The Dope on Mt. Washington

For the first time, this iconic road race up Mt. Washington will be drug testing

competitors. Here’s why.

On June 16, more than 1,300 runners will gather at the base of the Mt. Washington Toll Road to run the 7.6 miles to the top, gaining nearly a mile of elevation (4,727 feet, to be exact) over an average 12 percent grade. It’s a route that has challenged runners since 1904 when George Foster, a medical student, ran it in 1 hour, 42 minutes. Thirty-two years later, a race was organized in Foster’s honor with 12 entrants. And other than a three-year hiatus, the race has been run continuously ever since.

But this year, entrants who won the lottery will have a new challenge to face: at the top, they may have to pee in a cup. For the first time, the race, a local favorite for New England’s amateur runners, will drug test. “It’s not that we think we have a problem now” says John Stifler, the race communications director, “but we don’t want to have one.”

As the race has grown in popularity, it has instituted a policy of not allowing anyone who has previously tested positive in any race to compete. “About 12 years ago, Ethiopian runner Alene Reta asked if he could compete,” Stifler recalls. Reta had been suspended from racing in 2002 when he tested positive for nandrolene, the steroid baseball player Roger Clemens was caught using. The Mt. Washington Auto Road race denied Reta entry.

In 2010, Reta’s sister Shewarge Alena Amare, then 21, asked to race. The Ethiopian woman had no history of performance-enhancing drugs and was accepted. She set the course record, which still stands, at 1:08:21. The only woman to come close to that is Colorado’s Kim Dobson who ran it in 1:09:25. In 2012. Jonathan Wyatt of Wellington, New Zealand, set the men’s record in 2002 at 56:41.

Kasie Enman of Huntington, Vt., has finished second at Mt. Washington twice and is entered in the 2018 race. The former Women’s World Mountain Running champion (she also finished second in 2017) is happy to see the move toward testing, “There is a perception out there about some MUT races that testing isn’t as stringent, that the door is a little bit open for cheating athletes who want to sneak under the radar,” she said in a statement published in The Conway Daily Sun, referring to the category of mountain, ultra and trail (MUT) races. “It’s important that we remove that perception and ensure a fair race for all the clean athletes in our sport. Thanks to Mount Washington Road Race for taking this important step. I’ll be proud to toe the starting line there this June.”

Though the prize money for the 2018 Northeast Delta Dental Mt. Washington Road Race is meager by professional running standards ($1,000, $600 and $400 go to the top three men and women), the race has an iconic status and has spawned a number of other mountain runs in Vermont.

“We modeled Stowe’s Northeast Delta Dental Race to the Top of Vermont after Mt. Washington,” says Catamount Trail Association’s communications director Greg Maino. Both that race and the North Face Race to the Summit in Stratton have corporate sponsorship and prize money  and have attracted elite athletes. Olympic mountain bike silver medalist Lea Davison holds the women’s biking record for the Mt. Mansfield race and three-time Olympic Nordic skier Liz Stephen, the record for the run. However, neither of those races have considered drug testing. Meanwhile, Mt. Washington’s sister race, the Mt. Washington Auto Road Bicycle Hill Climb has yet to announce if it will drug test. “And that’s despite the fact that drugs have been prevalent in cycling,” says Stifler.

The current record holder for the bike race is former Tour de France rider Tom Danielson. Danielson set the record for the Mt. Washington bike race in 2002 at 49 minutes, 24 seconds. Tyler Hamilton also set a record in 2006 but both he and women’s record holder Genevieve Jensen were stripped of their titles after admitting to doping. In 2016, Tom Danielson was also banned from cycling for four years after failing a drug test for the second time. 

The arrival of a drug test may introduce a new era to regional mountain races and recalibrate what records will stand. But a Mt. Washington Road race record that is undisputed is the one set by George Etzweiler of State College, Pennsylvania.

Etzweiler holds the record for men age 85-90 (which he set in 2005 at 2:33:30) and for men age 90-94 (2:48:25 ) and for men age 95-99 (3:28:41). In 2017, at age 97, he also set the record for the oldest competitor ever, a record he may try to break this June. Etzweiler, who never ran a mile before he was 49, ran his first race up the mountain in 1989 at age 69 and has raced with both his son, Larry (now 72) and grandson Robert, now 42.

His secret to speed? He became a vegetarian five years ago. 

George Etzweiler, running strong in 2017 at 97. Photo by Joe Viger Photography.

14 More Epic Mountain Runs

In the past few years Vermont has seen an explosion of new mountain races such as the Under Armour Mountain Running Series in Killington, Stratton’s 29029 challenge (race up Stratton Mountain 17 times, accumulating the equivalent elevation gain of running 29,029 feet up Mt. Everest) and Mad River Glen’s Sky Race up General Stark Mountain. This summer, more new races are coming online. Bolton Valley’s Enough is Enough challenges teams or individuals to see how many laps they can run up to the summit. Ragnar, a two-day mountain running festival, sends teams of 4 or 8 to run ultra distances around Mt. Ascutney over two days. And the Red Line Scramble, a grueling one-mile race up the ski slopes under the Red Line chair, launches at Magic Mountain in Londonderry. If you want the full line-up of mountain runs for the summer, here’s your agenda. For more details, see Calendar, page 27.   

June 23: Catamount Ultra, Trapp Family Lodge, Stowe: 25K and 50K race on trails.

July 7: Enough is Enough Recovery Run, Bolton Valley Resort: 3-, 6- or 12-hours to run laps to the summit.

July 27: Red Line Scramble, Magic Mountain: A mile uphill race with 1,500 vertical feet.

July 29: Mansfield Double Up, Stowe: 11-mile endurance run that climbs 5,500 feet.

Aug. 3-4 Ragnar, Ascutney, teams of 8 (or 4 ultra-runners) set up camp and compete doing loops of three trail courses up Mt. Ascutney over two days.

Aug. 10-11: Mountain Race & Vertical Challenge, Smuggler’s Notch: a 25K and a vertical 1K.

Aug. 25-26: Under Armour Mountain Running Series, Killington, 5K to 50K.

Aug. 26:  Sky Race, Mad River Glen: A 5K or 10K run to the summit hosted by The Endurance Society. 

Aug. 26:  Race to the Top of Vermont, Stowe: A run or a bike up the 4.3-mile Toll Road to the top of Mt. Mansfield’s ridgeline.

Sept. 1-2: Jay Peak Trail Festival, Jay Peak:  5K runs up to a 53.1 K with three 11-mile loops.

Oct. 13: Circumburke, Burke: A trail or bike marathon around Burke Mountain.

Oct. 7: North Face Race to the Top, Stratton: Run 2.1 miles up Stratton Mountain.

Oct. 11-14:  29029, Stratton: Run 17 laps up Stratton, to the height of Mt. Everest.

Oct. 13: Trapp Mountain Marathon, Stowe, a marathon or half marathon.