Why PEDs Are Serious… And Trail Running Is Not

Today, we welcome back to the pages of Ultra168, Matt Vest, a PhD Candidate at Ohio University, who caused a little controversy last time he wrote on here regarding PEDs. Well, he’s back for more having mulled over trail running and enhancement questions since last August when we wrote, but the conversation seems to have changed a bit since Lance Armstrong’s appearance on the trails. I like what Mat writes as he’s prepared to look at the other side of things. He might not agree with the other side in the slightest, but what matters is that he’s prepared to consider instead of shutting off that side completely, that’s how you enrich and grow yourself personally. And that suits very well to the philosophy of Ultra168. Yes we have views, but it’s important to look at and consider other opinions and thoughts too. Over to Matt…

Trail runners are an eccentric group. Not misfits or ill-mannered. Just a bit on the wild, natural side of life, no doubt due to a healthy aversion for slick pavement and a love of mountains, forests and trails. Generally speaking, trail runners are relaxed, free, and easy. In place of seeded, starting corals common to road races, many trail races begin as runners organize themselves around a toed line in the dirt until the RD simply yells Go!

In the stormy aftermath, however, of Lance Armstrong’s recent trail runs (a December 2015 win at the Woodside Ramble 35k; 12th place at the more competitive Marin Ultra Challenge 50k, March 2016), I began to wonder if the generalizations still held. A quick glance to social media left me unsure if I was reading about trail running or the 2016 US presidential election. Tensions were high, and it was easy to see the debate taking shape around some professional runners who have much at stake with PEDs and some amateur trail runners, many of whom seemed more intrigued than offended by Armstrong’s run.

In all fairness, the wave of interest and emotion was not exclusively due to Armstrong. Earlier in December 2015, convicted EPO doper Elisa Desco started the popular North Face Endurance Challenge 50 miler, and no doubt the momentum of two international figures with checkered pasts racing the trails in the same month fostered a sense of change in the air. Understandably so, many questioned what this meant for trail running?

All this has been widely documented, and it may seem that there is little more to be said amidst an already crowded conversation. After all, the issue seems clear, as some of the comments from professional trail runners indicate: surely, we should institute “lifetime bans for any convicted PED user” in order to keep the “integrity” and “purity” of trail running. Who wants a dirty sport? A sport with cheating?

On the face of it, the answers seem easy. But on second thought, hearing these questions made me wonder about a few things. Why this degree of angst? What exactly is at stake—and for whom?—if the rules and accountability for PEDs in trail running are not more tightly regulated? Naturally, we know part of the answer: trail running is more popular than ever, and with this growth in the sport comes the financial incentive for pro runners to cheat. This is the lamentable way of all professionalized sports. And, to hold back this lamentable state where cheaters are enabled through today’s ever-evolving science and technology (things we normally value), we must circle the wagons and proactively establish the culture of zero-PEDs in trail running.

Or so the natural logic goes. Yet, reflecting on Armstrong’s appearance in trail running, I began to think about the difference between my interests as a fan of professional trail running verses my actual running. The fan in me would regret it if trail running started to feel like the PED-scarred Tour de France, and yet my daily running habits would not be affected. Nor would much change for the running friends who meet up with me at the trailheads any day or night of the week.

Some may say that this distinction between “fan interests” and my “running interests” is no deep, profound insight, but I find it helpful when thinking of the looming issue of “PEDs and trail running.” After all, the professional running careers of some are at stake with PEDs, but the broader, day-to-day interests of most rail runners remain unaffected. PEDs could possibly enter trail running on the amateur level, but the cost/benefit motivations for that are so low that we can surely dismiss that option. With the professional side of trail running, however, we would be naïve to discount the motivation and opportunity. In short, the honest truth is that PEDs is a trail running issue because it is a professional trail running issue.

This is not to say that I am encouraging a pro verses amateur divide within trail running. I prefer to speak of trail runners and professional trail runners. But the distinction remains important, and we should give attention to how professionalization and corporate sponsorships are not contrary to but rather add on to our core motivations for trail running. All trail runners, pro and amateur alike, share the same core love of trail running. I have yet to meet a sponsored trail runner who did not run first and foremost for the pure bliss of moving freely and naturally across wild spaces. This said, however, professional interests that are added on to trail running without a doubt alter the experience in some way. As a simple thought experiment: how many sponsored athletes go on training runs with a thoughtful eye towards their social media following? Funding and livelihoods are at stake with the clicks and likes. Leave the device behind, and on some level that run will be different.

