Performance Enhancing Drugs In Ultramarathons

In 2002, I ran the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning and chronicled my entire journey from Western States to Wasatch online for UltraRunning Magazine. In doing so, I wrote that I was administered an IV after finishing Western States and was given supplemental oxygen after completing Leadville. The online ultra community at the time consisted of the ULTRA List (a listserv that enabled ultrarunners to easily communicate ultra-related information). Upon hearing that I had used these recovery techniques, practices that if used during any single event would be grounds for disqualification, some of the ULTRA List subscribers believed that my Grand Slam should therefore be declared invalid since I still hadn’t finished all four races.

A few months later, a longtime friend and fellow ultrarunner visited me in Moab, Utah. Our conversation turned to injuries and recovery. He said he (and others he knew) frequently used dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO), a pharmaceutical topical solvent that eases pain and reduces inflammation, to heal or mask a muscle injury so he could keep training and racing. Post-race IVs and oxygen seemed innocuous enough, but this was my first conversation about using chemicals to enhance recovery. I soon discovered that it wasn’t uncommon for ultrarunners to use prescription painkillers, marijuana, testosterone, insulin, and thyroid medications: drugs that not only improved recovery, but could boost performance as well. Some runners had bona fide medical issues that required the use of these substances, but was this the case for everyone? And if it wasn’t, did it matter?

These days, my coaching athletes ask my opinion on what they should and should not do and what they can or cannot use. The answers to their questions aren’t as simple as you’d think and here’s why.

What are Performance-Enhancing Drugs?

If it weren’t for drugs, many of us wouldn’t be here today. They lower blood pressure and cholesterol, ease pain, control asthma, allergies, and diabetes, fight cancer and help control depression. When a substance is used solely as a way to get ahead in the world of sport, they become performance-enhancing drugs or PEDs., a site that explores the pros and cons of controversial issues, shares a better definition, “Performance-Enhancing Drugs [are] various substances, chemical agents, or procedures designed to provide an advantage in athletic performance. Performance-enhancing drugs affect the body in different ways, such as enlarging muscles or increasing the blood’s oxygen-carrying capacity. Despite these apparent benefits, the use of such drugs is considered both competitively unethical and medically dangerous. Most performance-enhancing drugs are outlawed by organizations that govern major amateur and professional sports.”

Examples of PEDs run the gamut from steroids (testosterone) to hormones (erythropoietin or EPO, human growth hormone or HGH, insulin), diuretics (glycerol) to stimulants (large amounts of caffeine, cocaine, epinephrine) and narcotics (morphine, oxycodone) to cannabinoids (marijuana). Though some of these drugs are legal to obtain and possess, they become banned substances under certain governing bodies and during certain competitions. Athletes caught using said products lose their titles, prizes, participation rights, and sometimes their sponsorships. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), an international independent agency whose mission is to lead a collaborative worldwide movement for doping-free sport, maintains a running list of these prohibited substances and methods. WADA’s prohibited list isn’t utilized by every event. In fact, the numbers of races that don’t have any particular PED rules or regulations vastly outnumber the competitions that do follow a strict WADA protocol that entails drug testing and penalties if caught.

Many performance-enhancing substances naturally occur in our own bodies. When supplemented by needle, cream, or pill, they enhance the properties of that innate material. However, if taken too often or at improper doses, the user can experience stroke, heart attack, liver damage, increased blood pressure and cholesterol, diabetes, acne, heart deformations, insomnia and, in some cases, death. According to clinically based journals, like, and anecdotal evidence, some of the most common PEDs abused in endurance sports are:

  1. EPO – A hormone that produces red blood cells. This improves oxygen delivery to the muscles thus improving endurance performance.
  2. Steroids – Testosterone and its derivatives promote muscle growth, strength, bone mass, and possibly increased red blood cell count.
  3. Insulin – Improves stamina by enabling the user to load the muscles with glycogen (fuel) before and between events.
  4. HGH – There is limited evidence that HGH improves athletic performance. However, it’s often used in tandem with other drugs because it increases lean body mass, decreases body fat, and builds connective tissue (especially in older athletes).
  5. ECA or EC stack – The combination of ephedrine, caffeine, and aspirin (which can be omitted based on tolerance) brings about weight loss without a loss in muscle mass and also acts as a stimulant.
  6. Thyroid medications – Used to treat fatigue-causing hypothyroidism. However, for athletes training hard this could provide, according to Science-Based Pharmacy, a “recovery-enhancement or fatigue-deferring boost.”

Therapeutic Need Versus Performance Enhancement

Ultrarunners are only human. We struggle with ailments including arthritis, back, muscle and nerve pain, diabetes, asthma, hormone imbalances, depression, and glaucoma. We are required to take medications to control these issues. However, many of these drugs can be construed as PEDs. It might surprise many ultrarunners to learn that a puff from an inhaler or joint and many of the pills and potions prescribed by your doctor can be considered performance enhancing depending on the elixir and its dose. Let’s be realistic, though. We’re not going to cease necessary prescription-drug use so we can participate in an event. Even WADA accounts for this beneficial drug use by issuing therapeutic use exemptions (TUEs), when needed. This approves and authorizes an athlete competing in major amateur and professional sporting events to use prohibited substances that are necessary to maintain their wellbeing.

Who is Using PEDs?

The list for positive tests in track and field and road running is long and growing. In 2013, The New York Times published an article that indicated, “Far more athletes are doping than might be imagined.” The article shared that during 2010 less than 2% of the drug tests performed by WADA came back positive. In 2011, more than 2,000 track and field athletes were asked to complete an anonymous survey on doping. Twenty-nine percent of the athletes in the 2011 IAAF World Championships in Athletics and 45% in the 2011 Pan-Arab Games admitted they used PEDs. This is a jaw-dropping discrepancy.

Where does this leave the sport of ultrarunning? Comrades and Two Oceans Marathons, two large ultramarathons in South Africa, have both had winners test positive. On June 16, 2015, I asked the ultrarunning community to participate in a cursory one-question, yes-or-no answer anonymous survey: Have you ever used a performance-enhancing drug (PED) while training for or participating in an organized ultramarathon (a running/hiking event/race of 50K in length or longer)? For the purposes of this survey PEDs include: testosterone, any steroid derivatives, blood doping, ephedrine, prescription painkillers or narcotics, insulin, erythropoietin (EPO), human growth hormone (HGH), marijuana, or (meth)amphetamine. In the end, 705 ultrarunners responded of which 9% have used PEDs.

A few ultramarathoners who have been disqualified for PED use include:

Erik Seedhouse1991Palamos, Spain 100k World ChampsStimulant (decongestant)
Charl Mattheus1992ComradesStimulant
Nikolay Safin1993Basel, Switzerland European 24 Hour ChampsSteroids
Seiji Arita1997Courcon, France 24 Hour RaceBanned substance
Maria Bak1997Winschoten, Netherlands 100K World ChampsSteroids for two years.
Rasta Mohloli1999ComradesSteroid (nandrolone)
Viktor Zhdanov1999ComradesStimulant (ephedrine)Covered the final 10K in under 32’. Went from 15th to 2nd place in that time.
Grigoriy Murzin2001Santa Cruz de Bezana, Spain 100KStimulant
Sergio Motsoeneng2010ComradesBanned substanceWas also DQed in 1999 for running the race relay style with his identical twin brother.
Lephetesang Adoro2012ComradesSteroids (testosterone)Read more here.
Ludwick Mamabolo2012ComradesStimulant (methylhexaneamine)Found not guilty due to “technical irregulation.”
Natalia Volgina2013Two OceansSteroids (metenolone)Read more here.

Objective Versus Subjective

The distances ultrarunners cover, terrain crossed, conditions encountered, and our own unique physiology can blur the line between fact and opinion. For example, what really are the best training philosophies, race strategies, and nutrition regimes for a 100-mile event? We don’t really know the answers as success has been forged with a multitude of approaches.

WADA, on the other hand, has created an extensive and definitive list of the drugs and procedures athletes shouldn’t be using in or out of competition. But where do we, as ultrarunners, draw the line? Are listening to music and using trekking poles performance enhancing? How about using a pacer or crew? What about cortisone and platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injections, weekly massage and chiropractic work, living at altitude, living at sea level, utilizing an Alter-G anti-gravity treadmill or altitude tent, having access to good healthy food, taking an IV after an event, and using supplemental oxygen? As long as people differ in opinion there will always be a debate as to what the limit is on performance-enhancing advantages.

Drugs in Ultras

Ultrarunning has certainly experienced its share of growing pains. Today, events are flourishing, prize purses have grown and athlete-sponsorship opportunities have increased. PED use has become a hot topic of discussion due to these added incentives. Are we ready to police for PEDs in U.S. ultra events? Do we have the resources? Are we ready to add this component to a quickly growing sport when we don’t know how the majority of ultrarunners and race directors perceive the PED question?

