We caught up with Italian trail runner Elisa Desco to ask questions about her failed doping test in 2009 and the resistance she faced at The North Face Endurance Challenge 50-mile championship on Dec. 5 near San Francisco. The intent to publish this interview is not to suggest Elisa Desco is innocent or whether she should be allowed to compete, but merely to further the conversation about the current issues and unknowns facing trail running and ultrarunning. [Note: This story has been updated to correctly identify the name of the therapeutic cream Desco says was applied to her body as Voltaren.]
There’s a growing movement among race bureaucracies, athletes and media to call for lifetime bans for athletes who are caught using performance-enhancing drugs. It’s easy to cast off a rule-breaker as someone who disrespected the sport. Hammering a runner personally from behind a keyboard with self-righteous indignation might feel good, but there is often more than just the apparent facts of a particular case.
Any amount of false-positive tests would serve to undermine the entire system of drug testing. As such, doping-control protocols are designed to find those athletes who reach a 99.9 percent likelihood of PED use. This leaves a lot of suspicious tests unflagged and unreported—as was evident in the IAAF leaked test results which showed out of 12,000 blood tests from 5,000 athletes between 2001 and 2012, 800 tests were “highly suggestive of doping or at the very least abnormal,” but were ultimately found negative for PEDs.
Only 1 percent of worldwide samples tested are found positive. It’s with this in mind that I interviewed Elisa Desco, who failed a drug test in 2009 for EPO, served a two-year ban from the IAAF and has claimed her innocence ever since. (She has been eligible to compete since Aug. 28, 2012, when her IAAF ban ended and has competed in numerous races since then, including several high-level trail races this year.) Her entry in The North Face Endurance Challenge 50-miler in California on Dec. 5—which had a $30,000 prize purse (one of the largest in trail running), including $10,000 for the winners—forced the international ultrarunning community into a mostly productive, but sometimes vitriolic, discussion.
Ultimately, the online chatter, other media stories (including those about Lance Armstrong winning a trail race) and this interview all suggest that trail running is at a crossroads as more money and professional runners enter the sport, especially given that there are few races that test athletes and few races that have specific policies about doping or convicted dopers.
In reporting on ultrarunning’s growing need for testing, I reached out to Desco for an interview, but was unable to speak to her before that article was published on Dec. 9. After that story went live on Competitor.com, her partner, five-time world mountain running champion Marco De Gasperi, emailed me to say she’d be willing to talk. Since we don’t share a common language, the following interview was done in two parts over email. The interview is published below, edited only where necessary for optimally coherent translation.
You are an accomplished international athlete, but for our readers who might not know you, please tell us a bit of your background: Where were you born?
I [was] born in Savigliano in [the] province of Cuneo, in the northern west Italy, on the France border.
Where did you grow up?
I lived until when I was 25 with my parents and my brother in Paesana, a small village down the shadow of Monviso, a beautiful mountain, the highest of this part of the Italian Alps.
When did you start running?
I started running at the age of 12, following my father and brother who were passionate about this sport. I didn’t like it the first time, but I remember this passion grew in [a] few months and I [have] never stop[ped].
Are you a full-time athlete or do you also have another profession?
I consider myself not a professional runner, but first of all a mother. This is my profession, maybe even a housekeeper. Then, eventually, a professional runner.
When were you and Marco married?
We haven’t gotten married yet. We have lived together about eight years in our house [in] Bormio, Italy.
How many children do you have and what are their ages?
We have only one daughter, Lidia, born in 2010. She is our little angel!!
Was running always your primary sport growing up?
Yes, I can consider running the only sport I’ve done in my life. I believe I’m not so good in other sports, I’m quite bad in riding a bike or playing volley[ball] or other sports where you need some technique, generally speaking.
When did you realize that you had a certain aptitude for endurance sports, and running specifically?
When I was 16, my coach at that time told me how my skill[s] were towards the longer distances even [though] I was still young. At 20 I raced my first road half marathon in 1:18:30 without too many specific trainings because I was only a mountain runner.
