Honoring The Game: My thoughts on Performance Enhancing Drugs in Running

November 17, 2016 | By | 19 Replies More

Honoring The Game: My thoughts on Performance Enhancing Drugs in Running


First off I’ll admit: I’ve been “obsessed.” Overly passionate on many occasions. That is part of my bias. Of course I also have a financial stake in being a pro MUT Runner. This is my main job…this is how I make a living…I live and breathe the sport (and have for several years). That is another part of my bias. I’ll own up to that.

2015 Boston Marathon. I gutted my way to 16th place...one place out of the prize money. Photo Credit: Scott Mason www.ScottMasonPhoto.com

2015 Boston Marathon. I gutted my way to 16th place…one place out of the prize money. Photo Credit: Scott Mason

A bit of perspective though: There are much more important, real world problems to worry about, post about and write about. Things like world hunger, children dying of preventable disease…atrocities and injustice with war and violence. It’s why our coaching company Vo2max Productions, LLC has donated to charities like UNICEF and 1% for the Planet (and we thank our customers and supporters in the generous running community that have helped with this!). It is not enough though. It is never enough. These kinds of things should be the focus of our attention…the driving forces that us (the more fortunate individuals) really need to take action and promote every day with a passion. Those are way more important than a little silly sport known as “Distance Running.”

But I digress: Today I write about what also really grinds my gears (perhaps selfishly). I feel like it’s something where a little voice tells me that it is the right thing to do…That it is time to take a stand and explain where I’m coming from. If you don’t stand for something, you fall for everything So that is part of the reason why I wrote this blog post.


A buddy of mine (2x Olympian Mike Aish…a 27:46 10km runner who also ran ultras, and who I interviewed on the SageRunning Podcast) lent me the book “Game of Shadows” about BALCO’s doping scandal which included Barry Bonds, Marion Jones and Tim Montegomery to name a few “elite” athletes. I’ll admit, I haven’t finished reading it yet, but a common theme so far is that the athletic-performance improvement from taking PEDs like EPO, HGH, testosterone, and steroids was a total game-changer. Records fell like never before (and we can even plot out batting averages, home run records and the 100m dash world records over time and see the huge “jump” these very athletes made on drugs…and what level they were at before taking the drugs). Sure they worked hard for it (Bonds had to be a machine in the weight room), but the advantage was vast.


Another book I recently read was “The Secret Race” by former tour rider Tyler Hamilton (a temmate of Lance Armstrong). It was depressing because there were clean guys who graciously bowed out of American Postal when they started systematically doping. The clean guys simply couldn’t hang with the Peloton anymore. Like not even close. Guys that weren’t known as big climbers suddenly become world class climbers (think Lance Armstrong). But you don’t hear about the guys that lost their careers because they got left in the dust…because they decided not to inject EPO and take extra tesotsterone and HGH. Thos guys are my real heros. They put integrity over fame and money. I really don’t want to see a “pure and natural sport” like MUT Running (which for most is an enjoyable hobby about personal challenge) get to the level of pro cycling…where just to compete in the front of the pack one has to be on “the juice.” It’s simply not healthy physically or mentally…but it does churn out “super human” performances. PEDs won’t make a mid-pack runner turn into an elite. But then can for sure bump on up to another level that they wouldn’t be able to attain without them.  I personally don’t want to see what my body can do at 105% on extra EPO. I just want to see what I can do at 100%..with the body my parents gave me, and what 18 years of year-round training/and racing (including tons of 100+ mile training weeks in the last decade). I freaking love this sport…I love the community…I love the natural challenge and goal setting process…I even love the pain and extreme fatigue!


Now I’m obviously not a medical professional. I’ve taken advanced bio and chem. classes at Cornell Univeristy, but much of what I know about performance enhancing drugs has been lay study. I’ve scoured sketchy body building forums online where guys talk about “stacking” different combinations of drugs (mainly steroids for the body builder types), watched documentaries where journalists inject themselves with EPO, and heard first-hand accounts of other elite athlete/runners who were known dopers. I’ve competed against guys running half marathons and 10km races on the road that have finished just ahead of me and then been busted for EPO. From pro roading running circuits I’ve seen guys and gals get busted. In hindsight it always makes sense. It’s never a surprise to many. The story is the same: here was this pretty good, semi-national class /elite runner (they’re usually pretty nice people also)…then all of a sudden one year or season they make a big jump in improvement; they recover from hard training sessions faster and they start shattering their personal bests.