Drug testing is rare in ultras except at world championships and races like Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc and at International Skyrunning Federation events. The International Association of Ultrarunners (IAU) implements doping controls at the 24-Hour, 50k Road, 100k Road, and Trail World Championships. Stateside testing takes place as well, but less frequently. Richard Bolt, an executive committee member for the USA Track and Field Mountain/Ultra/Trail (MUT) Council explains, “The Pikes Peak Ascent in Colorado conducted testing in 2010 and 2014 when it was the World Long Distance Mountain Running Challenge. Out-of-competition testing occurs on U.S. soil for U.S. athletes who have performed well at World Mountain Running Association (WMRA) and IAU Championships.”

Why, then, are national championships and other prestigious U.S. events not testing when it helps to safeguard prize money, creates a level playing field, and ensures the validity of course records? Bolt continues, “We’re trying to get testing at all USATF MUT Championships but the challenge is funding such a program. USA Track & Field hasn’t provided the budget and race directors are reluctant to add another cost to their event. Most drug testing I’ve seen entails three to four testers and their devices to administer tests for immediate results. Often other samples are sent to approved offsite labs. Pre- and post-competition personnel and equipment are needed for two to three days. At this year’s IAU Trail Championships in Annecy, France, two samples were taken. One sample was tested on-site with immediate results. The second sample was used for a different test and sent off-site. This entire process adds up to a hefty price tag.”

Nancy Hobbs, chairperson of the USATF MUT Council, elaborates on why testing costs are high, “It depends on factors like lead time, the choice of drug analysis (blood, urine, or both), and the event’s location relative to the testing labs. You must consider the sample collection process and travel time of both the test organizers and the athletes’ samples. Costs vary from country to country. For example, at the Mountain Running World Championships, typically the winner and a random assortment of runners get tested. The price rises slightly as more runners are tested. At various WMRA events, I’ve seen anywhere between one to six athletes evaluated depending on the requirements based on the race’s contractual agreement.”

Those that face the greatest impact of a strict anti-drug policy are race directors and the athletes. It’ll ultimately be their voice that dictates the discussion of whether drug testing at more ultras should take place or not.

Nick Coury, the race director of the Desert Solstice Invitational Track Meet in Phoenix, Arizona, works with the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), a fully compliant signatory to WADA, to ensure that records set at his race meet USATF and IAU drug-testing protocol. “Today, drug tests aren’t required to ratify American or age-group records. Outright world records are the only records that require testing,” says Coury. “For example, in 2011, we tested Jay Aldous’s 100-mile age group record only to find it wasn’t necessary. However, in 2013, we had to test both Zach Bitter’s 12-hour world record and Pam Smith’s 100-mile track world record. They passed and that brings positive attention to our event, but it also cost us $2,500 for the two tests.”

Ellie Greenwood, winner of Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run and the IAU 100k World Championships (twice), has been tested often since her first win at the 2010 World Championships. “I was tested at the finish line of that race and because I won I was put on the WADA Whereabouts register for about 18 months,” explains Greenwood. “This wasn’t optional. The Whereabouts process has an online system where you must provide an overnight address for 365 days of the year plus a one-hour daily time slot where you can be found. Testers can show up at that time and you must provide urine and/or blood if they do. They can also show up at any other time. If you are not there then there are no consequences, but you must submit to a test if they find you.”“I’ve also been tested before Courmayeur Champex Chamonix 100k (CCC) in 2012, at all four Comrades I’ve raced, as well as at the finish line of Two Oceans in 2013. I came in seventh at Two Oceans, but was moved to sixth after the woman’s winner failed the doping control for steroids.” (See Natalia Volgina in the chart above.)

Throughout this strict and frequent testing process, Greenwood still feels strongly about drugs in our sport. “I think it makes the sport cleaner but it is not a 100% fool-proof system. We can’t have individual races just making up their own doping procedures, but maybe it is time that more ultras were under a single governing body,” says Greenwood. “More runners are trying to make a living from our sport and so the temptation to use PEDs has increased. Maybe they feel it’s acceptable to do so because most races don’t state anything in their rules about PEDs. The testing system needs to keep evolving to keep up with those who are determined to find a way around it.”

Where Does this Leave Us?

Perhaps Dick Pound, a former WADA chairman, summed it up best for both the current state of ultrarunning and the other activities WADA regulates, “There is no general appetite to undertake the effort and expense of a successful effort to deliver doping-free sport. There’s this psychological aspect about it: nobody wants to catch anybody. There’s no incentive. Countries are embarrassed if their nationals are caught. And sports are embarrassed if someone from their sport is caught.”

Dr. AJ Gregg, a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist with a Doctorate in Chiropractic and Masters of Science in Human Nutrition and Functional Medicine, treats U.S. and foreign athletes who must adhere to WADA’s World Anti-Doping Code and are subject to both in- and out-of-competition drug testing as well as elite and non-elite trail and ultrarunners. It was interesting to hear Gregg’s (who is not an ultrarunner) perspective when I asked him if he thought ultrarunners used PEDs. “Finishing a 100-mile event is a rite of passage for an ultrarunner. Similar to a walkabout or vision quest,” says Gregg. “It’s simply the runner versus the course. Suffering is a huge component of the ordeal and I’d imagine they’d do what’s necessary to finish.”

With 8.5% of the American population diagnosed with asthma, more than 9% dealing with diabetes, 12% developing thyroid problems, 25% of men over 30 with low testosterone, 40% battling cancer, and 70% currently using prescription drugs, we can be fairly certain that PED use is occurring in every ultramarathon in the U.S. due to medical necessity. However, PED use alone isn’t the problem; dishonest intent, taking drugs when they aren’t needed, is the key issue at hand. Using PEDs becomes this Armstrong/Salazar debacle when taken for the sole purpose of getting ahead and when used in an event that strictly prohibits it. 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.

Call for Comments (from Bryon and Meghan)

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  • Given the lack of a governing body and a more stringent anti-doping testing regime, what do you think ultrarunning as a community needs to do to keep ourselves ‘clean?’ How to we establish and keep that trust to which Ian refers?
  • What did you learn from this article that you didn’t previously know about PEDs or their use?

There are 128 comments

  1. ajoneswilkins

    Ian, thank your for writing such a thoughtful, thorough, and even-handed article. Too often the PED discussion drifts down the rabbit hole of accusation and rumor. I really appreciate the fact that in preparing this article you conducted extensive research and then laid out the situation clearly for all of us. And, your last line really sums it up perfectly, in the end, it's all about trust. Trust is lacking a bit in our modern society but I like to think it still holds a very important place in our ultra running community. Thanks lad!

    1. Matt Smith

      The old saying "trust but verify" applies directly in the situation. The 9% figure mentioned in the article is based on self-reporting and not objective tests, so it's not data that can be used to draw any conclusions about how many ultra runners actually use PEDs. Not really research so much as reporting what was said by those whose reputations and sponsorships rely on the maintaining an illusion that everyone plays by the rules.

      The perception of the sport as 'clean' is more wishful thinking than science – no one wants to believe that their favorite athletes are doping, so it's much easier to fall back feel-good statements that muddy the waters instead of clarifying the situation. No accusations here, but let's not pretend that we know what's really going on without data.

      Until rigorous, science-based testing is used before/during/after major ultra events there is nothing but "trust" to fall back on and that's just weak reasoning that wouldn't be acceptable in any other sport. If the cost of testing is prohibitive, then we might just need to live with the fact that there are dopers who will not get caught.

      It's like Schrödinger's cat – everyone is both doping and not doping until you actually open the box to look.


      It is very interesting that my comment is at -18 and counting at the moment when, precisely because unqualified pseudo-scientists have been invited to speculate on the topic of PED use, by the media, Chris Froome has been doused in urine, Richie Porte has been punched, other riders have been spat on and the Sky cars have been pelted with unopened cans of coke, in an ugly week at the TdF. In this article at least the speculation is not inflammatory, but one would hope lessons were being learnt, the unqualified have no place in this debate – period.

  2. Johnny

    Let's say after 40, I decide to take TRT. Not for any medical condition, but because I want to be stronger, have more energy, recover faster, and fuck longer and harder. Would it be ethically wrong for me to run ultras if I am middle or back of the pack and not actually competing for a win?

    1. another_william

      Most of us never threaten to outright win an ultra. What we all do though is compete against the other runners who are as fast (or slow) as we are. Of course I would like to recover faster, and run like a young buck again, but that was then and this is now. When it comes to PEDs it doesn't really matter that you are "just" finishing in the middle of the pack. Your competition is that very pack. I would not feel any sense of accomplishment if I knew that I just finished 45 minutes faster because I've used a banned chemical substance.

    2. PA_F

      I disagree with the other replies. I don't see anything ethically wrong with that. The person has made a decision to do something that they perceive as improving their life. They should still be allowed to race..something else that presumably also improves their life. Why should the 2 be mutually exclusive?

      Of course they should also be completely honest about what they take. Hiding it would, in my view, make it ethically wrong.

  3. @SageCanaday

    Glad this article has been written/posted. I think a lot of people might not realize that testing after a major race is nice, but it's still very hard to catch the dopers because they can taper off the juice right before the event (an event that they will know there is testing at and probably know that they will do well at!). It seems more likely that doing more surprise out-of-season testing, and bio passports might be slightly more effective. There have been people caught in trail/mountain running and not just at the road events listed above so it is a prevelant in all aspects of MUT Running.