Who are your main sponsors?
Scott, Compressport, Agisko and Nortec.
Which win do you consider your favorite?
Sierre Zinal 2013. [It is] one of the most iconic mountain running race in the Alps.
You won the won the 2009 World Mountain Running Championship in Campodolcino, Italy. Can you describe for us what happened after the race?
The same things [that] happen after an important victory. The incredible happiness after an unexpected victory, and the referee after the finish line [had me] sign the sheet for the anti-doping control. I remember I was the only one among the three of us tested, that the referee led me straight to the bar where the test took place.The others stayed outside with their referees for [a] longer [period of] time.
Can you take us through the drug-testing procedure?
The test is quite simple. First of all you need to fill in your dates [on] the sheet for the procedure. Then you have to choose a box with two separated glass jars. Then you take another plastic glass for the urine. When ready (I drank about 700ml of water before it), you can try to fill it up until the minimum requested (about 100ml) under the check of a doctor in the bathroom. Then, when it’s done, you can be helped by the doctor to share [the urine] in the two jars that must be closed with the special cap by you. Then [both jars are] introduced into the same box and the procedure ends with filling the sheet with the numbers impressed on the jars, the caps, and the box, which must be the same one. You must declare the medicine you took in the last few days eventually and fill in if everything in the control went OK.
Describe when you eventually heard that you failed the test?
I remember exactly that day, it was October, one month after the race in Campodolcino. I was at home, waiting for a call from the Italian federation for the details of the flight I would have had to take two days later for the IAAF World Half Marathon Championships in Birmingham (Great Britain). The mobile phone rang that early afternoon and a person at the other end told me I had failed an anti-doping test. I tested positive to a substance called CERA. I just watched the number on the mobile because I guessed someone was just kidding me, but I recognized the number was from Rome—from the Italian athletic federation! This person (from the health federation) said to me I could make a paper airplane with the air ticket to the race.
I was so shocked and immediately I called Marco. I was about 400K far away and when I reached him, he sat on the ground. We had heard about this heavy substance that summer from some cyclist scandals during the Tour de France, but we really didn’t know more about it. I felt totally empty and disoriented. I called my parents and some friends to tell them the shocking news, while Marco was driving back home and calling someone to understand better what happened. When he arrived at home, I was crying. I just had a chat with the president of my club, who didn’t believe my try to explain my incredulity and innocence in the situation! Marco’s face was disoriented. He got the information for this substance [and] I should have had to make at least an injection. I remembered, one month before the race I needed to go to the first aid at the hospital to make an injection of an antihistaminic due to a strong allergy on a leg to the Diclofenac present in a cream (Voltaren) the physiotherapist had used on my leg without asking me if I was subject to any allergies. We discovered after[ward] that antihistaminic cannot be related (or polluted, eventually) in any case to the CERA.
Have you ever used the banned substance erythropoietin?
NEVER used it, but even NEVER thought about it! I will declare my innocence until the end of my days!! The investigators (the Carabinieri in Italy) put my contacts (emails and mobile) under control for two years before and after [the test]. NOTHING was found that could be used against me to prove I got prohibited substances from anyone! I guess for heavy substances like this, some traces would have to be found—we are not talking about something you can buy in a store! Isn’t this something strange?
Have you ever used any banned substances?
NEVER in my life. This is so far away from my lifestyle and the love for my sport!
How do you explain the failed test after the 2009 Campodolcino World Championship?
I cannot say I’m guilty. I never cheated in 2009 or anytime! So, I went to all the hearings, after the positivity of the “B” sample, one month after, to say my version of the fact. There was something strange on the receipt of the box with the samples in Rome. On the sheet was written the box was damaged. Always in the report I got from the laboratory it’s written one of the samples belonged to another athlete (unknown, because there are only numbers impressed on) [and] couldn’t have been tested because the urine in the sample were not enough. This is also strange. Athlete is not allowed to get out the anti-doping test before you fill up the minimum requested! The anti-doping commission said to me this was not a problem of mine. They attacked me for the substance [that] was present (in a very huge quantity) in my urine. The scientific protocol for the CERA never fails in this case, even because they have had a double-check from another laboratory in Paris.