What are these runners usually on? My guess would be a variant of EPO. This is a powerful PED folks. This is not like toking up with a little weed or taking a caffeine pill during a race. [I’m not worried about “small time drugs” nearly as much although I do follow WADA code with banned substances and realize the code is where one simply draws the line ]. No, this is night and day difference in power/strength/endurance/recovery ability. This is likely a 2-3% improvement at the very bare minimum of an elite level runner (not to mention they can train a lot harder and therefore get superhuman” strong). For more recreational runners, I’ve seen journalists claim a 7% boost in Vo2max within 7 weeks of some training and micro doing. At the top level a 1-2% improvement is everything. Stiff records in the most competitive events should fall by only tiny margins….and the margin of victory should be relatively close.

When it seems like it’s too good to be true…it probably is.”

Drugs are easy to get these days…and not as expensive as people think (aside from HGH). I’ve heard one could get a very good supply of EPO for about $1000. It is easy to order off the internet as well (ships to your door). Others in the road running circuit have been busted driving over the border with it in their car though!

Recently there was an article on Ultra Running Podcast by an anonymous writer/runner calling for support of Jim Walmsley (an elite MUT Runner and fellow HOKA teammate of mine) to take more proactive action. [I think some people may have thought that I even wrote the article….I did NOT write it, and I honestly don’t know who did.  11/17/16 5pm update: That article has been removed from their website].  I think moving forward, that if we want to take action on PEDs in the sport of distance running (specifically MUT Running which is notorious for a lack of testing and where performance gains can go exponential due to their longer duration/ high physical demands…much like cycling tours), we must do it as a collective community. Yeah, there should be more pressure on sponsored athletes like myself and Jim…we are benefiting big-time from this sport….no doubt about it. But I’m hoping all levels of runners (and sponsors/brands/races) see the need to share this message, and stand up for how they want to see the future of the sport for generations to come.

Hoka teammate Magda Lewy-Boulet. Cleansport advocate, Olympic marathoner, ultra runner and a mom!

What I have been doing is contacting some people in higher up organizations that can implement actual drug testing and enforce actual rules/policy and penalties. I think a key would be “out of season” testing and surprise tests 4, 6, 8, or 10 weeks before key races (when athletes really ramp up their training and get the most gains from PEDs). Race day testing is always nice as well although likely athletes like to “taper off” the juice before any big race (that they know they might do well in and get tested at). Where we get the money from is a big issue. Obviously I’m against having the majority of runners pay for it. Most people in MUT Running already have to pay high entry fees for races (and wait on crazy lotteries). That certainly isn’t fair. So the financing should have to come from those with a major financial interest (and also those passionate about the cause!): the elite sponsored athletes and their brands. I’m personally ready to put by money where my mouth is. Maybe we can get some creative brainstorming going on for more solutions? I’m all ears and I want to know your thoughts on this…what does the community think? I’d love to hear from you!

yeah it’s just a fake tattoo (@CleanSportCo) #cleansportco and it involved an online video/social media pledge. But it is a powerful symbol that represents an action that holds a strong value to many others and me. It is a statement…it is part of a bigger movement. It would be hard to take that video pledge, post it online for everyone to see and be a liar about it (at least I couldn’t imagine doing it).

yeah it’s just a fake tattoo (@CleanSportCo) #cleansportco and it involved an online video/social media pledge. But it is a powerful symbol that represents an action that holds a strong value to many others and me. It is a statement…it is part of a bigger movement. It would be hard to take that video pledge, post it online for everyone to see and be a liar about it (at least I couldn’t imagine doing it). Lets create a culture where honest hard work is valued and PEDs are frowned upon.


Overall though, I think in life it is about “doing the right thing.” Treat others like you want to be treated and be fair. Don’t let others get taken advantage of, don’t let money and greed and “fame” or an ego boost tempt you into cutting corners and screwing over others. This goes for all you hard working age groupers out there in all competitive running events…hardworking people that train to get the best out of their bodies naturally…to see what they can do and how close to their 100% potential they can get. Isn’t that the whole point of a challenging sport like distance running? If you’re cheating, you’re stealing from honest, hard working athletes, you’re stealing from the community, but most of all you’re cheating yourself. That can’t feel good.


