How Does the Whereabouts System Work for a Professional Athlete? We Asked Jenny Simpson to Explain It

By Jonathan Gault
September 6, 2019

When most young athletes envision the life of a professional runner, they think of traveling around the world for races, wearing their national team’s colors across their chest, and, if they’re lucky, standing atop a podium as their national anthem plays. Few of them dream of being awoken at 6:30 in the morning by a doping control officer who takes a blood sample and then looks directly at your private parts as you pee. But that decidedly unsexy scenario is as much a part of the pro running lifestyle as hill repeats and ice baths.

If you’ve been following the Christian Coleman saga over the last two weeks, you’ve probably become inundated with phrases like “whereabouts,” “filing failure,” and “60-minute window.” Some of this stuff may be new for the casual fan, but it’s familiar language for the seasoned professional athlete. So to get a better understanding, reached out to Jenny Simpson — three-time World Championship medalist, 2016 Olympic medalist, 2011 world champion — who guided us through her responsibilities as an athlete and the steps she has to take to get tested.

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Into the pool

Simpson made her 10th US team this year and will run the 1500 at Worlds in Doha (Jay Bendlin photo)

Your ability as an athlete dictates how frequently you are tested out of competition. If you’re good enough, you get an email from the IAAF or USADA letting you know that you’ve been placed into a testing pool, which means you’re tested more frequently and have to provide more information in order to be located for out-of-competition tests. Simpson is in two such pools: the IAAF Registered Testing Pool and the USADA Registered Testing Pool (all athletes in the IAAF pool are automatically placed in the USADA pool, which also contains additional American track & field athletes). USADA has a second pool, with less stringent requirements, for lower-tier athletes known as the Clean Athlete Program (CAP).

In both the IAAF and USADA Registered Testing Pools, athletes are required to file whereabouts information. USADA requires athletes to submit their whereabouts information in three-month increments; the deadline is the 15th of the month before that quarter begins. So September 15 is the deadline for Simpson to submit her whereabouts information for October, November, and December.

To submit that information, Simpson visits the USADA website and logs into a program called Athlete Express. From there, she has the opportunity to fill in whereabouts information for every day of the upcoming quarter (USADA shares this information with the IAAF, so American athletes don’t have to file the same information twice). The main requirements for each day: her overnight location, training location and practice time, and, most importantly, a 60-minute window with a specific location, during which time she must be available for testing. Simpson can provide more detailed information if she wants; if not, when testers want to find her outside of her 60-minute window and practice time, they’ll default to her house as the testing location (CAP athletes must only provide a typical overnight and training location twice a year; they don’t have to update their schedule daily or provide a daily 60-minute window and are not subject to whereabouts failures).

Fortunately, Simpson doesn’t have to repeat this task individually for all 90 or so days of a quarter — she can set default locations for the entire period. Her 60-minute window is typically 6-7 a.m., at her house. This is the most basic hurdle athletes must clear: get your whereabouts information in by the 15th of the month to avoid a filing failure.

Of course, plans can change. Which is why USADA sends Simpson an email at the start of every week reminding her of the locations she listed for that week. If Simpson realizes the information is out of date, she doesn’t need to log back into Athlete Express; all she needs to do is send an email to a USADA account providing the new locations and 60-minute windows.

“It sounds really tedious, but when you live this life, it’s not that inconvenient,” Simpson says. “Unless you’re living this really wild life where your plans are totally spur-of-the-moment, you should kind of know where you’re spending the night.”

“They want to find you”

Simpson said that, in general, the testers (also known as doping control officers or DCOs) that she has dealt with during her career have been extremely accommodating. Not long ago, Simpson went to the US Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, two hours south of her home in Boulder, to receive treatment for an injury. She wound up spending the night in Colorado Springs. As a general rule, Simpson updates her whereabouts form whenever she is traveling somewhere over an hour from her house. But on this night, she forgot. The following morning, the testers — for her, it’s usually one man and one woman — showed up at her house in Boulder.

Simpson will go for her 8th Fifth Avenue Mile title in New York on Sunday

Simpson says she doesn’t recall whether the testers showed up during the 60-minute window or after it, but once they called her and she explained the situation, they were willing to meet her in Denver to perform the test. Another time, the testers showed up at Simpson’s house right after a hard workout, and she could not produce a urine sample. Simpson was hosting a dinner in downtown Boulder that night. Rather than force her to cancel, the testers came with her to the dinner, hanging in the background discreetly until she was ready to go to the bathroom.

