Anti-Doping Measures Take To The Trail

Concerned athletes, organizations, and events are finally throwing down the gauntlet—drug testing has arrived and will be coming to more races near you. Spurred by ever-increasing popularity, large prize purses, salaried sponsorships, and the reality that known drug cheats are racing, the trail and ultrarunning community has taken a big step in legitimatizing itself as a professional sport. 2016 marked some of the most significant advancements in national and global trail and ultra anti-doping action.

Serious Dialogue Begins
November 27, 2015 – iRunFar.com reported that The North Face Endurance Challenge Series (ECS) Championships added Italian mountain runner Elisa Desco to its elite starting field. “From 2010 to 2012, Elisa served a two-year ban from the IAAF after she tested positive for EPO at the 2009 World Mountain Running Championships.” This informational tidbit set off great debate among athletes and other news outlets about whether a previously sanctioned athlete should be allowed to compete for awards, prize money, and status. In this case, it was the ECS’s call since they had no PED (performance-enhancing drug) policy in place. In a release from Runner’s World’s Justin Mock, Katie Ramage, The North Face sports marketing director, shared, “…and while we’d like to have a solution readily available, we believe it’s more important that lasting change is created by doing it right, which takes time. Rest assured that as soon as we have something to share, we will.” To the chagrin of many, Desco was allowed to compete, though she did not finish the race.

Sage Canaday, outspoken PED opponent and elite ultrarunner, stated matter-of-factly in a December 2015 blog post and again in 2016 why dirty runners, like Desco, shouldn’t be allowed to participate. “Money, fame, and greed brings the real heavy-hitting and big-time threats,” says Canaday. “I think our best bet for the future is to try to do what we can to discourage new, competitive MUT (Mountain Ultra Trail) runners from using EPO to gain an edge and compete for prize money and sponsorship perks. The lack of drug testing, bio passports (blood-work history), and out-of-season testing in MUT running is a huge barrier that we must address in the future.”

In my July 2015 iRunFar column, “Performance Enhancing Drugs in Ultramarathons,” I concluded that, “Until the day comes, if it ever does, when drug testing becomes the norm for prestigious ultra events in the U.S., we must simply continue to do what we’ve done up to now: trust our fellow ultrarunners.” For many of those who commented on this piece, “trust” wasn’t an acceptable means for preventing or policing PED use. Well, here’s some good news, the day finally arrived and voices like Canaday’s and yours have been heard.

Policy and Rule Revolution
In February 2016, The Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run became the first high-profile U.S. race to tighten its anti-doping policy. “While we had been considering updating our policy for several months, we were contacted by several elite runners in December of 2015 asking if we would consider a policy similar to the World Marathon Majors,” explains Race Director Craig Thornley. “We drafted the language and the board approved.”

The six races comprising the Abbott’s World Marathon Majors (WMM), Berlin, Boston, Chicago, London, New York, and Tokyo, have some of the strictest anti-doping policies in professional sport. Much of their policy’s rhetoric revolves around repayments of prize money, bonuses, and appearance fees (which Western States doesn’t award) if athletes are caught. However, the spirit of the WMM’s message, which Western States embraced, prevents any athlete ever caught doping from participating in any of their events and affirms that all athletes must comply with the event’s anti-doping procedures.

The newly approved and resolute Performance Rule 18 now reads:

“The Western States Endurance Run has a zero-tolerance policy regarding the use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). Any athlete who has been determined to have violated anti-doping rules or policies, whether enforced by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), or any other national sports federation is ineligible for entry into the Western States Endurance Run.

“The Western States Endurance Run reserves the right to conduct pre- and post-competition testing for any and all performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) listed on the current WADA Prohibited List. Any athlete who refuses to submit to anti-doping controls, if selected for testing, shall be disqualified and subject to a lifetime ban from the Western States Endurance Run.”

