Featured photo by: Peter Maksimow.
Trail running can be a dirty sport. Unfortunately, I’m not just referring to the kind of dirt that gets caked onto your shoes or that plasters a layer of mud onto the back of your calves after running through a puddle in the woods, but rather the “dirty” practices of elite athletes using performance enhancing drugs. A recent article published in Trail Runner magazine, Trail Running and Drug Testing: Where Do We Go From Here?, was written by accomplished journalist, Brian Metzler.
Metzler’s article outlines many of the problems with drug testing in trail running, including a lack of out-of-competition tests, failed drug tests by the 2022 male and female champions of one of the world’s most famous trail races, Sierre Zinal, and insufficient drug testing protocols. As the sport grows and the money involved increases, so too do the incentives for those making a living off of the sport to take their chances with performance enhancing drugs.
Metzler writes in the article, “Because there is very little authentic drug testing in trail and ultra-distance running, no out-of-competition testing, and often delayed and inconsistent communication among anti-doping agencies, the sport is at a critical juncture with a growing influx of money and professionalism…”. A key word in this passage is “authentic.”
Consequences of Unclear Testing
For the past ten years, two of the sport’s largest and most competitive race organizations, The Salomon Golden Trail Series (Sierre Zinal is one of the races in the series) and UTMB, have promoted the Quartz program, a health screening service that is often misinterpreted as a drug testing program. Although there is nothing inherently wrong with offering a health screening service, most athletes competing at Golden Trail, UTMB-sponsored events, or other Quartz-participating races do not question or educate themselves about what is being tested for or what the consequences for adverse test results would be. Athletes simply assume that with a program such as Quartz in place, there is no need for an actual drug testing program. In other words, authentic World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) tests, administered in nearly every major sport at World Athletic and Olympic competitions, are not needed at the highest levels of competition in trail running because Quartz testing is present at these events. See the problem? Complacency to accept Quartz as an alternative to authentic testing takes the conversation away from how to create an effective anti-doping program at a critical time when we need these conversations most.
Not all athletes are remaining quiet. The backlash against Quartz has increased in recent years, largely as a result of the program’s “rules” about NSAID usage. NSAIDs (ibuprofen, aspirin, etc.), which are not banned in or out of competition by WADA, were suddenly disallowed within twenty-four hours of competition at UTMB events in 2021. Of the thirty “drug tests” administered by UTMB and Quartz in 2021, three athletes tested positive for NSAID use. Due to a lack of communication by the race organizers, there were no negative consequences for these athletes. These new rules, which went beyond WADA standards, were miscommunicated to UTMB participants about what was being tested for and caused an uproar from the rightfully confused athlete community:
Respected trail running coach, podcast host, and clean sport advocate Jason Koop tweeted:
-So let me get this straight @UTMB and @QUARTZprogram…
-In the UTMB rules, NSAIDs are banned within 24 hours of the start and during competition.
-3 controls are abnormal for NSAIDs.
-No bans issued b/c ‘umm, the athletes didn’t know…’
Andy Pasternak, Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run medical director tweeted in agreement with Koop, “Interesting they are going after NSAIDS. I wonder why they decided to go beyond WADA.”
Professional runners Keely Heninger, Corrine Malcolm, and Hillary Allen also spoke out against Quartz and UTMB’s NSAID policy on an episode of the Freetrail Podcast here
Athletes began questioning if Quartz was actually protecting the sport from cheaters. Why should clean athletes get their reputation tarnished by Quartz and UTMB for using NSAIDs when they didn’t break any rules by WADA standards? Did UTMB have more expertise about the performance enhancing nature of NSAIDs then an entire team of scientists at WADA who dedicate their work to ensuring fair competition and a level playing field? How could UTMB and Quartz issue sanctions to actual cheaters when they are so disorganized with their own anti doping policy? UTMB 2021 was a turning point in the history of trail running where athletes woke up to the fact that Quartz was making up its own rules that it didn’t enforce and most importantly, was allowing real cheaters to slip through its control and continue their practices unobstructed and without consequence.
Authentic Drug Testing
Administered directly by WADA, authentic drug testing does exist in trail running, though it is few and far between. US selection races (learn about the 2023 selection races and Team USA qualifying here), World Championships, US championships, World Mountain Running Association (WMRA) World Cup events or races that such as the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run use WADA-compliant testing. For 2023, USATF Mountain Ultra Trail (MUT) has received funds for eighteen athlete tests to be administered at US Championship events in mountain, ultra and trail running. Additionally, there will be testing at all seventeen 2023 World Cup races.
Unfortunately, not all of the most competitive trail runners in the world compete at these events because they are not the largest “money-making” events and drug testing is expensive. As long as larger prize purses and sponsorship deals exist at UTMB and Golden Trail Series, which have failed to invest in real drug testing programs to this point, why wouldn’t dirty athletes flock to the money and steer clear of events with real testing? At the moment, the most credible athletes are the ones winning World Championships, US championships, or races like the Western States 100 because those are the only ones where the trail running community knows these athletes must pass WADA-certified tests to secure their victories. This cannot be said of any UTMB or Golden Trail Series champions. I say this not to discredit UTMB or Golden Trail series winners, but to warn athletes competing at events with non-WADA certified testing that these races encourage environments where cheaters can more easily prosper. At this point, doping in trail running is not a question of if it’s happening but where and at which races it’s happening most frequently.