    1. AdamLawrence

      Exactly. As someone said elsewhere in regards to the NOP/Rupp allegations, drug tests are mainly IQ tests. Lance never failed a test.

      1. jdcheesman

        I don't think IQ is the determining factor when it comes to Lance never failing: there was an awful lot of money around, strongarm tactics at/from the UCI, backdated TUEs, etc. All that money also means access to the latest drugs and medical advice on how to get the most from them and avoid test positives, again not so much IQ as a massive advantage in the "fight" against the testers.

        1. lstomsl

          Exactly. Lance had a lot of power, influence, and money. He could pay his doctors enough to have them exclusively advise him which reduced a lot of risk and gave him a huge advantage. Nobody wanted to have the heroic cancer warrior go down in flames so he was given a lot of leeway by the UCI and media, and he had the power to make or break the careers of lesser cyclists and journalists, which he did repeatedly.

          I'd love to see someone come up with a coalition for clean sport in ultra-running. They could collect money from sponsors, athletes, and RDs. $5000 could test the top 3 men and women at randomly selected events. Two or 3 a year would probably be enough to catch a few people, open some eyes, and begin changing the culture of the sport, without being so often that it provides a big incentive to beat the test.

    2. lstomsl

      Hard to catch with regular testing when athletes are making millions and can afford doctors etc. But I'd love to see somebody do some surprise testing at your basic upper level ultra where runners feel secure because they aren't expecting to be tested. That would be very informative even if the testing were anonymous. Some enterprising race director will do it soon…

      1. @SageCanaday

        I'd like to see that. The more testing the better! It's not so much about a few grand here and there in prize money at races…it's about being able to carve out a career as a pro runner with sponsorship support, international travel opportunities and world/international rankings. I don't understand why any top runner would dope, but it seems like doper (i.e. Lance Armstrong) do it more just for the "glory" and attention and thrill of winning rather than the actual prize money. I've ran in races against guys that have been caught doping…makes me sick.

        1. _hs_

          Hi Sage, this is interesting. Is there a list of any kind available of these athletes that have been caught doping and are now active in our sport? BR, Harri

  4. djbleakman

    I think the most disturbing fact in this article is that 9% of ultra runners have used PEDs. OK, so the sample size is relatively 'low', but it's still pretty statistically valid… 9% is worrying, this is only going to get higher as the sport progresses. Just think about that for a minute. You're on the start line at a major trail ultra and one in ten of the people around your are on the gear.

    Great article Ian.

    1. Meghan Hicks

      @djbleakman, I think it’s important to note that the wording of Ian’s question could have skewed the manner in which respondents answered:

      1. He doesn’t specifically ask respondents if they used PEDs for the purpose of enhancing performance/illegal-by-WADA use or for other reasons, like recreational use or to manage a health condition under doctor’s orders. Some of the PEDs Ian listed are legal in certain doses in training (like marijuana and prescription narcotics), and some of them are legal for use in training and in competition with a WADA therapeutic exemption (for example, insulin) and therefore aren’t always illegal in their use.

      2. Really important to note is that Ian lists marijuana, a drug used very commonly around the world for recreation and WADA legal in a certain dosage in training.

      In my opinion, Ian’s question is a great starting point for conversation, but it would take asking several more detailed questions to tease out the accepted-by-WADA uses of certain drugs by respondents from those respondents using drugs 100% illegally according to WADA.

      1. JcB1979

        As someone who did take the survey, I had to answer yes because of marijuana. Which I use for recreational enjoyment, and is also legal where I live. Wheeeee!

        1. @scott_dunlap

          I'm in the same boat – took the survey, and answered "yes" because of marijuana use (outside of competition). I wouldn't consider using it during a race – the spiritual high of ultras are way too awesome to mess up. But after a solid training effort, I don't see it any different than sharing a beer with friends.

      2. djbleakman

        Agree with that entirely Meghan, it's a great starting point but does need more depth. Also, just to add a global perspective and to remove the 'US lens' on this. Around the world, there are very differing attitudes to marajuana use (something we covered in an article). So while I do applaud and support the stance of many US States in their own legalisation, along with the conditions that WADA has imposed on the use, there are some hugely different perspectives that you'll see elsewhere on it.

        But for sure, a great starting point – so much so I have an idea…

    2. trAlien

      I wouldn't be too concerned about it.

      The survey didn't cover what they used. If they ever smoked a joint at a party during a training cycle (now perfectly legal in numerous states) then it qualifies.

      Up until 2004 caffiene was prohibited, but I would wager that it was openly used in ultrarunning. Anyone who did so should also probably have said "yes".

      I think it's safe to say that the prevailing attitude on the trails is that this is a clean sport, and we are far from seeing widespread PED use at the elite level.

      1. tahoepete

        exactly my thoughts. Its a great article but the survey lacked depth. Way to generalized and only a yes or no question. Why not dive in deeper?

  5. muhua33

    While event testing is important, it won't catch most PED users unless they don't know what they are doing. Out of competition testing is better since it is recovery during training where PEDs are most beneficial. You only have to look at cycling to see how easy it is to get past the tests.

    1. another_william

      I know this is a whole new topic and opens a can of worms… but cycling has turned into this giant joke exactly because they actually started taking down one athlete after the other for doping. And all it did for them was turning them into this mess that no one takes seriously anymore, where every accomplishment is questioned.

      In my opinion cycling is the one sport right now where people are not getting past the tests 99% of the time.
      But why should other sports follow suite? They just have to look at the public relations nightmare that follows every time another cyclist is caught.

      I really appreciate Ian's post because I think this is a very, very important topic.

      1. lstomsl

        While testing is not perfect there are not many top cyclists who have escaped sanction through tests, or criminal investigations. They all get caught in the end.

        One thing testing does is make everything much more expensive and risky for ultra-runners who usually have limited budgets and limited opportunities to make a career out of running if their reputation gets damaged.

        1. @SageCanaday

          True, however there are sponsored MUT Runners out there now winning prize money at major mountain races that have been busted for EPO. 2 year ban is a slap on the wrist! #cleansport

          1. muhua33

            Plus the added question as to whether the effects of doping are lifelong, which some research suggests it is. Lifelong bans are the answer in my opinion.

      2. muhua33

        I think cycling is/has turned into to a joke because they allowed it run rampant in the 1990s now they are trying to control it. Other sports do token tests for PR purposes not for real anti doping. it depends on what you want, a large popular spectator sport where you have to dope to compete, or a clean sport. As more money moves into the sport there will be more incentive to dope. Other that Armstrong, mostly lower level pros are the ones who get busted, not the top guys. i would say it's opposite of what you think; 99% are getting by the tests and that is cycling biggest problem now. With micro dosing and new drugs emerging all the time, testers can't keep up.

        I'm too old to compete at that level now but I have two sons who are both very athletic, I would hate it to become the norm to have to dope to become a pro level athlete, especially in MUT.

  6. @CraigGaver

    Thank you for the thoughtful article. I'll confess up front that I only skimmed and plan to re-read later in detail.

    Two quick questions. First, I text-searched the WADA list and it doesn't appear that dimethyl sulfoxide is prohibited. (Please correct me if I'm mistaken.) Does this change how you feel about your friend's use? Should it?

    Second, also from the WADA list, I see that cannabinoids are prohibited during competition (but not at all times). Focusing only on ultramarathons, I've always found the case for marijuana as a PED to be very weak. The most common argument is that it gives the runner a transcendent feeling such that he can run through pain that he otherwise might not. Do you agree with this? (Of course, there are other good reasons for banning it–namely safety.)

    1. itgoes

      Thanks for your response Craig. My stab at answering your questions:
      1) Correct. DMSO is not on the WADA list. This discussion with my friend was simply my introduction to a world of runners using unique (using a by-product of the wood industry is odd is it not) and eventually illegal substances to recover faster and perform better. Runners still use the DMSO remedy today.
      2) Different people have different reactions to marijuana. For some it might calm an upset stomach, calm race-ending race-day anxiety or dull the perception of pain, others get paranoid, sit down and eat, or fall asleep. It can even act as a bronchodilator. However, if you've obtained it and are using it legally in a race that has no specific PED rules, then so be it.
      Thanks again,

  7. GritFire

    Should having a cup of morning coffee before a race or a gel with caffeine disqualify? Let he or she who has never done so throw the first stone. But there have to be some limits and fairness. More importantly, the community needs to have these kinds of direct conversations. I applaud IRF and Ian for taking on the issue.

      1. @Thescottsy

        Also, I just looked at the WADA list that is good til the end of 2015 and caffeine is no longer on the "prohibited" list for competition but is only being "monitored" to try and detect patterns of misuse.

  8. lstomsl

    Given that testing is expensive and ultra-running doesn't even have a governing body sanctioning most events to even establish a basic framework for testing, it seems unlikely that we will see widespread testing anytime soon in this sport.