Other events tied closely to Western States followed suit. “Lake Sonoma 50 Mile is just going to do whatever Western States does in this regard,” says Lake Sonoma race director and Western States Board President John Medinger. “Obviously I was involved in the Western States decision and, as a committee of one, instantly adopted the same position for my event.”

Rainshadow Running, the organization that manages the Gorge Waterfalls 100k, a 2017 Altra Golden Ticket Race and Western States qualifier, adopted similar policies in 2016. Race Rules # 6 and #9 state respectively, “No alcohol, marijuana, or other WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) prohibited substances… No runner who has been issued a temporary or lifetime ban from the WADA will be allowed to run.”

Firming up their commitment to clean sport and avoiding further controversy, The North Face ECS issued its own statement in August of 2016:

“Athletes who have been banned from competition by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), any national sports federation, or a similar organization identified by The North Face, for a violation of applicable anti-doping rules or policies, are prohibited from competing at any ECS event while the ban is effective.”

Unlike the regulations adopted by Western States, Lake Sonoma, and Rainshadow Running, the ECS policy does allow some leniency by allowing those who have served their ban to participate. However, they are ineligible for prize money, podium recognition, and awards, and cannot compete as an elite.

What’s more, because the ECS does offer a significant prize purse of $30,000, they added this WMM-like statement, “If The North Face determines, at any time, that an athlete competed in an ECS event while banned from competition as provided in this policy, that athlete must forfeit the event and return any prize money, awards, etc.”

Run Rabbit Run 100 Mile, which touts the country’s largest prize purse of $60,000, enacted a “zero-tolerance” drug policy, like Western States’s, a few months ago. “I’ve been saddened to see the negative impacts of drug use in track and field,” says race director Fred Abramowitz. “I’d hate to see the same thing happen to ultrarunning. This is our time to get out in front of it by sending a clear message, ‘Drug use will not be tolerated!’”

Adding the ‘Bite’
Though proclamations like those crafted by the events above set a precedent, words on paper, no matter how strong, don’t always deter cheaters. “The challenge is to have some bite behind these policies through a genuine chance of catching dopers,” says Ian Sharman, a staunch anti-doping advocate, coach and the Director of the Altra U.S. Skyrunner Series.

In January 2016, an informal US Anti-Doping Working Group met for the first time. “We’ve been busy,” says USA Track and Field’s Mountain, Ultra and Trail (MUT) Running Council Chairperson Nancy Hobbs. “We’ve had meetings with USADA as well as other testing organizations in person and on conference calls. We want to have all the data we need for comparing the best-case scenarios for an active anti-doping program.”

The collection’s core constituents, American Trail Running Association’s (ATRA) President Adam Chase, He(a)rd Sports Management founder and Ultrarunner podcast co-host Ethan Veneklasen, Sharman, and Hobbs, gathered their resources and put into motion a convincingly solid start to America’s first trail and ultrarunning anti-doping system.

“The initial list of potential tested trail and ultra events would be those that are prominent, championships, or where there is real prize money,” explains Chase. “The number of races will depend on funding and will be chosen at random, as will the athletes tested. We would employ a testing agency, most likely USADA, to administer the tests. The idea is to keep everyone guessing with no safe place to hide.”

With a price tag of roughly $10,000 per event, depending on the type of tests performed and number of athletes sampled, anti-doping measures have proven prohibitive up to now. “Our proposal would source funding from participating sponsors and we’d ask elite athletes to pitch in through ‘Pro Cards,’ similar to the licenses professional triathletes must obtain in order to be eligible for prize money,” explains Veneklasen. “We definitely don’t want the race organizers paying for any of this as we don’t want to pass the cost of testing on to the participant or race director.”

In November 2016, a non-profit organization called Clean Sport Collective (CSC) launched. “Our goal is to change the rhetoric from only talking about dopers to celebrating the clean athletes doing it the right way through hard work and dedication,” says CSC President Shanna Burnette. “The Clean Sport pledge is a membership base of clean professional, amateur, and student athletes, medical professionals and trainers, events, brands, sport clubs, coaches, agents, and fans. We want to put social pressure on brands to sponsor only clean athletes and build systems that foster the human athlete by creating a company culture that believes how you compete is just as important as the results you achieve.”

