Timothy Olson, after winning Western States in 2013.
Timothy Olson, after winning Western States in 2013. (Photo: PRNewsFoto/The North Face)
In Stride

Can Western States Stop Doping in Trail Running?

With their new drug testing policy, race organizers hope to lead ultrarunning's anti-doping charge—but the sport still has a long way to go

Timothy Olson, after winning Western States in 2013.
PRNewsFoto/The North Face(Photo)

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On May 24, the Western States Endurance Run announced via press release that its 2017 running would include post-race drug testing for the first time in the event’s 44-year history. While this development might feel long overdue in today’s increasingly competitive ultra scene, it also heralds a loss of innocence for road racing’s rugged cousin. All Western States entrants who don’t want to risk ending up as accidental drug cheats will need to have familiarized themselves with the World Anti-Doping Agency’s extensive list of prohibited substances well in advance. When the runners complete their 100-mile journey on the Placer High School track later this month, several elites will need to put their post-race exuberance on hold to provide a urine sample.

How effective can such measures be? A one-time piss test feels rather quaint in the post–Lance Armstrong era. Indeed, when compared with the elaborate anti-doping programs of organizations like Union Cycliste Internationale and the International Association of Athletics Federations (both of which bet heavily on expensive out-of-competition testing to catch dopers), the Western States initiative feels like a symbolic act. By requiring all athletes to be registered, governing bodies like UCI and IAAF can, at least ostensibly, force all competitors to comply with standardized anti-doping rules. Of course, the system only has a chance if national governing bodies and anti-doping commissions do their part. But that’s precisely the point. Even with its purported $8 million budget, IAAF anti-doping is hardly an airtight operation, to say the least. So what does Western States hope to achieve with far fewer resources (and no official governing body for the sport) at its disposal?

I put that question to Western States race director Craig Thornley in a recent phone call. When I referred to the race’s testing initiative as “low-key,” he begged to differ.

“This is not low-key testing by any means,” Thornley said. “We’re doing the WADA International Standards for Testing Investigations (ISTI). It’s anything but low-key. We’re definitely making a statement that we want to deter performance-enhancing drug use. We don’t want our sport to end up like track and field or cycling.”

Be that as it may, Thornley recognizes the importance of a more extensive anti-doping infrastructure and that no single event can protect a sport’s integrity on its own. In other words, keeping ultrarunning clean will require a collaborative effort.

“We’re hoping that other races will join forces with us,” Thornley said, before adding, “It’s pretty hard without a governing body to implement out-of-competition testing. We’re going out on our own on this. We’re not naive and thinking that this is going to catch everybody, so in some sense, yeah, it’s symbolic, but we hope that this is just a first step in establishing more widespread drug testing systems in the United States for ultras.”

A one-time piss test feels rather quaint in the post–Lance Armstrong era.

It’s worth emphasizing that, at present, drug testing on the U.S. ultra scene is still very much in its nascent phase. Thornley cited Colorado’s Ouray 100 as a rare example of a race that does do some testing, but even there only top finishers are tested for a handful of substances, like HGH or EPO. (Ouray director Charles Johnston designates a portion of the race’s modest budget to enlist the services of a local drug-testing company.) Western States will distinguish itself by testing for all WADA-banned substances. According to a recent Runner’s World article, the race consulted officials at the Abbott World Marathon Majors about their anti-doping program.

Unlike the world’s premier marathons, where top runners are lured to the starting line by six-figure race purses and appearance fees, there is no cash reward for winning a major ultra like Western States or the Hardrock 100. The few ultras that offer prize money, like Run Rabbit Run in Steamboat Springs, give paltry sums compared with big-name road races. At first glance, it might therefore seem unnecessary for a race like Western States to shoulder the logistical and financial burden of implementing an anti-doping program. However, as Thornley was quick to point out, the prestige of the race means that a top finish can lead to sponsorships and other potentially lucrative opportunities for athletes. Emphasis on potentially.

If anyone was still holding on to the illusion that a race without prize money automatically results in a clean field, that bubble should have been burst last summer when Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc top finisher Gonzalo Calisto tested positive for EPO as a result of the UTMB’s in-competition drug testing. (There is no cash reward for the winner of Europe’s vaunted ultra.)

What this effectively means for Western States is that doing nothing is not a viable option. Though they may be years away from having a workable out-of-competition testing system, ultras have at least one significant advantage vis-à-vis their better-funded and more bureaucratically structured USATF or IAAF counterparts: Races like Western States and the Lake Sonoma 50 can make their own rules about who gets to compete.

Drug testing on the U.S. ultra scene is still very much in its nascent phase.

Instead of drawing criticism for readmitting former drug cheats, events that don’t depend on external organizations to administer doping-related bans have the flexibility to implement a real zero-tolerance policy. That’s precisely what Western States did. Its recently amended Performance Rule 18 stipulates: “Any athlete who has been determined to have violated anti-doping rules or policies, whether enforced by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), or any other national sports federation, is ineligible for entry into the Western States Endurance Run.” It’s a nifty move that de facto enables Western States, which currently doesn’t have the wherewithal to create its own out-of-competition-testing, to “use” testing programs of other organizations. An interesting consequence is that athletes serving temporary bans from IAAF races—like Kenyan marathoner Rita Jeptoo, whose four-year ban for EPO use expires in October 2018—would be barred from Western States for life.

If a one-strike-and-you’re-out policy seems harsh, remember that elite-level athletic careers are short and chances at glory are fleeting. The clean athlete who finds out eight years after her Olympic race that she was racing against dopers doesn’t get a second chance either. Why should clemency be granted to those who knowingly broke the rules?

Rest assured, there will always be those who will try, despite sincere efforts to discourage would-be dopers.

Earlier this year, I spoke with professor Charles E. Yesalis, a former consultant to USA Track and Field and the Drug Enforcement Administration who has been involved in the doping debate since the mid-1970s. (In addition to publishing more than 100 articles on the subject, he has testified in front of Congress six times.) Yesalis said he knew of instances in bodybuilding where all that was at stake was a $10 trophy. People would still cheat.

“What you’re dealing with is human nature. I think it’s innate in humans to want to prevail, to win,” Yesalis said. “The time expenditure investment that you make for the probability of zero dollars coming back to you—you say, well, if I’m going to do all of this, at least I’m going to win the $10 trophy.”

Lead Photo: PRNewsFoto/The North Face