PED Testing? Maybe for Some…..

In any sport, whenever money or fame is at stake, there will be a temptation to cheat. Even in trail running we’re faced with the possibility that a few participants are going to resort to performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) to boost their chance of getting that money or fame.

Make no mistake about it; PEDs can significantly impact the nature of a trail race for those who running near the front and have a shot at the win. And we could certainly reduce the chance that PEDs will play a role in a race’s outcome by instituting large scale drug testing.

Who Pays?

But testing comes with a financial cost, and I suspect that most race directors wouldn’t be able to bear this cost out of their own pockets or current budgets. Nor am I confident that we racers would be particularly happy if (as would likely be the case) those testing costs were tacked on to our entry fees. Furthermore, widespread drug testing would also come with a stigma and an admission of failure within the trail running community — namely the idea that testing needs to be done at all.

Cheaters Gonna Cheat.

It’s true that some will be tempted to cheat, but PEDs are only one example of cheating. Cheating also comes in the form of short-cutting the course (even if it’s “just a little”), getting aid outside designated areas, having a pacer mule gear when it’s not permitted, dropping wrappers or other excess gear on the side of the trail (rather than carrying them to the next aid station or trash can), failing to step off trail to yield to runners or other trail users who have the right of way or are trying to pass, and other bad behaviors. All of these things can give the person doing them an unfair advantage. I don’t know how often these things happen, but I’ve seen examples of each of them during a race.

One reason we usually don’t get too concerned about these other bad behaviors is because we know that actually trying to enforce them would be too expensive. And deep down inside we know why we’re racing in the first place; most of us aren’t there to try to win. We’re just there to run our own race, and nothing that anyone else does during the race should have any impact on the quality of our individual experience. So for us the cost of strictly enforcing those rules with trail monitors simply isn’t worth the cost.

The importance and significance of most race results quickly fade from the collective consciousness. Unless they were people you personally knew, do you remember (or did you even take note of it in the first place) the names of the age group winners from the race you did last year or the year before? Using PEDs is sad because, for the most part, the glory the cheaters are chasing simply doesn’t exist. So in the vast majority of trail races I think the cost of drug testing isn’t justified when weighed against the relatively minor injustices that might occur without it.

Perhaps Some Testing Makes Sense.

That said, I understand there may be a place for drug testing at the handful of races where there’s a lot at stake in terms of prize money or potential sponsorships. At these events the men and women who are in the hunt have a lot more at stake than those of us in the middle or back of the pack do.

So maybe we address the PED problem only where it exists and is likely to do real harm. For example, take a look at how the Run Rabbit Run 100 Mile event deals with the natural division of participants within the sport. There are two separate segments of runners (“Hares” and “Tortoises”) in the same race, with $10,000 for the winner of the Hare division, and $250 going to the winning Tortoise. Some people don’t like the division of entrants (or perhaps they just don’t like the names of the divisions), but I think it makes sense.

Wouldn’t it also make sense to have PED testing for the Hares, with the costs being deducted from their prize pool (and not passed along to the Tortoises)? After all, $10,000 might be enough incentive for some runners to seek a pharmaceutical boost for a shot at the prize. But testing for the Tortoises? I don’t think that’s necessary….. is anyone really going to put their health at risk by doping so they can take home a $250 first prize? That’s barely enough to cover the cost of early registration to the race itself!

If we choose to start drug testing at some of these high profile events, it should be done in a way that acknowledges the de facto division within the sport, and the costs should be allocated appropriately. I don’t want to bear the cost of testing because the presence of a cheater in the field isn’t going to make my experience any worse, even when they cross the finish line ahead of me.

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6 comments to PED Testing? Maybe for Some…..

  • Good synopsis Jake. Mostly commenting because I notice you are from Longmont – me too. Read this initially on TrailRunner. I question whether trail runs are handing out enough money yet to make this a serious issue. But then maybe I just never register for the ones with big payouts. It goes without saying that I would never be competitive, so I appreciate the amateur status of many trail events.

    • Jake

      Thanks, Ed.

      I too like the fact that most trail events still seem pretty relaxed. Even at some large trail races that have become rather popular, I’ve noticed that the countdown to start is little more than a simple announcement like: “OK folks, the official start line is over here, and we’re gonna try to get this thing going in a couple minutes…” And in response we casually amble over to that general vicinity, with no thoughts of trying to elbow our way a little closer to the start line, just to gain a bit of an “edge” over the other racers.

      I hope that if more prize money does start flowing into these events the amateur feel doesn’t get lost.

  • Hey Jake – I found this article via the Trail Runner link (congrats on winning this month’s contest by he way).

    I agree that trail running can be a very casual activity for most of the entrants but my opinion is that if this sport ever wants to be taken seriously and pull in big dollars it will need to step up its game and implement drug testing on a very regular basis and it will need to be done by a third party – ideally some sort of governing body like what WADA or the UCI does for cycling.

    Currently trail running is in this weird state where enthusiasts are able to toe the line with top elite athletes. That’s kind of cool as it makes the sport more approachable but it also means it’s impossible to hold everyone to the same standards. One way to change this like you implied would be to have an elite-only event. It could even be run concurrently with the amateur event but the entry fee would be higher (in part to pay for drug testing) and the prizes for elites would be larger as well.