“They will go above and beyond to say, ‘if you make an effort to be here for this test, we want to help you get it done,'” Simpson says.

And while Simpson said that testers are willing to work with athletes — “they want to find you” — she believes the athlete must also share responsibility.

She recalled a story about former training partner Emma Coburn, who once had to leave in the middle of shopping for a wedding dress in order to get tested.

Hustle, get your ass over there and get tested!” Simpson says. “It’s part of your job.”

Typically, Simpson says, she’ll be tested at least once a quarter within her 60-minute window, though occasionally a tester will show up shortly afterwards.

“A lot of times they’ll come at like 7:05 and truthfully, I don’t know if that’s because they test a lot of people in Boulder and I’m just kind of on a list of people they’re trying to get there that morning and they got there a little bit later, or if it’s because they waited until 7:05 to ring my doorbell.”

She also says that, roughly twice a year, she’ll be tested in the evening; athletes can be tested at any time, even outside of their 60-minute window.

“I did have a DCO tell me once, they look at your schedule and they try to come when they think they can find you. They don’t try to come when you’re gonna be hard to find. I’ve been tested a lot and over a long period of time, and I’ve only had people come to my house and come to training, because that’s where I’m the most regular and easy to find.”

“If you miss three tests, it’s either because you’re cheating or because you’re an idiot”

Simpson says that when she heard that Coleman was being charged by USADA for three whereabouts failures in 12 months, she was very surprised (USADA has since dropped the charge after one of the failures was backdated to before the 12-month window).

“It is very hard to miss three tests,” Simpson says. “Especially because your concern and your vigilance in filling out your whereabouts changes when you’ve missed two tests. My personal point of view is, after years and years of years of doing this, you can miss a test, and that can be totally innocent and that can be totally understood…You have an opportunity to explain yourself every single time you miss a test. So things happen, that’s fine. But when you’ve missed two, and you know 12 months is coming up, you get very, very, very diligent. Or you should.”

Simpson, 33, said that during her lengthy career — she made her first Worlds team in 2007 — she has received just one whereabouts failure.

Not long after this moment, Simpson registered the one and only whereabouts failure of her career

“I missed a test in 2011 because I didn’t report in my whereabouts that I was racing at the World Championships. It was supposed to take place two days after I won the gold medal. They came to my house and I was in South Korea. That was the first time ever that I had made a mistake like that and experienced getting an email saying you have a missed test. So I was freaking out.”

That’s why the Coleman news came as such a shock to her.

“This whole idea of, Oh, I accidentally missed three tests — I haven’t missed three tests in my entire career…I don’t know how in the world you can be so irresponsible to miss three in 12 months…If you miss three tests, it’s either because you’re cheating or because you’re an idiot and under both circumstances, you shouldn’t be able to compete.”

Of course, because they came outside of the daily 60-minute window, two of Coleman’s three whereabouts failures were actually filing failures, not missed tests, which is why he was able to able to escape a ban.

Burden or responsibility?

Per Alan Abrahamson, Coleman has been tested 18 times so far in 2019 (he has passed every one of them). That is an average of once every two weeks, and Simpson does not view that as excessive (Simpson, per USADA’s website, has been tested eight times by USADA so far in 2019).

“It bugs me so much, honestly, when people say, oh, I’ve been tested 18 times this year,” Simpson says (she was not referring specifically to Coleman when she made this comment). “Well, probably 12 of those were at a competition. You shouldn’t count that. Count it as a test, but that’s not like, oh, I showed up and was available 18 times. Well, it’s pretty hard to not show up when you just crossed the finish line.”

In most lines of work, being forced to tell some agency where you will be and what you’ll be doing 365 days a year would be viewed as a gross invasion of privacy. But it’s a requirement if you want to be one of the best runners in the world. And Simpson, for one, is happy to do it.

“I think that there’s this perception that drug testing is this huge burden that really inconveniences people’s lives,” Simpson says. “And I think that that can be true of some American athletes. But there are places in the world that aren’t tested at all, right? And so they’re not overly burdened by testing, because testers can’t reach them. And then there’s athletes that travel around the world to places that are hard to test. And so I say, when you’re in the United States, if you’re a clean athlete, it should be a pleasure to be part of a system that is making an effort.”

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