Trail, mountain, and ultra-running is booming and it’s clear to see. Circuits have increased, prize money has increased, ‘pro’ runner numbers have increased, and it must be accepted, with the potential rewards both financially and egotistically, there will be some tempted to dope.
Mark Kangogo at Sierre-Zinal an example. And now, Esther Chesang!
Trail running, unlike athletics, be that on the road or track, is unpredictable; tough and varied, with ups and downs, rocks, scree, and technicality, it draws comparisons to mountaineering, not road running. It’s the experience, the doing, the completing that brings the rewards. Take a marathon, on the road you may be able to complete in say 3-hours… On trail, the same distance could take, 4,5, 6-hours or even longer for the same runner. Road running rules don’t apply, a trail runner’s needs are different, except maybe for the sense of fair play, truth, and integrity.
Well, times are a changing
Look at cycling, athletics, and other financially lucrative sports. Doping has been a problem. Trail has been relatively void of positive cases. Note, I say positive cases, not void of doping. It’s fair to assume that doping has happened, but it’s impossible to confirm at what levels. The 2015 case of Gonzalo Calisto testing positive for EPO at UTMB was the writing on the wall. I wrote at length about the case and issues. Read HERE.
It was a call to awareness with the #cleansport tag being used on social media and many prominent trail runners backed up the call. It all got a little muddy with the blanket of the Quartz Program which effectively was/is as useful as a chocolate teapot.
Now, the iconic Sierre-Zinal has had to suffer and endure two positive tests for the respective male and female winners. Ridiculously, the female positive was announced January 2023! She was confirmed positive in May 2022 after a road marathon! Oh, my word, we have a long way to go.
Is now the time to act, before the sport we love heads in a southern direction? If left alone, we may not be able to turn the tide.
But how prevalent is doping in trail, mountain and ultra?
A research paper published August 2017 (HERE) stated that : ‘estimated prevalence of past-year doping was 43.6%’ (from one event) – from a survey of 2167 athletes at two sporting events. That’s an horrendous statistic. The conclusion, ‘doping appears remarkably widespread among elite athletes, and remains largely unchecked despite current biological testing.’ Now this wasn’t trail running, but, one has to maybe assume, the situation is worse than maybe we think…
Skyrunning in many ways paved the way with testing, admittedly not at all events due to cost. But at key events, World Championships for example, WADA tests were conducted. Here is a quote from 2014:
“In compliance with the WADA protocol, 11 anti-doping tests were carried out across the three disciplines, which included two for EPO (Erythropoietin). The tests were based in part on arrival order and in part random which included several members of the podium in each discipline. All results were negative.”
UTMB incorporated testing in 2015 and look what happened, Gonzalo Calisto was caught.
Trail runners are effectively hippies. We are on the outside, a weird and wild bunch of adventure and adrenaline seekers who do not want to be confined by rules. This rings true for well over 90% of us, but for those at the top, the pinnacle, who are now becoming professional, this is a business. In any business, corruption can take a hold and doping steals rewards, glory, and recognition.
ITRA, IAAF, WMRA, USATF, Skyrunning and the list goes on. Is it time for trail, ultra and mountain running to be incorporated within one Global Federation where rules and regulations could be imposed? Until now, the answer has been no, the excuse being trail running would lose its freedom and spirit. Many are opposed that a ruling body should not only dictate rules but also profit from ‘our’ sport. Look at the current divisive arguments on the growth of the ‘by UTMB’ and Ironman merger, they only reflect and affirm these thoughts for some.
Do we want in-competition and out-of-competition rules that includes comprehensive random drug testing?
Pro-runner or not, at the end of the day, I think it’s fair to say that you (we) got into the sport not for rewards, glory, and money but through heart. First and foremost, we had a need for nature, adventure, freedom, and open spaces, this was the motivator, not a podium and a cheque.
Of course, rules do already exist, ‘no doping’ is a rule for all sports, mandatory kit (for some races) is a requirement, and the list goes on. But the list in many cases is left to the RD, race organization and more importantly, budget. There is no one set of rules that should be adhered to worldwide and this can be part of the problem, which is why the IOC had the Lausanne Agreement.
Is it time for this to happen?
The fear of cheating, being ‘found out’ and the ongoing disgrace, public humiliation and shame may well have served as a deterrent in trail, until now.
The IAAF finally stepped in to suppress the ever-growing problems of doping with a set of rules to help control a rising problem. The IOC then took this one step further at the Olympics with one set of codes, rules and regulations that blended all anti-doping restrictions in one with the Lausanne Declaration. This was a pivotal moment and within one year, WADA (World Anti-Doping Association) was created.
WADA oversees testing of several hundred thousand athletic blood and urine samples annually: ‘…of which 1–2% test positive. Measures using the Athlete Biological Passport suggest a higher mean prevalence of about 14% positive tests. Biological testing, however, likely fails to detect many cutting-edge doping techniques, and thus the true prevalence of doping remains unknown.’ – August 2017
It was like the Lord of the Rings – One ring (rule) to rule them all.
Simple huh, WADA produce a list of banned substances. You, as an athlete, look at the banned list and DO NOT use anything that is listed.
Argh, but there is always a loophole. The wonderful TUE – Therapeutic Use Exemption. Amazing how many asthmatic runners are out there. Yes, WADA had to accept that some athletes have a legitimate medical condition that allows the use of a TUE.
The TUE has been used to gain an advantage, no question.
And what about NSAID’s? Read a report HERE about Parkrun. Running 5km is a long way from trail and ultra, but it shows a trend. Now WADA do not list these on the banned list, but, UTMB have gone one step ahead HERE.
Should we just relax? After all, if the winner of Sierre-Zinal takes drugs, it doesn’t really impact on me or you, the slow guy or gal who is out running for fun and adventure, does it?
Well yes, it impacts on the core and the ethos of the sport, the sense of fair play.
So here we are, 8-years on from Gonzalo Calisto at UTMB, a pivotal moment, and now we are once again fuelled by discussion of the two positive cases at Sierre-Zinal. Of course, there have been other positive cases in this interim period.
But the doping fire has been re-ignited.
Update, just hours after this post, Kilian Jornet posted THIS on IG.
There is much talk, opinion, and discussion, for me, it’s time to seize the momentum and move in to 2023 with some new impetus.
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