.

    Most weight lifters only have the desire for a certain body and do not compete or do other sports – So there must be no use of PEDs in weight lifting … right?

    Desire is enough.

  27. Wyatt Hornsby

    Holy cow, this article opens up Pandora's Box.

    I think the influence of money and corporate interests, a la prize purses, is extremely dangerous in a sport like ours–a sport that is so physically (and mentally) demanding. I'm very fearful about the future of ultrarunning, as I look at some of the big prize purses being offered at races like the TNF50 in San Fran and the Run Rabbit Run 100 this weekend. More money=higher stakes=doing anything to win. That fear is well-founded–look at what PEDs have done to track & field and cycling.

    Sponsors want the best at the races they back; big prizes are the way to get to that.

    Just so I'm 100% clear, I'm not saying the sport is full of dopers. I have no reason to believe anyone is doping right now (though occasionally I worry). What I'm worried about is the potential for big prize purses, in a sport that offers so little money to its best, eventually compelling some to resort to PEDs, blood transfusions, etc. in order to get the cash.

    That said, I don't think it's all about money. I think people will dope because they want glory and fame, even if it's a limited kind of fame (restricted to our "little" world).


  28. colin m

    That's a strange way to look at it though. If it's expensive, it's cheating?

    What's next? Does someone who doesn't have kids or a job have an unfair advantage over someone who does because they can train more?

    1. Mike

      There is a correlation between things that unnaturally raise performance above normal levels and price, but that doesn't mean that expense is the problem. It wouldn't matter to me if an altitude tent cost $10, it would still be cheating. Conversely, if someone had $500 ultra, ultra light shoes, the expense wouldn't make them a problem in my eyes.

  29. ken michal

    Great article, Geoff! I'm glad to see this dialogue being opened!!

    Since there is no single governing body, that leaves it up to individual races/companies to make and enforce "the rules". This leaves us open to situations like Speedgoat where Karl was forced to make the right decision for the event but possibly not the best one for the sport. (for the record, I applaud Karl's decision!!)

    The funny (and sad) thing is that I can't think of many races offhand (including ones put on by my company!) that have a written policy on PED's, Doping, etc!! Without a rule to enforce, are we saying that these things are allowed? How far do we need to go? Most of this stuff seems like common sense but unfortunately, common sense isn't that common… As the sport continues to grow, I'm sure we'll see more and more people bending the rules. Somewhere along the line, clear rules and guidelines will need to be drawn. We'll need rules against PED's and even rules against throwing rocks at competitors (sounds funny now but I'm sure it will happen someday)! Until these rules are standardized and accepted, this is more a moral issue than cheating.

    The spirit of ultra running, to me at least, is pushing yourself against really difficult challenges. I can't think of a better character building experience and character building is the best reason to run ultras that I know!! I choose to stick to a very rigid set of self imposed rules. I want to wear my buckles with pride and not let anything tarnish them! If the rules are so vague now, when do we reach a point where morally sound athletes have to resort to things like doping because "everyone else does it"? I pray that day never comes but seeing the examples of baseball and cycling doesn't give me hope!

    As a community, we need to celebrate the heroes of our sport who compete with honor and integrity!!! Folks who embody the spirit of ultras will definitely come out on top one way or another, even if they're not winning races! Hopefully, people like Jose San Gabriel will continue to get as much attention for sneaking in a minute under the cutoff as Timothy Olson did for smashing the CR at WSER! Just as our current system of "rules" follows the spirit of ultras, I hope competitors will be drawn to the same spirit! This is the true victory in ultra running!!

    All Day!


  30. GMack

    It's because of the traditionally low-key nature of ultra running and its strictly personal sense of accomplishment that PED use among some is so likely. It would give someone a large relative advantage since nearly everyone else wouldn't be on any. In years past, PED use in the TdF was recognized as being nearly universal. Although there was an "arms race' with getting and using the best techniques (i.e. U.S. Postal), by and large PED's leveled the playing field, as it were. It'd be a different story in UR.

    The UTMB is making a real effort to address the reality of cheating by doing blood tests, issuing penalties for on-the-course cheating, and prohibiting pacers. Further, UTMB has just recently convened an International Trail Running Conference to address many of the other issues UR is beginning to experience. Here in the U.S. we need to acknowledge the need for some standards and for testing or we risk our sport becoming a repository for athletes (like MTB) who've been prohibited from participating or fear being tested in other sports.

    Case in point – guess who's into MTB and trail running:

  31. Jason

    Interesting topic. My take: If it's legal, and not outlawed by race rules, then it's fair game. Altitude tent falls under this, and can't be considered cheating. It's also arguably less effective than actually training at altitude.

