Sunday, July 01, 2012

Drug testing at Western States

The Western States Endurance Run is one of the oldest ultra trail events in the world.  The organization bills the event as one of the most challenging ultra marathons, an “international” draw and- in magazine advertisements- a “championship” event.  Others praise the event as “prestigious” or refer to it as the “Big Dance”.  These aren’t my words but I tend to agree with them.  It’s hard to argue against Western States being the most popular and sought after 100 in the land, period.  Over the years, for many reasons, Western States has earned this luring reputation and its placement in annals of ultra marathon history.
As far as 100 milers go, in the US and elsewhere, except for in Chamonix, there is no race that commands the attention of the running community, attracts as many athletes to its registration or swells its field with elites runners, quite like Western States.  Not even close.
Moreover, runners who win at Western States are often catapulted to the top of the sport’s prize ranking Ultra Runner of the Year and or ultra runner Performance of the Year voting blocks, if not crowned such by their performances.   This will likely happen again for 2012 after Timmy’s and Ellie’s recent outstanding performances.
As ultrarunning continues to gain in popularity, and even as more and more competing ultra events sprout up, the lure of Western States will remain, if not intensify.  And as fast as other races, old and new, become more and more popular Western States will also, possibly with greater velocity.
The men’s and women’s fields at Western States for the past few years have been shockingly deep, the performances very inspiring.  What does the future hold for the race in terms of competition?  Even if nothing changes, in terms of the event's registration process- which I could care less if it changes or not- the race will only continue to intensify in terms of competition.  So much so that it is difficult to imagine the possible times and field depth five to ten years out as more and more athletes continue to break new barriers.  It is exciting to think about.
I believe that the future of ultrarunning may even be defined, if not refined, by Western States performances and the calculus of its race results and performances.  What do I mean by this?  For starters, as the years click by more and more elite athletes will run Western States and finish in incredibly fast times.  In the next few years- no matter the course or the weather- to finish top ten a male may have to run under 16 hours.  In fact, that almost happened this year.  Six men finished under 16 hours, the remaining four of the top ten finished in 16:03, 16:05, 16:13 and 16:18.  For the women, sub 19 hours could be the cutoff.  Similar to the men, that almost happened this year.   Six women finished under 19 hours, the remaining four of the top ten finished in 19:09, 19:11, 19:29 and 19:45.  Incredible times like these result from incredible performances, which require incredible training and incredible sacrifice by incredible people; people who are focused on Western States and arrive in Squaw in June fresh and ready run hard. 
As always, many runners who deliver incredible times will arrive to Squaw already with big names and a record of strong past performances.  Others may show up out of the woodwork and turn heads.  The only difference is, going forward, there may be more and more runners showing up for the Big Dance out of the woodwork with head turning potential.  That is because more and more runners will focus their efforts on Western States, show up for the Big Dance, kill it, whether they top ten or not, then return to their home states or countries and continue killing it at other local and regional events.  Simply by virtue of runners producing so many big performances at Western States the elite ultra running pie will grow and grow, inspire and filter out through networks of ultra running communities everywhere.
Admittedly, I am getting a bit carried away.  Where am I going with this?  I believe Western States should consider enacting a drug testing policy for the top ten male and female finishers.  These athletes could be tested right there on the football field at Placer High, in a tent, surrounded by the track where runners finish the race.  Win Western States?  Top ten finisher?  Congratulations!  Come with me for a few minutes.  Oh, and here.  Drink this bottle of water.  We need a sample of your urine to test for banned performance enhancing supplements.
First, let me say loud and clear, I suspect no one of doping at Western States or at any ultra, anywhere; I never have.  But I acknowledge people are people, and we are flawed.  We cheat at school, take short cuts at work, we lie, we do things we know are wrong to gain an edge in life and we’re lazy.  It would be na├»ve to think that as ultras- in particular, Western States- continue to grow in popularity and as prize money and sponsorships resulting from top performances become more lucrative that some within the ultra running community will not look to short cuts.  Hell, ego alone for some might be reason enough to dope.  Western States- nay, the ultra running community at large- need not learn this lesson or try to fix or cover it up after the fact- like some other sports.  Doping already occurs in ultra running.  Look to Comrades- this year and others.  Is it happening at other ultra events?  Not that I know of but I personally have heard rumors about it taking place among top runners at an international event- and I am not referring to Comrades.  Could it happen at Western States?  Why couldn’t it?  Will it?  Yes, eventually, definitely, if a process is not set up to bust cheaters.  In anything and everything, sports and otherwise, cheaters somehow always snatch a seat at the table of opportunity, looking out only for their own by taking advantage of others and breaking the rules.
Developing a fair, legal, above board drug testing policy couldn’t be that difficult.  Certainly, Western States has the resources and connections to see it through.  Not only would an official drug testing policy validate an athlete’s win or top ten it would help to maintain a level playing field for all athletes, and in the process elevate Western States to new, unchartered status as the premier 100 in the land and elsewhere.  Isn’t that what many people are after?  Something akin to a true 100 mile championship race?  How can we have that in this day and age without procedures in place set up and designed to keep things fair amongst the athletes?  People talk a lot about prize money, as if that were one of the primary driving factors necessary to establish a championship event.  Maybe it is for some.  Personally, I would rather win Western States (if that was ever possible…) than run and win any other 100 mile race with a cash purse, where I ran for the expressed purpose of getting paid.
Screw the money.  What athletes really need is drug testing.
More than drug testing, what athletes really need is protection.  Drug testing will provide that.  I don’t mean to suggest that athletes needs protection from themselves.  Athletes need protection from everyone else, including maybe even other athletes.  Say in a perfect world, a large snowball amassed in hell, and I won Western States.  People might say no frickin’ way.  That guy had to dope.  And, who knows, they might be justified for feeling that way and some might even welcome their opinions in an open forum.  My name would quickly become mud; whether I doped or not.  After all, world over, it’s not like endurance athletes haven’t given the public reason to be suspicious.
My story is much like that of many fellow ultra runners.  I didn’t begin running until later in life and (still role playing here…) whoever would have thought that I could win Western States?  A drug test would help protect me from accusatory backlash.  Western States, Montrail Cup qualifying races and other big races require runners with big names to swell their ranks and draw attention to their events.  Well, whether race directors realize it or not, athletes require help from these races to keep their good names clean.  My work is in the insurance biz and my primary function each and every day is to manage risk for clients.  I simply look at the protection afforded athletes by drug testing as risk management, and not just for the athletes but also for the events, race directors and the sport itself. 
All of this may seem much ado about nothing but for me personally this latter point is the one thing I am most concerned about, if anything.  No, not winning Western States and being wrongfully called out but actually running something extraordinary- a sub 16 for example, which I know is possible- and being wrongfully called out.  I value my name and my integrity and fear those who might seek to wrongfully tarnish it, whether they truly believed I was in the wrong or not.

