Clean Sport and Mountain, Ultra, Trail (MUT) Running (Part 1)

[Editor’s Note:] This article is the first in a five-part series about how the mountain, ultra and trail (MUT) running community has been affected by athlete doping and drug testing. This timely topic was researched by professional trail runner Tayte Pollmann (pictured above at the 2018 World Long Distance Mountain Running Championships in Poland) and includes his personal experience as well as input from other top athletes and authorities in the anti-doping industry.

When thinking about drug infractions in running events, track and field may be the best known culprit. One reason may be that more athletes are tested in at these events so more track and field athletes are caught and punished.

In mountain, ultra and trail running, drug testing is a more recent inclusion in worldwide programs, but is not conducted on the scale found in Olympic disciplines like track and field and long distance road running. Thus, not everyone in our sport understands the nuts and bolts of athlete testing, nor where to find a list of banned substances.

In this five-part series, I, along with my colleagues at ATRA, hope our audience becomes better educated about the components of an effective drug testing program and learns from athlete experiences described herein. Whether you’re a new runner, elite runner, new race director or a seasoned race director, we also hope this series of articles provide useful information and raises awareness about the importance of increasing the number of anti-doping tests in our sport.

Tayte Pollmann after belatedly receiving his 3rd place award from the 2017 Long Distance Mountain Running Championships.

“I didn’t realize athletes doped in mountain running,” this remark was one that many of my friends and family made after the surprising announcement that the winner of the 2017 Long Distance World Mountain Running Championships was disqualified for using a banned substance on the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) list. As a participant in this race, I moved from fourth place into the bronze medal position because of the winner’s disqualification. I was ecstatic to earn my first medal at a world championship, but the remark from my friends and family stuck in my mind: how prevalent is doping in our mountain, ultra, trail (MUT) running community?

From my experience, the MUT community is a fun, friendly and motley crew of outdoor advocates, forest dwellers, ski mountaineers, road and cross-country converts and in general, dedicated people who enjoy running on beautiful trails in nature. The camaraderie I see when MUT athletes help each other ascend demoralizing steep inclines, trek through snow fields, or march through the mud has me convinced that our community would prioritize testing individual physical and mental limits over winning. However, my experience at the 2017 Long Distance World Mountain Running Championships, and my recent research on doping in MUT suggest this problem exists in our sport and is one in which we should be educated.

Doping control signage at the recent 2019 USATF 50 km Trail Championships.

Examples of other positive anti-doping tests in mountain & trail races:

Some people have argued that prize money in running is the driving factor causing athletes to dope. According to UTMB race director Michele Poletti, “We are not in favour of the professionalisation of the sport with money, as this would increase the risk of doping. We believe strongly in amateur sport because we believe that this is the way to keep the sport’s values.”

Although there is less money in MUT than other types of running such as road, or track races, the benefits of performing well at top MUT events are more than most people realize. Elite Hoka One One athlete, Sage Canaday shares his insights on the incentive to dope in our sport,

“I think many people don’t realize that there is plenty of incentive to dope at the top level in the sport of Mountain-Ultra-Trail running,” said Canaday. “First of all, for a top runner there is lucrative international travel support opportunities to fly to some of the most beautiful places in the world. Then there is the possibility of life and career changing sponsorship support, a plethora of gear, products, and a possible bonus structure that can be much more than any open prize money from a race. Finally there is the ego boosting draw of gaining tens of thousands of social media followers and fans and having films and videos made about you. If PEDs can improve one’s performance by 3-8% , then those are huge gains in most top level races and can be the difference between winning and setting a course record versus finishing off the podium.”

Bereg-Kits used for anti-doping tests at a recent world championship event.

In recent years, MUT races with larger cash and more prestige have experienced doping problems. At the highly competitive 2015 Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) the race disqualified a runner who tested positive for Erythropoietin (EPO). EPO is the drug that many professional cyclists have been banned for using because it increases oxygen levels in the bloodstream.

The 2015 North Face Endurance Challenge also generated an uproar of protest when it allowed a runner who served a two-year ban for a failed doping test into the race. Many athletes felt that, although the individual had served her ban, she should not be allowed to race. Ultimately she did start the race as the race organizers didn’t have a policy that would have prevented her from running.

Although doping has occurred in our sport, testing for performance enhancing drugs are not as common in MUT races as in other disciplines within athletics. Aside from International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) sanctioned world championship events and a select few national championships organized by athletic federations, there are only a few races within the MUT community large enough to afford WADA certified testing. Each test can cost hundreds of dollars – a stretch for the many small trail races typical in the United States.

A top finisher from the 2018 USATF Mountain Running Championships working with a USADA official to fill out her pre-testing questionnaire.

From my experience and getting to know many elite MUT athletes, I can say that many of them have never been tested in their entire career, or rarely get tested at a race more than once per year. To put that in comparison with other sports, elite American track and field/road runner, Galen Rupp, was tested 16 times in 2017 alone.

Fortunately, progress is being made as the number of tests in MUT races are increasing. In 2018, USA Track & Field (USATF) coordinated 10 WADA certified tests performed by the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) at select mountain, ultra & trail national championships. The number of tests scheduled for the 2019 USATF MUT national championship season has nearly doubled.

Look for the following articles in our five-part series of anti-doping articles coming soon:

Part 2 – WADA / USADA, the anti-doping gold standard
Part 3 – Lower cost, custom testing services & race director experiences
Part 4 – Out-of-competition testing & US athlete experiences
Part 5 – Non-WADA compliant athlete testing programs

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