The Mountain (Running) Men in the Grassroots Fight Against Doping

Mountain, ultra, and trail running is a niche but growing sport. Now some of its most prominent athletes want to stop the rise of doping before it takes root.

by Katie Matlack
Aug 5 2016, 8:47pm

Photo by EPA

This week as part of VICE Sports' Olympic preview, we are taking a look at the sports War on Doping.

Mountain, ultra, and trail running (or MUT) is an admittedly niche sport, with roots in such traditions as the Apache coming-of-age rituals that sent teens on 48-hour trail runs, or the ultra (50-plus-mile) races of Tarahumara men and women, recorded in the late 1800s. The modern sport emerged as athletes started competing in "official" trail and ultra races a few decades ago, and has become increasingly popular in recent years as hundreds of runners look for new challenges.

With races covering dozens of miles and remote locations, MUT has a ruggedly individualistic ethos. Even the sport's biggest stars lead humble lives. Zach Miller, a world-class ultrarunner sponsored by Nike who lives and works in Barr Camp, a cabin so remote that the drinking water comes from a stream out back. (When he's not training, Miller works as a host and emergency responder for through-hikers.)

But as MUT grows—with more people signing up for races, more sponsors showing interest, and, in turn, more money at stake—its top athletes and organizers are confronting the issue haunting every major sport: doping. Having watched how ineffective organizations like the World Anti-Doping Association and governing bodies like the International Association of Athletics Federations were in policing PED use, a number of MUT athletes have undertaken a grassroots movement to keep their sport clean, with a decidedly different—and optimistic—approach.

Read More: The Drugs Won: The Case for Ending the Sports War on Doping

The past twelve months have been especially embarrassing for the anti-doping establishment, with scandals involving Russia, Kenya, and the IAAF itself roiling the world of track and field. For runners, it drove home how pervasive doping truly is, and reinforced that testing isn't enough to stop it.

Mountain, ultra, and—as of last November—trail running all fall under the umbrella of the IAAF, track and field's international governing body, which has an extensive if flawed anti-doping program, but many MUT races around the world still lack testing, which can be expensive and involved. Two recent incidents, however, brought the issue of doping to a head.

The first involved Elisa Desco, an Italian runner who served a two-year suspension after testing positive for a banned substance in 2009. (Desco maintains she's innocent.) When she appeared last December listed as an entrant in the North Face Endurance Challenge—a California 50-miler and one of MUT's most lucrative events, with $10,000 awarded to the winner—articles criticized her return, and she was bombarded with private messages suggesting she skip the race. Desco did show up at the start line, defiant, for what was to be her first ultra, but dropped out after about 30 miles, citing a stomach bug and crowd conditions she likened to being "under a microscope."

The IAAF banned Elisa Desco (center) for two years after she tested positive for a banned substance in 2009. Photo by EPA

Less than two weeks later, MUT outrage cranked up even higher when Lance Armstrong, perhaps the most notorious doper of the modern era, not only enrolled in a Bay Area 35K trail race but won it. David Roche, a local trail runner and environmental lawyer, wrote about Armstrong's appearance in an article for Trail Running Magazine (one of the most-viewed in the magazine's history), writing, "[u]ltimately, whether Armstrong himself should be allowed to compete may be less important than the larger issue of doping in trail running."

Even former dopers who claim to have cleaned up their acts could still benefit from their ill-gotten performance gains, according to the work of a research team led by Kristian Gundersen at the University of Oslo. Gundersen's study, which was published in 2013, is part of the reason elite MUT athletes like Miller didn't think it was fair for convicted dopers to be eligible for prizes anymore.

"Basically [doping is] like skipping a couple rungs on a ladder," he said on a phone call, in between gusts of mountain winds that drowned out his voice.

"You're going up one rung at a time and you start doping and all of a sudden, you're taking two rungs at a time. You're able to train harder. You're able to make physical gains that you need to get faster. And you're caught and now banned for two years. So you're out for two years, you don't race, you're off the drugs—but you're five extra rungs up the ladder. You go off and continue training. And when you come back you're still farther up the ladder, because you skipped the rungs somewhere lower down."

Miller was raised by missionaries, and that influence can be seen in a blog post he wrote shortly after Armstrong's appearance in December. It begins with reflection on how the swirling rumors of doping seemed to draw attention away from runners running well, running clean, and enjoying the sport. Miller didn't just make a personal vow to run clean, and to focus on the positive aspects of the sport. He also called for others to join him:

"Let us commit to being the light in the darkness, a beacon of hope in a troubled time. Because after all, the best way out of this mess might be for us to light the way for those who follow in our tracks. Let's LIGHT IT UP!"