The Anti-Doping Working Group, now a subcommittee of ATRA, has joined forces with CSC. “In the new year we will be putting funding together to put action at the forefront,” says Burnette. “We plan to offer drug-testing scholarships to events. We would pay a third party to facilitate or give the event the funds to pay for the testing. We have been working with Adam and Ethan to implement more testing in trail racing, and we will help raise funds for their organization through ATRA.”

CSC’s ultimate goal is to enable ATRA, in the absence of an active American anti-PED ultra/trail-specific federation, by securing funding and providing the support needed to:

  1. Establish rules for a trail and ultrarunning anti‐doping program.
  2. Educate and provide resources for athletes regarding their rights and responsibilities before, during, and after the doping control process.
  3. Implement a testing program for key races (as determined by ATRA).
  4. Manage testing results and administer Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUEs) for the anti-doping program.

Additionally, Hobbs has also turned to USA Track and Field (USATF) for additional anti-doping money. “Assuming the funds from USATF come through based on the request I made to the budget and audit committee at the annual meeting,” she says, “There would be additional testing in 2018 at USATF MUT Championships.”

The Brands’ Perspective
It seems as though the pieces are falling into place for the U.S. trail and ultra anti-doping movement. However, enough funding still must be secured.

Brian Beckstead, President and Co-Founder of Altra, has no qualms about ponying up cash for anti-doping analyses. “As a presenting sponsor of Western States, having a testing system for PED use was part of the conversation when signing the three- year agreement,” says Beckstead. “We would support pitching in when applicable in key ultra events. Altra has a strong sense of purpose in keeping this sport as clean as possible.” Altra’s athletes are held to these high standards and their contract states that termination is immediate upon:

(e) Talent commits a violation of any anti-doping rule (including without limitation testing positive to any doping test) of any national or international governing body or anti-doping organization.

NATHAN Sports feels just as passionate about the issue. “As more money has come into the sport, we’ve felt that it’s important that the athlete knows our stance on this issue,” says Vice President of Marketing Brent Hollowell. “We would never intentionally support users of PEDs and we have provisions in their agreements that clearly state the negative consequences for testing positive for banned PEDs.”

However, even though NATHAN would likely monetarily support anti-doping measures, Hollowell voices concern when the conversation turns to sponsors pitching in for testing. “I think that asking each party to sort of ‘kick in’ money for testing is simply not going to work,” he says. “Who pays for what? Which athletes pay? Which sponsors should pay the most into the system? Is it based on the size of their company or the number of sponsored athletes they have in the race?”

Hollowell is also quick to point out the elephant in the room. “Under a per-event sponsor-based funding system, monitoring efforts would be based on race-day testing only, and therefore doomed to failure since people could still cheat,” he laments. “For testing to mean anything, we would need random testing protocols that could happen at any time of year to try to prevent PED use during training blocks as well.”

The Anti-Doping Working Group acknowledges Hollowell’s trepidation. “We realize that this proposal will initially be imperfect and difficult to implement,” says Veneklasen. “But we must start somewhere and these are unprecedented first steps.”

Taking Matters Into Their Own Hands
Rather than wait for the formation of a larger organized anti-PED movement, the organizer of the Ouray 100 Mile and 50 Mile Endurance Runs took a proactive approach by drug testing, on their own dime, the top men’s and women’s finishers in 2016.

“I know from my auditing background (I’m a Certified Public Accountant) that people commit financial fraud and theft, they cheat, when three things are present: Incentive, opportunity, and rationalization,” explains race director Charles Johnston on the event’s website. “There is already incentive to do it. Gear sponsorships, books deals, etc. are at stake. There is the opportunity to do it. This is twofold. First, races simply don’t test. Second, the drugs are readily available. The only missing piece is the rationalization. This is very personal, of course. But there are plenty of people who could easily rationalize it. I can say without hesitation that there is currently an issue with doping in ultrarunning.”