To expand this further, we do well to reflect on the core motivations for trail running—on what makes trail running so special in the first place. Trail running first and foremost is sport, and it is a sport we love deeply. Moreover, trail running is about playing, and play is an essentially unserious thing. This is no knock on trail running for this very unseriousness is at the heart of what makes trail running beautiful. G. K. Chesterton captured this sentiment by remarking that the “derby is the most important thing in England.” In other words, moving beyond the inevitable “serious” things of life, whatever they may be—managing careers, political commitments, paying taxes and bills—one was free to revel in play.

In a similar way, the philosopher Aristotle noted that sport was hardly a “serious” activity; rather it was something free, something that existed for its own sake. In this way, we may rightly say that trail running matters precisely because it is not serious. This is also why Dutch thinker, Johan Huizinga, spoke of humans not as Homo Sapiens (Wise Man) but as Homo Ludens, or “Playing Man,” to capture the importance of the unserious things we do. Feasting—enjoying food and drink beyond mere feeding—is another essential activity for we Homo Ludens. This is one of the reasons we need never to doubt the cultural partnership between beer and trail running!

I suspect that few will disagree that trail running is wonderfully unserious play, but what does unseriousness have to do with PEDs? Stated simply, PEDs bring a lamentable seriousness to trail running. As corporate and professional interests increase in trail running, so, too, it is inevitable that the rules, regulations, and policing will increase. The challenge is to find a mature way through that minefield, but I strongly suspect that surface-level calls to “keep our sport clean” will not do much good. Perhaps the better slogan—after trail races adopt clear PEDs rules—would be “keep to our professional trail running rules!”

Some may contest this point as meaningless semantics, but it is no small thing to identify carefully what it is that we say and mean when signing petitions, deciding who will pay for the enormously expensive PEDs testing on elites, or when determining the proper level of concern over Armstrong’s appearance in trail racing. Without great care and discernment, hash-tag slogans and calls for “clean sport” and “pure sport” lean dubiously towards a rhetoric of moral righteousness.

Put another way, these slogans and strong-reactions when directed towards Armstrong running a trail race run the risk of prejudice in the old sense of the term. Prejudice used to mean prejudging something hastily and without care to understand what was most at stake. In other words, avoiding pre-judging would mean that we think carefully through the practical and ethical implications of, for example, US and international militaries that test and employ PEDs widely (!). What is at stake with their use of PEDs? Or, what of university students who use cognitive enhancements within high-pressure academic settings? Or, what of using nerve-suppressing PEDs for classical musicians facing make-or-break auditions? Within these vastly different settings, rightly or wrongly, PEDs are common. My point is not to extoll or dismiss enhancements in these areas but rather to point out the need to avoid hasty, ill-informed judgments on complex issues.

As science and technology advance, the ethics of enhancement takes us to the core of what is meaningful and what is at stake in each respective sphere. Trail running is, thankfully, not like the military. Nor is it like academia or classical music. Trail running is play—wonderfully unserious play, and I for one hope that this realization is front and center as professional trail running trends towards established rules on PEDs. Whatever these rules become, we must recognize that those rules will lead to further rules and further challenges from PEDs as science and technology enable new PEDs currently unknown. That is the way of professional sports in the 21st century, and in so far as we have professional trail running, we had better get used to that—both as fans of elite trail running and as professional trail runners.

So where does this leave us? Hopefully, with a more refined understanding of what it at stake with PEDs in trail running. For most trail runners, it matters little that Armstrong came out for a rainy day of trail racing. From all accounts, he paid his entry, joked with aid-station volunteers and even returned the finisher’s t-shirt. For many elites, this signals a growing danger, for while trail running at its core remains joyfully unserious, they have added layers of serious things to think about in their trail running. I do not fault amateurs or the professionals, but I do want to note differing motivations where they are present.

Interestingly, when writing in the past on the difficulty of defining PEDs,[1] I have been accused of enabling PEDs in trail running. Some reacted quite strongly. Part of me understands. To set the record straight, my deepest hope is that PEDs will stay far away from trail running. My hope is that the culture of trail running will grow and lean more towards the culture of, say, wilderness adventuring or fast-packing and less towards the rule-heavy, corporatized, highly-professionalized Tour de France. Who knows? Perhaps the thing Lance Armstrong is most seeking is a way to escape the latter.

As for me and my time on the trails? PEDs involve time, money, and can health risk all to shave time. That’s too serious for me. What I want is more unserious time on the trails.


