The Dirt on Doping
The Woodside Ramble this past weekend elicited a few inquiries about Lance Armstrong’s participation last year. Some were hopeful to race against him while others were looking for a photo or story. Days prior to the race we were asked about our position regarding anti-doping policy and if the experience of allowing a former doper to race with us has changed our actions relating to race production. The following is our response. We encourage your thoughts and civil discourse, as this is a conversation that should be open, evolving, and anchored by evidence not by gut reactions. Please read through the entire message before judgment is made, as our stance doesn’t fully emerge until you’ve read through the full content.
The issue of doping in sports is not a new one. In fact, it was once encouraged and many argue it is simply another element of progression in sports physiology and training. The topic is inflammatory and generally focuses on polarized ideology; we hear mainly from the most vociferous anti-doping position. Every game has a cheater. Because winning bolsters status and social/financial return, there will always be a person or group seeking victory without the work since the motivation is so powerful. To extirpate the issue, you’d have to either change the rules or weaken the motivation. Engaging in and viewing competitive sports is a lucrative entertainment enterprise, it isn’t solely a passion to be shared between like-minded individuals. The incentives to win are only increasing, which means even more people may be interested in experimenting with substances that give them the boost they need to ensure their win. Personal philosophies and behavior change when one climbs in rank or when a prize return is worth more than purely enjoying the experience. One person with a sullied past does not radically change an entire sport; what can corrupt or contaminate a community is when the value becomes exogenous in nature (money and/or reputation). The rewards for winning are just not going to be diminished as long as a sport is popular and people are willing to pay into it. This would leave us with only one option: changing the rules.
Transparency is a preferred and legitimate choice, however, testing for performance enhancers is costly, too infrequent to detect positives with a high rate of accuracy, and it is not implemented in the sport of trail-running since most races are quite small and do not include elite runners. The alternative would be to make doping legal. If everyone has the option to enhance their performance as they choose, no one can make the claim a race is unfair. We have a few issues with the latter option. It is uncertain how many performance enhancing substances are safe. We just cannot condone any use of a product if it is deleterious or in some way corrosive to health. But what if we had a safe drug? No one complains when athletes opt for caffeine or beet juice to improve their endurance and power—is that because they aren’t known to harm the user’s physiology or is it because they are known products with which we are familiar so are more willing to accept them? Or is it because they do not have as much of an affect as small doses of testosterone or EPO? Beet juice supposedly increases time to exhaustion by around 15% and power by 1-3%–should we admonish its users or complain about the fairness of race results when we find out someone ingested some that morning? If a doctor or engineer developed a substance comparable to the naturally occurring nitrates in beets but with greater affect, would the athletic community become a little more flexible on the issue? Currently, injecting or ingesting hormones or other chemicals (synthetic or biological) that deviate from what is normal for your body is just not known to be safe, and for that reason alone we don’t think it’s a good idea and we are vehemently against doping. To be sure, even if doping became legal, cheaters would look for another way to get ahead that would most likely be an unsafe alternative and again we would have to defer to anti-doping agencies to continue with testing. And the anti-doping puritans would likely erect their own racing factions that exclude others who wish to dope, leaving the competitive scene fractured and suspicious.
As a race company, it is our responsibility to hold justice in high regard and structure events to be fair. We want our runners (and athletes in any sport) to experience legitimate triumphs and appreciation for their efforts and diligence. With the rules as they are, those who use illegal performance enhancing drugs (PED) are cheaters, and they should be disciplined and penalized appropriately. To set an acceptable sentence requires more research on how the body recovers from having used any PEDs. It needs to be said that we don’t think all users are inherently bad people, and we think that they should be provided opportunities to re-enter competition after suspension and, perhaps, some kind of reformation project, such as volunteering in programs that educate others about the risks, consequences, and embarrassment of doping.
Unfortunately, in the sport of trail-running and ultra-running most race production companies do not have deep enough pockets to assign a testing procedure to their races. We are a small company and most of our runners are recreational and we do not award big checks, so testing any of our runners wouldn’t be a productive venture. I think most companies share the same restriction. If we had better sponsorship and were sanctioned we would invest in testing elite runners. For large races that draw national and international attention and issue significant prizes, and for athletes who are sponsored by big-name brands, regular testing should be frequent and covered by the companies with interest in the event.
We do not condone doping and if someone were to be exposed after running with us we would remove them from our results and impose a similar ban used by the US Anti-Doping Agency. We do not have a formal statement on our website because there is currently no way of identifying dopers. Formally stating our position or delineating the terms in our policy would have little effect on those who know they aren’t likely to be caught since there aren’t stringent, definitive regulations for non-sanctioned events. We are not against posting a statement; if it would help those looking for solidarity or confirmation that we are supportive of clean activity then of course we would not hesitate to pin one to our website. While it may produce feelings of trust and unity, unless an athlete is going to be tested, it is inherently meaningless for them to rail against doping and declare they are clean. It isn’t a substantive position unless they have evidence and are routinely evaluated.
Lance Armstrong was not known to be doping around the time when he ran with us, nor did he receive any cash, products, or media from or produced by our company. We did not advertise his participation and we were certainly not using him to draw in runners or publicity. Some suggest PEDs produce long-term effects that have to be considered even years after the discontinuation of a substance. One study, by Norwegian biologist Kristian Gundersen, suggests muscle memory and larger muscles are retained for years after cessation from doping. The study describes the phenomenon as a result of PEDs assistance in manufacturing a greater number of myonuclei (myonucleus: nucleus of a muscle cell). This finding is challenged by insufficient evidence and by other research that claims, because of homeostasis, animal organisms rapidly return to pre-doping states. Until there is a consensus and more definitive reports, we are going to assume a strict 4-year ban from all competition (sanctioned or not) is sufficient to penalize and discourage cheating. The stigma and suspicion seems to persist longer than any physiological adaptation, and we think it is important to separate the issue of doping from the character of the person who has doped.
Trail running is something our species has been doing for thousands of years, beginning as a mechanism for successful hunting, evolving into a measure of athletic excellence, and today it is mostly comprised of amazingly friendly folks who find deeper meaning in being out on the trails. Trail- and ultra-runners are people who override what their body is telling them because they find something about the sport transcendental or valuable in ways outside of winning. It has been able to remain this way because of the type of people who gravitate toward the sport and how they need to have big motivators to get them through a run, and intrinsic meaning is more successful in getting a person to complete such an uncomfortable act than an extrinsic one.
Is there a limit to how strong and fast our bodies can be? Will we be concerned with competition anymore if we find that end? Will performance enhancers become the only avenue to increase our ability to break established records? What if doping impacts our genes and, through epigenetic means, allows us to give birth to a new generation of super-human athletes? How should we define progress? I believe that science has a huge influence on culture, and our ideas may change the closer we get to understanding what is physiologically safe and how much we can achieve on our own.
By Tanya Stahler