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Ultrarunning at a Crossroads: Is There a Growing Doping Problem on the Trails?

As the sport emerges from its grassroots beginnings, it finds itself at a rather challenging inflection point.

Although many sports have been bogged down by performance-enhancing drug problems over the past two decades—cycling, baseball, track and field, marathoning—the sport of ultrarunning, at least in the United States, has yet to be mired in a doping scandal. The small but flashy endurance sport has seen rapid growth in recent years, from front of the pack elite racers to tens of thousands of recreational runners looking for their next challenge.

But with an increase in professionalism, prize money and sponsorship deals has come the pressing business of how to handle the inevitable doping problem. As the sport emerges from its grassroots beginnings, it finds itself at a rather challenging inflection point.

Last week, after late revelations that 33-year-old Italian runner Elisa Desco was planning to race in The North Face Endurance Challenge 50-mile championship event in the Marin Headlands near San Francisco, many pro runners took to social media to protest. 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 the banned substance erythropoietin or EPO, a hormone that stimulates red blood cell production and improves endurance.

The IAAF suspended Desco from competition for two years, a ban that expired on Aug. 28, 2012. Since her return she’s won many high-profile international races, including the 31K Sierre-Zinal mountain race in the Swiss Alps in 2013 and the Skyrunning World Championship at the Mont-Blanc Marathon in Chamonix, France in 2014. The TNF 50 was her first race in the U.S., where trail and ultrarunning are governed by U.S. Track & Field (as well as the IAAF and the World Anti-Doping Agency) but has no drug-testing protocol or budget for trail running races.

In 2007, The North Face Endurance Challenge introduced the world’s largest prize purse in ultra-distance trail racing, with $30,000 total and $10,000 to the top male and female finishers in the 50-mile distance. Since Desco served her ban, she was legally allowed to enter the race and run for a chance at the big payday. But many ultrarunners, including Olympian-turned-elite-ultrarunner Magdalena Boulet, are speaking out.

“I’m disappointed that the race organization allowed her into the elite field. I don’t care if a doper served their ban and are technically eligible to race,” Boulet said through an email. “Cheaters not only hurt competitors, they hurt the sport as a whole, and they should not be tolerated.”

RELATED: An Open Letter to Seb Coe To Ban Convicted Dopers for Life

Ellie Greenwood, a two-time 100K world champion who was named Ultrarunner of the Year by Ultrarunning magazine in 2011, 2012, and 2014, was equally troubled with seeing Desco on the starting line.

“I honestly struggle to know what The North Face Endurance Challenge should have done, though I will admit I feel a little disheartened to line up against someone who has cheated in the past,” Greenwood said. “Our sport deserves to have more doping controls to maintain the ethics and moral standards. But I do appreciate the huge costs of doping controls.”

Pressed for comment, Katie Ramage, The North Face Endurance Challenge Director of Sports Marketing, said, “The issue is incredibly complex and while we’d like to have a solution readily available, we believe it’s more important that lasting change is created by doing it right, which takes time.”

Admittedly caught off-guard by the late entry of Desco, it wasn’t until the uproar on social media that the race organizer’s had any idea she had previously served a ban for PED use. Desco started the race and ran strong early on, but then dropped out of the event after about 2 hours.

At this point it’s impossible to know if U.S. trail running and ultrarunning already has a problem, but chances are likely there are runners doping—even if it’s just a tiny percentage. Making assumptions though, can lead runners, race directors and fans to cast aspersions on the innocent, and that’s not good for the sport. But with very little testing, it’s hard to think it’s not happening at all, especially with how easy it is to get the drugs. Who really knows who’s cheating? (Triathlon, road running and track and field have had numerous PED busts, but they were only found out because of testing. And it’s already been documented that doping has permeated the amateur ranks of cycling and another report came out just last week.)

And with marijuana—a prohibited substance under WADA standards—now legal in several U.S. states (either medicinally or recreationally) and a handful of ultrarunners admitting to using it recreationally or in competition, the gray area is only getting more gray.

This summer, ultrarunning news site posted the results of a one-question anonymous survey which asked: Have you ever used a performance-enhancing drug (PED) while training for or participating in an organized ultramarathon (a running/hiking event/race of 50K in length or longer)? Out of the 705 respondents, 9 percent admitted cheating. But if that’s a 705-person race, that could mean that 63 runners in the field could be doping.

Only one ultrarunning race organization has made public any plans to tackle the doping issue. Last week, the Altra U.S. SkyRunning Series announced that they are working to get all convicted dopers banned for life from their events.

“The governing bodies of the sport of athletics nationally and globally have been shown to be woefully unprepared or unwilling to deal with doping and will take years to get anywhere due to politics and bureaucracy,” series director Ian Sharman said in an email. “I don’t want to see the sport I love go the same way as cycling and lose credibility.”

“The only event that I’m aware that does testing in the trail, mountain or ultra space is the Pike Peaks Marathon,” said Nancy Hobbs, executive director of the American Trail Running Association. “We’ve always been proponents for testing in our sport and for race directors to take the lead on doing the testing, especially when you have a lot of dollars involved in prize money.”

The better an athlete performs on the international stage, the greater their chances are of being tested. “Once you reach a certain [performance] level, like a Joe Gray or a Max King, you are tested,” Hobbs said.

King, for instance, was added to the World Anti-Doping Association international testing pool for out-of-competition testing after winning the 2011 IAAF World Mountain Running Championship.

“I’ve been tested three times this year and I’ve probably been tested 30 times in my career,” King said. “But most trail and ultrarunners will never be tested because you need a good result at an IAAF Championship and really those are focused on road running.”

Consistent in- and out-of-competition testing, however flawed, is the first step toward clean sport, yet most of the prominent U.S. races still see it as an unnecessary expense. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency doesn’t publicly discuss fees, but its media relations specialist Ryan Madden said that, although it does require funding, providing drug-testing services for races is not cost-prohibitive for most event organizations.

At the 2013 Desert Solstice ultra-distance track event, race director Jamil Coury, owner of Aravaipa Running, paid roughly $2,500 to have two record-setting runners tested. “We have a doping control officer from USADA available on-call for the event in case records are set and they come out to meet the athletes within 24 hours,” Coury said.

It’s not inexpensive, but it might just be the price of integrity. Hobbs said the cost is amortized from there.

“From our experience, adding additional athletes would cost $300-400 more per test per person,” Hobbs said. A rough estimate might mean that in-competition testing of the top five men and top five women could cost a race organization $5,000-6,000, though this can vary greatly based on type of testing and location.

“USADA works regularly with individual event organizers at every level of sport to provide testing programs that best serve both their competition and their resources,” Madden said. “The truth is, if you value fair sport and the rights, health, and safety of athletes, the question is not whether you can afford to test, its whether you can afford not to.”