I offer no quick-fix solution to this issue, but as Metzler states in his article, “the sport is at a critical juncture,” and more conversation among the trail running community is key to cleaning up our sport. For the remainder of this article, I give space for conversation with several of our sport’s greatest legends, Joseph Gray, Camille Herron, Sage Canaday, and Tim Tollefson who specifically address doping issues in our sport and share their personal experiences with drug testing or how cheaters have impacted their careers. I hope that sharing these athletes’ personal experiences and opinions with clean sport will encourage you to join the conversation. This is not the time for continued complacency. The future of the sport is not in the hands of WADA, Quartz, or any agency, but is in our hands. If you are a trail runner who cares about the future of our sport, then now is your time to make your stance for clean sport.
Gray is a two-time World Mountain Running Champion (who recently claimed his third US National Snowshoe title) and is an inspiration for the next generation of trail runners. Gray has been drug tested more than almost any trail athlete, largely because of how much he is on the podium at trail major races and was a part of the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) out-of-competition testing pool. He has been at the top of the sport for over a decade and wins nearly any trail race he shows up to in the United States or overseas. He’s raised the level of our sport and in doing so, inspired the next generation to look up to him and his success.
What happens if athletes of Gray’s caliber go the “dirty route” and use performance enhancing drugs (PEDs)? If the next generation can’t trust their role models to be fair, hard-working athletes, why should they aspire to be like them? Or even worse, the next generation might aspire to cheat, assuming that using performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) is what’s required to be champions.
Gray describes these concerns in greater detail, “As athletes, we pride ourselves on working hard and aspiring to reach dreams we have in our discipline. Whether you are the cream of the crop elite or recreational, we all understand that dreams take hard work and are not easy. It’s important that our heroes or stars of our sport promote Clean athletics and a fair playing field as they inspire us adults as well as the next generation of young athletes. We must hold fair play in high regard when thinking of the inspiration and influential power we as athletes possess. It is increasingly important that we assure our influences at the highest levels are not cheating. If we allow cheaters to thrive, they, in essence, provide a false idea of working hard to achieve goals. Taking shortcuts isn’t something the next generation should be taught and making sure we have proper testing helps protect the idea of work ethic and morale.”
Gray holds true to ideals such as hard work and a fair playing field, which apply from the back to the front of the pack. Even at local, smaller trail races, which don’t attract elite-level runners seeking media attention and prize money, there should be a commitment to providing an equal playing field and fairness. The only way fairness can be instilled in the next generation of athletes is if we prioritize playing fairly right now.
Herron is the 50K, 100K, 12 hour and 24-hour world record holder and four-time International Association of Ultrarunners (IAU) Ultrarunner of the Year athlete, has been outspoken about the lack of drug testing in trail and ultrarunning. Coming from a road marathon running background, Herron describes the difference in testing protocol between the marathon and trail/ultra competitions, “When I first committed to trail and ultra running in 2015 and had international success, I was surprised I wasn’t asked to be part of USADA’s out-of-competition testing. I ended up contacting USADA because I didn’t know how the testing worked in Ultra/Trail. This is when I found out there wasn’t a program/funding, except through the World Mountain Running Association (WMRA). I was shocked. This was the first red flag that Ultra/Trail is far behind the Road/Marathon scene.”
Herron also recognizes a large issue in Mountain Ultra Trail (MUT) running is its inability to enforce sanctions when athletes fail drug tests. Even if athletes test positive at a race with WADA-certified drug testing such as a World Championship, there is no sanctioning force or governing body that could stop them from competing in other races and earning prize money or attracting sponsorship deals. Herron argues that punishments for cheaters need to be harsher to discourage them from bouncing from one race to another without consequence, “There needs to be more sanctioning of events (by national federations), so any violations of doping rules are enforceable at all events around the world. As it stands right now, most MUT events are unsanctioned– this means someone currently serving a ban could compete at other events without penalty. There also needs to be more Zero Tolerance policies at events (lifetime bans from events for doping), like what exists at the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run.”
Although Zero Tolerance policies are no doubt a harsh punishment, Herron raises an interesting point: sanctions for cheaters in Mountain Ultra Trail (MUT) are not currently enforceable and this needs to change. Whatever your stance on Zero Tolerance, most of us will agree that if someone cheats at one event, there’s nothing to stop them from cheating again, especially when they know their actions will be free of negative consequences.
