shoes uphill

The State and Future of Anti-Doping in Ultrarunning

Share This Article

By Jason Koop,
Head Coach of CTS Ultrarunning

Over the weekend I had the chance to crew and observe the Bear 100 in Logan, Utah. It’s a classic, low key old school 100-race. Being one of the few 100-mile races on the calendar in 2020, a lot of eyes in the ultrarunning world were tuned into this event. That spotlight turned even brighter when local runner Ashley Paulson, who previously served a doping sanction in the sport of triathlon, ran away with the women’s win by over an hour. This article is not going to be a reindictment of Ashley, her performances or her past. That’s not fair to her and certainly not informative to this readership. I only bring up this specific instance because it was a topic of conversation at the race and after, and it made me think of the many discussions and debates in the ultrarunning community about antidoping, culture, rules, and governance.

Where We Are Today

Ranting on sanction lengths, lifetime bans and relentlessly hash tagging ‘cleansport’ do little to actually solve anything. Dialogue and solutions will always be more useful than tirades and conjecture. So, consider this a small step towards dialogue, one that drives the community to think about our future culture, rules and governance.

trainright membership

I think we can agree the following statements are accurate:

  1. Dopers suck
  2. Doping is not new, nor is it going away
  3. There is no universal set of anti-doping rules in ultrarunning
  4. There is no universally-recognized anti-doping enforcement mechanism in ultrarunning

Doping, past or present, in ultrarunning is not new. We only need to look at the few instances of athletes being caught at a race day test, or from another sport to extrapolate that there is far more than meets the eye. And sadly, this is going to become more and more common. I believe that the next few years will be another inflection point in sport of ultrarunning. As I wrote in last week’s article, the sport is primed for another bout of growth post pandemic. With this comes better athletes, athletes from other sports and athletes with traditional Olympic sporting backgrounds. And with that comes those athletes’ (potential) baggage, including doping. So, if you are not paying attention to this right now you are going to be forced to in the very near future.

Current Solutions are Messy

Absent an overall governing body for ultrarunning, races are left to fend for themselves to establish anti-doping procedures and associated rules. A complex tapestry has emerged with some races borrowing framework from international organizations and others making up their own structure. All of the complexity can be confusing for athletes and we need to look no further than preeminent races like Western States and UTMB for examples.

Western States’ Drug Testing Policy and Protocols state:

The Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run (WSER) has a zero-tolerance policy regarding the use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). Any athlete who has been determined to have violated anti-doping rules or policies, whether enforced by World Athletics (WA), the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) or any other national sports federation is ineligible for entry into the WSER.

While well intended, this policy would exclude–for life–athletes that have served sanctions in completely unrelated Olympic sports like synchronized swimming, curling while allowing athletes who have been found guilty of doping to compete, as long as the verdict or sanction was not from a ‘national sports federation’ (for example, a college or regional sports promotion that tests for doping but does not fall under a ‘national sports federation’) . And, while I generally agree with Western States’ policy, there is more than a hint of irony that a curler who was found guilty of doping 40 years ago would be barred from a race, but not a runner who was found to have EPO in his system a month ago, just not by a ‘national sports federation’.

UTMB is no different. I challenge anyone with greater than a high school education to read their ‘health policy’ and determine simple things like:

1) Who they are testing?
2) When they are performing the tests?
3) Exactly what they are testing for?

It’s a mess and I’m 0 for 3 on answering those questions. Yet, the athletes subscribe to the testing because it’s the only game in town, even though they don’t know exactly what will happen to the blood and urine taken from them.

The hodgepodge of messy solutions, while well intended, adds to the consternation of athletes competing in races and comes to a head when instances like Ms. Paulson’s win at the Bear 100 forces the discrepancies into the limelight.

Structured Solutions are hard and require leadership

Two fundamental solutions exist to this problem.

  1. Ultrarunning is rolled up into an existing organization (Word Athletics, the governing body for track and field, for example) and is subject to the rules and regulations established by that organization
  2. Ultrarunning creates its own organization, set of rules and governance.

It’s highly unlikely that ultrarunning would be rolled in another organization. World Athletics would be the frontrunner in this scenario, but this is unlikely to happen. Even it did, it would only pertain to a small number of events (see the IAU events) and have little impact outside of those races. Furthermore, I don’t even think the community wants it (World Athletics has its own host of issues).

So, this leaves us with solution 2, which is not pretty either. Let’s think about this for a second. Someone (or a group of people) would have to take on the responsibility of creating an organization from scratch. They would have to develop the surrounding rules and enforcement mechanisms, create buy-in from athletes and races, and basically create a whole business plan and operational model for a national, perhaps international, organization. You’d probably have to hire people to help, pay for legal counsel, and sink copious amounts of time developing the organization and educating the athletes and race directors on how the system works. And it’s unclear how you’d pay for it all. Furthermore, it’s a role rife with all of the blame, tons of criticism, very little credit and more than a few grey hairs. Raise your hand if you want to be the CEO of this new-fangled start up… I thought so.

Grassroots Anti-doping: Everyone plays a part

I firmly believe that being a leader in a particular industry comes with a set of responsibilities. Those responsibilities include taking care of the industry you are part of. The leaders in our sport are the race directors, elite athletes, sponsors and coaches. We runners all follow the race director’s rules and relish (or loathe) that last climb they put in the race. We all follow elite athlete success, cheering for our favorites. We all consume products from various sponsors to aid us during a run. As a coach of professional ultrarunners, I have a responsibility to guide and care for my athletes. I am calling on leaders within ultrarunning to be part of the solution, even before a problem exists.

