Doping And The Effect On Ultra And Trail Running: What To Do About Cheaters

Ian Sharman writes about what the trail and ultrarunning community should do about performance-enhancing drug use in the sport.

By on December 14, 2015 | Comments

[Editor’s Note: The following are the opinions of the author raised in hopes of fostering a dialogue about what the next steps are in combating prohibited performance-enhancing drugs in our sport. In your comments, disagreement is expected, but civility is requested.]

Widespread doping has recently been uncovered within athletics, highlighted by the provisional suspension of Russia’s athletics federation by the IAAF. This reveals a much deeper and more endemic problem within all aspects of the wider sport of which our trail and ultra world is a part. Therefore, in recent weeks, I’ve been working and researching behind the scenes into what could genuinely make a difference before running goes the way of cycling and loses all credibility where athletes never know if they’re competing on a level playing field or not.

There are two major elements to minimizing cheating–anti-doping testing and the culture/acceptability of cheating. Both of these need to be strengthened, but a huge budget is needed for widespread drug testing and that’s a slower process to set in motion. Importantly, even if testing was more extensive than ever seen in any sport, there would still be cheaters so I focus more on steps that can alter the culture and reduce the propensity of athletes to even consider cheating. In particular, I believe that lifetime bans, with relevant safeguards and clear policies, are an important part of sending a signal and helping to change the culture of doping. The clearest example of this is with the world’s largest marathons, which already have this policy as described below.

In addition, there’s some emerging evidence (and, hopefully, more research lined up as more work is needed here to better understand this concept) showing that there could be long-term physical benefits from doping, even after the drug-taking stops. Physiologists from the University of Oslo in Norway have studied the effects of testosterone propionate–a fast-acting form of testosterone, an anabolic steroid–in mice and their findings suggest that the boost the substance gives to muscles could last for decades, via some form of muscle memory. Even if there’s just a chance this is true, then it’s another reason suggesting that dopers should be banned for life. Also, athletes who dope improve their race results and, therefore, gain access to better sponsors, better coaches, etc., not to mention more fame and its rewards. That can benefit one’s racing throughout the rest of his or her career.

Existing doping controls work according to the IAAF protocols. It’s the responsibility of athletes to be aware of what substances are controlled and the conditions under which testing occurs within and outside of competitions as well as through biological passports to highlight irregularities over time. The level or lack of testing an athlete receives depends on the types of races entered by an athlete and their degree of podium success. Generally, most trail and ultrarunners are very rarely or never tested and very few ultrarunners have faced biological-passport testing. Personally, I’ve had one test ever and most ultrarunners are more likely to be tested in road running (International Association of Ultrarunners events or big road ultras like Comrades Marathon or Two Oceans Marathon) than on the trails. Therefore, there’s little chance of catching a doper within our sport currently, combining with relatively short bans to offer little disincentive.

If an athlete fails a test or there are anomalies in their biological passport, then it’s possible to appeal. For example, Ludwick Mamabolo won the 2012 Comrades Marathon and his A-sample tested positive for a banned substance called methylhexaneamine—a nasal decongestant and stimulant. His B-sample confirmed the presence of the banned substance, but there were 15 irregularities with the testing process and he was let off without a stain on his record officially. This isn’t an example of how it should work, but shows that if the processes are not strictly administered, then athletes are not banned. Therefore, if someone is clean and an error makes them look like a cheat, there are processes to clear their name and avoid a ban. In that case, an athlete should be treated as innocent if their name is cleared by the appropriate sanctioning organizations.

Many compare the existing short doping bans to serving time for a mistake and, then, being able to come back afterwards with the punishment administered so they can move on. However, a lifetime doping ban doesn’t involve incarceration for life, so it’s more similar to losing a job for unethical behavior where future prospective employers are aware of the bad behavior and also decide not to hire. This is only fair so long as there are safeguards that make sure that a positive doping test is correct within a reasonable doubt (why have a higher bar than for criminal cases?) and has a right to appeal—this is part of the existing system under the IAAF and its local offshoots. In addition, since bans under three months under IAAF would not lead to lifetime disqualification from competing for prizes at any race , this means that extremely minor/accidental offenses do not lead to the end of a professional career.

