Little did i know when I began recapping last weeks off road performances that I'd fall down a white rabbit hole of IAAF, EPO and CERA controversies. The world of ultra trails has been spared from the big doping scandals that's plagued the tarmac scene for the past decades but the first race on this years Skyracing calendar featured a win from a previously banned athlete and as a relative n00b when it comes to the history of competitive trail running it forced me to do a big of a dig down the archives. If you get the snooze feels from just seeing the letters IAAF next to each other and don't care much for rambles about banned substances then direct your eyes down past the next paragraph or three
Before failing an EPO blood test taken after her victory at the 2009 World Mountain Running championships Elisa Desco was a respected up and coming Italian runner. She didn't only excel on the gnarly trails of sky running she also held up with the elites on the road and was a member of the Italian national Half Marathon team. After the test triggered a two year ban from the sport Desco tried to prove her innocence suggesting her sample had been mixed up with that of a different athlete. A lengthy legal process finally led to a DNA test which further proved that the test was in fact Descos own. With no other hopes of proving her innocence she retired from competing and sat out her time on the sideline. Elisa has to this day continued to claim that she did not use doping but an outcry on social media following her entry to the North Face 50 in 2015 suggests that not everyone is convinced.
In the years following her return Desco had gone on to take multiple podium positions in the skyrunning series as well as winning prestigious European mountain races like Sierre Zinal and this was going to be her first big race on the American scene. I can see why it was a tempting race for a fast runner with a favour for shorter distances but maybe an entry into the one off road competition where the winner does not only get an extra large beer and a gimmick trophy from salvaged road kill but is rewarded with what is probably the biggest prize sum (10,000 £) on the trail race circuit was a bit of a bad move. When irunfar wrote about Elisas doping background in their race preview where they also deemed her a podium contender the otherwise harmonious US trail-web exploded. By this time the punishment for a positive EPO had been changed to that of a life time ban from the sport and fellow runners and fans were calling for Elisa to be banned from entering the race. Desco then made a second publicity mistake in choosing to run the race which doesn't allow for pacers together with her partner Marco De Gasperi. The rumour mill said that De Gasperi was providing Elisa with water and fuel which he was carrying for her, she eventually retired from the race stating illness as the cause for her DNF but I think the social media debate and bad mouthing from the other athlete had a lot to do with her decision to quit the race.
Who knows if a test can always be 100 % accurate, I believe that there is probably always a margin for error. However with the seriousness of the particular PED (you basically need to inject it, we are not talking about weird ingredient in a new lactose allergy remedy you're taking here…) in Descos case I struggle to understand her decision to choose to sign up for a race with such a large prize sum knowing that it would cause some controversy and then opt for running alongside her partner (and world mountain running champion) and give people yet another reason to question her morals.
Personally I think that as a previously banned athlete, be it a false accusation or not, you could continue to participate in the sport you love as a an upper mid packer but if it'd been me i don't think i would have return to compete on such a high level. What do you think? Is it okay to stay on as an elite athlete once you've been stamped with a doping ban? There's no doubt what Desco's opinion is, she has continued to race mountains for trophies over the past decade and the only reason she has not been mentioned in the round up results before is due to a break in racing during 2018 after the birth of her second child.
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MT AWA SKYRACE, 33 km / 2400
It seems that America shared all that 2019 snow that's been missing from the European slopes with Japan. The island has had such a high frequency of pow days that this weekends first race in the Skyrace World Series had to be shortened by a hefty 12 km down to 21 due to the avalanche risk. Megan Kimmel and Elisa Desco shared the lead for the first half of the race and onwards to its highest point. From there climbing turned into ascending and on the final downhill of the race Desco pulled away to cross the finish line 41 seconds ahead of Kimmel. Local runner Takako Takamura who was tenth at Ring Of Steall last year took third only 29 seconds behind Megan and with 22 seconds to spare to Sheila Aviles in fourth. Rounding out the top five 3 minutes down from the win was Hillary Gerardi. Long may this tight race trend of the spring last!
