Trail Runner Blog Symposium: Should there be drug testing in Ultras?

Should there be drug testing in ultras? The sport has really grown by leaps and bounds in the last handful of years, so maybe now is  a good time to think ahead  and address the “elephant in the locker room,” so to speak.  I have really been giving this a lot of thought because one simple answer doesn’t jump right out at me.  (And as  anyone that knows me well will tell you I have opinions about EVERYTHING!)

alt         Athletes train hard, work hard, test out equipment, training plans, meal plans, even the crew that helps pace them, just to get the slightest edge over the competition. Whether that competition is the clock, an old buddy, or the top seeded guy/girl.  The optimist in me would love to say a definitive NO and believe that people like me, who compete in ultras to see how their bodies and minds can be trained and tested and pushed, would never dope because it takes away from the me vs. ultra distance aspect.  I would like to think that they take part in this sport because they love to,  not because they will win at any cost.  However, with more prize money finding its way into the sport, and  more runners becoming sponsored the pressure to perform is becoming greater.

triathlon doping is overwhelming pill poppong

Doping in professional athletics has been a public problem since the 1960s.  In 1976 The International Olympic Committee (IOC) banned the use of steroids.  Since ’76 many athletes have tested positive for banned substances, one of the biggest scandals recently came to light Jan 17,2013 with The IOC stripping cyclist Lance Armstrong of the bronze medal he won at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia. (A good time-line of performance enhancing drugs in athletics can be found here courtesy of CNN.)

Coincidentally, there was just a conversation about things of this nature on a listserv I am part of.   There were many points of view about doping, but not just doping, but what is a “performance enhancing drug?”   Do the steroid inhalers some  runners use for their asthma count as performance enhancing? What about cognitive enhancers?  Does the ADD medication someone takes for school to focus, also help them have a crazy focus for training that otherwise they wouldn’t have?  What about  NSAIDS?   Those dull our pain receptors and help athletes push through pain that they may otherwise have not.  What about coffee?!  Caffeine has been shown to help with endurance.   These are valid questions that need answers; enter WADA,  or World Anti-doping Agency.

The World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) mission is to lead a collaborative worldwide campaign for doping-free sport.  The List Expert Group is a panel of scientists chosen for their international expertise,  and meets three times a year.
Obviously this is a big enough problem that an agency was created to referee sports around the world.  But this committee only tends  to  look at professional athletes,  what about the rest of us?

This year in Germany a study looking at nearly 3000 triathletes into both physical and cognitive doping found that:   at Ironman Frankfurt, Ironman 70.3 Wiesbaden and Ironman Regensburg.  The ironman-triathlon-doping-study was published in the international, peer-reviewed, open-access publication PLOS ONE (eISSN-1932-6203).  The shocking findings are

  • 13% admitted to physical doping; Steroids, EPO, Human growth hormone, etc
  • 15% admitted to cognitive doping; antidepressants, beta-blockers, modafinil, methylphenidate, etc.
  • 10% admitted to both physical and cognitive doping
  • 20% admitted to physical doping at Ironman european championships Frankfurt

This study can be found here, and here.

Basically it found that there was little difference between the athletes  who admitted to using illegal substances and those not using.   They were relatively the same in age, BMI and weight.   Those doping only trained a handful of hours more a week than the non-dopers, and there was little difference between instances of male or female doping.  But bottom line, there are a whole lot of people in this study who admitted to doping (probably more that didn’t admit it) 1 in 7 admitted to some form of illegal doping and those surveyed were not part of the pro-field, they were all  recreational triathletes.

So what does this mean?  Does this mean that our famous athletes that we look up to do it, and therefore we feel its ok? Or does this mean that the type of competitive person that takes part in sports feels that one must do whatever is necessary to win?  Maybe we have just become a culture that thinks that doping isn’t hurting anyone, right?  But I think it does, it hurts people who may have won who do it clean, it hurts businesses, it hurts the supporters of the athlete and the enterprises they stand for, and ultimately I think it hurts the sport. (Again I am thinking of the people caught up in the Tour de France and Lance Armstrong.)

I tend to finish  in the top 5 (female) in almost every (A) race I have run.  If someone were to want to test me for doping after a race,  on the one hand I would  almost smugly be proud to provide a sample to prove that probably the worst “substance”in my body was the green tea I had before the race, and those gross gu’s I sometimes resort to in the last 5 miles of a race. (ugh, gag, too much sugar!)  On the other hand,  I would be saddened to see skepticism seep into a sport that so many pride themselves on as being a more “pure” sport.

What about cost?  A test can cost $250-$300, making testing the field prohibitively expensive for an RD.  So then, does one just test the top 5? 10?  Those who stand to win prizes or money?  And what about how that will make each race more expensive to each entrant to now offset the cost of these tests?

So, in concluding,  what do I think about drug testing in Ultras? With all this in mind its hard  not to think that there should be some testing.  I think its only fair that all ultra runners give each other the respect to all start from a level playing field, as far as doping is concerned.  Perhaps just certain races should test.  Those races who have money to win,  or are big races that are highly publicized and sponsorships often follow those who do well.   Perhaps it should be up to the companies that sponsor runners to make sure they have a “clean” team.   After all,  like most rules, anti-doping laws are put in place to keep people honest, and to establish group rules.   Maybe its time the sport of ultra running in the US catch up with other ultra races around the world.  Races like the  Comrades Marathon, and Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc both test, as well as the USTAF  test their participants.  I’d hate to see trail races and ultra’s caught up in doping scandals  as baseball and cycling have been in the recent past,  so yes, maybe thinking ahead and testing is the best thing for everyone.

I’d love to hear your thoughts, please feel free to leave a comment.

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