[1] Matt Vest, “Reconsidering PEDs in Ultrarunning,” https://ultra168.com/2015/08/10/reconsidering-peds-in-ultrarunning-part-one/

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I'm a mediocre runner who can bat above his average when I train hard. A man of extremes, I do enjoy everything life offers and consider it an absolute pleasure just to be able to put one foot in front of the other and let my mind wander somewhere different.

8 thoughts on “Why PEDs Are Serious… And Trail Running Is Not

  1. Good on Lance for racing trails. I’d love to see if any of these social media trolls would have the guts to walk up to him on the start line and tell him he is unwelcome. Most likely they would be giggling like school girls and asking for a selfie.

    I like your thinking Matt, trouble is I think some people take it far more seriously and will be willing to cheat to achieve their own goals regardless of the risks. Funny thing is they will be the real losers as they wont understand what they are missing.

    1. Thanks and well said, Charlie. Those dealing illegally in PEDs are absolutely losing out. The question then turns to how best to discourage such losing–from top-down regulations and strong rhetoric (“ban Lance!”) or from a roots-up awareness of what trail running is about in the first place?

  2. I would say that at least in the US for the most part right now there aren’t too many “professional” trail runners. The amount of money that anyone stands to make from the sport is pretty darn small and the cost benefit of taking PEDs would not easily pay off for anyone thinking they could make money by cheating. I suppose that there could be a day in the not too distant future when more money in winnings and sponsorship dollars tip the scales making cheating potentially profitable. But right now not so much. Anyone cheating in trail running in the US right now is purely subsidizing their ego. ‘

    That said, it is certainly an important issue and one that could escalate in coming years.

    1. Thanks, ryanghelfi. Fair point. I agree that “professional” is not an easy category to tie down. Perhaps “semi-pro” is better, but regardless I do think there’s enough momentum behind runners aiming for major sponsorships to identify a professional “impulse” or whatnot. On a related note, Ian Corless just published an honest essay restating a point others have made: i.e., that the “ethics” of PEDs depend upon the rules of the sport (vs some intuitive, self-evident standard). In that piece, Ian addressed the degree of financial incentive.

      “Of course a reply may come from the community saying that there is no money in the sport, so why would Speedgoat or anyone like him cheat? I beg to differ, Speedgoat has some great sponsorship contracts with Redbull, Hoka One One and others. Also let’s take his victory at Run Rabbit Run a few years back – he took home more than $10,000 for that little jolly.” (http://www.runultra.co.uk/Articles/March-2016/ETHICAL-DOPE!#sthash.bnyLUkoK.dpuf)

  3. I would say that it’s not a professional trail running issue. It’s not an issue for me or for you; it’s an issue for the sport. There is no such thing as a professional trail runner. There are sponsored trail runners, ones that do not work a regular job, and elite trail runners. For most trail races, anyone can enter the same race as these “professional” trail runners.

    I don’t think you know what the word Prejudice means. If I look at a runner at the start line and decide that he’s not going to finish the race based on physical appearance, then that is prejudice. Opinions of Lance are based on knowledge, thought, and reason, mostly derived directly from his mouth. Also, just because I would more likely shake his hand than give him the middle finger doesn’t, to me, conflict with wanting to keep the sport pure. It only makes me human.

    In terms of what “pure” means to our sport. If the purpose of taking performance enhancing drugs is not to increase performance, I agree this does not disrupt its purity. Often in this sport we are racing against ourselves. If I can improve my performance by taking PEDs regardless of what goal I am trying to accomplish, then I have cheated. I’ve cheated me and I’ve cheated anyone in the race with me.

    I find it interesting that the main reason I would not take PEDs is not listed under your rational: Integrity. I don’t think Lance cared about the time involved in taking PEDs, or that he didn’t consider the health risk, or even if he lost all of his money. At the end of the day he can hang his head high for being Lance. I can hang mine unnoticed in the middle of the pack with integrity.

  4. “PEDs could possibly enter trail running on the amateur level, but the cost/benefit motivations for that are so low that we can surely dismiss that option.”

    I agree with the general premise of the posited viewpoint.

    As an amateur trail runner with talent that will never keep pace with my fluctuating competitive streak, I have no interest in the lengths to which other runners will go, to eke out the last vestiges of improved performance. Not only is it unlikely to affect me – that runner was always going to finish ahead of me – it is a world so foreign to me, that such a competitor may as well be another species.

    That said, I think it naive to believe that banned substances are incompatible with amateur athletics. Ego works the same, no matter one’s proximity to the podium.

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