Out-of-competition doping controls & US athlete experiences (Part 4)

[Editor’s Note:] This article is the fourth 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 and includes his personal experience as well as input from other top athletes and authorities in the anti-doping industry.

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

In addition to in-competition doping controls discussed in the previous articles of this series, select MUT athletes may also be subject to out-of-competition doping controls. Out-of-competition testing requires a limited number of top level athletes to report their location to the International Sport Federation (IF) or National Anti-Doping Agency (NADO). These athletes are registered in a testing pool and may subject to unannounced doping controls. An athlete may be tested at any time or place, including their home or work. Rules for the procedure of an athlete reporting whereabouts for testing are detailed in the International Standard for Testing and Investigations (ISTI).

The World Anti-Doping Agency states about the importance of out-of-competition testing, “Because out-of-competition doping controls can be conducted without notice to athletes, they are one of the most powerful means of deterrence and detection of doping and are an important step in strengthening athlete and public confidence in doping-free sport.”

Although it is rare for mountain, ultra, trail runners to be tested out-of-competition, there are several elite athletes who have been part of the whereabouts program in recent years. Elite trail and ultra runner for Hoka One One, Sabrina Little, shares her personal experiences being tested out-of-competition.

“Following a silver medal at the 2013 24 Hour World Championships, I was added to both the IAAF/WADA and USADA lists for a few years. Integrity is really important to me, and I was glad the system was in place to hold people accountable to clean sport. I don’t even take Advil, but when I was on the list, I became more attentive to additives in multivitamins and poppy seed bagels. This may be overkill, but I have good, conscientious habits in place now. I also have phantom “clean my house” impulses, in case my WADA agent shows up to give me a blood test, even though I am no longer on the list. That is nice.”

“Every year, I had four annual 3-month blocks in which I had to pre-emptively report my whereabouts—when I planned to run, go to the library, eat dinner, and visit my family, etc. If my plans changed, I could update the system via text message. It was a bit cumbersome at times to provide daily updates. I suspect the reporting system is designed for track runners. For example, the forum asks for your training site, which I think meant a track or workout facility. Instead, I would provide a series of zip codes I planned to run through that day, or I’d give them the name of a forest. Almost every day, I had to revise my whereabouts because my training needs would shift, and I would feel nervous if I ran in a part of town I hadn’t reported.”

Sabrina Little at the 2018 Trail World Championships in Spain.

Most of Little’s drug tests were uneventful, except for three which she describes below.

“I got locked in the bathroom at a race in the Netherlands, and I couldn’t pry the door open with my weak runner arms. I finally forced it open, and the doping agent was waiting to take me to the drug test. I nearly failed the test because I almost didn’t make it in time to get to the testing facility. That would have been a tragedy.”

“I was an 8th grade Medieval History teacher. I was introducing the Age of Exploration that day, and the doping agent showed up to give me a blood test. I was so frazzled. I was pulled from class, and when I returned, I had to explain to my students and to the headmaster of the school that it was a routine test.”

“The USADA agent showed up when I was on a graduate school interview weekend. I had to leave dinner early to rush home and take a blood test within the 30-minute timeframe for testing. I had to explain to a future professor that I was not suspected of drugs, but I just had to go home to take a drug test ASAP. Usually, I prefer my spheres of life separate (academics and athletics), but that was a day when my running life was thrust into my schooling.”

Said Little, “All in all, it is worth it. I think building a culture of clean sport is important, and having a means of holding people accountable to the given standards is a great way to keep behaviors in check.”

Despite anti-doping efforts across all sports, some people in our sport feel the majority of cheaters know how to beat drug-tests at events. “The cheaters are always one step ahead,” said Karl Meltzer, race director for the Speedgoat 50K held in the Wasatch Mountains outside of Salt Lake City, UT. “In order to bust people you have to test athletes out-of-competition.”

Topo Athletic elite trail runner, Sandi Nypaver, agrees that cheaters are able to circumnavigate in-competition testing systems, “Most people who are going to use PEDs know when to start tapering off their drug(s) of choice before a race that does testing. They can still benefit at the race from a faster recovery and harder training when they were on PEDs though. Even though I know it’s a pain for athletes, I think out of race testing/ having biological passports is currently the best way to go about keeping the sport clean. Unfortunately that’s currently too expensive to be realistic in the United States.”

Hoka One One elite trail runner, Sage Canaday believes out of competition testing would catch more dopers in mountain, ultra and trail races. “Out of competition testing is really the gold standard because it is more likely to catch dopers. They may ‘taper off the juice’ before a big race where they may know there is race day testing, but if you test them by surprise 4 to 12 weeks before their target event, they may be making big gains in training during that time and the drugs are more likely to show up in their system.”

Canaday continues, “I’d actually support testing people in the middle of the night for better accuracy; but I don’t think that would ever happen! From what I’ve seen in mountain, ultra and trail running, is that WADA/USADA approved out of competition testing almost never happens. I’ve certainly never been tested out of competition and no governing body knows my whereabouts even if they wanted to test me. The key is that it has to be a surprise. Unfortunately this is also very expensive. I think out of comp testing would certainly catch more dopers in MUT running if it was implemented right now though. Only an idiot would come into a race “glowing” with EPO or Testosterone/HGH…but if they used those PEDs for the months before training for that big race to get “superhuman strong” nobody would know and it would be easy to get away with.”

US Team coaches Paul Kirsch (left) and Richard Bolt (right) at the 2017 World Long Distance Mountain Running Championships.

Paul Kirsch, race director of the Loon Mountain Race & USATF Mountain Running Championships, held in Lincoln, NH, hopes to see more out-of-competition testing through better funding, “What I would love to see is more out of competition testing and have it be sponsored by the shoe and apparel sponsors in the sport. I think there could be a great marketing opportunity in being able to advertise that, ‘all of our athletes are clean and randomly tested during the year and we support clean sport.’ The lack of testing now is a money issue and if sponsors could step up I think it would send a great message to the athletes and the general public buying shoes and apparel.”

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

Part 5 – Non-WADA compliant athlete testing programs