© Tarawera Ultramarathon

Following on from Tuesday’s interview with leading ultrarunner and speed record holder, Camille Herron, I’m back with part two, which is our chat about doping in mountain and ultra trail running.

Camille comes from a marathon running background where she was tested rigorously in and out of competition by the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). Since moving to mountain and ultra trail (MUT) running, she’s grown concerned about the lack of out-of-competition drug testing (unannounced spot testing) in the sport and was keen to chat about this, which is where we pick up below.

*N.B I am in no way an expert on anti-doping and have not contacted any governing body or company mentioned here for comment.*

You’ve personally been affected by doped athletes in the past, is that right?
Yeah. That happened in my very first ultra and it shocked me. I thought that getting into the sport of ultrarunning there would be more integrity. Because there’s not really much prize money in it to begin with, I thought people would be more like me, competing for the love of it. So at my first ultra I ended end up finishing very disappointed – I’m literally on my phone with my husband and he’s like, ‘How much do you wanna bet somebody in the top 10 is going to test positive?’ And from a statistical point, they usually say at least 10 percent of the athlete population is doping. So sure enough, the top Russian woman tested positive for a steroid and I got bumped up to 10thplace.

I was left off the podium, I was never celebrated, I was crying on the sides. It was a real eye-opener of the laws to athletes who are left off the podium and don’t get celebrated. That was what set me off to be on this mission to try and improve the integrity of the sport.

One of your concerns is the lack of out-of-competition drug testing of MUT athletes?
Coming from the marathon, I’m very familiar with what goes on with drug testing and was part of the out-of-competition group testing pool with USADA. So when I made this step-up into ultra trail running I was very shocked because I had won two world titles and I thought I would be put back on [the list] to be tested out of competition. Well, I was never contacted by anybody [from anti-doping], which I thought that was a little bit strange, so I actually ended up contacting USATF(USA Track and Field) and USADA to ask if there was some kind of mistake.

Basically, I guess the funding for out-of-competition drug testing for ultra trail athletes had stopped because the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) had changed their protocol and was requiring so many tests for Olympic level athletes [at an extra expense]. So, because as MUT athletes we’re not an Olympic sanctioned event, we’re kind of on the outside.

To put it bluntly, there is no out-of-competition drug testing in mountain and ultra trail athletes right now, at least in America.

© Jetline Action Photo

Does the lack of testing from USADA and the IAAF come down to the cost of it?
Yeah, absolutely. When I corresponded with USADA they’ve said it’s a funding issue. USATF and the mountain ultra trail have a budget set aside to do in-competition drug testing, but as far as out-of-competition drug testing, it’s going to be an added cost. And where does that cost come from? You also want it to be an independent thing – you don’t want the sponsors to be involved.

I know a lot of athletes, myself included, that are willing to pay to show people, ‘Hey, we’re being drug tested.’ I want all my performances to be validated to show people that I compete clean. It’s part of maintaining the integrity of the sport and what we do. As an athlete this is one of my greatest concerns – just trying to increase the integrity of the sport.

Have you seen anything to suggest there is a doping problem in mountain and ultra trail?
I’ve seen athletes in our sport making very drastic jumps in a very short period of time, and everybody gets very excited about them. They’ve got sponsors behind them – there’s a lot of sponsorship funding for athletes that a lot of people are unaware of. So you see these athletes kind of come out of nowhere and make really large jumps in a short period of time, and if they were in an Olympic level event, everybody would be blowing the whistle – something’s going on here. But I think most people in our sport are not aware of this issue.

I’m not naive to all this and what’s going on, and I’m probably the most drug-tested American athlete at the moment, only because I’m breaking world records and winning world titles and winning Comrades, where there is in-competition drug testing. But I’m not being drug tested out of competition, and it’s really shocking!

As someone with little knowledge in this area my assumption was that the top athletes in MUT would be tested out of competition…
Yeah, and it’s not happening. There’s a programme called the Quartz programme which is basically being put on by the ITRA (the International Trail Running Association). It’s not being run by WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency), USADA or a national [anti-doping organisation], and they’re trying to make it look like we’re being drug-tested out of competition.

I’m part of this programme, and every couple of months – maybe leading up to some major international trail race – we get an email to tell us to go to a lab and get our blood drawn. It’s basically like if I were to go to my doctor to get my blood taken and they have it evaluated to see what my health status is. So they’re trying to make it look like we’re being drug tested and our blood is being profiled, but it’s not the same thing. If I was a marathoner in the out-of-competition drug testing pool, I would be held accountable; I would be having to give my whereabouts and somebody would be coming to my door, knock, knock, knock, appearing out of nowhere and drug testing me.

The programme is also being funded by sponsors which is a bit of a conflict of interest.