    That doesn't mean there is nothing that can be done. Every sport has a culture. In cycling there is an amazing culture of fair play regarding flat tires, accidents, bathroom breaks, etc. If you attack your competitor while he has a mechanical issue you will be heavily criticized because the sport is supposed to be about athletic performance not mechanical performance. If you do it repeatedly you may be driven out of the sport. But cycling had the opposite culture regarding peds. It was assumed everyone was doing them and if you spoke out against it you were driven from the sport.

    We need to develop a culture in ultra-running of zero tolerance for dopers. That includes using coaches and coaching companies with histories of doping. Many top runners today are using Carmichael Training Systems. Chris Carmichael has a 30 year history of involvement in doping, and the athletes that pay him thousands of dollars every year are one phone call away from the guy who can give them more information about doping than anyone else in America. That is a problem for me and I believe its a huge problem for our sport. If we expect to have any credibility we need to keep people like Carmichael far away from ultra-running. Instead the elites and the media seem to be welcoming him with open arms.

    1. jdcheesman

      I'm not sure testing is that far off – the Spanish athletics federation, for example, is starting to make noises about bringing trail running under its authority. I imagine the growing popularity of the sport in other countries will have a similar result. It's too late to get a mountain marathon into the next Olympics, but the one after? And when that happens: testing.

  9. BrettSC

    Ian always rights the longest darn articles. And unlike many others, I always read every word…sometimes twice. I guess that means he is a compelling author.

    What about altitude tents? Living at altitude? I know a guy who gave himself an enema the night before an ultra (WTF). Where does it end? There are some tactics and methods which provide an advantage and are legal…and some may even provide more of a benefit than banned drugs.

    This topic is just as complicated as trying to figure out what happened to Bruce Jenner – there are just no easy answers…

    1. jekirk1295

      Agree….no easy answers. I've always wondered where the altitude tents fall in the discussion as they are "artificial" in nature and used to boost oxygen levels in blood. I don't know where the line is, guessing people could argue both sides on a lot of these items.

    2. @eLLiejG

      altitude tents and training at altitude are currently allowed by WADA. I am not saying that means it is a 'closed case' but certainly altitude tents have been much discussed and considered by WADA

  10. @BobbyTooSlow

    It's just really tough to define what is/isn't doping. Thanks, Ian, for giving these perspectives. Say I have a cold, therefore I'm ok to take Sudafed. As the cold goes away, when exactly does my use cross over from "theraputic" to "performance enhancing?" Is there a number-of-tissues-per-day threshold? Centiliters of snot produced? Same goes with albuterol — some people have asthma really bad all the time, and some people don't have it at all. And some people only have it under certain conditions. Just because you're able to convince some doctor your asthma is bad/frequent enough, are you then clear to load up on the albuterol? Some people are born with certain conditions (asthma, low testosterone, etc.) that make it more difficult to be competitive athletes, and to lead normal everyday lives. Should they have to make a choice "Ok, I'm going to take this medication so I can eat like a normal person, but it means I'm ineligible to compete in elite athletics." It can be viewed like height in basketball players; those born a certain way (tall) are just more destined to be good at certain things. But should everyone have to compete in their 100% unaltered state? How do you really define what's just "bringing someone up to normal?" I have no idea. I'm glad there are people trying to define it — and that I'm a middle-of-the-pack old man so I don't have to worry about it.

  11. senelly

    Boy are you right. The general subject of performance enhancement (PE) is not as simple as some may portray. PE has come a loooong way since an early athlete discovered training. Seriously, to "even the playing field", or as Kurt Vonnegut put it in his writings on achieving true equality in anything, we'd need to handicap folks… no training, coke-bottle-thick lenses on the sharp-eyed, weights on the backs of the swift, loud and confusing noise from headphones on exemplary students, a sock in the mouth of a high VO2 maxer, and so on. And, if the subject is limited to PE substances, what about hypoxic trainers or living at high elevations for altitude events? How about the use of weight management drugs? LSD? What a dilemma. Where do we draw the line?

    On the other hand, it seems that the use of PE's is directly proportional to the level of potential reward, that is, competition for a super bowl win or an Olympic gold medal might see a whole lot more PE stuff than a 100-mile run for a buckle. There is something to be said for the anachronistic practice of limiting athletic competition to amateurs… if there's no $ involved, cheating is sort of minimized. Of course it may never be eliminated…

  12. @garyaronhalt

    One of the things I'm curious about are the degrees of improvement gained by using PED's? Are we talking 1-3% or 5-10% increase? If my math is right, a 3% increase at a 16 hour 100 miler comes out to be like 28 minutes, I think. That kind of bump in performance would have significantly rearranged the top 10 at Western States this year, for sure…

    I'm sure results vary for users, but does anyone know something of an average of performance boost expected by PED use?

    1. lstomsl

      It would be hard to put an exact number on it but I have seen 20% quoted in cycling. We know EPO or transfusions can bump hematocrit up from low 40s to well over 50‰ so 20% increase in performance seems reasonable. But that doesn't necessarily mean 20% faster.

      Blood boosters are likely less efficient as distances increase. Karl Meltzer has reported on here that his VO2 max was in the mid 50s.i think Kilian was measured in the low 90s. But to win a 20 hour race you need more than just high oxygen throughput, you need to be smart in your training you need to stay injury free, you need to be able to digest 10,000 or more calories while you are running, you need to be mentally strong enough to suffer for that long. Karl has the experience and abilities to continue winning without the massive O2 throughput that Kilian has. Killian might still win but not by 40‰.

      Cycling coaches in the past looked not only for the fastest amateurs but amateurs who were fast while still having low hematocrit numbers because they had the efficiency and mental toughness required to win and would improve the most once put on a blood-boosting program.

    2. Dr Adrian Mulholland

      It depends on the dope and the doper…For some a 10% rise in oxygen carrying capacity can be gained via a brief pre race course of EPO, that will make you VO2Max a lot higher. EPO is not outrageously expensive or hard to get, a nurse or pharmacist even a receptionist at medical practice could snare some easy. So, 2-3 months pre race take it, and be 'clean' for the race, with a huge boost to your O2 carrying capacity and no real risk to your health. I would be more surprised if it was NOT happening that if it was, even at the high end.

      1. @DomRepta

        Where can I get it. I've wanted to try it for a while and see the difference and blog about it. It's not a joke. Can you just go ask a Dr? I want to see how it works for an average person, middle aged.

        1. Dr Adrian Mulholland

          Mate, you would have to get EPO on the sly, sorry to disappoint. I have just worked in medical practices where we keep it in the fridge along with the vaccines and other meds etc, not exactly under lock and key. If someone was motivated to do it, I'm sure they could. Personally I'm not. Cyclist mates of mine who used it for detection ratification studies all improved their TT times by 5-10%. The problem is, you take it too far and you drop dead from clotting problems and can develop antibodies to the EPO, which makes you transfusion dependant the rest of your life, joy-joy. Nobody can evade the first law of thermodynamics.

        1. Dr Adrian Mulholland

          With the winner of WSER being a pharmacist, I was waiting for someone to say something. All I mean is, a pharmacist with motivation to get hold of some EPO via a script double order, missing stock, you name it, could easily and cheaply get a vial of EPO. It's not crack, its a legal drug dispensed regularly for serious chronic illness. Same for almost any other PED. If Ultra runners want to believe the sport is 'clean' I would think a blanket test of the whole field at any ultra race across the world would immediately reverse that opinion. 90% of positives would be 'Huh, WTF??' 10% would be active cheats. My guess is a 10-5% positive rate. I would also bet our WSER winner in 2015 was/is 100% clean.

          1. itgoes

            Dr. Mulholland – Thanks for your post. I'll just note, for the record, that our 2015 WSER winner no longer works in the pharmacy business. Cheers! Ian

  13. StephanieHowe01

    A controversial topic indeed. Great job Ian.

    It's really difficult to draw the line as to what constitutes an unfair advantage. What I think is sad, is why we even need to have this discussion. Can't we all just be good people and follow the rules? It blows my mind to think of how one could feel good about winning if they cheated. Doesn't that defeat the purpose? I often see it justified by monetary incentives, but I still don't get it. I am not motivated by money. The reason I run (and I hope many others) is to push my personal limits. I love the feeling I get from finding my edge, then pushing past it. Taking something to enhance my threshold seems to defeat the purpose.

    I understand that performance is a big part of why we run. I do my very best to prepare myself for competitions and you better believe I am going to push my body as hard as I can. THAT is why we race…is it not? Does the external result matter as much? I like to think not. Sure it's nice to win, but isn't it even better when you cross the finish line after an epic battle with yourself?

    When we think about running in that way, it seems silly that one would risk their health to gain a 3% advantage. I don't get it. I understand that sponsorships and prize money from winning races are a big motivator for some, but I don't see that as a valid reason to cheat. Most sponsors I know want to support good, genuine individuals- not win at all cost athletes. Ultra running is a bit different due mainly in part to the individuals it attracts and less money (so far), but I still trust my fellow competitors 100%. I'm a bit naive, and I know someday I'll probably be heartbroken, but until then I'll give the benefit of the doubt to be my fellow athletes.

