Doping the Distance: Should Your Race Drug Test?

Doping Race Drug Testing ChronoTrack

While performance-enhancing drugs have long plagued sports like cycling and track and field, road racing has remained relatively un-rocked by steroid scandals. When they have occurred, they’ve involved elite athletes like three-time Boston Marathon winner Rita Jeptoo or Olympic hopeful Eddy Hellebuyck. But recent stories, like Lilian Mariita’s, show that doping can trickle down to the amateur level, leaving both runners and race organizers concerned.

Mariita was banned from competing after being busted for steroids at a Kentucky 5k in April, her second time testing positive in eight months. At that point, however, she had already collected more than $24,000 in small race earnings over the past two years!

But before you start worrying, keep reading for our advice on how to address doping at your event.

Understand the Problem

Doping Race Drug Testing ChronoTrack 3The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) reports that the use of performance-enhancing drugs in road racing is less than 1% – though 1% of tens of millions of runners adds up. In addition to anabolic steroids, stimulants, and human growth hormone, one of the most popular drugs is erythropoietin (EPO). EPO increases one’s red blood cell count, improving the body’s ability to move oxygen throughout the body.

But doping is dangerous and expensive: EPO can lead to serious blood clots and calculations estimate it can cost $5,000 for a short training cycle! Because of this, athletes must have both money and medical resources to dope effectively, meaning they are not alone in their guilt. The 2004 BALCO scandal demonstrated the measures some doctors take to protect their customers from detection, including creating new drugs not yet in testing databases.

Current Prevention

Each country has its own anti-doping agency responsible for testing within its borders while the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) tests elite athletes internationally. WADA sets global anti-doping standards and oversees both the IAAF and national agencies.

2014 saw the introduction of the Athlete’s Biological Passport (ABP), the most reliable testing method yet. The ABP involves long-term monitoring of biological markers in one’s blood and urine to test not for specific drugs, but rather changes in one’s biology that could indicate illicit drug use.

Runners subject to testing, both in- and out-of-competition, are chosen by national organizations and the IAAF. Only about 33 U.S. races drug test, typically testing the top three finishers as well as a few randomly selected runners. In World Marathon Majors (WMM), any male running under 2:10:00 and any female running under 2:27:00 must be tested.

Most first-time offenders receive four-year bans; the length increases with the number of offenses. The WMM have a zero-tolerance policy: once caught doping, an athlete is not allowed back at a WMM race – ever.

Should Your Race Test?

Drug testing is easier said than done. The reason most races don’t test is simple: the cost. One drug test costs about $500, easily racking up $3,000 assuming you only test your top three male and female finishers. Add in the costs of manpower and a secure location and you could easily be looking at $10,000+. It’s a pretty hard sell for smaller races where the costs would dramatically reduce the race’s prize pool and there is less risk of cheating in the first place.

While most athletes support drug testing, race organizers should remember to take their participants into account. For those racing for fun, peeing in a cup is probably not on their agenda and they may be discouraged from racing. If you are interested in testing, however, contact your national anti-doping agency.

What Can You Do Instead?

Consider adding a clause to your athlete waiver requiring runners to declare their clean status and forfeit the prize money if found guilty. Other penalties could include a fine or a ban from your race. You can also alter your prize structure to discourage doping and give your team time to assess any suspicious athletes. The WMM now gives their $500,000 prize in $100,000 installments over five years after Liliya Shobukhova was caught doping after pocketing the full $500,000.

Regardless of your policies, be prepared to make it right with participants cheated by the cheaters like the Great Buffalo Chase 5k did by paying their third-place winner the $500 she would have won had Mariita not placed.

We also recommend connecting with other race organizers to help you stay on the lookout for suspicious athletes. While it is mostly larger races with thousands of dollars up for grabs that really need to worry about doping (and have the means to test for it), smaller races must still be vigilant. For all race organizers, whether operating a neighborhood fun run or a 30,000-person marathon, do it for the same reason: the love of the sport, and we must all work together to keep it fair.

Have you encountered doping at your race? Share your thoughts in the comments below!