1. Elisa Desco 2:27:46
2. Megan Kimmel 2:28:27
3. Takako Takamura 2:28:56
4. Sheila Avilez 2:29:12
5. Hillary Gerardi 2:30:31
Talking about tight races, with not much else to report from last weeks elites let's move on to the previews of this weekends shenanigans and one particularly S.T.A.C.K.E.D field far out in the Atlantic Ocean;
MADEIRA ULTRA TRAIL 115 km / 7200 m
I'm miffed to say the least that i will most likely be too busy trying to navigate the Yorkshire Fells in the dark to track the outcome of this nailbiter of a UTWT race! Very similar to Transgranscanaria in its distance, elevation and terrain the 115 k course of "MIUT" is one to take seriously. It is steep, it is rugged and it is like made for last years champion Mimmi Kotka. Mimmi nearly ended her otherwise incredible race year of 2019 with a (injury induced) DNF at UTMB but determined to get her 100 mile debut out of the way she made a last minute decision to line up for the dreaded Diagonale Des Fous (or Traverse of the Fools) where she finished 6th. Kotka has a resume full to the brim of wins at gnarly 100-ish k races and if she has managed to tune her legs back to running after a winter on skis she is a definite top contender. She will have to navigate the human obstacle of Courtney Dauwalter though … it is the first time that these two runners who I think feel very similar in in terms of attitude to both racing and training face each other in competition and I can't wait to see how it plays out!
If that was not enough to tickle your tracking fingers there are plenty and i mean PLENTY of other serious mountain goats to watch out for in the battle for the crown of Madeira. Last years CCC runner up and MIUT 84 km champion Katie Schide will be there. TDS champion and second lady behind Kotka at Marathon Du Mont Blanc in 2018 Audrey Tanguy will also be ready to shred. As will Kaytlyn Gerbin who in her debut on European race soil took second at TGC and proved that she is as good on rocky euro-islands as on the switchbacks of her native America.
Others to look out for are UK's Sophie Grant who is a regular top ten frequenter in competitive races and a queen of gritting it out and norwegian runner Elisabeth Borgersen who was 7th in TDS last year and has been out on island location in both the Canaries and Madeira to prep for the race.
It all kicks off on Friday evening and this should be one to keep you busy until it's time to switch focus onto that little road race in London on Sunday. Stay very very tuned!
ULTRA TRAIL MT.FUJI 164 km /
With the reigning champion (Dauwalter) busy baggy-ing it up on Madeira the 2019 edition of UTMF should be all about last years second and third ladies Kaori Niwa and Kaori Asahara both from Japan. I don't know what the snow situation mentioned in the Mt Awa recap will mean for Fridays course but Veteran Niwa has the experience one needs for facing a brutal race like this even in the worst of weathers, she has three previous race finishes at Mt Fuji and finished 4th at UTMB in 2017 when the weather was dismal to say the least! Asahara is also a veteran not only at UTMF, she has plenty of brutal 100 mile finishers to her name. Speedy Chinese runner Fuzaho Xiang finished second at Hong Kong 100 back in the beginning of the year and it will be interesting to see how she gets on with this less runable course. She debuted on the 100 mile distance at UTMB last year where she finished 20th lady.
CANYONS 100, 100 km / 4370 m
The final golden ticket race of the year is upon us and though it is not as filled to the brim with elites as Lake Sonoma 50 I reckon that the combined legs of American sheros Darcy Piceu, Amanda Basham and Meghan Laws will give us a goodun!
Other notable races taking place this weekend are:
HIGHLAND FLING RACE 86 km
MONTSEC ULTRA TRAIL 101 km
TRAIL DES BALCONS D'AZUR 104 km
That's last weeks trails in a foil poncho wrap! Soz for the doping downer, none of that next week ... promise!