    Commenting on the "grey area" for use of substances for medicinal vs performance….I think it all comes back to being a good person. We KNOW when we are using something because we need it vs because we "need" it. Yes, I take advil when I have a headache. But would I take it during a race if it would help delay some muscle pain….no way! Why not? Because that is part of racing. My legs are going to hurt. I trust that others will do the same too. Because I think like that it's simple to separate the two. The grey area is not so grey.

    Testing may help keep drug use at bay by fear factor, but I think it's less than ideal. I shutter the thought about being on the whereabouts list and having to give my location in 1 hour increments every single day. I love Sabrina Little's (humorous) documentation about being on USADA's testing list:
    It really made me think about how we approach testing in sport. And my conclusion is that it's not very effective. Having a few selective people on the list who will be tested periodically throughout the entire year is not going to help the overall issue (ESPECIALLY when people like Sabrina or Ellie Greenwood are on that list….kind of a waste of money USADA). My thought is that there might be some elites abusing drugs, but I think it's probably more prevalent in the mid-packers, the B+ athletes as my friends used to call them. Almost good enough to be elite, but not quite. They've had a taste of getting close to that level and they desperately want to get there. But they aren't winning races, so they won't be tested. That's a total generalization, but I think that's where I'd spend some more time testing.

    It all comes back to being a good person though. If you think it might be wrong, then it probably is and you shouldn't do it. Just think back to being a 4 year old on the playground- you have more friends if you are nice, fair, and play clean. And if that's not enough, then one word: Karma.

    1. @eLLiejG

      Great to hear your comments Stephanie! I agree that I think I too am a little naive and think that most of my fellow competitors in North America at the front of the pack of ultras are clean, maybe they are, maybe they're not? I am totally with you on personal satisfaction being my #1 motivator to perform well at running and clearly if I used PEDs that would remove any personal satisfaction as I would know I have cheated. However I've also had a taster of other nationalities with other mindsets who I guess don't have the same moral compass and outlook re PEDs as I think most North American top level ultra runners have. To sit at a table post Two Oceans in 2013 and drink a celebratory glass of wine with my Nedbank team mate and winner, Natalia Volgina, and then to find out she failed doping control – by bubble burst big time and my eyes were opened.

      1. AliceGT

        I really think such nationality based generalizations are unnecessary and offensive. There are honest people and dishonest people.

        1. jdcheesman

          I have to agree – look at the doping scandals in baseball, athletics and cycling and it's hard to conclude that US athletes are less likely to be doping that others.

    2. corunr

      Maybe I'm reading this incorrectly but are you saying that from your perspective, anyone taking ibuprofen during a race is cheating/doping? What if you woke up the morning of Western States and had a headache, would you take some Advil knowing that it will be in your system for 6-8 hours? I think it's a bit naive to say that if you view this a certain way there is no grey area. As far as karma goes, I couldn't agree more.

      1. StephanieHowe01

        Out of context dude. What I meant is that we KNOW the difference between taking something because you need it vs taking something as a performance enhancement. I didn't mean it literally.

        1. corunr

          Apologize for reading too much into that statement. At a personal level, you are exactly right and that's a great way to look at it. I just didn't read your post that way.

        2. _hs_

          Hi Stephanie, can you comment on if there is a consensus on the use of ibuprofen/NSAIDS/other painkillers in general in ultra running, i.e. is it considered right/wrong? I was under the impression that a lot of runners routinely take some painkillers during races to alleviate pains in various body parts, and normal painkillers are not listed by WADA among the banned substances. Thanks and best regards, Harri

          1. StephanieHowe01

            I should have used an arbitrary example, such as "pixie stix" instead of an actual drug. I'm not picking on NSAIDS. If you need them, use them! My point was just that we know when we are taking a substance that we need vs. because we think it will give us an advantage (not for it's intended use). Legal substances that is.

    3. EmersonTA

      Stephanie, at your level of running you can bet you are racing dopers. Dope is too easy to get and too hard to catch with the limited resources in the ultra world. Cheating is not a recent phenomenon; it is as old as man/woman-kind. Indeed, I know some in Europe who view doping as part of game. Thus, they rationalize doping as not cheating; this is what Armstrong did in the Oprah interview, redefining "cheating" to mean that it is acceptable to break the rules if others are doing so. Unfortunately, projecting your morals on those without morals — or those with different cultures or value systems — is an exercise in frustration. Good luck in your training an racing — give 'em hell!

    4. djbleakman

      Agree, money isn't always the driver… narcissism and sociopathic behaviour are big contributors I'd say… it's a societal thing…

  14. RunningStupid

    Great approach and discussion with a definite hot button issue!! Thanks for writing this, Ian! Funny thing; as I type this, Ozzy's "Breaking All the Rules" just started playing in the background! :)

    Personally, I think Western States would be a great place to start testing! It's already considered the Super Bowl of 100's! On top of that, they already collect and test blood samples! How much more would it take to look for banned PED's (Are they secretly doing this anyway? I would, just out of curiosity!)? Heck, if they announced testing the lottery would probably be easier!! ;) After that, however, what do we do with this info? Without an ultra running governing body the only sanctions would be public opinion! I think Stephanie Howe nailed it above: Karma!

    All Day!

  15. Duluthian

    Kristi Anderson, a competitive age-group ultra runner, tested positive for DHEA in 2013. See this article in masterstrack:

    Its tone is that USADA and USATF have no business telling ultra runners when they can use steroids. They talk about a TUE, but TUEs are never given for steroids.

    Lots of anti-aging clinics prescribe DHEA and testosterone, and it sounds like she really had low testosterone. But still, in my opinion, she should have known better than to compete.

      1. Duluthian

        Interesting. Thanks for the link, Meghan.

        To my knowledge, she is the only US ultra/trail runner ever caught doping (and it sounds like she wasn't doing it intentionally).

    1. lstomsl

      I dated a lady several years back who had been taking testosterone since going through menopause. She was a mountain biker but got into running. She had also been a natural athlete all her life (both parents had been pro athletes) but not very competitive. She signed up for a few races with me and unlike me, was pretty dominant, even beating all the men several years ago in a race that is now part of the US Skyrunning series.

      I know she was taking the testosterone for medical reasons. She never even would have raced if I hadn't encouraged her, and she certainly had some natural ability, but I always wondered how much she benefited from the testosterone. Fortunately, despite her success, she didn't really like racing so it never became a moral dilemma for me, except when she continually dropped me on our training runs….

    2. Buzz

      This was a very interesting case. Her doctor recommended DHEA (available on supermarket shelfs) for her terribly low hormonal levels; as a single and working mother of three she really needed something to hold it all together. All studies categorically state DHEA has no performance benefit.

      The Rules were created to level the playing field for elite and professional runners; a working mother got roped in. Running is supposed to improve your health, not worsen it, so I hope she continues to take care of herself first.

    3. oldfartrunner

      If there was not an advantage it would not be on the banned list. There is a good thread over on about DHEA. If you are going to compete at the highest level in masters competition, you should know what is allowed and what is not. I have tried it as a 55+ runner because I read it could help with aging issues. The side effects were not worth any benefits on the quality of life side of things. I had blurred vision, rapid heart rate, leg cramps, couldn't sleep. This was on a low level dose of 3mg a day. On the running side, I could not tell much a difference. I did not compete when I was trying it either, just during the off season. There is good reason why we lose testosterone as we age, it is because our system cannot handle the increased stress these type of drugs allow us to attain. We end up with a stroke, a heart attack, or other injury from pushing the system too hard too long. These anti-aging clinics are a joke, maybe a few % really needs help, but they are trying to get just about all men over 40 on HGH or T. Hey, we all get lower levels as we age, it is a part of the process. If we have enough energy to still race an compete when we are 50+, we should be able to do it within the bounds of the rules. Coffee works for me, and it is allowed by the rules! :) If I win my age group or out right, I want it to be clean and fair for my fellow competitors. And I can sleep well on a victory too.

  16. RandySavaged

    I've done several drugs during races to help with my Plantar Fasciitis. I did even more when I was a professional wrestler…but that was just for fun. Drugs are how I stayed awake driving city to city with the Iron Sheik. Let me give you a list: Speed, Acid, Cocaine, Marijuana, Ecstasy, the Blue Pill, the Red Pill, Steroids, HGH, Booze, and even Beer. IPA's, Lagers, Hefe's, Pilsner's, even that crappy dark stuff served cold. I could go on and on. None of it helped my running, I did change shoes and went from a 8mm drop to 4mm drop and let me tell you I went from the back of the pack to just above that. I've never been tested since most of the testers went home long after I crossed the finishline. Take it for what it worth but I would never suggest running an ultra on acid. It is scary.

  17. @thebobbyorion

    This guy is a winner in my book:

    Sergio Motsoeneng, 2010, Comrades [Banned substance ]– Was also DQed in 1999 for running the race relay style with his identical twin brother.

  18. kconnelly8233

    Interesting subject.

    The competitive part of me doesn't care about PEDs in trail races. I'm not elite, never will be, and don't gauge my success or fortify my ego based on how I perform vs. others. When my ego gets involved in races it's purely from an internal standpoint — finding my own walls, and (hopefully) finding a way through them (without PEDs).

