Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Should Ultra Runners Be Drug Tested?

Unless you have been cut off from society and headline news lately you probably have heard about scandals in the world of pro cycling involving illegally using performance enhancing drugs.  It's a pretty hot topic right now and there has been cases of athletes we look up to as role models in various different sports getting busted for cheating that pop up into the news every now and then.

Ultra running is a sport that has mushroomed by leaps and bounds especially in the last ten years. Some races are now offering substantial prizes and/or cash purses.  Recently I was talking with a person who is not familiar with the sport of ultra running and I had mentioned that I was planning on heading down to San Francisco for The North Face Endurance Challenge 50-miler this December.  I also mentioned that this was not a typical race and one of the reasons for that was because of the large prize money dished out.  First prize is $10,000 and two and three for male and female take home a nice chunk as well.  So the person then asked me if the winners are tested for performance enhancing drugs.  I said, "uhhh...ummm....I don't know....I don't think so."

For me I have always felt that the sport of ultra running goes much deeper than collecting some prize or money for winning.  In fact I have a bunch of very comical memorabilia at home from different ultras in my career that I wouldn't trade or get rid of. I always thought it was kind of cool that it's a sport where the spectator gets in free and the participants pay!  Anyway, one of the things that drew me to the sport was it's simplicity, purity, camaraderie amongst  competitors, volunteers/crew, etc., and detachment from the modern world.

So my question for the blogosphere and people involved in ultra running is this:

Now that substantial money has trickled it's way into the sport of ultra running do we need to be testing the top runners who take home thousands of dollars for illegal use of performance enhancing drugs?

I know that one of the most popular 100-mile races in the world (Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc) sponsored by The North Face does test the top runners for certain illegal substances.  Do we need to follow suit for races here and at what point do we test (i.e. if prizes exceed $1,000)???

Just to be clear I don't suspect that anyone is using performance enhancing drugs nor do I necessarily think that the testing should be done.  It is also not my intention to offend anyone with this blog post and sorry if I did.

What do you think?

Please at the very least vote for what you think in the poll in the column up on the right.   Peace....


Holly Vipond said...

As someone who will never be in competition for prize money, I don't have strong feelings about it. I admit that I am surprised that 6 of 6 votes so far are "Yes".

I *like* to think that ultrarunning culture and mindset are less conducive to cheating than cycling (and many other sports), simply because it's such an easy-going community where camaraderie and achievement are often valued over winning. But I'm not so naive as to think that all ultrarunners are above cheating. I *hope* most are.

Maybe there is an opportunity for ultrarunners to be a positive example and lead the way in drug-free competition. :)

Do you guys at the front feel external pressure to win/perform at all costs?

Scott Keeps Running said...

This topic fascinates me. I've been pretty unsure what is really meant by "performance enhancing", and why some things are illegal and some things aren't (like how GU and energy gels/drinks and dozens of other products that exist specifically to enhance athletic performance are allowable).

I think it's an arbitrary line that's been drawn between illegal and legal. As fans we want to see our top athletes perform in ways that we could only dream of, in ways that inspire us, and for the most part we are willing to let them use all the resources available to them (personal trainers/nutritionists, expensive supplements, etc.) in order to perform to an ideal standard. So why do we care if athlete X adds product Z to his/her already performancing enhancing repertoire?

I do think there is a line somewhere, I just don't know where it is, and I definitely don't think ultrarunning is anywhere near needing to start testing.

Derrick said...

yup. Really think that with the sport continuing to grow and with some pretty big prize money being offered it's a necessity. I think it would be very proactive as the sport grows. Most other sports have been reactive. It would be a very good thing to keep the image of ultra running where it should be.

Yassine said...

Thanks for the comments and different perspectives Holly, Scott, and Derrick.

shel said...

i guess i would say, "no, for now." i don't know where the whole "boom" of ultrarunning will go. my sense is that with the popularity of dean karnazes, the book Born To Run and the increasing coverage of ultras in standard running mags such as RW and RT has fueled the new found popularity. but i feel it is likely that at some point the interest will level off and then decline again when people realize just how taxing and demanding it is to participate in this sport over a long term basis. look at how many people do a marathon once, to scratch off the bucket list. i actually wish there wasn't big prize money... it sort of cheapens the real reward of partcipation. maybe i'd feel differently if i were fast enough to win some of that cash, though :-)

Scott Keeps Running said...

Just did a little research and it looks like ultrarunners are already being tested at the national championships -- or at least are subject to being tested if they are USATF members.

"You may be subject to both in-competition drug testing and out-of-competition drug testing. In both cases urine and/or blood may be collected and tested."

Brad said...

Sadly, yes I think they should be tested. Testing will also keep the dishonest athletes that consider cheating safe from the potentially harmful side effects of such tactics.

Meghan said...

I think random testing in the big races is a good idea, as long as it isn't cost prohibitive (each test is quite expensive, I believe). I'm not sure how I would personally structure it, but perhaps 3 folks in the top 10. Sometimes it isn't about the prize money as much as the prestige (e.g. Western States 100 doesn't offer prize money, but the honor of winning can be worth some sponsorship) I do know that for the World 100k Championships, the top 3 male and female finishers undergo mandatory drug testing immediately upon finishing, and can also be tested randomly in their homes at some later date. There is no prize money in that race as well. I don't know if the other World Champ races (mountain, trail, 24 hour) have mandatory drug testing. I don't all think ultra runners are above cheating, but I would guess that 99.9% surely are.

Cursorial Specialist said...

As a middle of the pack runner, I think that prize money will hasten any cultural change in the sport. While prestige and honor might be enough for some to "cheat," prize money will surely make it worse.

