Friday, January 24, 2014

Should There Be Drug Testing At Trail Races?


Should There Be Drug Testing At Trail Races?

Need the question even be asked?  Trail running seems to me to be one of the purest sports available.  Although there are many reasons to become involved in trail running, one of them has to be its simplicity.  A pair of shoes, shorts and a shirt, some food, and a good trail are all you need to be a trail runner.  Insert the word road for trail above and everything changes.  With roads come things like asphalt, manmade structures, crowded courses, huge corporate sponsors, and maybe doping-worthy purses.  How do performance enhancing drugs (not to be confused with experience enhancing drugs) enter the simple equation of trail running?  Since the question has been posed I’ll assume it has become a reality.  What follows is an attempt to break down the few potential reasons why someone might select trail running as a sport, and then take drugs to be better at it.   

Time on the Trail – Trail running is not easy.  We do it in part because it is hard, because we are unsure of our own ability to complete something so monumental.  We put in lots of hours . . . lots.  Performance enhancing drugs, on the other hand, are a shortcut to excellence.  These two personality traits (dedication and apathy) are in conflict with one another.  Why choose something so difficult to cut corners?

Fame – Most of us find fame in recognizing old race acquaintances, reading a race report on a blog, and maybe even achieving a personal best.  We enjoy reading about elite runners, and watching them in person is a real treat, but we all run the same distance.  My ability to recall the names of the people I meet at events is already poor.  How can I be expected to favor an elite runner I have never met?  Enrichment through fame is limited.

Money – I would guess that winning these races will not make one rich.  There may be free gear, entry fees and if one is really lucky, training in Europe on some shoe-maker’s dime (which would be amazing), but where is sustained wealth?  Using drugs, which cost money, to win belt buckles and usually small sums of money (if any at all) is counterintuitive.

Personal Success – Even in the absence of fame and money, success is tainted when drugs are used to achieve it.  Why run hours upon hours every day, spend a great deal of time planning with pacers and crews, only to ruin the purity of a win with drugs?  A really good runner, if he or she works hard, might be able to win.  If not, enjoy coming in sixth, 40th, or even last – the success is the journey taken to complete the distance.

Solutions are elusive, but here are a few suggestions:

We should separate trail running events into two classes.  We’ll have one class for Traitorous Ultrarunners Racing on DrugS, or T.U.R.D.S. for short.  RD’s can perform drug testing on the field of modified runners while crew members jostle for position at the aid stations.  For added excitement, they can include obstacles on the course and hang huge sponsor banners from the trees in some of the most remote stretches.  Then maybe it can be televised and all the runners can take breaks when they go to commercial!

Everyone I have ever met while trail running will choose the other class.  No need for a flashy name because none of us care much about such stuff.  We’ll be at the local race to see friends or a destination run to experience something new.  We will laugh together, experience snapshots of the Earth in its various moods, push ourselves in ways we never imagined, and in the process be renewed.

In truth, it seems to me the solution is much easier than drug testing.  Look each entrant in the eye, and ask them “Is there any place in the world you would rather be at this moment?”  Any reply other than an emphatic “No Way” is telling enough.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Running in Beauty - Canyon de Chelly Ultra 55K Race Review

There was a palpable excitement in the air at the inaugural Canyon de Chelly Ultra.  One hundred lucky souls had registered before it sold out in about 36 hours.  Among those gathered were Ultra winners, people who had been in magazines and films, and those destined to become part of Ultrarunning lore, but we had all come for a different reason.  We were drawn by a rare chance to run through a sacred canyon rich with history, culture, and tradition.  Canyon de Chelly, on the Navajo Reservation, has been home to many different native peoples over the last 4,000 plus years.  Each culture has left their mark – some visible, some hidden throughout the Canyon.  Many local families still call it their home, having practiced traditional ways of life for over three hundred years.  Self-guided exploration of Canyon de Chelly is limited to mesa-top viewpoints and one trail into the Canyon.  This run would offer us a glimpse of what most non-native people never get to see; we would travel past ancient ruins, spy petroglyphs and pictographs, see wild horses, and run on the same ground that has been traveled by indigenous peoples for thousands of years. 

At check-in, it was as if old friends were meeting for a surprise party – one planned to celebrate a pure love of running, life-changing experiences, and the existence of the Navajo people.  Whether we knew each other or not, the rarity of such an event immediately bound us together.  We joined pieces of hushed conversation to predict what excitement the next day would hold.  The first runners to arrive were offered a bundle of Navajo tea, and on the back of the t-shirts was a Navajo saying – “H)ZH+_GO YISHWO{” which translates to “MAY YOU RUN IN BEAUTY.”  We were in for something special.

Later that evening, the RD Shaun Martin spoke about course conditions and told the story of his emotional running experience that led to the creation of the event.  Shaun’s words left us with no doubt as to the unparalleled experience he had created.  In fact, this report would be incomplete if I failed to say that Shaun himself was a big part many of us were there.  He exudes kindness, a sincere passion for trail running, and a reverence for the Earth that is comforting and empowering.  Next, Navajo Park Ranger Ravis Henry provided some education on the anthropological history of the area.  We would be running through 4,500 years of Native American history.  Lastly, we learned about the Navajo tradition of running, and its intricate link to the story of Navajo creation, from Shaun’s father-in-law, William Yazzie.  Running is vital to life, he explained – and the race through the Canyon the next day was viewed no differently. 

The next morning we rose before the sun, the night’s chill still firmly within the dawning day’s grip.  At the mouth of the Canyon, the runners gathered around a bonfire.  We were offered Navajo tea, coffee and toascii (blue corn mush) for breakfast.  William Yazzie sang a Navajo song of blessing as we looked to the East – where the sun would soon peak over the rim of the Canyon.  We moved towards the start.  Shaun reminded us to yell and shout whenever we felt it; such is the Navajo way to let the spirits know of one’s presence.  He counted down from five, and we ran.  We ran as the early sun leaked rays of fire onto the massive canyon walls.  We ran past petroglyphs, wild horses, and ancient dwellings in distant alcoves.  We ran with friends old and new, and ran in solitude.  We ran through sand, mud and frigid water.  Once past the base of Spider Rock, a sacred monolith, we began the ascent of Bat Canyon – twelve hundred feet of gain in one mile of toothy trail to the mesa-top turn-around.  Shaun greeted us with a smile, and a reminder to contemplate the path we had traveled.  I turned, and for a moment was lost; I was looking back into my valley, my canyon, my home.

Back down the gnarly trail we pushed, moving nimbly from boulder to stone.  In the Canyon, the water crossings became a welcome respite from the warming trail.  Hours drifted by as we ran beside glowing walls of redrock, under cottonwood sentinels, and past smiling aid volunteers.  Everything felt right.

At the finish, Shaun was there to congratulate us and award each runner a family-made turquoise necklace.  Each in turn thanked him.  We refueled with veggie or mutton-stew and Navajo fry-bread.  Traditional jewelry, blankets, and moccasins were chosen by the top finishers.  The fulfilling experience was quickly over, and friends began to pack for their journey home.  Fortunately Navajos don’t really say goodbye – it is too final.  See you in the Canyon next year.

This review also appears in the Jan/Feb 2014 issue of Ultrarunning with minor modifications.