Lucille Germain of France has her temperature checked before running in the Golden Trail Championship in The Azores in October, 2020. Photo: Stephen Granger

Trail running, of all the athletics disciplines, would appear the least likely to attract drug cheats. One definition of the sport is “running in the heart of nature”. The sport’s promotion of a healthy lifestyle would appear to make it less likely to attract drug cheats but leaders in the sport are taking no chances and many have committed their events and competitions to the highest levels of anti-doping precautions. Their goal: embed a zero-tolerance approach to doping in the very DNA of the sport.

The Golden Trail Championship, which took place in The Azores recently and which attracted many of the world’s leading trail runners, adopted the French-based QUARTZ Program to ensure the health and transparency of the event.  All participants agreed to compete under the comprehensive rules of the program, whose philosophy is that no athlete who is not completely healthy should compete.

Ruth Croft runs a mountain trail. Courtesy of Golden Trail World Series. Photo: Philipp Reiter

Quartz goes considerably further than the official World Athletics-adopted World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) position, which allows athletes to compete while on medication to treat an illness, even where that medication may be a scheduled drug under WADA, provided the athlete declares his or her illness and medication proactively and in advance of competition (the ‘Therapeutic Use Exemption’ or TUE – an exemption that ‘allows an athlete to use, for therapeutic purposes only, an otherwise prohibited substance or method of administering a substance)’.

“We are not just cleaning a sport, as is the case in many major sports, we are preventing and making sure it (drug cheating) will not happen in Trail Running,” said Golden Trail Championship director and Elite Quartz Programme member, Greg Vollet.

“This is why we are able to go further than any sport on that specific topic. We are the only ones to not accept the TUE provision for example.  We believe that if you are sick, it’s better you stay at home. Once the products won’t have any effect on you, and that you will feel better, then, you will be able to compete.

Greg Vollet (right) , Golden Trail founder and Quartz Elite Programme member, and Azores Trail Run director, Mario Leal, both committed to ensuring fair play in the GTC. Photo: Stephen Granger

Increasingly sophisticated programs to test athletes and catch cheats have evolved under the auspices of those controlling global athletics, but this evolution has been thwarted by the development of chemical processes designed to outflank the “chemistry cops” and to enable dopers to benefit from the spoils of their ill-gotten gains. Trail running’s zero-tolerance approach makes it more difficult to mask doping agents with regular medication. If you’re sick enough to require medication, you stay home, period, according to Vollet.

“We are also the only ones to not accept that athletes can compete using painkillers, even where these might be deemed ‘legal’. Do you think normal that these painkillers are allowed? Do you think it’s healthy to run at high level with painkillers? It could be very dangerous for the kidneys.

“I am confident that the reason the athletes are able to accept those very strict rules, is because there is no doping in Trail Running, or at least on the Golden Trail World Series.  And of course, when you put good money on the table to be won, make sure that it’s a fair competition!”

In addition to the GTC, many high-profile trail running events, including the last four ITRA trail running world championships, subscribe to the QUARTZ Program, making Trail Running one of the cleanest sport on the planet.

Pierre Sallet, Director of Quartz Programme committed to drug-free sport. Photo: Courtesy Pierre Sallet

“The objective of the QUARTZ Program, developed by the non-profit ‘Athletes for Transparency’, is to promote the philosophy of a sport without any enhancing drugs, thus contributing to a doping-free Sport,” explained Dr Pierre Sallet, Director of the QUARTZ Program. “The programme consists of a unique biological and toxicological monitoring in order to first protect the athletes’ health.

“We see Quartz as positively addressing the importance of medical health, rather than correcting and curtailing doping. Over eighty races around the world subscribe to the Quartz programme, which attempts to fill some of the gaps which we know have been exploited by athletes. 

“For example, we have identified forty substances and five which should be on the WADA list because they enhance performance, carry significant health risks and / or could be dangerous to use during intense competition. And we don’t believe that athletes should be given an exemption for therapeutic use of a prohibited substance to treat an illness.  If the athlete has an illness, he or she should stay at home until healthy.

“We are aware these exemptions have been abused,” explained Sallet.“Up to 40% of athletes have applied for exemptions for asthma medication, for example, when only 5-10% of the population typically suffer from asthma.

“If you really want your sport to be clean, you have to clean everything, so you will need a comprehensive programme, such as Quartz,” explained Sallet.

“In many athletics’ competitions you can compete using ‘legal doping’ (substances not yet on the WADA list) or therapeutic exemptions. Under Quartz, you simply cannot compete for reward using any of these loop-holes. Athletes might use substances, not listed on schedules, in order to recover more quickly.  These could be glucose-based or similar substances.  But in a multi-day stage race, such as the GTC, this could help an athlete start relatively fresh on the following day – surely an unfair advantage?

Swedish athlete, Tove Alexandersson’s recovery from a Day One ankle injury was subject to the drug restrictions under the Quartz programme. Photo: Stephen Granger

“But athletes who need to take these ‘level one’ substances for the treatment of a condition can still run for fun and pleasure under the Quartz rules, but they will not be allowed to compete for reward or position.

“For the Golden Trail Championship, we tested forty athletes – the top twenty men and women – before the competition and then during the race, taking a total of five samples each by means of full blood count or biological testing, urine testing and a blood drop or finger prick.  That is a good way to find if the athlete is healthy.  We gave feedback to athletes, for example warning them to be careful if we detected anaemia.

“Then we took second samples at the start of the competition. That helped us determine any inconsistencies in haemoglobin levels, including blood transfusions, which might have occurred.”

The Golden Trail Championship can claim to be one of the cleanest events on the global sporting calendar, having gone beyond the minimum Quartz requirements to the higher (voluntary) level of the QUARTZ Elite Programme, whereby athletes are required to share publicly relevant information concerning their testing.

“In addition to the comprehensive testing pre-competition,” Sallet continued, “we did saliva and urine testing each day on the top five athletes (male and female) in each stage and the top three in the overall classification.

“We had a case of athletes with glucose infusion on the first day, which had been directed by the medical team for the treatment of a condition. We had to find the right balance between an athlete who didn’t want to cheat but who would recover much faster with a glucose infusion from a drip than by eating pasta, which was judged to be unfair to other athletes. In the end, they were still allowed to run for fun and pleasure, but they were not allowed to compete for reward or position. 

“There were no disqualifications or incidents relating to levels 2 or 3.  We had a few discussions with athletes on the basis of level 1 substances, more as a guideline to promote health in sport than as a sanction. But we can say with certainty that the GTC was completely clean.”

— Story by Stephen Granger

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Main Picture: Johardt van Heerden leads Kane Reilly through the Potberg Mountains in South Africa, near the start of the Merrell Whale of Trail. Photo: Peter Kirk

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Trail running is “going for a run at the heart of nature” – Salomon; https://www.salomon.com/en-us/running/trail-running-advice/what-trail-running – Toni McCann en route to a record-breaking victory in the 2019 Merrell Whale of Trail. Photo: Peter Kirk