Drugs in Ultramarathons: A Modest Proposal

Stick with me on this.  Drugs, steroids, and PEDs in ultramarathons and trail races are going to be a topic going forward whether we like it or not.  Everyone’s got an opinion or idea , be it elite athletes or mid packers who say they simply don’t care about what’s going on up front.

The “heart of the sport” is questioned, pop-up scientists are opining, but we’re not going to get anywhere if we just share opinions and beliefs. While the conversations have been interesting (and pretty civil), I’m not sure they’ve actually accomplished anything.

I’m a believer that communication is the key to everything.  Though there’s a lot of it going on right now, what we need is additional communication and transparency from the only group that can actually affect change immediately: Race Directors.

First, let’s look at the facts.

  • No one can agree on which type of drug testing is best. (In comp, out of comp, bio passports, etc)
  • No one can agree on what constitutes “Performance Enhancing Drugs/Devices.” Do we want to put cannabis on the same level as EPO? Does the WADA list reflect our sport well?
  • No one can agree on who or what would enforce the bans.
  • No one can agree on who’d make final decision. (This is an important stop that’s often overlooked.)
  • There’s no governing body, outside of a few USATF races, to enforce any ban.
  • Dopers, past and present, are not going to be ostracized in any meaningful way by the community. (Editorial: I’d point to the “race for acceptance and compassion” going on right now on Facebook.  If we want to take “forgiveness” to an absurdity, this can get really ugly.)
  • Asking the RD of every race to police their registrants against the list of suspended dopers is not reasonable. Asking to compare against anyone ever convicted would be ridiculous.
  • A large percentage of runners (including yours truly) get really confused really quickly when talking about the biochemistry of steroids and their off uses and don’t know what the hell we’re talking about.
  • MUT running would largely be dependent on testing from other sports.
  • Drug testing is prohibitively expensive.
  • Lance Armstrong–the very reason many of us are engaged in this conversation–never tested positive for PED use.

So without agreeing on the most very basic premises, there’s zero possibility for a reasonable solution, and we’re left to look elsewhere for partial solutions.  I think my proposal reflects the individuality of this wacky sport pretty well.


My modest proposal:

Serious race directors should make clear their drug policy and let the runners and the market decide whether to support it.  

This would allow those athletes looking to run in a clean field to choose certain races, while those intent on winning the “compassion and forgiveness” contest their own place to go.  Does it answer all the questions and solve the overall issue? Of course not, but it’s a good start and we’ve got to get past that damn starting line.

It would look something like this:

If the RD isn’t interested in the drug issue, simply state that “This race has no drug policy.  Anyone can enter, regardless of convictions or accusations.”

If the RD is interested in attracting some elite talent or has either a small prize purse or the potential for win bonuses from sponsors, state that “Race policy is that those currently serving PED suspensions (from USADA or WADA) are not eligible to race” or “not eligible for prize money or podium places.”

For large races ready to take a hardline, RD can let it be known that “athletes who are found to have ever served a suspension or tested positive for any banned substances are ineligible to run this race.  We support lifetime bans.”

Again, all this comes down to is communication. Let us know what the policy is, and we’ll all help shake it out. I suspect that the same races will sell out and this conversation will still be taking place, but at least we’ll have a start.  It’ll give the running public the ability to know what type of event we’re entering, and that’s good for everybody.

Western States Endurance Run offers this under their “Performance Rules” portion off the site:

The Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run is committed to keeping ultrarunning a clean, drug-free sport. Use of performance enhancing drugs or blood doping as defined by the USADA is forbidden. The Western States board reserves the right to disqualify a runner based on competent evidence of such use.

It’s great the statement is out there and should serve as a model for other races.  While not as air tight as it could be, it’s still a great start and lets the running public know what the Board thinks of doping.  If there are other races with posted statements, please point me in their direction.

In close

This is not an issue that’s going to be cleared up any time soon. Again, with the most basic premises up for debate, meaningful change has no chance of acceptance and adoption, our next step needs to be allowing the market (from back of the pack to the front, media, sponsors, etc) to work to steer this wacky ship of ours in the right direction.


What do you think? Is there a more reasonable first step to take? Will the MUT community get behind any idea to address this issue?

I’m trying to keep URP as balanced as possible, as my opinions and beliefs have gone through a transition over the past few weeks and I’m sure will continue to change as I learn more about this incredibly complex issue. Bear with me.


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