Johnston had the male 50 and 100-mile winners and female 50-mile winner tested (there was no female 100-mile finisher) for anabolic steroids, testosterone, amphetamines, phencyclidine, opiates, cocaine, and cannabinoids for a grand total of $774. “We originally planned to test for human growth hormone and erythropoietin as well in 2016 at the additional cost of $223 per runner,” he adds. “Unfortunately we learned shortly before the race that our vendor was unable to do the blood draws required for those tests. For 2017 we’ll have the resources in place to do blood draws as well.”

Drug testing’s cost is inevitably the first insurmountable hurdle for small-time race directors. How did Johnston circumvent the enormous cost?

“USADA wanted a $10,000 retainer to test four athletes. That was prohibitively expensive, almost the entire 2016 race budget,” explains Johnston. “Instead we worked with Drug Testing Inc. (DTI) out of nearby Montrose (CO). The owners came to Fellin Park an hour before the award ceremony. Each athlete was observed giving a urine sample. DTI kept a portion of the sample to serve as a backup. The remainder was sent to Medtox Laboratories Inc. in St. Paul, MN, for testing. DTI emailed us the negative results… and we forwarded them on to the athletes. In the event of a positive result, we would have privately contacted the athlete and agreed on a second, different lab to test the B sample.”

Johnston, like Hollowell, acknowledges the fact that out-of-competition testing is paramount. In 2018, he has plans to implement testing perhaps 16 weeks before race day. “I have an idea but it’s a bit unorthodox, will take time to develop, and includes many aspects I still must consider,” says Johnston. “I look at it this way. Testing provides evidence that an athlete’s result is legitimate. Think of all the incredible ultrarunning performances and broken records that are not supported by testing. We tend to think of testing as a way to prevent cheating. But equally important, testing protects the clean runners by validating their wins and records. Elite athletes racing clean are currently without that protection.”

Global Initiatives
On the other side of the world, Europe’s trail and ultra communities are dealing with similar issues, but have the jump on the yet-to-be-tested stateside trail/ultra anti-doping efforts. Most recently, in June 2016, the IAAF announced that Ecuadorian Gonzalo Calisto tested positive for erythropoietin (EPO), a banned substance, after placing fifth at the 2015 UTMB. Per IAAF policy, he’s subsequently been stricken from the results and is currently serving a two-year ban of ineligibility.

The International Trail Running Association (ITRA), a non-profit organization whose mission is to promote worldwide trail running values, diversity, safety, and athlete health, collaborates with 633 member organizations, including UTMB, across 103 countries. ITRA follows a well-rounded “health policy” that acts to not only prevent PED use, but to also ensure the safety and well-being of participating athletes. However, the “health policy has neither the ambition nor the necessary qualities to replace the existing anti-doping legislation.” Events with ITRA membership and an adequate budget can request to be taken under the purview of the health-policy program, thus clearing the way for elite-athlete biomedical analyses (blood, urine, and/or capillary testing) before races.

“This is a very important, but difficult topic for our event,” says Catherine Polletti, UTMB’s General Director. “We need hard scientific evidence, must respect the athlete, and keep testing procedures ethical. In July we disqualified Calisto. This is a sign. So, in 2016, UTMB tested 100 elite athletes before the start and, of those that completed the race, again at the finish line. That cost was about 3,000 Euros but we had many nurse and doctor volunteers. Those tests fell under the ITRA health policy. Official agencies, like the French Anti-Doping Agency (AFLD) and WADA, proceeded with their own anonymous anti-doping tests. We collaborate, of course, but these two kinds of tests are separate. To be clear, only official tests are able to effect official penalties and only official agencies like AFLD and WADA are able to proceed with these anti-doping tests. Health policy and anti-doping converge often, but the spirit is not exactly the same. ”

In 2015, the Association Athletes For Transparency (AFT), an organization that can be likened to the CSC, developed the SHOL (Sport and Health On-Line) Platform for ITRA. This free online resource allows any athlete to create a “health page” and interactively communicate real-time medical history, current treatments and/or TUEs with race organizers. The results of athletes tested under the ITRA health policy are entered in SHOL as well.