It's not like I believe this scenario could actually play out for me, but I recognize it is possible.  It could certainly happen to others as well, men or women.  Everywhere I go to run races and training runs and everyone I meet I feel is a lot like me.  Meaning, they're just normal, everyday people.  Well, sort of.  Aside from the fact that they're incredible athletes.  They have jobs, families, they work hard, etc.  I would hate to see such a scenario play out for one of my countless friends and acquaintances who enjoy the sport as much as I do, if not more.  

I for one would be happy to be drug tested.  In fact, I would be flattered.  That would say to me that a race director and a race event that I respect thought of me and my performance as so strong that they thought it necessary to verify that I wasn’t cheating.  That may sound a bit strange but as long as the policy is fair and open amongst everyone, seriously, what would I care?
Over the past few weeks (before Western States, not after) I have had a few conversations with people about the possibility of athletes doping at Western States and at other ultra events in general.  Some of these conversations I had with fellow ultra runners, some I had with friends who are not ultra runners.  It seems the fear of athletes doping is already on people’s minds.  Maybe this fear is out there among others in the community, too, only it isn’t talked about much; at least not publicly.
As I said, looking down the road, it is exciting to think where the sport is going.  I for one get goose bumps just thinking about it.  Whether we acknowledge or admit it or not, in part, good or bad, we have Western States to thank for much of this directionality.  Can you imagine a time and place at Western States where times won’t continue dropping or when performances will cease to inspire?  Maybe not each and every year, but overall.  What we don’t want to happen is arrive at a time and place where athletes are accused of cheating and there is no proof, yet an individual’s reputation is tarnished regardless.  Nor do we want a cheater hauling off a Western States Cougar trophy or a top ten finish.  Or do we wish for a scenario where athletes are found out as cheaters but after the fact, resulting in a big, explosive, drama infused outcome.  That would leave an ugly black mark on the sport.  Western States can head off such an unseemly- but not unthinkable- scenario at the pass by enacting a drug testing policy for the top ten male and female finishers.
I think testing beyond the top ten isn’t necessary.  If a runner enters Western States understanding the drug testing policy and shows up gunning for a win or top ten, yet finishes in the teens or higher, then odds are he or she won’t be doping because if they were to win or finish top ten they would know their finish wouldn’t count if they were discovered as a doper.

Many top ultra runners want to run Western States.  Among these individuals, the ultimate goal for some is to finish top ten.  I suspect no one of doping at Western States or at any other ultra, ever, and have no cause for such suspicion.  But I do think in order to help protect athletes, keep the playing field level and elevate the sport Western States should consider enacting a drug testing policy for the top ten male and female finishers.