How did you attempt to redeem yourself and fight the charges?
It was a long fight, without any money from the start, but with the great motivation of someone who doesn’t want to accept to be killed for something [they] have never done! We found an important doctor representing the anti-doping laboratory in Firenze called Giuseppe Pieraccini. He listen[ed] to us, and accepted to try to follow-up [in] person the check on the B sample in Rome. He accept[ed] after Marco’s explanation of this case. He said he did it only because he is sure we could have nothing to do with the CERA. This is too big for us. Then we chose a good lawyer [who is an] expert in doping cases. He always told us, “please confess it before the commission could prove by some emails you are involved in this case!” We always denied obviously! We have nothing to hide and what should we confess?! We even tried to ask for a DNA test. It was so hard, long, and expensive. This could have been the only chance I had to show maybe those urines weren’t mine! I think mine was the only case of an athlete that have the chance to make it. Basically, because when in your conscience you know you are guilty inside yourself, there’s no reason to make it! Unfortunately, this test said the urines were mine, and I realized everything was finish[ed], definitely. I was against a wall, with great evidence against myself, no more money to pay the lawyer to continue a hard battle (lasting 16 months!), and the sport could convicted me with two years (but in reality more than three because they didn’t calculate the 16 months I spent self-suspended from September 2009 to February 2011 because I chose to make the DNA test!)
I [have] spoken to all my friends, and they understood I did everything possible I could! It was so hard. I passed really bad times if I think about when I was banned. I never slept, and I felt in depression. My desire to know who could have [done] this to me was strongly present every day. I had to be taken to the first aid [at] nighttime by Marco (with my little baby, of course!) because [of] some heart problems. I don’t wish to pass something like this to anyone!
Do you still believe in the testing system?
Yes, I still believe in it! I don’t believe in the persons. But I accepted to be in the Whereabouts program (test control at home) of the WADA before, and national now, plus in competitions (three times this year). Stories tell [us that] there could be athletes that use prohibited substances and can be negative at the test. But at least I hope it will never happen [to] the contrary anymore, this that happened to me! In addition, [after] talking to a doctor, I decided to build up a biologic[al] passport with blood exams in a hospital. Every month I check some specific parameters (such as reticulocytes) that can be shown as a strong defense if something like it happened in the past to me. My opinion is any federations must be pushing all their athletes to do it. It’s simple, not expensive at all, and everyone can show their test to the federation medical commission or to anyone.
Do you think the two-year ban is appropriate in general?
No, for two reasons. In my opinion there are different substances. There are the heaviest like EPO, CERA, hormone steroids … that are worth a lifetime ban for sure, in my opinion!
But, to make this, we need to be sure 100 percent [that] the athlete is guilty! I believe my case passed way too easily just for scientific evidence. But, when you don’t find from where these heavy substances came, how do you can say an athlete is 100 percent guilty? We cannot consider the corruption [that] is placed in some Federations, and interesting things have came out recently! Then there are prohibited substances (I’m not a kind of specialist, but this is what I learned from some scientists involved in the anti-doping commissions and at the head of the doping fight!) that could be considered not so strong and not able to change the improvements for long time. Of course, ANYONE who uses any drugs can be considered as a cheat, but I think there are these big differences and for these I think [a] lifetime ban is too much.
Do you think it was appropriate in your case specifically?
Well, as I told you, if I would have to consider my case, I would have to say what happened is something crazy. If one day the truth will come out and we will discover this was somebody’s incredible mistake or worse, someone who wanted to just cut me out for some unknown reasons, who will give me back my years, and all my life I spent with horrible times swimming in this shit?! What has happened to me [in the] last week before the TNF was so bad. I came back to my nightmares, and this has destroyed me again inside! I accept people can have an idea about me. They can think I’m a cheat. But I paid my time, and the rules (not mine, the international rules), say I can run again. I want to be tested anytime if it’s possible! But I have the right to run. If the rules are not good for some people, they can ask for a change. But using it against me wasn’t fair! It would have been [a] better fight to have the anti-doping test at the end of the TNF than try to force me out of the race instead.