When SHOL is used in tandem with onsite blood and urine collections and analyses, event medical counsel can holistically interpret abnormal results. This could lead to notifying an athlete of their poor health or excluding a runner from a race on medical grounds. Here, for example, are what health policy results looked like after testing at the 2016 IAU Trail World Championships in Portugal. In 2016, according to AFT, 10,000 athletes from 57 countries utilized the SHOL system.

In 2016, ITRA, with funding from the Foundation For Medicine and Science in Ultra-Endurance Sports and implementation by AFT, initiated QUARTZ, a seven-month voluntary pilot project aimed specifically at elite athletes. The endeavor requires athletes to share their location, health information, and TUEs with medical counsel and submit to random out-of-competition blood, hair, and/or urine tests. This information could be shared publicly if the athlete so desired. You can view several elite athlete QUARTZ profiles here, including Rory Bosio’s and Sage Canaday’s. Like the health policy, the QUARTZ program will never be a substitute for regulatory agency testing, but it does allow for improved elite athlete transparency and periodic health evaluations.

Pierre Sallett, the President of AFT, is optimistic about QUARTZ’s prospects. “We can say that QUARTZ 2016 was successful enough, because we were able to manage athletes living in different countries. Now we may begin phase two,” he says. “Phase two, details to be revealed in mid-February, will begin in 2017. We’ll be monitoring athlete health under real conditions and they’ll be required to respect all of the program’s conditions, including reporting to medical facilities promptly for testing when asked.”

QUARTZ 2016 results

Results from the 2016 QUARTZ program. Image courtesy of QUARTZ.

Enter 2017
What might we see in the U.S. in the coming year? When asked if Western States has tested any athletes (before/during/after competition) or if this might be a possibility in the coming year(s), Thornley replied, “Not yet, but there will be a program in 2017. Details forthcoming.”

2016 was a watershed year in trail and ultra anti-doping evolution. “Over the past year there’s been a lot of progress with regards to anti-doping testing in ultrarunning, which should lead to actual testing in 2017,” summarizes Sharman. “However, it’s equally important to note that even a richly funded anti-doping regime won’t be perfect if athletes, doctors, and sponsors collude to get around the rules.”

While we await these organizations’ much anticipated particulars, we can all continue to do our part to reject the cheating culture by making a clean pledge, participating in events that prohibit PEDs, joining and donating to anti-doping establishments, and supporting brands that fund and promote anti-doping measures. In the end, these actions will advance what we all want and deserve—a respectable, healthy, and fair sport.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)
Obviously this is a sensitive topic. We believe that civil conversation by the community can play a large and important part of minimizing cheating–including doping–in trail and ultrarunning by creating a culture that is intolerant of it. As such, we welcome you to constructively talk with each other in the comments section of this article, but we also implore you to do so according to iRunFar’s comment policy. In advance, thank you.

  • What do you think of the multi-tiered anti-doping approach–the combination of developing an anti-doping culture, testing via official bodies, and testing by other organizations–that the collective community is currently taking? What leg of this effort do you think is potentially most effective? What legs are still missing?
  • Can you share your thoughts about the funding of an anti-doping regime, which seems like one of the main prohibitors to a full-scale anti-doping testing and monitoring movement in trail and ultrarunning? Do you think that creative options–crowd funding, funding via sponsors, or other ideas–are actually plausible?
  • If you could paint a picture of what an effective and sustainable anti-doping regime would look like for our sport some five, 10, and 20 years down the road, what would that be?