    Caffine is a stimulant. Proven to affect performance. Many people are literally hooked on the substance. Try starting a race that bans it and see how many competitors show up!

    Aren't beets shown to have effects similar to EPO? I can't remember.

    Point is, this is a topic that will evolve, and todays answers won't be the answers in twenty years. We gotta keep it in the conversation though!

    1. Pete

      Actually sleeping at altitude and training at lower altitudes is more effective then sleeping and training at high altitudes. A person can go fast at say 4000 feet then they can at 10k feet. Dakota Jones just wrote an interesting blog on why Europeans have a huge advantage. They have mountains as tall as colorado but they can practically start at sea level. So they get the altitude acclimation and the leg turnover of sea level. None the less it is an interesting article. If a runner wants to buy an altitude tent all the power to them. They cost a lost more then any single race will return in prize money.

  32. Morgan Williams


    Here is the other one I know of:

    Elisa Desco failed her B test and eventually had her placing and medal removed. This also affected the team position and GB, I recall, made up a podium place as a result.


  33. John

    The altitude tent vs. living at altitude thing is a strange argument. As many have pointed out, why is it okay to train and live at altitude but it isn't okay to try to simulate that environment at your place of residence? Because of cost issues? Well cost issues prevent people from training at altitude.

    When you take something to increase blood values you are artificially manipulating them through some ingested or injected stimulus. Using an altitude tent is simply subjecting your body to some external stimulus and allowing it to *Naturally* adapt. It doesn't matter that said external stimulus is achieved via some mechanical means, especially considering the fact that acclimation is difficult for those that live at sea level. The altitude tent simply gives wider access to altitude training.

    Would you argue that an ice bath is illegal? It reduces inflammation via the bodies natural reaction to cold. Same thing with compression gear.

    1. Roger

      I don't think altitude training is unethical or unfair at all. We know that training on low carb intake or on low water intake makes for better coping physiology in ultra running. Even if you're training for sea level racing, hypoxic training has benefits – just like training low in other ways.

      To say that it's unethical to prepare diligently and make the greatest use of resources that are ethically available is to say that the only way to race fairly is to get lucky on the day, just to take that line of argument to its natural conclusion.

      In Australia, we can't even get over 2200metres without using altitude training facilities or tents. It's just a given that if you can access that benefit for yourself, you do. You still have to put the work in, and the work is the key.

      Perhaps this is an influential factor in whether something is an ethical advantage, versus an unfair one. Stimulating your natural EPO by training at or simulating altitude takes effort and commitment to training. Taking externally produced EPO… not so much.

      Taking an ice bath, like John above says, is an effort which produces a natural response.

      Hard work versus fast track seems the key divider here.

      Altitude training isn't fast track. Without the work, you don't get the results.

  34. fredp

    I agree with the posters who feel that there is already plenty of motivation to use PED's, even without the prize money. As someone noted, just go down to the local gym and you can see lots of meatheads on steroids with no chance of winning any money for their musculature. The reason we don't hear more about the doping of non-professional athletes is that there is usually no testing for the events in which they compete, or the place they finish. As odious as PED's are, they are probably here to stay, for two reasons. First, they work really well! I have seen estimates of 10% to 20% improvement in bikers from taking EPO. Secondly, it will always be possible to beat the tests. For example, Floyd Landis kept a bag of blood in his fridge in a bowl of water with some ice cubes and infused it before the big races. And I have heard that epo clars your system in a few days, so it could be used to fuel massive training and then discontinued a few days before the race. Also, the bikers are now using microdoses of epo which clear the system in 12 hours. Similarly, testosterone is relatively easy to obtain, clears the system fast and provides huge benefits. All of this is not to mention the old Tour de France standbys of various and sundry forms of amphetamine. So, since cheating seems to be inevitable and relatively undetectable, I think that we all have to try to run for the 'right' reasons, i.e. some kind of self'growth and transformation. Sure, it is good to stroke the ego a little, but that shouldn't be the main motivator. If it is for some others and it causes them to cheat, well each of us just has to be satisfied completely with their own integrity and the benefits it provides.

  35. Matt

    How about customized running gear?

    Specially developed shoes, tops, backpacks, ultralight jackets, etc – most of which is not accessible to everyday runner?

    The list goes on and on and entering the infamous grey area, indeed.

    Just throwing this out there, curious what other people think.

    Great article and discussion.


    1. Jared F

      Sort of like how road races ban shoes with springs that that certain swim wear is banned in the pool, so good point! But I think it goes back to the point of specific race rules. Western States for example (at least my understanding) is that you cannot use poles or spiked shoes, they have set rules so that breaking those is cheating, but in other races it is okay. I mean is sliding down a snowfield on a plastic bag cheating? You are not running it. Man, this conversation could go on forever!

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