Top Trail Runners Speak Out About PEDs

Joe Gray, Sage Canaday and others support more aggressive drug-testing programs for trail and ultramarathon races.

Photo: Alexandr Podvalny/Unsplash

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The day before the 2012 World Mountain Running Championships, Joe Gray, elite Club Northwest road, cross-country, and mountain runner, was exhausted. He went for a run and then lay down in bed to get some sleep before the big race. There was a knock. Fellow runner Rich Bolt stood at the door and let Gray know he’d been selected for a random drug test.

In 2010, Ellie Greenwood had just finished first in the International Association of Ultrarunners World 100K Championships in Gibraltar. At the finish line, authorities whisked her away, back to the cruise ship she’d arrived on. While they searched for the right cabin, Greenwood hobbled along behind them, clinging to the banisters to hoist her aching body up a few flights of stairs. Finally they stopped at the right room. There, under same-sex supervision, she’d have to pee in a cup.

Since then, Greenwood has had to register her location quarterly online as per the rules of the World Anti-Doping Agency so they can show up at her house at 6:30 a.m. to make sure she isn’t doping.

Sage Canaday, elite trail runner and two-time Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier, has never had this experience, but as an athlete who’s been accused of doping, he says he’d be honored to pee in a cup to prove his innocence.

Sports news is inundated with stories of athletes using performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). Cyclist Lance Armstrong used them. Baseball player Alex “A-Rod” Rodriguez used them. Track and field sprinter Tyson Gay used them. But, for the most part, the trail-running community hasn’t been under the laser-beam of PED scrutiny—but, this may be changing.

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As the sport grows, the competition grows fiercer and prize purses are starting to balloon. While even the biggest trail and mountain races offer far less money than the world’s top road races (winning the Boston Marathon would snag you $100,000), many still have tens of thousands of dollars up for grabs.

Top female and male finishers of the North Face Endurance Challenge in San Francisco and the Run Rabbit Run 100-miler in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, take home $10,000 each. Winners in the Skyrunning World Series could earn up to $9,000, depending on how they place in each division of the series. And, last year, the Pikes Peak Marathon and Ascent became the first U.S. trail-running events to implement random drug tests by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA).

“Mountain and trail-running races continue to grow in participants and prestige,” says Ron Ilgen, President of Pikes Peak Marathon, Inc. “It is important that mountain running joins the ranks with road races in ensuring that our competitors are drug free.”

“I think a lot of ultra- and trail- running communities want to think the sport is ‘pure’ and that there’s no temptation for anyone to cheat,” says Canaday. “But the amount of prize money at [elite] races is a good chunk of change to make by running. And even when you place well in races that don’t pay out, sponsorship opportunities can open up.”

Even though huge piles of cash are only offered in a few select trail races, “You never know how much money is enough to make people want to dope,” says Gray. “People are doping, and [race organizations] need to make sure they’re testing often, especially out of season.”

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Big names in the running community, especially those who compete in USA Track and Field-sanctioned events like Gray, get tested quite often. But, during his European competition season, he’s come across many runners from smaller countries who fly under the radar, claiming prize purses at smaller races, without ever being tested for PED use.

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) made a big leap in 2009 by creating the Athlete Biological Passport (ABP), a program designed to more accurately monitor athletes over a long period of time to make sure they aren’t taking PEDs. Rather than instituting one-off tests that target specific drugs, the ABP is a series of blood or urine tests taken of a single athlete over several years. Over time, patterns can be analyzed, and the ABP can be used to both ferret out PED users, as well as offer substantial, long-term proof of innocence for non-dopers.

Gray believes the ABP has already succeeded in preventing PED use. After the program was instituted, he says, he began beating a number of athletes he’d never been able to come anywhere close to in competition before. “And it’s not like I’m running that much better,” he says. “WADA is definitely making some ground on cheaters.”

The consensus seems to be that testing should be implemented in more events—and more often. But it’s expensive. Keeping tabs on just one athlete for an entire year can cost up to $1,000. Plus it’s difficult to pick out true irregularities in trail runners’ efforts. Unlike track and field distance events, or even road marathons, every trail race is different.

“Maybe some races don’t have the budget to implement major testing,” says Canaday. But more elite races need to start testing, he thinks, and they have to spend the money to test out of season as well.

That’s because when athletes on PEDs expect a drug test at the start or finish line of a big race, they have time to clear their systems of the substance before the test occurs. But off-season testing, like the kind implemented by the ABP, could catch cheaters using drugs in their most important training blocks.

“Guys I ran with on the Hansons-Brooks team got tested all the time,” recalls Canaday. “Brian Sell must’ve been tested at least 50 times—at work, at home, even when he was out of shape.”

With the growing popularity of the sport, Canaday believes that testing should become an integral part of competition. “I know people are appalled at that idea,” he says. “But times are changing. All the major events should drug-test out of season, and the cost of doing that should just become a main part of the sport. Otherwise I think more people will slip through the cracks.”

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