    Of course this would require sponsors to increase their support of athletes and events so that pro runners would not have to work as well as train which begs the chicken/egg question of what comes first – the testing or the financial support.

    I look to professional cycling as the model since this is the only sport that has taken drug testing seriously. American football, baseball, etc. are a joke and even European soccer is years behind. The Olympics come close but still only test at the event and not throughout the year or during the off season.

    This is a tough nut to crack but one worth cracking. And to those that balk at higher entry fees, I would suggest that you can always run most of these same routes self-supported. All you lose is the ‘fame’ of your official finishing time. If you need that official time, perhaps you need to pay more? Heck, most races sell out so damn early anyway because of participant restrictions that I’m planing on a lot more runs and fewer races myself for 2014. At least that way I’ll get to be on the trails I want to run when I want to run them.

    • Jake

      Thanks, Martin.

      I certainly agree with you that trail running currently occupies an unusual place on the sporting spectrum. The fastest and the slowest participants are basically treated the same, and that’s pretty cool. Trail racing is even different from road racing. The NYC marathon, for example, is marketed as an inclusive and unifying race that’s great for the average runner (the 2013 average finishing time was just under 4:30), but the top runners get their own starting wave and have their own individual aid stations and support on the course.

      You hit the nail on the head when you said “if we want the sport to be taken seriously…” While there are plenty of participants and observers who’d like to see the sport move in that direction, there are also a lot who are happy to leave it where it is (or perhaps would even like to see it return to where it was 20 or 30 years ago).

      Sure, a big sponsor could come in and try to elevate trail running by introducing big prize money, accompanied by some type of sensible and effective drug testing program. But as you point out (but contrary to what some people assume), effective PED testing isn’t just a single test that happens right after a race – it’s a comprehensive program that requires a lot of resources. And that sponsor needs to find some way to recoup their investment. We’ve seen how big sponsors frequently come and go (not only in running sports, but also in cycling), and I assume that the biggest reason for that turnover is insufficient return on that investment. So sponsorships will probably be part of the evolution of the sport, but how and to what extent…. I don’t know.

      Ultimately I think we the racers will be the biggest drivers of where the sport goes by our choosing how much we’re willing to spend to enter races. As trail races become increasingly expensive, I’ll simply cut back on racing. There will certainly be others who’ll choose to pay the entry fee, even if I’m not willing or able to. (How many races have ever had problems because they set their fees too high? Sure, they might hear complaints, but did they actually have difficulties in filling their race slots? So many races are starting to sell out within a day or two, or being forced into lotteries to select participants — simple economics dictate that those races could probably jack up their entry fees a lot!)

      Regardless of what happens in racing, the trails will still be out there for us to run on, whether it’s solo, with a small group of friends, or even in an unofficial “Fat Ass” type event. Sure, it’s fun to be able to run the trail as part of an official race, but if racing becomes too much of hassle, I’ll still have fun just getting out there myself.

  • Randall Rapetti

    As an older trail runner I see the race as more than a prize or an ego boost. To me it is a measure of where I stand physically and maybe even mentally,relative to my peers. When I race I want to do as well in my age bracket as I possibly can. I work very hard at my sport. Everything I do with my body and my mind relates back to how I will perform on those days that I step onto the race trail.

    I have been in a few races where I really wondered if the individual who won my age group was really running “clean”. The superman drug business is huge in this country. It is out there; I mean somebody is paying for all of those ads and there is no doubt in my mind that some 50 year old with his new pension money is planning on living forever with his expensive little treats. I don’t mind losing in a fair and square trail run but I am not just out there looking at the birds and the forest as I plod along. I want to know how I did after hours and hours training with long runs, intervals, hill repeats, and gym workouts.

    So, I suggest this: Why not allow a runner to pay a few bucks extra and sign a paragraph stating he/she is willing to be tested. I would do it. Then, when the result sheet is printed, those willing to be tested will have an asterisk by their name. Those unwilling, will not. Or maybe do it the other way around. I haven’t really thought this through completely but it seems like a way to flush the birds out of the bush. Maybe someone else has a better idea.

    • Jake

      Hi Randall:

      I think if we decide there’s a real problem with PEDs in the sport, then we’re absolutely going to need a creative solution (perhaps something like what you propose) to help us solve that problem.

      But I suspect we (those of us who pay to participate in organized trail running events) might still be a ways away from agreeing that a significant problem exists. I’m a back of the pack runner, so what happens at the front of the pack (or even at the front of my age group) doesn’t matter very much to me. At the same time, I understand that those who run up in the middle or front of the pack (or age group) are going to care a lot more. And I think all of us are right; different individuals have different reasons for entering and participating in races, and have different sets of concerns as well.

      You make a great point – the “superman drug” industry has gotten so large that there’s hardly an aspect of life and getting older that doesn’t have some pharmaceutical company hawking a pill or cream or patch to help us “fix” ourselves. Racers who use these drugs to beat out clean competitors are cheating, plain and simple. The solution to cleaning up that cheating probably isn’t going to be so simple.

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