So currently there’s no WADA level scrutiny or drug testing in mountain and ultra trail?
No. You see these Kenyan [track and field] athletes lately getting busted because their blood profile is outside of the norm, but those athletes are being held under the scrutiny of an anti-doping agency; it’s out of competition drug testing and it’s held to the highest standard. Whereas the Quartz programme have no legal authority to sanction athletes; we’re not being held to the same standard and it’s not done with out-of-competition testing protocol. I have so many issues with all this.

So what does happen?
The way the Quartz Program works is we’re emailed to go get our blood tested at any nearby lab within a 96 hour window. It’s not unannounced testing, it’s not compulsory, and there is no drug testing. It’s like if you got a CBC with differential (complete blood count test) with your local doctor. I tried to do it the first time they contacted me, but the lab I went to didn’t know how to process the form. We called the US contact, Dr Hoffman, and also the international contact, and found out it wasn’t compulsory to do. I get regular blood testing by my doctor to monitor my health. For those who are able to get their blood tested through the Quartz notification protocol, those results are paid for and sent to the Quartz Program. They mainly use it for health monitoring, as I already do with my doctor. If there’s an “abnormal profile”, as according to WADA code, they can notify our national anti-doping agency for further targeted testing.

They are indirectly trying to say they “contribute to doping-free sport”, but it’s not true out-of-competition drug testing/blood profiling. They have no power to sanction the athletes. I have serious issue with the image and slogan they are trying to convey to the public! It’s simply not equivalent to a true out-of-competition testing pool by an anti-doping agency where we have to give our 24/7 whereabouts and then having someone come to our door unannounced for blood/urine testing.

What are your thoughts on what should happen?
All the athletes in our sport need to be put under an anti-doping sanctioning body, whether that’s WADA or USADA, whatever is the national anti-doping body, where we have to give our whereabouts and have somebody come knocking at our door. The sponsorship of the Quartz program and maybe even athlete’s paying into it can financially help to make this possible.

But how do you create an objective means of who’s going to be part of an out of competition testing pool? I think you could look at something like the ITRA rankings, either internationally or by country. Maybe you could take the top 30 Americans based on that ITRA rankings and put them into an out of competition testing pool where we’re held under the authority of USADA.

You’ve mentioned sponsorship – do you think it’s become an incentive to dope?
Everybody has their reasons for why they do it, but I would say there is a lot of sponsorship money involved in the sport. Mainstream sports look at mountain and ultra trail running and think, ‘Wow, there’s no prize money,’ well let me tell you it’s very largely sponsorship based, and sponsors can pay salaries and bonuses for performances, so there’s a lot going on behind the scenes. And then on top of it there’s no drug testing – no out-of-competition drug testing!

Where there is testing is the races like Comrades, UTMB, and 2 Oceans where I did my first ultra – there is in-competition drug testing, but you’d have to be stupid to get caught [doping in a race]. Everybody knows these races do drug testing so they would be knocking off whatever they’re doing in order to not test positive. But, you know, it’s a real serious issue. There’s a lot of talk about what’s going on, and how there’s no drug testing, but I’ve been in the sport now for four years and there hasn’t been much of anything done, other than Western States now has in-competition drug testing, and USATF have the budget for testing at their Championships.

Is doping and lack of testing being talked about within the MUT athlete community?
My husband and I joke that there’s a lot of talk and not really any action and I think that in the past month or two, there are athletes saying ‘Hey, we’ve got to take action, how do we create some sort of testing pool?’ There’s a lot of American athletes who are very concerned about all this. One of my friends tried to work with USADA to set up some sort of out-of-competition drug testing programme leading up to the Western States [100 mile race] and basically have the athletes pay. It would be like a pool of 30 athletes giving their whereabouts with 7 random tests. Almost like a pay-to-compete type situation where not just the sponsors pay for drug testing but have the athletes step up and pay for whatever added expenses are involved. It sounds like it won’t happen this year, but knowing it’s possible it could be implemented for the future.

I should add that a benefit to the USADA out-of-competition testing is the educational aspect. Some athletes in the ultra-trail community have expressed concern about accidentally taking a tainted supplement and testing positive. As elite athletes, the USADA program teaches you to be responsible for everything that goes in your body. Supplements are not regulated by the FDA. Many athletes may not know anything regarding the risks of supplements, TUEs, or things like marijuana and CBD products. USADA even educates on the risk of travel, medical emergencies, and water/meat contamination. They have an app too to look up anything questionable. I’ve gotten a massage overseas and had to question the massage oil being used. Nobody wants to lose their livelihood as a runner because of something accidental. Athletes definitely need to be educated on being responsible for everything that goes in or on their body.

Finally, should someone need legal help, there is the USOC Athlete’s Ombudsman, whom I personally know from serving on the Team USA staff: https://www.teamusa.org/Athlete-Resources/Athlete-Ombudsman.

You can follow Camille on social media via www.twitter.com/runcamillewww.facebook.com/runcamille and www.instagram.com/runcamille. Visit www.runwithcamille.com to find out more about Camille and her coaching business.