    As an avid fan of the sport, I have a harder time with PEDs as they pertain to elites. For the elite performances in elite races to really mean anything from a fan perspective, there has to be a level of integrity there, right?

    Not sure what the answer is on the elite side, but when money is involved for prizes and/or sponsorships, perhaps testing should be implemented? Per the article, Comrades is already doing this. Is New Balance, Nike, etc. doing this from a sponsorship standpoint? Sure, there will always be cheaters cheating the tests as well, but the honor system is a bit naive, IMO.

  19. djbleakman

    I hope this isn't gatecrashing the party – if it is, please do remove the comment irunfar – have no issues if you do. But this article gave me an idea to test this further and build on what Ian has done. I've set-up a very short two-minute survey to understand a little more about drug use in our sport (or not!)… I'll be writing up the results for Ultra168 and will happily make the results available for free to anyone, including irunfar, Ian or anyone else interested. No hidden agenda here ort personal gain to be had, just purely interested in what's going on.

    It's 100% anonymous, no data collected by me, just answers to the questions:

  20. craigsathletes

    Great Article. Just in the case of Mamabolo at Comrades. The substance that was found in his system actually comes from a Supplement that he used, which is commonly used by Body Builders etc and can be purchased at any pharmacy etc. But it just goes to show that now days as a professional athlete you have to always check on the ingredients of any supplement that you use to make sure it does not contain any banned substances.

    No Comrades dont do any out of competition testing. It has been suggested that Comrades contenders are tested prior to the race so that come race day contenders should know the competitors are all clean (for what its worth) and then do an additional test after the race. There is pretty much no out of competition testing done in SA – to the best of my knowledge.

    1. @eLLiejG

      In my opinion it is vital that if out of competition testing is done then it is always by a national anti doping authority and not by an individual race, strict protocols need to be adhered to to ensure athlete safety from contaminated samples etc and I personally would not have confidence in individual races to have the set up to do this. Also, I do not know much about out of competition testing on SA athletes other than both Caroline Wostmann and Charne Bosman (1st & 2nd at 2015 Comrades) were both subject to several out of competition tests in the months prior to this years Comrades

  21. MountainRoche

    Great article! I am always stunned how open pros/elites are about their thoughts on who is doping (and the prevalence of doping) when you get a few beers in them. Next article suggestion: trail runner gossip after 3 IPAs.

  22. TatooshChris

    Very timely article with the king of doping in the latest Trail Runner magazine. If we want to be serious about PED's in ultrarunning, known and notorious drug cheats should never be given press and those who try should be shamed enough for it to never happen again.

  23. Y_carrillo

    Great article Ian.

    I've always had a moment of pause before a large race wondering who is using PED. I think ultrarunning, in the amateur sense of the sport (ie, running for the joy of it, not for money) tends to mitigate the potential problem. However, i think the root issue is not that grey area of use of medications for legitimate ailments, I think comprehensive exemptions exist. The root issue is that decision that we all face when we "come upon" that 100 dollar bill on the ground and you suspect it fell out of the pocket of that person hiking up ahead on the trail… or the tax credit you know you can fudge and get away with some extra cash.

    Our character is not measured by what others see, but when no one is around. Also, consider that example, happening upon the Benjamin Franklin on your own and your own decision process as to what to do, or if you happened to see other people around you finding bills on the ground and grabbing as many as they could hold in their fists.

    We've come to know (tragically) that in pro and even amateur cycling PED use has become rampant, part of the unspoken culture that permits and even encourages use. When you begin to compete at a certain level and your peers begin to visit a specific doctor or trainer and their results improve dramatically i think people generally will tend to say "I want a piece of that pie too!", so somewhere along the line there is a tipping point.

    I love the rag tag tumbly culture of Ultrarunning that I've experienced here in the US, i think it naturally insulates itself to the seriousness that other sports tend to lend themselves, it also becomes a much more welcoming place to practice a sport that most people consider appalling and awe inspiring all at once. I can't speak of other locales and their relationship to PED, haven't run in Spain (my birth country) or other European countries. While I don't think people are more propense to cheat than others, I think that PED use culture can grow and fester in a sporting community if there is no discussion about it, and if the amateur ranks of the sports aren't healthy. And i think it's at the junior and amateur levels where this needs to be rooted out. Obviously, high school football or college football will always have a larger draw towards a successful and lucrative career athlete than the desire to run 100 miles under 15 hours. However, with the sport growing and more runners coming from amateur and semi-pro track and road distance running, I fear that the culture of Ultrarunning will shift towards a performance, "no holds barred" mentality that fosters use. Couple the danger of a culture shift with brutal racing schedules of more than 4 major races. I don't think it's happening right now, but for the people that RD and for the runners that coach and lead younger generations into the sport it's imperative to foster a community that prizes the experience and the camaraderie over numbers and victories.

    1. justinhong

      I agree Y. As long as most ultras only offer a buckle/finishers' medal there are few incentives to cheat. But I enjoy seeing (I.e. through irf's live coverage) deep starting fields as much as the next person… Which seems mainly possible due to sponsorships and prize money… So it's tough to see how to balance these issues (although I know there's also a general sentiment amongst some in the trail running community that if the sport never got huge, that might not be such a tragedy. More fun for the rest of us!)

  24. Luke_B

    Thanks for bringing this up, and excellent article!

    I personally don't think there's any way the competitive ultra field is entirely clean. It's just too easy and safe and effective.

    We went through this with cycling where we learned that the following arguments are entirely irrelevant:
    The financial rewards for cheating don't outweigh the risk.
    These people care so much about their bodies they wouldn't risk doing something harmful.
    These are all good people who love the sport, they just wouldn't do it.
    -and even-
    They test all the time and the athlete always passes.

    None of that matters. Only testing matters, and by that I mean out of competition surprise testing of the type Ellie describes on a regular enough basis to establish individual baselines – in other words biological passport type testing. Testing new record holders in competition is just to signal to competitors that you are against doping and you will keep some honest people honest and weed out some people who didn't think about it enough to put in an effort to defeat your test.

    Slight change of gears – who cares about winning? When you're 45, 55, 65, 75 or whenever and can't train as much or as hard as you want because your body just doesn't recover like it used to there will come a point in time when you will have to give up ultrarunning, or you could go see a doctor and have your insurance pay for medically safe and effective treatments that oh by the way are on this list. You'd never win anyway, but you can still get out there. Who cares? It's not about winning, it's about running!

    1. geezer123

      Don't kid yourself. The competition in the masters and grandmasters catagories definitely exists! This is the age that injuries definitely play a role and the use of testosterone speeds recovery and should not be used as it is an unfair advantage. There many course records for >40 or >50 or >60! The use of PED is definitely and advantage at this age group!

  25. lstomsl

    Testing is great. Especially surprise, out of competition testing, and it is definitely effective albeit certainly not 100% effective.

    But what also needs to happen is to change the culture of our sport. Right now I think everyone wants to believe that we are still a bunch of hippies running blissfully in the woods, and nobody wants to make waves by calling out their peers for questionable behavior. The media are mostly amateurs who are more concerned about continuing to make a living and hanging out with their friends than they are about clean sport and valid journalism. As a result I continue to see questionable behaviors from the elites who have absolutely no fear of being called out about it. It is the wild west in ultra-running. Until the people who are being cheated by dopers take a stand and call for zero tolerance of athletes, coaches, and doctors who have a history very little will change.

    [Editor’s Note: A paragraph has been removed that was inflammatory in nature, accusing specific runners of potentially unethical behavior, and against iRunFar’s comment policy. -Meghan]

    In short, we need sponsors to take a hard line on their behavior of their athletes and have zero tolerance for association with people with a history of doping. We need media that is not afraid to ask direct questions to get athletes on record. We need athletes to police themselves and call out dodgy behaviors by their peers, and be vocal about their position on doping, like Sage Canady has done multiple times.

    While testing has caught many cyclists and road runners, much of what we know has come from athletes speaking out, and criminal investigations. Omerta disintegrates quickly once a grand jury with subpoena powers and potential perjury charges get involved, as we saw in the Lance Armstrong, Operation Puerto, and other cases. All you need is a few people to take a courageous stand and the whole house of cards falls down.

    1. lstomsl

      What a crock of shit. I didn't accuse anyone of anything. This is exactly the reason why this problem is going to get worse before it gets better. The media consistently defends, makes excuses for, and refuses to even allow discussion of the topic.

      1. corunr

        The coaching angle is an interesting one. I would agree that it wasn't accusatory either but in the end that is beside the point. If you have a coach who is part of an organization that has been implicated in the past, its should raise a few red flags (but we need to be careful that it's not guilt by association). One of the great things about ultra running is the close knit group but this may also limit athletes policing themselves and calling others out for questionable behaviour / results / etc.

        1. lstomsl

          Yes, coaching is a critical issue in our response to doping. Ask the 30+ east Africans who have been busted recently. Or the Russians. Or the folks at the Nike Oregon Project, or hundreds of cyclists. Most get introduced to doping by their coaches. Keeping coaches with histories of doping their athletes out of ultra-running is the most important thing we can do to keeping the sport clean.