6 comments:

  1. As a former cyclist and an aspiring ultrarunner, doping is one of my biggest concerns for the sport. Obviously it exists profoundly in the sport of cycling and was a big part of why I stopped pursuing success there. It's been several years and I'm ready to tackle a new challenge. A big part of the lure of ultra running is because I've perceived it as a clean sport. I love it and I'd like to see the sport continue to grow, but once you add money to the mix I'm not sure how to really keep it clean. There's *a lot* of testing in cycling and yet the cheating continues.

    Perhaps the most important thing is to establish an etiquette and a culture around the sport that promotes and supports running clean. Part of why testing doesn't work in cycling is that, doping is a part of that culture. Even if you get busted, you're not ostracized by the cycling community as long as you keep your mouth shut. Being clean absolutely must be part of ultra running and its culture. In that way dopers will be shunned by their peers, lose their sponsors and black-balled from events. Doping must be a ticket to losing money and community acceptance or all the testing in the world won't do a lick of good.

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  2. Interesting points Neal. There's definitely chatter about the amazing WS (and other) 100 finishes and times and the probability that doping is already in play. I'm not a cynic but I agree that it's only a matter of time.
    I think testing is a good move -- because as great as the TdF cyclists are, everytime I watch I wonder if any rider out there is clean. And I'd hate to have people think that way about our sport.

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  3. Just my opinion, but I think I disagree more than agree. Mainly cause I hate to see more involvement in trail/ultra running from some "governing party" that sets rules we have to follow. Keep it low key, keep it simple. My 2 cents.

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  4. Neal, your a bit late to the party. This has been blogged about many times. So you want to have drug testing at States? Who's going to fund it? Lab processing is not cheap. Who is going to be the governing body over the testing and write the procedures? and who is going to pay them? The appeal process? The attoney's for both sides? Is the athlete going to pay his attorney from those huge dollars he/she wins from the races and their sponsors? What are you going to do. Sell all your free shoes you get on ebay to fund your legal counsel? How about all those gel packets you get for free. There's some major money. And like one responder mentioned previously, pro road racing has a multi-million dollar testing and governing body and still rider's cannot be caught. Armstrong was tested over 500 times and was never caught. Ultra is a pimple compared to ultra racing, and quite frankly, most of the "outside world" could care less, much less know what the hell an ultra marathon even is. I don't want to upset you or anything, but my guess is that 99.5% of the race field could care less what "elite" finishes in the top ten, let alone who one. I have run States the last two years in a row and I could care less who was in the top ten, cuz it wasn't me and wasn't one of my friends. Good for them, amazing, but how does it effect my life or event experience. Answer? It doesn't.

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  5. Mamabolo who won Comrades this year has had his A sample tested positive but please do not forget that he can appeal and have his B sample tested, AND the substance that he has been found in his A sample (methylhexaneamine) has previously got rugby players banned but then reinstated and all doping charges dropped as it was found to be in cough mix and other medications. Please do not don't his name until the final verdict is out. But, if you introduce drugs testing at WS100 (personally I think it is way too early) then anyone who thinks they might come top 10 by your suggestion that should be tested must know all over the counter medications that they must avoid that are banned by WADA. And testing 10 deep assumes that you think that coming 10th at WS100 has real career advantages. Plus any race that is drugs tested always retains right to random test anyone in the field for sake of fairness - like when Meghan will smash the womens 80yrs+ record at WS100 :)
    Yes, there are career benefits for winning WS100 that might grow as our sport grows but right now they are nothing like the benefits of a race such as Comrades thus the temptation to dope is far smaller (FYI winner at Comrades if South African would walk away with well over $100, 000 before even speaking to any TV shows, sponsor deals or getting his/ her phone call of congrats from the South African president).

    Sorry, I only meant to comment that not to taint Mamabola's name until that outcome is final but get a little carried away on this subject as it is extremely complex.

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  6. If I could wave a magic wand so that there would be high reliability testing for very little cost, then yes, I would 'wish it' for WS.

    As others have pointed out, the cost/reliability calculation doesn't make sense right now for the race (I assume). Further, as Ellie points out, anyone with a shot at top-10 would have to all of a sudden know/conform to all the WADA substance lists. Finally, it might sour the milk a bit in terms of the trust an love of the race.

    Do I think anyone who has ever run/placed at WS has doped? Yes, I'm sure of it. It's the human condition. Do I think it's impacted the character and fundamental fairness of the race? No.

    If the trajectory of trial/ultra continues, there may be a day... 5-10 years from now when the money and "fame" reach a point where it is necessary. It's worth considering, talking about, debating, but I think it's too soon.

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