Finally, there are some serious health risks with taking some PEDs …it is an abuse of a controlled substance, and something that I believe is not healthy for future generations of runners. Cyclists would drop dead with heart attacks and strokes because their blood would get too thick from abusing EPO. Do we really want to promote a sporting culture that tells youngsters it’s okay to cheat, and cut corners, and inject PEDs because “all the top guys do it.” Or that “to be a top guy you have to do it”? Why settle for that easy cop out…for mediocrity? I don’t think that’s the way a lot of us want to move forward in life and in sport. We have to learn to deal with failure and struggle sometimes…failure from overtraining, failure from not quite hitting our goals (or qualifying for Boston…or the Olympic Trials…winning or age group…or finishing that ultra). But that is part of the process and challenge that we all hate and love in this tough and grueling sport of distance running, isn’t it? Be honest and run with integrity. Respect your body and respect “the game.”


All the best in running,

Sage Canaday


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2-time Olympic Trials Qualifier, Mountain runner, Author of "Running For The Hansons," trail runner, videos for Vo2max Productioins, LLC.

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  1. Ultramarathon Daily News, Fri, Nov 18 - UltrarunnerPodcast.com | November 18, 2016
  1. Joshua says:

    Well said. I enjoyed reading that.

  2. SageCanaday says:

    Thanks for reading! I really appreciate your support and positive feedback!

  3. Candice says:

    Well written, great piece Sage. Good things to think about.

  4. Nelson says:

    Well said, Sage, it’s hard not to agree with the points you make. I must say I was probably being a bit naive refusing to believe doping is already happening among elite ultrarunners, but after you mentioned the case at the 2015 UTMB I did some digging and found out about some others. Damn, that’s so disappointing.

    Do you have any information on how much it costs to test someone for PEDs?

  5. SageCanaday says:

    Yeah, that’s just getting caught on a “race day” test (top athletes knew it was coming weeks in advance)! There would likely be quite a few more if we did actual surprise tests between races. I’m not an expert on the cost of things, and it varies considerably depending on the actual test (location, blood v. urine, testing body, admin fees, handling/storage fees). I’ve heard anywhere between about $400-1200 (a huge range I know) for one fairly comprehensive substance test for one athlete. This expensive cost is obviously a huge barrier.

  6. Jamil says:

    Thanks for your article Sage and commitment to help lead the way on this.

  7. John says:

    Does anybody else see the elephant in the room? Rob Krar’s tweet after Walmsley broke the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim record by 26 mins: “Congrats to @walmsley172 on setting a new Grand Canyon R2R2R FKT in an unbelievable 5:55:20, and R2R FKT in the process!” Walmsley improved his Lake Sonoma 50 miler time from 6:41:54 to 6:00:52 in one year. I’m not even going to mention what he did at Western States. How do we both celebrate these amazing achievements and agree that “when it seems too good to be true… it probably is”?

  8. Isaac Romero says:

    Hi Sage,

    Thanks to share your thoughts, I couldn’t agree with you more. I hope the “clean sport” initiative spreads into more countries and helps to keep doping away from the mountains, that by its definition should be a clean environment.

    Regards from Catalunya!

  9. Ryan says:

    Sages article was meant to be a discussion about PED’s in ultra running, and working together to solve the problem. We shouldn’t be throwingredients unfounded accusations around about who may or may not be doping.

    But since you brought up Jim, I’d say that I don’t see anything out of the ordinary with his performances. He and others who know him have been clear that he’s been pushing his training to his limits to see what he can do. Let’s not forget that he was a 13:52 5K runner in college so he’s no slouch.

  10. Jake Wyatt says:

    Unfortunately, I’m starting to think the only way to effectively eliminate doping is by significantly upping the sanctions for those who cheat.

    As things stand now, what happens to a doper if they’re caught? They forfeit their titles, maybe have to repay their prize winnings (if the race organization pursues it), and perhaps receive a suspension or ban from the sport, right?

