Doping and Ultramarathons: The North Face Draws a Line in the Sand

Doping and Ultramarathons: The North Face Endurance Championship Draws a Clear and Fair Line in the Sand

With the North Face Endurance Challenge Championship (San Francisco) just a few months away, we are delighted to report that The North Face has taken a proactive first step to promote “clean sport” in mountain/ultra/trail running.  Message: Doping and ultramarathons don’t mix.

This morning, the outdoor mega-brand announced a new Clean Sport Policy and Code of Conduct, which all participants will be required to sign and adhere to. In doing so, The North Face Endurance Challenge Series (ECS) joins a host of other events, including the Western States Endurance Run, that have adopted stringent anti-doping policies over the past year.

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According to a ranking system developed by UltraRunning Magazine, the ECS Championship race, which carries a prize purse of $30,000 (including $10,000 for the winners of the men’s and women’s races), attracts the second most competitive field in the United States (after the Western States Endurance Run) and only ranks behind the Run Rabbit Run 100 for prize money.

Last year, a firestorm erupted when LetsRun.com reported that Italian mountain runner Elisa Desco, who had served a 2-year ban for EPO (as a result of a positive test at the 2009 World Mountain Running Championships in Campodolcino, Italy) was scheduled to compete in the ECS Championship race in San Francisco. The Internet lit up with elite runners calling for her exclusion from the event. Lacking an existing policy, The North Face allowed Desco to participate. Perhaps fortunately, Desco eventually dropped out of the race and the immediate crisis was averted.

While it’s hard to say how prevalent PED use is among ultrarunners, it’s naïve to believe that the sport is 100% clean. This was again proven in July when the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) announced the suspension of Gonzalo Calisto of Ecuador, following a positive test for EPO at the 2015 Ultra Tour du Mont Blanc (UTMB). 

Most would agree that we would like to see the sport of ultrarunning remain as clean as possible. What that means and how we get there, however, has been cause for heated debate over the last year. Athletes, sponsors, and race promoters are working together to address the issue on a more comprehensive basis, but there are several areas of lingering concern:

  • Many runners support lifetime bans for convicted dopers. Others argue that this runs counter to the redemptive nature and forgiving spirit of the ultrarunning community.
  • Most ultrarunners agree that testing would be appropriate and valuable. There are, however, reasonable concerns about the cost of a testing program and the potential impact on race entry fees for recreational runners.
  • Some runners have raised concerns about which substances should be included and question whether recreational drugs like marijuana would trigger a positive test.
  • Finally, there is the question about who should be tested. While most are concerned about professional or elite runners who might use PED’s to seek competitive advantage for financial gain, others argue that, in triathlon for instance, doping is most prevalent among age-group competitors.

This is, without question, a very complex issue and it is not going to go away.

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Doping and Ultramarathons: So, let’s take a look at The North Face Clean Sport Policy:

  • Here’s the policy in its entirety.
  • Athletes have a responsibility to educate themselves on the anti-doping rules and banned substances established by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and on other anti-doping rules and policies.
  • All athletes competing in ECS events will be required to acknowledge the policy and agree to the ECS Code of Conduct (this allows The North Face to enforce the policy).
  • Any athlete who has been banned from competition for a violation of applicable anti-doping rules or policies, will be prohibited from competing at any ECS event while the ban is effective.
  • Once a ban has been served, an athlete may compete however, he/she will forever be ineligible to receive prize money,  awards, podium recognition, or overall or age group competitive rankings at any ECS event, and may not participate in the ECS GORE-TEX 50-mile event elite field. (emphasis added)
  • If a ban is overturned on appeal or otherwise vacated, the athlete will be eligible to compete on the same terms as all other athletes and will be eligible for prize money, awards, etc.
  • If The North Face determines, at any time, that an athlete has competed in an ECS event while banned from competition, that athlete must forfeit the event and return any prize money, awards, etc.

As the sport becomes increasingly competitive, attracting faster runners, larger sponsors and heftier prize purses, PED usage is bound to grow. To combat that will require testing at races and, eventually, out of competition. Until we get there, policies like this are an important first step. When sponsors, race directors, and athletes come together, we draw a line in the sand and define what is and is not acceptable in our ultrarunning culture.

We welcome The North Face’s voice to the chorus in support of clean sport and fair competition.

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