Race Directors

You have the power to reject doping at your races. Many of you already have anti-doping rules in place. This is not enough. The solution is simple: call USADA and put an in-competition testing plan in place that meets your budget and race goals. Any high profile or big stakes race should have an in-competition testing plan in place. Even if you do not have prize money, if you manage a high-profile race, athletes are coming to win, receive recognition and therefore sponsorship. You owe it to the athletes that pour their guts out every day in training, and out on the racecourse, to ensure the race is fair. Yes, it is expensive. Yes, our culture will demand it.

Athletes

You have to power to reject doping as a means of gaining a competitive advantage. I firmly believe that little if any of doping exists in the sport today. It is your responsibility to keep it that way. You can educate yourself on clean sport (http://www.usada.org/athletes/) and take responsibility for developing it for future generations. Demand that the sport you compete in is clean. Demand it from your peers, from your sponsors, and demand it from the races you compete in.

Sponsors

You have the power to reject doping from the athletes you support. If you don’t have an anti-doping clause in your contracts, put them in. Demand that your athletes compete clean, or do not support them. As sponsors you have the unique capability of enabling doping by indirectly funding it, knowingly or not. It is your responsibility to deter the acts of doping. Put it in every athlete’s contract: if they are caught doping, they are off the team. Claw back whatever earnings or bonuses you can. Put it in writing, and make it transparent you are doing so.

Coaches

We have a role in mentoring and educating our athletes. We should strive to put the best athlete on the line without the aid of performance enhancing drugs. I believe that ultrarunning coaches today practice clean sport. Let’s keep it that way. Our responsibility is to reinforce the culture of clean sport by the way we coach. We are role models and must take that role seriously. We must have integrity and be good role models for our athletes.

Representatives from all four of these categories will eventually have to come together to form a cohesive solution that represents the interests of races, athletes, sponsors and coaches alike. As I mentioned earlier, it won’t be easy. 

The time is now

There are few opportunities in life where you have the chance to get in front of a problem vs. cleaning up the mess in arrears. This is one of them. Being on the front edge of the problem helps the solution tremendously. In ultrarunning, we don’t have to unwind decades of rotten culture (see cycling and the UFC). Because at present there is not a rampant problem with doping in the sport of ultrarunning. I whole heartly believe that. Sure, I can find instances of a failed drug test here, rumors about so-and-so over there, but on the whole, those cases of actual and insinuated doping are very few and far in between. However, this condition is not static. Newcomers enter the sport and old timers leave. New people and new money can shift norms, values and culture. With new athletes entering the sport, and legitimate financial opportunities and bragging rights available at every corner, it’s a perfect recipe that encourages athletes to cheat.

It’s up to the community as a whole to fix this. Organizations like Western States and vociferous athletes can lead the way, but they can’t create change by themselves. It will take many members from all corners of the community to collectively come together and find difficult, nuanced and pragmatic solutions. This is not an easy task, but a necessary one. And one the community has all of the resources to implement. A failure to find solutions would only be a failure of will. As ultrarunners are known for their unrelenting resiliency, my bet is that the will is there, but only time will tell.

A final note

I realize this article will generate cynicism, particularly from naysayers who have long criticized my affiliation with CTS. They will say to be leery of anything I write or say. They will insinuate that my athletes are doping. The latter is the saddest of all. My athletes are good, humble people. They do not cheat. I am extremely proud of what I have been able to accomplish in my professional life. My experience with the cycling and triathlon communities also means I have seen the damage doping culture can have on a sport, its athletes, and its business.

Sensible criticism and dialogue is a catalyst for progress. I encourage it, we all should. I fully admit there are flaws in the above suggestions. For those of you wanting to contribute to the conversation in a reasonable and intellectual manner, I hope you will do. Post in the comments section or on social media, e-mail your peers, collaborate with your fellow ultrarunners.  Feel free to sensibly critique and add to the suggestions above or the testing I am requiring of my athletes. You can e-mail me at jkoop@trainright.com. Constructive conversation not only pushes the issue forward toward solutions, and also drowns out the bullshit that inevitably comes from a hot-button issue.


Share This Article

Comments 4

  1. Look it’s all about money and sponsorships. As such the companies that sponsor athletes can easily test them to ensure no doping. Make the penalty for those companies who allow a doped sponsored athlete to compete so onerous (like being fully boycotted so as not allowed to sponsor races or even not allow athletes to use any of their gear at a race) that they will ensure it doesn’t happen.

  2. Jason Koop is right with much what he has written here. It is saddening that doping is such a big issue in sports in general and in ultrarunning in particular, although it is part of us humans (as are other reprehensible human traits). It is even more saddening for middle and back of the pack runners who have no hope of ever being in the top tier of runners, yet – in the case of ultrarunning – do not resort to doping (at least I hope, knowing how prevalent doping is in amateur sports in general). It is even more saddening then that dopers spoil the pleasure of races for everybody, inclusive of the back of the pack runners.

    As ultrarunning is so diverse in its races, distances, geography, types of athletes and people, I can’t see a way it could join or even benefit an existing sport structure/organization and I can’t see anybody unifying the sports into one organization.

    This leaves the issue up to the people who participate: coaches, directors, athletes, sponsors, brands and companies that benefit commercially (nutrition, supplements, equipment, etc.). While we as people are used to giving responsibility off to other people/structures and organizations – usually because we can’t be bothered – this is one area where we all collectively need to stand up and step up – not only with a voice, but also with action – starting with not accepting that it is inevitably that doping is part of our sports. It needs everybody, but also the leaders (athletes, coaches, directors, etc.) to stand up and use their voice because theirs is heard loudest. It is then up to us – everybodies – to relay the message and not accept what other sports have accepted.

    Thank you Jason Koop.

  3. Pingback: Ultramarathon Daily News | Tue, Sep 29 | Ultrarunnerpodcast.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *