Trail and ultra running have exploded in popularity in the last decade, and with the exponential increase in participation comes money. The elite runners are now all professional athletes and their feats match those performed in any other endurance sport.

Where the comparisons stall between the professional trail runners and their other sporting compatriots is oversight. There is next to no random out-of-competition drug testing in trail running.

Trail running may be completely clean, or drug cheats may be rampant. We have absolutely no idea and can only speculate, although there have been instances of failed drug tests.

Yes, some of the most important races conduct tests on the winners. Organisers of the Western States 100 (WS100) and the Marathon des Sables, for example, test the winners, but it should not be their job. In-competition tests are very easy to avoid as runners know they are coming. Secondly, there are few other sports where the individual event organiser, and not the governing body, is expected to test the athletes.

Who governs the sport?

There are a few contenders – World Mountain Running Association (WMRA), International Association of Ultra Running (IAU), International Trail Running Association (ITRA) and now even the International Amateur Athletics Associations (IAAF), which governs athletics at the Olympics.

Sebastian Coe is head of the IAAF. Should his organisation be more active in enforcing random tests? Photo: Reuters

One of the big barriers for these organisations is cost. John Medinger, president of the board of trustees for the WS100, said random tests cost US$8,000 per athlete per year. That is prohibitively expensive, certainly for individual races, but also for the would-be governing bodies. Money flow is growing in trail and ultra running, but not that much yet.

Presumably for this reason, WMRA’s and IAU’s websites say they outsource out-of-competition testing to the IAAF. ITRA says it promotes awareness, education and research, but it does not mention testing.

So, that leaves the IAAF. It is highly experienced at administering tests, given its involvement in track and road running. As of yet, however, there is still not a concerted effort to implement an effective programme of out-of-competition testing in trail running, even though it now organises the Trail World Championships.

Leave your prejudice at home – stop assuming Chinese dope

If the IAAF really wants to add value to the sport and not just its name to the bandwagon, it should bring its expertise and finance to the table.

Who should be tested?

Trail and ultra running is unique in that anyone can line up at the start. The best in the sport and complete novices race, sometimes even leading to a surprise win from an unknown amateur. Muddying the water further, many of the top runners are semi-pro, and have full-time jobs too. Is a lawyer, investment manager, teacher, firefighter or doctor going to be subject to random tests as a professional?

Races like the Hong Kong 100 have first-time 100km runners and full-time athletes, and a grey area in between of semi-professionals. Photo: HK100

The ITRA has an objective point system that ranks every runner in the world, from me (a human tortoise) to the number one ranked runner in the world, American Jim Walmsley.

It’s time for the ITRA to use that point system for more than just deciding who gets free entry to races. It should work with the IAAF to develop a list of those who would be subject to tests. What’s more, although the ITRA is a non-profit, it does collect money in exchange for designating UTMB qualification points. Perhaps that money could be used to split the cost of testing with the IAAF, instead of investing in education and safety.

What about the UTMB?

Although the UTMB, held in the European Alps, is a race – as mentioned, races should not, and basically cannot, be relied on to conduct tests – the UTMB is growing so quickly it is transcending race status. UTMB is so powerful in the sport, it could take on the mantle as governing body. The UTMB does conduct in-competitions tests, but as it spreads across the world it might have the money and bandwidth to expand to random tests too.

The race now lends its name to a host of races internationally, from China to Oman, South America and now Spain, with plans to grow further. It is fast becoming a behemoth and could use its power to enforce out-of-competition tests.

Race organiser Michel Poletti (who is also ITRA president) justified its ludicrously low prize money “as this would increase the risk of doping. We believe strongly in amateur sport because we believe that this [low prize money] is the way to keep the sport’s values”.

Cyclist Lance Armstrong is infamous for his doping. Cycling’s drug issues were systemic. We can only assume trail running is clean. Photo: Agence France-Presse

Out-of-season tests would go further to protect the “sport’s values” than not sharing profits with the runners. If they want to position themselves as the gatekeepers of values, that’s great. Why not take the money that could be prize money and say “any runner with over X ITRA points who runs our races will be subject to random tests from the moment of entry to 12 months after the competition”, for example.

What would tests achieve?

Hopefully, if there is a concerted and effective testing programme in place, we won’t find a single cheat. But testing, no matter the result, will add legitimacy to the sport.

At the moment, tests are so sporadic even the sports fans don’t trust certain runners. The Chinese, in particular, have been a target after runners reached the UTMB podium for the first time last year. Facebook comments said they could “go straight to hell”, another saw the size of a Chinese runner’s arms as proof they were taking drugs.

Luo Tao, third at the OCC, UTMB, is one of many Chinese runners bursting on to the international scene. Some results have been met with scepticism. Photo: UTMB

There are so many organisations rushing into the vacuum of trail running’s growth that it is everyone’s and no one’s responsibility to conduct random out-of-competition tests. It had better become someone’s responsibility soon before we are retroactively countering a drug culture, and not making examples of a few bad apples.

IAAF, will you step up? ITRA, will you help set the IAAF perimeter? Should the UTMB be wielding their power to enforce the “sport’s values”, or is it not their responsibility?

There are lots of questions, but one of them needs to take the issue by the scruff of the neck.