Ironman and Ironman 70.3 Age Group Drug Testing

A few weeks back, the World Triathlon Corporation (owners of Ironman and 70.3 races) announced that it would be increasing and expanding it’s programs around drug testing. However, it’s the follow little snippet that caught everyone’s attention:

“Additionally, a Registered Testing Pool (RTP) consisting of professional and elite age group athletes who have qualified for either of the World Championships will be created. From this RTP, athletes will be selected for random testing.”

And thus the discussion began.

Personally, I’ve always been curious as to what percentage of folks at an Ironman are doping.  There’s little doubt within the triathlon community that folks are doping, it’s just a question of how widespread is it.  Purely as an exercise in curiosity I’d LOVE to see the results of even a completely anonymous study of all participants, with only age/gender recorded.  For example – do folks in the M35-39 category dope more or less than those in the M25-29 category?

And there’s the question of what percentage within a given category.  In larger categories such as M35-39, where for example at a race like IM Florida there are 418 individuals registered, even a small percentage is easily the entire podium’s worth.  Meaning, just 1% of folks using drugs basically fills out the top hardware spots.  Of course, there’s no reason to believe that it’s the top folks are using drugs.  I’d also be curious if someone finishing in 14 hours is any more or less likely than something shooting for a 9 hour Ironman.

And further, there’s no specific reason to believe that this would necessarily change the results of folks getting Kona or Clearwater slots.  And there’s certainly no reason to think it would change my plight.  I can’t blame my less than ideal performance at Ironman Canada on anyone but myself, and there were 16 or so other folks in front of me, of which it’s likely the majority (if not all) aren’t doping.  They simply raced better than I did.

That said – how do I feel about the change?

I like the change.

While I think general testing of every single person who competes in a triathlon is an unnecessary goal, I think they found a fair balance:  If you want to go to the Big Dance, you’d better be drug free.

But, I don’t think they went far enough.

See, first off – all they’ve done is establish a pool – basically just a big list of potential folks to test.  For Kona and Clearwater, this represents some 4,000-5,000 age groups, everyone from the fastest non-pro (and Pro) at Kona, to the 79-year old Sister Madonna.  Then they’ve said they’ll ‘be selected for random testing.’

Which, begs the question of how many tests per year worldwide they’ll do.  It costs a fair bit to complete a single drug test.  They’ve partnered with USADA to do the actual testing and management of the program – the same group that does testing of professional athletes.  But many pro’s have noted how cumbersome the process is for completely random tests (where they show up at your house at 6AM on some random day while you’re in your underwear), so this seems like a sloppy way to go about it given the huge number of folks we’re talking.  And, they’ve also noted how rare testing is within the triathlon community for all but the absolute top of the pro ladder.

Further, the only thing that actually matters to most of us is whether or not that person is ‘under the influence’ on the day of the race.  So why not simply test at the race site?  You cross the finish line in the top 10-20 slots, and you give a sample within 12-18 hours (just urine samples).  You could choose to not give a sample, but then you choose to not take a slot.  This accomplishes their over-arching goal of catching dopers trying to go for Kona and Clearwater, while limiting the wasted resources elsewhere.  It also focuses on the most important matter – making a very clear deterrent to folks looking to use performance enhancing drugs in order to snag a slot.  A random drug test amongst thousands of folks is a pretty weak deterrent.

Finally, some have said why not simply test at Kona or Clearwater (events) and not bother testing at the qualifying events.  Well, in the case of races like IMFL, where the qualifying event occurs some 11 months PRIOR to Kona, by time the athlete goes to Kona the drugs are long gone.  And most age groupers treat Kona as a party more than the chance to set a PR.  It’s only reasonable to set that entry bar at a place where it matters (the qualifying race).

Now, there’s still a lot of details to be worked out.  While details on the various anti-doping worldwide sites are clear, the exact interaction with Ironman and 70.3 races are not.

For those curious, here’s some more information:

USADA Massive Download Page
(You can also browse to the main USADA site from there)

USADA Wallet Card of Banned Substances (and permitted substances)
(This one’s pretty interesting, it makes it easy to see that products such as Advil are cool, but Vicks Vapor Inhaler…not so much).

WADA Athlete Guide
(Also note that there’s a ton of information on how to get a medical exception for medications that may contain prohibited agents, so that’s not been forgotten)

So with that, have a good weekend everyone!


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  1. I agree with most of your comments. Two notes, however- 1) PEDs can be used effectively in training and be out of your system on race day. 2) Take it a step further- should USAT have a testing pool with all NOADs?

  2. I think testing should be done like the Olympics or Tour de France – test those who are in the top performance (ie Kona qualifiers) to ensure their performance was done PED free. Testing non-qualifying individuals serves no purpose, other than determining how widespread it may be in the sport. I’d rather testers focus on testing around the outcome of the race and disqualifying those individuals who cheat.

  3. I’d add that it should be done immediately following the race in order to get your Kona slot. No test, no ticket to Hawaii.

  4. Adam, the one problem I could see with testing right after a race is:

    “How many people are hydrated enough to pee on command after that many hours of effort?”

  5. Cost is always going to be an issue. Germany makes the pro’s pay for the testing. You could tack on an additional cost for Kona spots or at least force those with positive results to pay for their testing. Also, would you ban age groupers that tested positive from future races or just not award the Kona slot?

  6. All I know is that this “pain relief” cream I’ve been using really works well. Since I’ve been using it I am not only pain free but I am easily able to run 2:30 marathons twice a week! Thanks EPO Pain Relief for allowing me to reach my “true” potential!

    I’ll let you know if I get tested in KONA!

  7. Ryan, you are a nut!

    They can ride their motorcycles up next to me on the bike and catch a sample as pedal past the aid stations and port-o-cans.

  8. IVs are prohibited out of competition – except for medical emergencies? Hmm, what a loophole. Is finishing a marathon 3 weeks before your “A” race and stopping in to the medical tent for a quick pick-me-up a medical emergency, I wonder??

  9. I love the idea of testing, and I love your thoughts on how to improve the process. It does have to be uniform for everybody in the top 10, 20, or however many rolldown spots might be affected by Kona tickets – otherwise there’s always a possibility for someone to slip through the cracks.

    Of course, the bigger decision that I’d like to see, which would render most of this moot, is making Kona and Clearwater qualifying based solely on race times, like they do for the Boston Marathon. That way you could be clean and still qualify, regardless of what the people finishing ahead of you are doing. It’s the scarcity of slots that causes so many age groupers to stretch the rules for personal gain.

  10. Kim

    Interesting! I found it really interesting that it seems that doping is widespread in the tri community.
    Of course, I see some items that I use in running on the banned list!

  11. Oy, what have we come to? Being a baseball fan, nothing is what it seems anymore. What used to be just luck of the genes (Mickey Mantle) now is the skill of the chemist (Barry Bonds).

  12. what, heroin is not allowed? No pot, either??! I’d pay money to see someone high complete a tri.

    but good to see that valium is a-ok!

  13. Interesting! I found it really interesting.. nice blog!!!
    Elizabeth Wilcox