The North Face has taken a small but potentially very significant step to aid the movement against performance-enhancing drug use in endurance sports. As part of opening the elite registration for this year’s Endurance Challenge Championship 50-mile trail race on Dec. 3 in Mill Valley, Calif., The North Face today released a clean sport policy that it says will better ensure fair play across all of the Endurance Challenge Series (ECS) events in North America.
It comes on the heels of growing anti-doping sentiments coming out of the Rio Olympics. Also on Friday, the New York Times reported there are at least 120 athletes who have served suspensions competing in the Rio Olympics and 25 who have won medals in the past two weeks. Additional anti-doping efforts backed by elite athletes and big athletic brands are expected to be announced in the coming weeks.
Although it didn’t suggest it would start drug testing at its races, The North Face confirmed that it is committed to clean sport and does not condone the use of performance-enhancing drugs or banned substances at any level of competition. It also says it believes all athletes competing in the events put on by The North Face should educate themselves and abide by the anti-doping rules and banned substances established by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).
Furthermore, it said athletes banned from competition by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) or WADA are prohibited from competing in any of its ECS events. Once an individual’s ban has been lifted, the athlete may participate in those events but will be forever ineligible to receive prize money, awards, podium recognition or overall age group competitive rankings at any distance, including the 50-mile elite field.
Last December, The North Face found itself in the middle of a firestorm when 33-year-old Italian runner Elisa Desco entered its 50-mile championship race. Desco, an accomplished and decorated athlete, won the 2009 World Mountain Running Championship in Campodolcino, Italy, only to be stripped of the title after testing positive for a form of the banned substance erythropoietin or EPO, a hormone that stimulates red blood cell production and improves endurance.
Because she had served a two-year suspension from 2010-2012, Desco was fully legal to compete again and had done well in numerous international trail races in the ensuing years. But dozens of elite and age-group ultrarunners, including Olympian-turned-elite-ultrarunner Magdalena Boulet, spoke out against her ability to enter The North Face race last year.
Performance-enhancing drugs are creeping into trail running and ultrarunning, but it’s not known how prevalent of a problem it is because there is almost no testing at those events. In July, the fifth-place finish of Ecuador’s Gonzalo Calistos was eliminated from the final results of 2015 Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc race in Europe after it was discovered he tested positive for using banned substances.
The North Face 50 annually has one of the richest prize purses in trail running, including a $10,000 cash payout for the winners. It was to be Desco’s first race in the U.S., where trail and ultrarunning are governed by U.S. Track & Field (as well as the IAAF and WADA), but there is no drug-testing protocol or budget for trail running races. (The American Trail Running Association has been investigating ways to implement drug testing at major U.S. trail races and has a preliminary system it could implement next year.)
Taking a stand and putting the new regulations in place not only gives The North Face the ability to keep dopers out of its race, but also discourages those who served bans from entering because there is no ability to win prizes or be recognized for finishing on the podium. Plus, it raises the awareness about PED use in trail running and shows that doping will not be tolerated, even without drug testing.
“We took our time to do this right. We did a lot of research and looked at a lot of data and we’re feeling pretty confident that it’s the right thing to do at the right time,” says Katie Ramage, Director of Sports Marketing for The North Face, who heads up the ECS series and The North Face elite athlete team. “Certainly it came to a head last year and it forced our hand to do something instead of talking about actually doing something. But we decided that we have a platform and a louder voice, but that platform is really about the community and we want to use it to be able to educate and to get educated by the community.”
The North Face is also providing educational resources and awareness about clean sport in trail running through a dedicated ECS Clean Sport website. The site will serve as a place for athletes, coaches, race directors, media and fans to better understand the facts, scientific research, opinions and other resources, including the full policy, code of ethics and educational materials for the Endurance Challenge Series.
In addition to the 50-mile championship near San Francisco, The North Face ECS events also have shorter races ranging from 10K to 50K and relay events to encourage all levels of runners the opportunity to participate. There are three events remaining on the ECS series schedule in 2016:
- Sept. 17-18 – Kettle Moraine State Park, Eagle, Wisconsin
- Sept. 24-25 – Park City Mountain Resort, Park City, Utah
- Dec. 3-4 – Marin Headlands, near San Francisco
Several other U.S. races have put similar policies in place this year—led by Ian Sharman’s efforts at the U.S. SkyRunning Series—although many have taken it even further by permanently banning convicted dopers from their events even after their suspensions have been served. Also, numerous elite trail runners signed an ant-doping pledge last year at RunCleanGetDirty.org.