    That’s simply not enough of a deterrent for some athletes. After all, cheating and getting caught generally won’t result in the cheater being in a significantly worse position than they were before they cheated. They have to give back the prize money (which they wouldn’t have won without the cheating anyway), and they lose their sponsors. But barring a Lance-sized contract (unlikely in ultrarunning), those sponsors aren’t likely to sue to get their money back. So being caught and having to give it back isn’t really a big loss.

    What about getting suspended or banned? I would imagine that if someone’s not fast enough to win prize money or get sponsors without cheating, and they choose to dope to boost performance, then they’re not really doing it out of love of sport. They want a particular end result (i.e., money and recognition), and if they’re caught later and lose it then that’s probably ok because doping was the only way for them to get it in the first place. And getting banned only means they can’t participate in organized events. If they still love running or biking or whatever, they can still do that on their own.

    And as depressing as it sounds, I don’t think facing the shame of being caught, or being ostracized from the sport, is enough to stop the cheating. Dopers are looking out for number one, fellow athletes be damned.

    So why are we not talking more about criminalizing the act of doping? Some countries in Europe have been pushing forward on this, and it seems perfectly reasonable to me, given the damage that cheaters do not only to their sports, but to the athletes who compete clean.

    [ http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/2015/03/26/germany-approves-draft-anti-doping-law. Not sure if that draft law went into effect, but at least they’re considering this type of response. ]

    The possibility of this type of sanction might be enough to eliminate most cheating. Even if we’re not talking about a large stretch of jail time, having a criminal conviction on one’s record would significantly complicate efforts to get a job, mortgage, etc.

    It might be enough to make someone think twice about cheating.

    There are plenty of non-violent and non-threatening bad acts that have criminal sanctions attached (go into a theater and start recording the movie on your cellphone, and see what happens…). The purpose of those laws is to deter behavior that we as a society deem to be BAD.

    Isn’t doping one of those bad behaviors?

  11. John says:

    From Sage’s article: “The story is the same: here was this pretty good, semi-national class /elite runner (they’re usually pretty nice people also)…then all of a sudden one year or season they make a big jump in improvement; they recover from hard training sessions faster and they start shattering their personal bests.” Who does this sound like?

    I’m of the opinion that until people start naming names, nothing will be done. If coaches and teammates and the larger running community is intent on covering up for individuals, nothing will change. Even Aish in Sage’s interview won’t name names. Testing is ineffective as a system. In this environment, anyone who excels is suspect.

    My point in talking about Walmsley is that it’s hard to celebrate his amazing achievements and agree that “when it seems too good to be true… it probably is.”

  12. Max Arrieta says:

    Thanks for Sharing, Sage.
    There are many ways to win, but, only one right way.
    I guess, sometimes the price fo the victory is so precious, that some people are willing to pay it, despite, it goes against what is fair play.

  13. Pez says:

    Hi Sage
    Thanks for your article. My wife and I are both runners and supporters of your case.
    Good luck next weekend!

  14. SageCanaday says:

    hey thanks so much for your support! Best of luck with your running too!

  15. Kent Green says:

    Hey Sage,

    I’m a huge supporter of your anti-doping movement. How does HOKA feel about it? Any chance HOKA wants to promote this for all their athletes? This could start quite the trend with other teams. Although this singles out the elite level athletes, I am confident that’s the best place to start.

    Thanks for all you do!

  16. SageCanaday says:

    Hey Kent,
    Thanks for your support on this issue! I think the hard part is exactly how to implement testing and what it’s going to cost (i.e. bio passport etc.) as well as aligning with governing bodies (i.e. WADA, USADA, IAAF, ITRA etc.) for penalty and actual rules and having others catch on. For sure HOKA promotes a clean sport and a fair competitive field as a brand.

  17. Jim McGuckin says:

    I lived in Phoenix Arizona and met JW on multiple occasions, he worked at iRun and sold my family shoes. We talked about ultra runners, doping and the such and he was clear on where he stood. He was against doping and despised those who did, he even went as far as stating KJ was doping. Based on what JW told me I did the research and sure enough it’s the same story. KJ all the sudden started smashing records and when drug testing was introduced kind of fell out the racing scene. Now JW bursts onto the scen and is killing every record in the book and by huge margins. So based on just the conversation JW had we me, I now have to say he resembles that which he stated he despised. I’m not saying he’s a cheater but I’m saying by his own words of what a cheat looks like and the words of others. He sure as hell smells a little fishy.

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