          Does that mean an athlete who uses such a coach is automatically guilty. Of course not. But it does tell me that those athletes are not committed to clean sport. They are ethically challenged and they have access to both doping materials and doping methods. To me their results are questionable and the sport itself is damaged by their decisions. The way to prevent this is for the ultra-running community to collectively say it is not acceptable to allow such coaches in our sport. If people speak out, sponsors will respond and if sponsors respond then athletes will have no choice but to seek other coaches.

          Judging by the popularity of my comments I think most people agree with me that is a problem. But hitting a thumbs up button is different than being vocal with your name attached to it. And the editors of this site repeatedly defend and excuse the athletes who use those coaches and censor those who speak out. They provide save haven for ethically challenged athletes to credit their coaches performance for their success, and thereby encouraging others to seek out the same coaches without allowing anyone to question it. They are damaging the sport by their actions.

          1. Meghan Hicks


            It’s hard for me to articulate here how cruel and just plain wrong you consistently are about the ‘editors of this site.’ Many commenters to this article don’t know that you have, I’m not sure how many times over the years, made similar/identical comments about us/iRunFar. In that time, you have clearly developed a deep well of negative opinion about Bryon, myself, and iRunFar; Bryon and I’s personal and professional ethics; and the ethical journey of this website. That is fine, you are entitled to your opinion, but I would like to make it clear to you and anyone else reading this that your opinion is 100% based on third-hand observation or perhaps even-further-detached speculation. Not once have you written us personally, called us, or engaged us in a conversation beyond the bounds of these comments to gather real information with which you then form your opinions. I would even argue that, when we’ve interacted with each other in the comments sections of iRunFar’s articles, you’ve never been inquisitive about us. (Bryon has written you by email once, but the result of that conversation was like our interactions in the comments section of articles.) It’s quite sad that your opinion about us is so well developed but that it is based in so little fact.

            If you would have taken the time to have a real conversation with us, at any time over these years, you might have learned the following:

            1. I personally share the same opinion as you that I don’t want Chris Carmichael (or Lance Armstrong for that matter, since he has experimented with trail running and racing over the years) associated with our sport.

            2. We publicize doping penalties of athletes participating in trail and ultrarunning around the world, and have done so for several years. Should we ever catch wind of alleged doping or other cheating, we’ll investigate it.

            3. We have and will not give attention to the two athletes currently competing in trail and ultrarunning who have served penalties away from the sport for doping (beyond the notation of their position at the front of a race if they are competing in something we are covering). And the third, whose doping conviction was made but then overturned, we treat them with the same policy.

            4. As time, resources, and opportunity allow, we are committed to working to maintain a cheating-free sport.

            5. We do not operate iRunFar so that we can hang out with trail and ultrarunners. If we wanted to do that, we’d simply be trail and ultrarunners who hung out, volunteered at, and ran races and community events. iRunFar involves an incredible time commitment that almost entirely precludes us from ‘hanging out’ with runners when we are working at events. We operate iRunFar to tell this sport’s story.

            6. We ask that all commenters to iRunFar behave with each other like they would in person, no matter the topic, no matter if we agree or disagree with their argument, no matter if we know their argument is correct or incorrect. The motive is simply respect, and that’s it.

            7. The ethical journey of this website is something that Bryon and I talk about probably weekly, if not more. It is one of our highest priorities. Our ethical goals inform every decision we make.

            If you wish to continue participating in iRunFar’s comment discussions, you simply need to follow the comment policy, like everyone else. As stated before, the comment policy does not squelch yours or anyone’s opinions. It only requires you to express your opinions in ways that are respectful of every member of the community, and in the same way that you would express your opinions if this was real life and we were all talking face to face.

            Finally, I invite you to get to know Bryon and/or I before you continue to express opinions about us and our intent with iRunFar that are based on zero facts or experience with us.

      2. Buzz

        I do not know the content of the edited paragraph so pardon me if this comment is off-base. I do know rumors are not helpful – we all state our general opinions, but if anyone has thoughts or information on a specific person it would be best to share it with the authorities, not in public, which is the same as in any other lawful situation.

        1. lstomsl

          Buzz, I understand that nobody wants unfounded rumors. But unfounded rumors won’t gain any traction. Such things will take care of themselves without need for such extreme censorship. In the comments I made that were censored I mentioned no names. I didn’t even mention the name of a race. I merely mentioned an example of behavior that certainly raised red flags for me at a recent event.

          You of all people should know that there is no authority to report such things to. Doping in sport is illegal in some countries but not in the US. Very few races in the US fall under any sanctioning body. You could see someone getting a transfusion in the streets of Ouray or Auburn and there would be nobody to call who would have any authority to do anything about it. The only way to prevent such things is for the community to have frank and open discussion about what is acceptable and what is not acceptable and speak out against athletes that violate the ethics of the community. That’s not rumor – mongering, it is collective self – policing until such a time as we have an authority. It’s still the wild west in ultra – running and is up to the citizens to stand – up for themselves until a sheriff is elected.

          1. Meghan Hicks

            @lstomsl, while you didn’t name names, you described enough details about a situation that most fans of the sport would have known exactly which athletes and what situation you were writing about. As you very well know, slanderous, accusational comments about athletes are not tolerated on this website.

            1. Amazing999

              Imagine this was a cycling forum during the height of the Lance Armstrong era; how would such censorship of that discussion be viewed now?

            2. Amazing999

              This is like a cycling forum that censors any talk of Froome's 2013 Mt Ventoux power meter data.

            3. EmersonTA

              Meghan, truth is a defense to a slander allegation. If you are alleging that @Istomsl committed slander, that itself is a serious allegation — unless you have facts that his comments are, in fact, slanderous (i.e. untrue).

    2. @eLLiejG

      One example of a sponsor backing 'clean sport' was after Natalia Volgina failed antidoping controls at Two Oceans in 2013 I believe that once she had served her ban she wished to once again compete for South African Running club Nedbank and Nedbank refused to have her part of the team. I agree that actions like this from sponsors and financial backers of runners is critical.

    3. Amazing999

      Can you please post the censored content to another site so we can judge it for ourselves and all have an open honest discussion of this topic? Make it googleable. Unfortunately this site's owners consistently censor discussion of this topic.

      1. Meghan Hicks

        @Amazing999, it’s unfortunate that you’ve chosen to engage in this conversation with no data points. You said, “Unfortunately this site’s owners consistently censor discussion of this topic.” The truth is that there are currently 115 comments to this post as of my writing you, and we’ve redacted one paragraph from one comment. And there have been 2,571 comments to iRunFar since January 1, 2015 until right now, and, again, just one paragraph from one comment to this article has been redacted. Our effort is to create an online discussion that mirrors how people would speak to each other in real life, and our comment policy was formed in that light. It’s the truth that our intent is as simple as that.

  26. @DomRepta

    I love this topic. Without testing, I think good sense can prevail. Results have to be scrutinized, performances from one to the next need to be examined and anomalies questioned. If you are winning huge races one year, then seem to vanish – maybe it's time to question. If something seems super-human, it probably is. Without testing, what else is there. I don't think "trusting" fellow competitors has worked in any sport to date that has money involved. The sport can't yet afford to be testing. Sports has evolved to a place where you need to "prove you did not do this" I think.
    Funny enough, I am starting to think about using marijuana for performance. I'm 42, not going to win any thing. But it can help recovery, ease pain/inflammation, and bring enjoyment. If it helps performance, bonus. Also, just learning what a aphedrine stack is from the article. That looks interesting too. Living at elevation is an advantage?
    That's a funny debate too. Using PED to win, or using so you can keep doing what you love. I am going to start with the second part of that I think.

  27. ssiguaw

    While Ian Torrence is an excellent runner, his article contains inaccuracies that really make me doubt any of the statistics quoted. As one example Ian states "With 8.5% of the American population diagnosed with asthma, more than 9% dealing with diabetes, 12% developing thyroid problems, 25% of men over 30 with low testosterone, 40% battling cancer, and 70% currently using prescription drugs, we can be fairly certain that PED use is occurring in every ultramarathon in the U.S. due to medical necessity."
    Now come on Ian, according to the American Cancer Society, 1/2 of 1% of the American population has cancer (1,658,370 people out of a population of over 300,000,000). Accurate facts are necessary for any article's usefulness to ultrarunners or runners for that matter. In this case this article cannot be relied on.

    1. Meghan Hicks


      The American Cancer Society estimates that there will be 1,658,370 NEW cancer cases in 2015. Your/that number doesn’t account for individuals who had cancer prior to 2015. There are approximately 14.5 million people alive in America today who have or are in cancer remission, according to the American Cancer Society. The American Cancer Society also estimates that males living in the U.S. have a 43.3% chance of developing cancer over the course of their lives, and women a 37.8% chance. The average across sex, thus, is 40.6%. Ian’s stat on cancer is correct; roughly 40% of US readers of this article are/will battle cancer in our lives. The numbers are terribly frightening, aren’t they? (Data here:

      1. Matiasalaska

        Yes, the numbers Meghan posted are frightening. However, Ian's statement "(With) 40 percent battling cancer" is in the present tense, and that is not accurate. 40 percent are NOT battling cancer right now as they race an ultra — instead 40 percent will develop cancer at some point in their lives. Ian's cancer statistic should be changed to state the percentage of people currently with cancer (which is 4.5 percent, or 14.5 million from a population of 318.9 million).
        Also, it would be helpful to know what the 9 percent admitted to taking in Ian's anonymous survey: marijuana is simply not the same as EPO or steroids — but is treated as such in the survey.

