Last weekend, The North Face Endurance Challenge 50-mile trail race handed out $10,000 each to Miguel Heras of Spain, and to Emelie Forsberg of Sweden. It was a controversial race because the lead group of runners including Adam Campbell, Sage Canaday, and Jason Wolfe ran off-course midway through the event in part because of various organizational problems (you can read about it all at iRunFar). It isn’t too unusual for this to happen in a trail race, but this episode was particularly concerning because it may have cost these athletes significant prize money.*
It used to be that trail racers never won any serious money. That’s starting to change. Trail running is still nothing like cycling, where the winners of the top races take home hundreds of thousands of dollars and a serial
winner cheater like Lance Armstrong can become a multimillionaire from winnings and endorsements. But the possibilities for earning money from trail racing have increased to a level where important consequences will follow, or in some cases already have.
Most of these consequences are unalloyed good things. It has recently become possible for the top trail runners to earn enough money to not have to rely on other jobs and to devote all of their working time to running. This elite tier of mountain trail runners can and do travel all over the world to compete in races — Kilian Jornet and Mireia Miro can line up at the Pikes Peak Marathon in Colorado; Anton Krupicka and Dakota Jones can race the Cavalls del Vent in Spain, and South African Ryan Sandes can win races in every hemisphere. These elite runners are supported by sponsors that are spending more money to develop better gear for long mountain runs, and the increased profile of the races means that the gear tested in prototype by the elites is quickly made available in the stores for everyone else to buy, which helps the sponsors earn back their investment. It’s a virtuous circle.**
Not all of the consequences of the professionalization of trail running are good. We’re eventually going to have to face the unpleasant consequences of trail runners who dope.
There are always cheaters in every sport, but doping only makes sense under certain conditions which are starting to prevail in elite trail racing. First, the relative consequences of winning vs finishing in the middle of the pack have to be significantly different. It’s getting harder and harder to argue that the benefits of winning vs just finishing haven’t become profoundly different in trail running — winners can look forward to sponsorships, international travel, and the ability to quit their day jobs for the sake of running. Those perks are powerful motivators. Finish in the middle of the pack, and you can read about your race on iRunFar. Win, and you can be interviewed by Bryon Powell himself — other people can read about you on iRunFar.
Second, the margins between winning and losing are getting smaller and smaller. It used to be absurd to think that there would ever be a sprint for the finish of a long trail race, but it’s becoming more and more common. Western States 100-mile winners are battling up until the final miles. Nuria Picas beats Anna Frost by just seconds after 83 kilometers at Cavalls del Vent. When the difference between winning and not-winning is so small, any little edge that a top runner can get could make the difference between being a Oihana Kortazar at Zegama, who gets to wear the famous Zegama hat, and a Oihana Azkorbebeitia, who ran fast, but not fast enough to get a video of herself on YouTube in the goofy hat.
You may be saying to yourself at this point that it would be absurd to cheat for the questionable benefits that winning trail runners receive, and you’d be right for most values of trail runner. But then, you’re not likely to be one of the people who will dope in order to win a trail race. My point isn’t that everyone will dope, it is that the increased competitiveness and money in trail racing will induce more athletes to dope than would have already, and someday one of these athletes is going to get caught burying syringes behind their minivan in the parking lot of a big race. There is going to be a scandal.
As we’ve seen with cycling, doping scandals have a tendency to taint everyone involved with the sport. It can take a long time for the organizers and athletes to win back the trust that they inevitably lose (fairly or unfairly) when a successful athlete is caught doping. Questions are leveled at everyone, even the clean athletes, who may have at one time had a result equal to or better than a disgraced doper.
I would be surprised if doping were a serious problem in trail running now, but I predict that it will, at some point in the near future, become a problem. I’m not advocating that trail runners get tested now. That’s expensive, and if not done right, testing is ineffective at actually catching dopers. An effective testing regimen is also very annoying and intrusive, and trail running hasn’t yet demonstrated that it has a problem requiring such a draconian solution. But we’re getting there. Getting there slowly, but we’re getting there. A few bad apples are going to ruin the pie for everyone — it’s merely a matter of time. Trail running will eventually uncover a Lance Armstrong and a George Hincapie among its ranks. It’ll be tragic and disappointing.
But when that time comes, the sport will be much better off if we’ve anticipated the problem in advance, and discussed what ought to be done about it. Ellie Greenwood may be right: “It’s better we have drugs testing from the get-go, rather than our sport waits until there is actual speculation that drugs may be a problem in our sport.” If we’re not going to test now, we ought at least to say why, and try to specify when we might start.
* Adam Campbell did point out, though, that the winners earned their places on the podium and that speculation about what might have happened had he not run off course is “pointless and unknowable.”
** None of this would really be possible without YouTube videos — without YouTube there wouldn’t be a single American who would know who Kilian Jornet was, let alone racers like Julien Chorier or races like Zegama-Aizkorri.