01 July 2013

What is unfair? How can you level the playing field? Trail running grows up.

Few people would argue that rules are rules. If you have them and they are clearly communicated it's pretty obvious when they are broken; and if you are diligent about enforcing them there is usually very little room for debate. If a trail race promoter allows pacers or crews or trekking poles or whatever then to me that conversation is over. Problems do arise however when rules are vague or only enforced some of the time like when it's convenient or when the budget allows.

There is no doubt in my mind that the sport of trail running is booming. In Europe it's already huge and we are not that far behind. When any sport blows up there are lots of consequences; many of which are great!

  • The word spreads and more people take up the sport.
  • Retailers sell more gear.
  • Sponsors get behind the sport making it a viable source of income for some.

One of the realities of growth however is that there are also some unfortunately consequences.

  • Increased competition, prestige and prize money leads to an increased desire to win; at all costs.
  • Super-human, drug-enhanced performances become the (unrealistic) standard.
  • Amateur athletes, some who live vicariously through professionals and some others that fall victim to their own perceived identity and ego and slip into the same traps thus spreading the disease.

I'm talking about doping or taking any performance-enhancing drugs. It's just human nature and combating it requires a couple of things; the kind of budget that most race promoters just don't have and the desire to everything you can which is not always easy to adopt when you are involved in a sport as 'natural' as trail running.

I came to trail running via cycling and so I'll use some cycling examples to illustrate my point.

I'm pretty confident that everyone knows who Lance Armstrong is and about his rise to fame and subsequent fall from grace. What not everyone might know is that before, during and after Lance's career, not only were many other professional cyclists doping, so were many of the European amateurs. Time and again I would read about some young amateur bicycle racer dying in their sleep. When the tragedy appeared in the press the cause was always some mysterious heart ailment which when examined with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight was a clear sign of EPO abuse.

Doping was not limited to Europe by any means. Here in the US I read about several amateur, Masters racers getting busted and suspended for doping.

Masters? Really? It's that identity and ego thing; an extremely toxic cocktail.

Doping exists in every sport. It isn't just endurance sports or strength sports, even professional golfers have been busted for juicing in an effort to hit the long ball farther. For this reason it would be incredibly naive to assume that trail running is clean; and the notion that this sport is too 'pure' and the excuse that there is too little money to incent people to cheat is just willful ignorance.

So if doping is the scourge what can you do? Three things would go a long way and would also address the budget constraints of race promoters.

  1. Races should state explicitly in their rules that they abide by the USOC/USADA/WADA code.
  2. Races that allow medical and scientific researchers to use their participants as subjects should ask those researchers to conduct basic anti-doping tests.
  3. Sponsoring companies should test athletes as part of their due diligence.

Regarding #1. Western States has added some language to their site this year. Congratulations to them but I have seen precious little of this kind of thing in writing at other races and in the press when it comes to trail running. Tick, tock, tick, tock goes the time bomb.

Regarding #2. I keep reading articles that espouse trail running is great for you/terrible for you. Obviously there is not shortage of interest in research or funding for these studies, how about the researches add a line item to their grant request to ensure participants are clean? And wouldn't this only help legitimize the data? I think so.

Regarding #3. This seems so basic to me and it's something I hoped sponsors were going to do WAY before Nike and Anheuser Busch and Oakley and Trek all dropped Lance. If you are going to spend a ton of dough promoting someone as your spokesperson and representative, would it be smart to spend just a little extra and 1) do some research and perhaps 2) test them yourself?

Since doping has colored every single major professional sport I have to believe it is only a matter of time before trail running has its own hero tarnished with the same brush. But we can mitigate the impact and perhaps even more importantly, set a clear standard by doing whatever we can pro-actively before that happens. Just like in cycling where the status quo has been complete turned around and young riders are now entering a sport where you are expected to be clean, we can set the same expectations for all the people trail running has yet to influence.

I tried the sport of trail running because it looked awesome and I have stuck with it because I was right. It seems a shame not to do everything in our power keep it that way.

This post is part of the Trail Runner Magazine Blog Symposium.

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