  28. Meghan Hicks

    @lstomsl, all of the comments readers make to this article are going through moderation before they are publicly visible, because we wish to maintain a constructive conversation about a very sensitive issue. Because we have other things going on, we are approving comments in groups and as we get a chance to check in. All of your comments have been approved, though one paragraph was redacted from a comment you made at 1:37pm Mountain Time because it did not adhere to iRunFar’s comment policy.

    1. Amazing999

      You obviously do not have too much else going on since you clearly have time to go through and edit the discussion to your liking.

  29. @RaddGnar

    What are the rules for ultrarunning? Most races don't fall under WADA do they? So you have a situation like 1990s MLB – ultra-competitive, dedicated, professional athletes with no official restrictions on PEDs. It's only natural (fair?) that some will do everything within the rules to maximize performance. And at some races, EPO and anabolic steroids are within those rules.

    Correct me if I'm wrong and my point, therefore, invalid. (I didn't read the WADA list of banned substances when I raced the Rut with lots of caffeine and residual THC…)

  30. ad

    All testing will do is weed out the stupid dopers, even with out of comp. testing. For example, neither Marion Jones nor lance Armstrong ever tested positive despite being the most successful known dopers in memory.

  31. kconnelly8233

    The pro marijuana "athletes" crack me up. I ain't a scientist, but know how I know marijuana is terrible for you? Every stoner I know is dead set convinced it's the panacea for healthy living. Lol

  32. C_Bo

    This debate is a waste of time in some respects because PED's have always been a part of sports even as far back as the ancient greeks who ate bulls testicles in the belief it would make them stronger (they won't btw). As such i won't labour that point. It's a part of sport, theres testing etc, it's not perfect. At the elite level in ultrarunning this will likely become an issue when someone well known tests positive. I hope it doesn't but as more money comes into the sport and with people able to eek out a living from it the temptation will be there.

  33. danger9916

    since anything could be construed as cheating why not allow for anything and everything? open the doors, take the drugs you wish for the performance you desire. i see this as the only way to level the playing field. certainly those willing to take the greatest risk will have the potential for the greatest reward. i'll continue to run and i won't be upset by those that beat me while on a performance enhancing regimen. the drugs are already here. let's admit that and stop turning a blind eye toward them. dan

  34. DenverGregor

    I would love to hear more about why marijuana would be included as a performance enhancer as opposed to alcohol, tobacco and caffeine.

    1. @JustRightRaces

      Here's a quote I've seen in a few places: "In the World Anti-Doping Association's current ban on competing while stoned, the organization cites studies that show marijuana can decrease anxiety and increase airflow to the lungs by acting as a bronchodilator, something that decreases resistance in the airways."

      I most often hear that the painkiller affect is what runners/athletes look for. In the case of an ultra, you could go those extra 10-15 miles (or more) before real muscle pain set in. I use cannabis tinctures, lotions, edibles for pain killing and inflammation after training/racing and it's miraculous. I personally wouldn't consume beforehand b/c mastering the pain is part of the deal, right?

  35. Max

    I think through testing is important in our sport and needs to happen now. The only way to keep elite level ultra running is to accept the inedible fact that people will dope and elect to put up with whatever testing is good enough to actually work. Now as to what's "enough testing" is for health professionals, event organizers, and elite athletes to work together to figure out.
    Like everyone else I really don't want to find out a hero of mine cheated to success, and the only way to minimize that risk is to create a sport that actively discourages doping through whatever methods work. Pretending that ultrarunning is too pure, or lacks the money, for cheating will cause what happened in cycling to happen here.

  36. @trailrunz

    Ian, my apologies for only just replying to this thread now. I have had a bad case of man-flu and have only just managed to get half of my brain working. In the Tarawera Ultra community, we discussed an anti-doping policy a few months ago. Through a consensus with our athletes, our advisory board and Drug Free Sport NZ, we have drafted the following and posted it on our website:

    " Tarawera Ultra – Anti-Doping Policy and Statement.
    As a privately-owned event and a major event in the sport of trail ultra-running globally, we are working hard to ensure our sport remains clean of performance enhancing drugs. To this end, race management is in regular communication with Drug Free Sport NZ regarding anti-doping programmes. From these communications, we have taken the following steps:

    1. Race management reserves the right to drug test any athlete competing in this event – from the time of registration to the completion of the event. Agreement to submit to drug testing is a condition of entry. Any testing will be conducted in a manner consistent with the requirements of the World Anti-Doping Code including the WADA Prohibited List. (See link below for more information on those requirements.)

    2. No athlete that is currently serving a sanction for violating sports anti-doping rules may enter the Tarawera Ultramarathon or Tarawera Trail Marathon &50km.

    3. No athlete that was issued a sanction between 1 January 2013 and 31 Dec. 2014 for violating sports anti-doping rules may enter the Tarawera Ultramarathon or Tarawera Trail Marathon &50km until 1 Jan. 2017.

    Race management will disqualify the entry of any athlete violating (2) or (3) who attempts to enter these events.

    Race management will provide anti-doping education to our participants, in conjunction with Drug Free Sport NZ. Considerable resources for athletes, coaches and support staff is on the Drug Free Sport NZ website: "

    The main reason for the policy is 1) to state firmly that our event is against the use of PEDs in our sport and 2) to reduce the chance of a known drug cheat from turning up on our start-line and ruining the reputation of our event. Point #2 has happened recently in a New Zealand cycle race. A currently banned professional cyclist turned up to a large New Zealand road cycling race as an age grouper, won the race as fastest non-elite rider and won a brand new car. That race had no rules preventing him from competing.

    I would encourage all trail ultra event organisers, for both large and small events, to at least formulate an anti-doping statement and make it known to your athletes.

    Having said all that, the big roadblock for us comes with testing. It is currently beyond our financial budget to test and beyond our ability to randomly test out of season (our preferred option) since many of our highest ranked competitors may be spread across several countries. Notwithstanding that, Drug Free Sport NZ are willing to help us in some capacity if we ever do decide to test.


    Paul Charteris

  37. steve_gh

    Interesting article and comments.

    I have a couple of points, particularly around PED use and avoidance in non-elite ultrarunners. If drug testing becomes more common, then it is more likely to affect the non-elites as well as the elites, and I suspect that there are a few problems here.

    1. The ITRA claims to be a governing body for trail-running, although it is not clear how well accepted they are. What is their stance on PED. I believe that they have close connections with the UTMB organisers, who do have an anti-PED policy.
    2. While I understand the issue around PED use in elite athletes, there is likely to be a lot of accidental / non-abusive PED use going on amongst most trail runners, as Ian states in the article. The procedures around TUEs is opaque at best (for example, for the UTMB races a couple of years back, one was directed to a french website listing banned drugs, and those for which TUEs were available – but it was very hard to work out what the drugs I had been prescribed in the UK mapped against). Then you need to get a TUE.. I've just looked up the Asthma TUE documentation, which would include any hay-fever medication. It's an 11 page document written in medical jargon. Basically you have have to have a specialist medical report (ie from a specialist in the field) with a whole bunch of lab tests to even apply for a TUE. I can't see anyone outside the elite going down this route.
    3. I know ultrarunners (average folks, not elite athletes) who ask their doctors to alter prescriptions to avoid drugs which be considered PEDs. For example, many of the more effective hay fever remedies are steroid based, as are many drugs prescribed against excema-type skin conditions. It can't be good that people are potentially putting their health at risk because the effort of navigating the TUE system is too hard.
    4. A light weight TUE type system for non-elites might seem very sensible at first sight, but in practice there would be significant data privacy issues. Medical data is generally considered to be very sensitive (with good reason). Put bluntly, Ultra races don't have either the expertise to secure this data, or the cash to pay some-one to do it.

    I would like to see any evolution of PED testing in ultrarunning targeted at elite runners only. Maybe it should be as simple as "If you start in the elite category, you are subject to random drugs testing. If not, then you won't be. "

  38. djbleakman

    Hi all, I've just released the results of our study into drugs and ultras, which aimed to go into a little more depth. Over 550 people participated, so a healthy sample, with nearly half from North America. I was curious as to what the benchmark might be when we started to separate out the questions around in and out of competition, as well as socially and for medically prescribed reasons too… thanks if you did take part in this, here's the link to the study results – Ian very kindly added some perspective too:

  39. Joey

    Something I thought about was that marijuana is on the list for a during performance enhancer but alcohol is not. I feel that both substances have very similar effects to the body and mind. And this thought reminded me of when I heard that Kilian took a shot of tequila at the 2014 Hardrock (not sure if it was true or not).

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