When you said you still believe in the testing procedures, but “I don’t believe in the persons,” who specifically do you mean. The doping-control agents or someone else?
I think generally the agents and doctors are very professionals and I fully trust them and their work! On the other hand, I’m very scared for those people who are politically involved in sport and, as recently happened, after investigations have been discovered acts of corruption.
You mentioned being treated unfairly at The North Face 50. Who treated you unfairly and what exactly happened?
Well, my trip started really bad, with a strong stomach virus that bent me the night before the flight and during the over 20 hours to get there. I could not eat or drink for two days, and my first days in San Francisco I felt totally empty… then, it was not easy reading in those days my name everywhere on the social [media], where most of the people wanted me pulled out from the race!
I’m not really a big fan of social [media] or the U.S. media, basically because I don’t speak English. But day by day, it started to appear on my timeline some articles with my face connected to the word “doping.” It was shocking and it has hurt me. Then I watched the loads of comments against me, and I even started to get some private messages that invite me to stay out, because I’m a cheat and nobody could accept me at the start! This never happened to me before, I was really afraid to get attacked during the race! It was such a nightmare for me, for sure this wasn’t fair, because I believe to have fully (served my time). I felt worse about this issue than I did about the stomach bug.
I discussed it for a long time with Marco, who was not sure he would allow me to race (for security purposes). Then, the few (but really good) American friends we have, cheered me up (and encouraged me) to start and try to not listen those bad voices. I think if I wouldn’t have given myself a chance, it would have been again another injustice otherwise: the World Anti-Doping Agency is the only organization that can judge and commit sentences. The rules aren’t written by me, and people can’t change them after only because they don’t like them.
Is this why you dropped out of the race?
Honestly, the virus problem, plus the stress I got, didn’t put me in the best condition to run 50 miles (my first ultra) so easily. I couldn’t eat and drink nearly anything, because after few miles I felt sick. At the first lights of the day, my situation got worse and worse. My legs weren’t too bad, but the stomach was so bad. Plus, for the reason I couldn’t drink or eat, my energy went down just after the (26-mile mark).
There were allegations after the race that people saw Marco “muling” for you on the course, but that is spelled out in the rules as illegal. Did he carry anything for you outside of the aid stations? [De Gasperi, 38, was officially entered in the 50-mile championship race and ran near Desco. They recorded similar splits through the 8.7-mile mark—1:07:11 for De Gasperi and 1:07:14 for Desco—but both runners dropped before they reached the next official split at the 44-mile mark.]
We read about this, and I am sure I can’t stop their thought that Marco helped me in the race, pacing my run or carrying water, for the fact he followed my run from close.
Do you think Marco came to the TNF 50 in San Francisco to help me? For those who don’t know him, he’s a professional runner, and even if he has never run an ultra before, he’s capable to fight for a victory! He was so kind to sacrifice his run for me, when I decided to start, he wanted to be sure that nobody made me any kind of problem after those messages I got. This was my first time in the U.S. I don’t speak any English, and many people promised I would have problems if I would race. Do you think I was in the best condition to run alone? We were under a microscope for sure, but those people didn’t understand my fear in the race was due to this not really warm intentions! Of course, for them all of us started at the same level, it was not, try to live what I lived, first! Plus, with my stomach problems, I had to walk from the 50K to 55K when I dropped. If I were alone I would never find a way to get out of the course and go back to the finish. Thanks to Marco and the car we stopped on the road, those guys were so generous to drive us to the finish!
My final thought is races like The North Face Endurance Challenge need to have the anti-doping tests, at least for the podium finishers. The few money for this it’s only an excuse, because it’s enough to cut some prices and eventually add 5 dollars at the entry fee of anyone to find more money. But maybe it’s easier to pull me out from the race and let people run that you never know if they run clean.