A separate issue is the use of Therapeutic Use Exemptions (“TUEs”) where a doctor can basically state that an athlete has a medical need for a banned substance, so that the athlete doesn’t get in trouble for using the substance. These are controversial and many fast, fit athletes seem to need these TUEs, undoubtedly casting doubt on whether this is a loophole. This is another issue that complicates the debate, but let’s exclude it from the higher-level discussion of what can be done to make a meaningful difference right now.

Cultural Factors To Consider

  • Zero tolerance of cheating makes it harder for athletes to rationalize cheating and the chances of getting caught are certainly low, as evidenced within cycling where they had an extremely extensive testing regime but few positive tests.
  • The biggest marathons in the world are part of the World Marathon Majors (WMM) (Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago, and New York) and they deem the existing arrangements to be too lenient in allowing dopers to serve a short ban then return to racing. So they have a policy that anyone convicted of doping with a ban lasting three months or longer is not eligible for prize money or points in their races. See Article III, Section C of their Code of Conduct.
  • Cheats rarely admit they cheated and many re-offend (e.g., Justin Gatlin), so if the chance of getting caught is low and someone is ethically challenged, then allowing them back into the sport after a short ban is barely a slap on the wrist and they’re likely to try to get away with it again.
  • Breaking rules like littering (e.g. the Centurion Running events in the U.K.–see rules for one of their events) or switching bibs (e.g. California International Marathonsee their rules) can lead to lifetime bans from some races, and these offenses are arguably much less serious than intentional doping.
  • All doping is cheating, including testosterone for middle-aged women, marijuana within a race, banned painkillers, etc.–you can’t pick and choose which rules to obey or get annoyed at those using EPO if you yourself use something that’s banned. People have excuses that they’re only competing in an age group or ‘feel better’ taking certain banned medications, but this goes to the root of the culture of the sport where there should be no excuses for cheating a little, which can lead to rationalizing cheating a lot (e.g., ‘everyone else is doing it’).
  • Naming and raising public awareness about those who’ve cheated is best as it makes athletes think twice if they’ll become a pariah if caught cheating. This doesn’t mean mob justice, but having clear policies in place in advance of a race is imperative. Also, good results, rapid improvements, and association to convicted dopers alone don’t warrant baseless accusations of cheating without hard evidence. However, runners should certainly be aware that association with dopers raises questions in many people’s minds and, at the least, reflects a risk to their reputation. This is linked to the concept of disassociating with those who’ve doped or helped dopers in the past to show zero tolerance, but I understand this is at the more controversial end of the points in this article, yet I firmly believe it. I personally would not want to be associated with any organization or person linked to doping because I wouldn’t trust them or want to risk my own reputation.

Practical Next Steps

  • Develop an anti-doping policy in the first place. Some major races like The North Face Endurance Challenge 50-Mile Championships don’t have a policy. The simplest starting point is to copy the policies of the IAAF and, then, build on them based on the concepts in this article.
  • Apply the lifetime bans at races as per the WMM precedent for anyone who gets a three-month doping ban or longer. I’ll be reaching out to major U.S. trail races and already have commitments from several of the Altra US Skyrunner Series events to do this. I’ve spoken to governing bodies already, but a combination of bureaucracy and not wanting to rock the boat mean that this is easier to achieve race-by-race, then governing bodies will take notice. It’s similar to the approach the WMM races have taken.
  • Increase anti-doping testing at events and vocally support out-of-competition testing, encouraging further debate in this area.


  • Convince sponsors within ultra and trail running not to support any athletes with a three-month doping ban or longer, with the same proposed lifetime ban as for races.
  • Financially support anti-doping testing at events and both financially and vocally support out-of-competition testing, encouraging further debate in this area.

Everyone Else

  • If someone you know takes banned substances, let them know that you feel strongly about all forms of cheating, no matter whether they’re aiming for the podium, age-group awards, or cut-offs.
  • All the points above should be discussed openly and I hope this article will generate more debate and raise more awareness about the practical steps that will make a difference.

Call for Comments (from Ian)

  • Do you believe in the integrity of the sport of ultra and trail running currently?
  • What do you think about the proposals above to keep the sport cleaner?
  • Should dopers be banned for life?
Ian Sharman
Ian Sharman is the Director of the Altra US Skyrunner Series, a professional running coach, and a sponsored ultrarunner who has competed in top-level races all over the globe.