Prize money might be nice if you are fast. Most entrants will never see any of it. Sponsors spend the money because they are getting something in return. It also buys them some control.

I say get rid of the money and skip the drug testing. Having said that, the ultra culture is changing. At least we can still run with our friends in the Gorge, around Hood, or along the McKenzie River in whatever style we want.

John said...

Though I do not believe that there are many, if any, Ultrarunners that are doping, testing is not necessarily a bad thing. If there is a preemptive strike against doping then perhaps it will never take hold in the sport.

Jake said...

My vote is for "No!", mainly because the testing protocols currently in place and in development are not sensitive or specific enough to identify "performance enhancing drugs". So, even if we implement a uniform testing policy, we still couldn't be confident that everyone is competing clean because of the unacceptably high number of false-negatives and (worse) false-positives.

Granted, there would be greater incentive to develop better tests to identify athletes who are doping; however, there would also be a greater incentive to develop drugs that could elude those tests. This results in everyone focusing on designer drugs and tests instead of the actual running.

UltraChris said...

Something to think about ... I know that the beer & cow awards at The Fifties are in hot demand! And another good reason to go vegan/vegetarian ... no worries about eating that "tainted meat".

Yassine said...

Thanks for chiming in everyone. You have brought up some really valid points from both sides.

Chris: My Finger Lakes Fifties awards are some of my most cherished! :-)

Brian said...

I really don't understand the whole "taking drugs is cheating" thing to begin with. We live in a culture of science. We use chemicals to enhance our lives every day. We're a drug culture. We're told we need to take this drug or that drug to stop a headache, lower our blood pressure, prevent cancer etc.. We are TAUGHT that this is acceptable. So remind me again why people seem shocked when an athlete tests positive for a drug? And why is using drugs in sports any less fair than having better coaching and equipment than the next guy? You can’t blood dope but you can live at a high altitude? And what’s fair about being a superior genetic specimen? (Thought we were born equal? ha!) I don't see why any drugs should be banned at all save for in cases where they are controlled substances or proven to be more dangerous to the body in the long run than any of the many products approved by the FDA… and in fact it’s the pharmaceutical industry that invents all of these “banned substances” That said, its debatable as to if most of the chemicals banned have any significant performance enhancing properties to begin with. I don’t take any drugs, and its not likely that doing so would make me an elite athlete. There is certainly honor in toeing the line just as god made you (assuming you were born wearing shoes, lol). I guess I just think that the whole performance enhancing drug thing is blown out of proportion. Right now people act all shocked, but eventually I think it will be less of a big deal… like stem cells and grown men kissing on TV! Right or wrong, people get numbed to "big issues" like these.

Mountain J said...

I'm guessing many people don't realize how dirty athletes ruin sports in general. Its stealing money from people who work hard. Who cares if our society says its acceptable to use chemical substances to lower cholesterol or cure a headache, the problem is that athletes take short cuts to steal money.

And in regard to this comment here:
"And why is using drugs in sports any less fair than having better coaching and equipment than the next guy? You can’t blood dope but you can live at a high altitude? And what’s fair about being a superior genetic specimen? (Thought we were born equal? ha!) I don't see why any drugs should be banned at all save for in cases where they are controlled substances or proven to be more dangerous to the body"

You gotta be kidding me. The FDA is corrupt for one, if you got the money you can get anything approved. Second, having better equipment or coach is something anyone can have and its not something that boosts your hormone or red blood cell count. You gotta put in the work manually with a coach and with equipment. How can you say that we shouldn't ban any drug unless its proven to be dangerous? How many drugs each year are called back because they have been found to be dangerous? MANY

Lets keep our sport clean, every sport should have drug testing, the world is a better place without cheaters!

Scott Keeps Running said...

"Second, having better equipment or coach is something anyone can have."

I see the point are trying to make, but I think it's missing the point a bit. Not everyone CAN have better equipment or a better coach. Those things cost money, often loads of money. Take cycling for example - no matter how hard or long I work and train "honestly", I won't be able to compete against $10,000+ cycles when I'm on my 1989 Schwinn 10-speed.

I think the point that the previous poster was trying to make is that there is really no such thing as an "even" playing field. There will always be differences in the opportunities that athletes have to perform better (maybe they can afford a better coach, or better equipment, or a smarter nutritionist, etc.). What about sponsored ultrarunners who have free access to scientifically created performance enhancers like GU and sodium supplements, etc.

I think the ideas of "naturally" performing athletes and "clean" sports is a mythical one. They simply don't exist. Almost all competitive athletes, ultrarunners included, will use everything that's legally usable to enhance their performance. Sports are fueled by chemically enhanced products. The debate, in my opinion, is why do we draw the line at certain performance enhancers and call them bad, when hundreds of other performance enhancers are just fine?

Derrick said...


...Very interesting article that certainly implies that PED's have already arrived on the ultra scene.

Yassine said...

Thanks again everyone....some great perspectives and knowledge of the area.

Results from the poll I had on my website were:

87 people voted Yes for testing

23 voted No

It'll be interesting to see where things go in this area.

RunSeeker said...

Scott keeps running's point is valid. Where is the line? Blood doping seems over the line, since it is something done to improve performance artificially. But I have a question/problem with our views about steroids. I had a disease many years ago. Steroids was the preferred treatment and I was on them for about a year and a half. During that time, the steroids helped reduce the swelling that was caused by the disease, but it also limited the swelling caused by exercise and allowed me to push myself harder. Without the willingness to work hard, the steroids would have had no performance-enhancing effect. My running performance during that time wasn't artificially enhanced, I worked for it. If they were available to me now, would I use them? If it weren't for the stigma attached and I could get them legally, I think so.