That post, sent from Miller's 3,109-meter camp near Pikes Peak, started a movement. Paul Kirsch, manager of the junior U.S. Mountain Running Team, read it at his home in New Hampshire. Its message took root, and on a pre-dawn run germinated into a concept in his mind: that athletes and their commitment to running clean ought to be showcased. Kirsch envisioned a website where other MUT runners could publicly join Miller in his pledge. And thanks to the recent outcry over Armstrong, he knew just who else might be interested in bringing the concept to life.

"Paul saw this was an opportunity to go in more of a positive direction," says Roche. "And so he contacted me with the inkling of the idea, and we built it together."

"It" is, where MUT runners affirm:

I am committed to being a clean athlete. In addition to any punishment imposed by the IAAF, a national federation, or any national anti-doping agency or government in any sport, I pledge that if I am found by such body to have committed a doping offense (at any competition or out of competition) past, present or future, and I have been subject to a ban of 3 months or more, I agree to a lifetime ban on receiving any prize money, points, other form of prize, or a position in the competitive rankings of any race. asks athletes to pledge to be clean.

Since the site launched in late December 2015, Roche said, "pretty much every big name professional trail runner and many of the community has jumped in." Pledge-takers include world-renowned runners Magdalena Boulet, Alicia Shay, Sage Canaday, and Kilian Jornet, who holds the fastest known ascent and descent times for the Matterhorn, Denali, and Mont Blanc.

Athletes can submit personal statements and photos through the site, too.

"I want to be a shining example for those who come after me," Boulet wrote. "Whether it's an athlete in high school or college right now, or my 10-year-old son who may someday decide to run competitively. I want to show them that you can achieve great results with hard work. I want them to love the sport because of its beauty and simplicity, and know that the journey is just as important as the destination."

While the pledge itself is largely symbolicit's not a legal document, and so is unenforceable—Roche believes that there's a pragmatic benefit to the site: to establish MUT's clear break with the permissive attitude to doping that has prevailed in other sports.

"Before [a culture of doping] infects this sport, like it infected cycling and like it's infected track and field, we need to change the culture," he said. "Where that starts is, 'Doping is not an option.' We need to get to a point where young people who are coming into this sport, and people in the fringes, just know that their athletic lives would be over if they go down [the doping] path."

"It's a small community, so everything we do affects everyone else," says Ian Sharman, a British ultrarunner, coach, and race director. Of MUT's anti-doping organizers, he's the pragmatist, though he lives and breathes the sport like everyone else interviewed here. "I'm an online coach, I write for Ultrarunning Magazine, I'm the director of the Ultra US—plus I'm a professional runner myself. I'm involved in the anti-doping effort because it's important to me."

Sharman's goal is to hit would-be dopers in the pocketbook at every turn. As MUT attracts more sponsors and corporate interest, Sharman thinks that money should come with some strings attached.

"There are plenty of people who make $50K-plus in a year with contracts with a sponsor," he said. "It's not a small amount; it's enough to live off. A zero-tolerance policy makes it harder to make a living after getting caught doping."

That influx of money could also be used to support anti-doping testing on a larger scale: "You've got to have some actual sanctions that can apply, and some actual chance of getting caught."

Brands are the key, in Sharman's view, because that is where the vast majority of money in MUT comes from. And they're quick to respond to market demand, business opportunities, and customer pressure.

Brands like Nike have has to deal with athletes they sponsor getting suspended for doping. Photo by James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

"Clean sport is in the better interest of brands," he said. "If people think that half the people in the sport are cheating, that's not good for the sport. That's not really good ground to be associated with—you don't want to be involved in a sport that seems to be dirty. It doesn't look very good for your company. That's why it's not too difficult to convince a lot of the brands that this is the right way to go."

Sharman is wasting no time putting his ideas into practice, and already has some victories for the Run Clean movement. He convinced his own sponsor, Alta, to pledge earlier this year not to ever sign an athlete who had served more than a three-month ban. And this spring, the Western States Endurance Run, a prestigious 100-miler in California, updated their rules to institute a zero-tolerance policy for entrants: no athletes with doping violations will be allowed to enter the race.

"We've had some cost estimates for putting anti-doping testing in place via USADA," Sharman wrote in an email, "and this should lead to some form of widespread testing either from this year or, more likely, from 2017."

He hopes that more mainstream sports can one day look to MUT as a guide for combating PED use. While a lot of work still needs to be done, Sharman remains optimistic about the movement's chances for having a real impact.

"We are hoping to create a bit of momentum across the entire sporting world, basically," he said, "not just within our little niche."

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ian sharman
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