Canaday is a professional athlete for Hoka One One, a former Hansons-Brooks Distance Project athlete, VO2 Max Productions YouTube channel host, and 2012 World Long Distance Mountain Running Champion, and has pushed for more testing in MUT running for many years. Canaday argues one of the main issues that limit drug testing in our sport is lack of funding, “A big issue is always finding funding to carry out certified tests and to have an out-of-competition testing pool. I think the financial burden lies more on the sponsors, organizations, races, and then the pro athletes. Obviously, the average runner who does ultras for the personal challenge should not have to pay a higher race entry fee to fund PED testing for podium finishers. On the other hand, even newly sponsored runners and other pros who have a lot at stake financially for their competitive running career should not have to pay tons of money to make this happen either. Pro Mountain-Ultra-Trail Runners usually don’t have huge contracts, and many are just scraping to get by financially with minimal open prize money to earn. So, I think those who are the big ‘financial players’ in the sport and who are profiting the most off the sport should be obligated to chip in money for more WADA-certified PED testing and programs. As a sponsored runner for the past 10 years, I personally have benefited a lot from the sport, and I would be willing to pay a yearly fee myself of several hundred dollars to help ease some of the financial burdens for more testing and official programs. To me, the sport has always been about pushing the human body to its natural limit, so I’d like to have confidence in celebrating performances that are done by clean athletes who follow a consistent set of rules designed for fair play and built on integrity.”
Canaday also argues that many people don’t realize how large of an impact PEDs can have on their careers, “A lot of people in the MUT Running community don’t realize how powerful some of these PEDs are and how tempting and easy it would be for a pro or semi-pro runner to ‘make a huge jump in performance’ on these kinds of substances. People don’t realize that some runners will dope for social media attention, life-changing sponsorship deals, and the prize money/podium attention of doing well in a big mountain-ultra-trail race.”
Canaday highlights an unfortunate financial dilemma in our sport: increased money in MUT running is providing more incentive for athletes to dope, yet little of this additional money is going towards more testing. Testing will not happen for free, but if we care enough about clean sport and a sport that celebrates true athletic achievement (not athletic achievements with aid from PEDs), then we need to invest in more testing.
Tollefson is a two-time podium finisher at UTMB and the last American man to podium at this event since 2017, and race director of the Mammoth Trail Fest. He shares his personal experiences as both an athlete and race director on why it’s important that we take steps for clean sport now, “Unless we take initiative to pursue clean sport, we risk ending up like cycling in the next ten years. It’s important we stand for what we believe in and one of the pillars of our sport is doing things authentically. That applies to how we conduct ourselves in this community and in knowing that the athletes that line up to our left and right are clean too. I’ve always believed in the good in people and I think the majority of runners in our sport are clean, but just as in any domain in life, there will be people who exploit the system. This is why we need a system in place and we need to recognize that the problem isn’t going away on its own.”
Tollefson shares what it’s been like for him as a race director in the process of organizing WADA-certified testing at his event this year, “It’s a lot of work as a race director to set up drug testing. I’m currently working with USADA, which is a capital investment. It would be nice to use that potential revenue elsewhere but I know this is the right thing to do. I would love for every race to have authentic testing and I hope we can create a framework that is more cost-effective for other events to follow. Sharing of resources and knowledge among race directors is key to getting more drug testing at events. Overall, drug testing is a lot for new race directors to figure out, it’s a matter of talking to the right people and there are legal implications that need to be taken into account too, but I hope to take out some of this initial burden for new race directors by providing a framework at our event.”
Tollefson believes everyone in the trail community has a role to play in pushing for clean sport, “We need all stakeholders in the sport to take part. Positive change will be a collaborative effort from brands, races, series, athletes, coaches, and agents. It shouldn’t fall on any individual stakeholder but if we all show investment towards the same common goal then we’ll begin to have a framework for clean sport that our sport and community deserve.”
The experiences and opinions of these four incredible athletes highlight some large questions for us to consider as we decide the most effective solutions as a community to deal with the doping problem in our sport:
- How do we invest in clean sport now to protect future generations of our sport?
- How do we ensure the role models in our sport inspire the next generation to prioritize the values of hard work and fair play over cheating or winning at all costs?
- How do we ensure unified rules and fair sanctions/trials for those who fail drug tests at trail races across the world? Are Zero Tolerance policies at races right in certain situations?
- Who should we entrust most with the power to make fair sanctions (race organizers, WADA, etc.)?
- How do we secure funding to perform in-competition and out-of-competition tests at trail races?
- How can more events provide cost-effective but WADA-certified drug testing?
- What are the roles of athletes, brands, races, etc. moving forward and how can each group collaborate together for clean sport?
Share these questions, and add your own, with your running buddies on your next long run. Save the small talk about your latest IPA or what you watched on Netflix last night and talk about things that have large impacts on the future of our trail running community.
The trail running community is taking action for authentic drug testing, but the sport is still far from clean. Now is the time to stand up with those speaking out against Quartz or to support races and athletes invested in authentic drug testing. The Pro Trail Runners Association is also generating conversation and unifying athletes globally to pursue ideas such as an “out-of-competition” elite athlete testing pool or more frequent WADA-certified testing. We can either ignore the problems of drug testing, assuming Sierre Zinal and other profile raises with large prize purses will be untainted by cheaters using PEDs, or we can crack down on cheating and start building a global framework that will unify the trail world.
Interested to read more about the topic of Clean Sport in MUT running? Read my five-part article series on the topic here.