When the top 10 men and women at the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run crossed the finish line this past weekend in Auburn, Calif., they got more than just the satisfaction of a top finish in a tough ultramarathon. They also got drug tested.
Western States, the world’s oldest 100-mile trail race, is one of a handful of ultramarathons beginning to drug test athletes, a stark change for a sport known for its free-spirited athletes and grass-roots organization.
“My goal is to put on a flawless, world-class event,” said Craig Thornley, the Western States race director who also finished this year’s race. “You should be able to complete it and say, ‘I raced against the best people in the world, and I’m clean.’”
Many top ultra runners say they see the doping policy as a natural part of the sport’s growth. Last year the annual number of ultramarathon finishers surged to nearly 134,000, more than eight times the 16,475 finishers in 2001, according to Mark Gilligan, founder of Ultrasignup.com, a race registration website. While some races offer prize money (winners of the Comrades Marathon in South Africa receive $34,450), winning a major ultra often gives an athlete enough exposure to secure sponsorship contracts or bonuses. This year’s Western States champion, Ryan Sandes of South Africa, is backed by Red Bull and other sponsors.
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Beyond the financial gains that might prompt an athlete to use performance enhancing drugs, there is the prestige and social status that comes with a podium finish among the sport’s tight community of elite runners.
“People dope because they want to cement their position in the tribe,” said Mark Johnson, author of “Spitting in the Soup: Inside the Dirty Game of Doping in Sports.”
The early rounds of drug testing in ultramarathons have begun to snare cheaters. The Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc and the Comrades Marathon have both disqualified top finishers because of positive drug tests. But the vast majority of ultramarathons don’t have doping policies or drug testing.
The Western States board began discussing a doping policy and drug testing a few years ago after elite runners urged the race to ensure the integrity of their results. A few events prompted the concern. In 2015, participants in the North Face Endurance Challenge, an ultramarathon with $10,000 in prize money, were upset that an Italian athlete who had previously tested positive for a banned drug, was allowed to compete because the event didn’t have a doping policy. In the end the athlete didn’t finish the race.
A week later, Lance Armstrong, who has admitted to using performance enhancing drugs in cycling, competed in two California trail races, including one ultramarathon. In 2016, Armstrong attended a Western States training run and served as a pacing runner during the actual race. His presence at a major race prompted additional discussion about the need for drug testing.
“Four or five years ago, if you said there was doping in trail running, I would have said, ‘No way,’” said Sandes. “Now it’s a reality.”
“Nobody wants this to happen, but everyone wants this to happen,” said Eric Schranz, founder of Ultrarunnerpodcast.com. “It’s a story of this quirky, weird, backwoods sport that’s being dragged into being legitimate.”
The Western States run is one of the most arduous trail runs in the United States. Beginning in Squaw Valley, Calif., the trail includes a snowy climb of 2,550 vertical feet in the first 4½ miles. Following a rugged and remote mining trail used in the 1850s, the runners climb another 15,540 feet and descend 22,970 feet before reaching the finish line in Auburn. This year, only 259 of the original 369 starters finished the race.
Kaci Lickteig, the defending Western States female champion who finished 77th at this year’s race, said that dopers rob themselves of the enjoyment of earning accolades. “Part of the journey of getting to where I’m at is the journey,” she said, “I’ve worked my butt off to get where I’m at. Don’t take a shortcut. Do it the right way. Do it the hard way.”
It’s hard to tell what effect the Western States doping policy and drug testing will have. It may motivate more race directors to state their position on doping. “Every race should have an antidoping policy,” said Ethan Veneklasen, a sports marketer and race director.
This year, Western States tested the top 10 male and female finishers. After Sandes crossed the finish line in first place, a member of the Western States board assigned him a drug chaperone who accompanied him to the doping control station. “It was actually a camper trailer,” Sandes said. The official watched Sandes closely as he provided his sample. “I’ve been tested before, so I didn’t get stage fright,” he said.
The samples from Sandes and the other 19 top male and female finishers will be sent for testing at the Center for Drug Free Sport in Kansas City, Mo. The tests will determine if these athletes used any performance-enhancing drug listed on the current World Anti-Doping Agency Prohibited List. Athletes who test positive for a banned substance can request a second test. (They provided a large enough sample to fill a second test container.) If athletes fail the second test, they will receive a lifetime ban from Western States, have their results from this year’s race vacated, and return any awards they earned (including the coveted Western States finisher’s belt buckle).
Some racers have said that after-competition testing is a good start but may not be enough, because it may not detect the use of banned substances while training. Scott Jurek, a seven-time Western States champion and one of the sport’s most famous athletes, said out-of-competition testing may be needed. “We could move a little quicker,” he said. “The sport is going to change whether you like it or not.”
The sport needs to send a strong signal that cheating won’t be tolerated, said Ian Sharman, an online coach and ultrarunner who finished seventh at this year’s Western States. “If the culture is that cheating is O.K., people are going to cheat — it doesn’t matter how much money you throw at testing,” he said.
Pam Smith, a physician and previous female winner of Western States, said the new doping policy and drug testing is a start because it “sends the message that we’re trying to establish a culture in this sport that doesn’t accept performance-enhancing drugs.”
Jurek noted that doping ultimately is at odds with the spirit of the sport, which is not about winning but about pushing your body to its natural limits.
“Put in the hard work, chase those dreams, and don’t take a drug to do it,” he said. “You’re out there to experience discomfort