High on Iditarod



The Nome finish line of The Last Great Race/Wikimedia commons

Update: This story has been updated with Iditarod doping protocols.


Someone among the top-20 finishers in this year’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race found a way to perk their dogs up on the way to the Nome finish line, the Iditarod Trail Committee revealed today, but it’s still not saying who.

A press release posted on the race’s website revealed a doping allegation that has rocked the race involves Tramadol, a synthetic, opioid-like pain killer known for creating a sense of euphoria in people.

Details on how exactly the drug affects the mood of dogs are nowhere to be found, but it sounds like a good bet to improve the chance the animals arrive at the finish line of the 1,000-mile Last Great Race with their tails and up and looking perky.

Today’s press release reiterated that “several  dogs from a single musher’s team” tested positive, and added that “based on the test results, it was estimated that the drug could have been administered somewhere between 15 hours prior to, and up until the time the team was tested in Nome.

“Urine samples were collected from the team for testing six hours after finishing the race.”

Tramadol can be given orally in either liquid or pill form or injected. The 15-hour time frame would indicate the drugs had to be administered in White Mountain, the penultimate checkpoint where mushers and teams must complete a mandatory 8-hour rest before heading for Nome, or somewhere along the trail on the way to the finish.

Most teams take 8- to 12-hours to cover this last 80 miles of trail.

Where to dope?

Between White Mountain and Nome, mushers stop only at the Safety Roadhouse checkpoint. Most teams only spend a few moments there before continuing on, and those moments are spent in the wide-open, white expanses in front of roadhouse. It would be an incredibly hard place to slip drugs to dogs unnoticed.

Zoya DeNure from Paxson did camp out for more than 7 hours at Safety this year, but it took her about 17 hours to go from White Mountain to Nome. That puts her outside of the 15-hour window and clearly establishes her as one of the few mushers who cannot be considered a suspect in the public eye.

But more than that, all of the mushers outside of the Iditarod top-20 can be ruled out because of Iditarod doping protocols. All teams in the race are sampled at the start of the race and randomly along the trail.

But only the top-20 teams are tested in Nome. Urine samples are typically taken from four to six dogs per team The guilty party could be anyone in the top-20, but some more than others have a motive to dope on the stretch run into Nome.

Race rules requires that mushers must have six dogs in harness at the finish. Given the number of dog mushers drop because of fatigue or minor injuries along the trail, some mushers are very close to the limit by the end of the race.

Dallas Seavey of Willow, the son of defending champ Mitch Seavey of Sterling, notched his fourth win in 2016 with only six dogs in harness. Five teams were close to that limit by Safety this year.

Dallas, who was chasing his father to the finish, was down to seven dogs, and Norwegian Joar Leifseth Ulsom, Paul Gebhardt from Kasilof, and Katherine Keith and her Kotzebue companion, former champ John Baker, were all down to eight dogs. 

Most of them are innocent, but Iditarod has put them all in a tough spot with its failure to identify the musher whose team tested positive not for one dog but for several.

Iditarod says it has taken this position because it can’t prove the dog food of the musher with the doping positive wasn’t spiked. So instead of naming the individual with doped dogs, it is changing its drug rule to conform with those in most other sports which presume a competitor guilty if caught doping or with doped animals.

Mushers don’t much like the idea that if another doping case should occur the guilty party will be required to show they didn’t dope, or at least show how they might have been sabotaged. But the alternative is to let dopers escape responsibility for doping.

The Iditarod press release did clear defending race champion Mitch Seavey of suspicions the case might involve his use of methyl salicylate. Mitch, a three-time champ, has publicly promoted the use of a wintergreen oil on his dogs. Wintergreen contains salicylate, a prohibited drug, and has created problems for competitors in equine sports.

Indications are that salicylate has been detected in Iditarod dogs in the past, but in such low concentrations it was judged insignificant and nothing was done. The Iditarod has remained silent on that subject.

And on the far bigger question of doping with Tramadol, Iditarod spokesman Chas St. George continued to remain unavailable for comment and failed to return phone calls.


27 replies »

  1. Do the dogs stand for the national anthem? No sitting or laying down should be the protocol. Barking (singing along) is OK.

    • Chris,
      I feel you 100% on this one….starts to look like “concentration camps for K9’s”…very communist to me, not American as many of these mushers are foreign nationals… .50 to 100 dogs spinning in circles on chains at an Iditarod dog lot does not appear the best way to treat “man’s best friend”….and then they have the pressure on the trail….no time to stop and take in the scenery or play with fellow dogs….no, run till you drop dead is the mantra that they were born into as an Iditarod husky.

  2. If the drug was administered after the conclusion of their race then this is understandable, but the protocol is to test the top twenty finishers.
    The ITC might think we’re pretty stupid, but this isn’t a good selling point for national sponsors.
    Considering the last great race has two years worth of rookies that have not crossed the Alaska Range in competition, wouldn’t it be easier to just disqualify the offender for life to get the point across.

  3. Question-is the musher present when urine samples are collected? Seems like they would be off eating, showering and sleeping. Would a handler know if samples had been collected? 6 hours after seems like a long time to me. Could a handler assume that samples had been collected and give the dogs tramadol? I have a hound that slipped a disc, and she has a script for tramadol. I don’t usually use it, as it seems to make her dopey and lethargic.

    • those questions as to dog lot protocols in Nome have all been asked, Candice, but have yet to be answered. anything is possible. the question about injured dogs at the finish has also been asked. if they, like your dog, have an injury, one could assume they can be turned over to the vets for treatment in Nome, but i’m not assuming anything. thus, the wait for answers on Nome dog lot protocols. Tramadol does appear to make some dogs dopey and lethargic. it does not appear to make all dogs dopey and lethargic. the AKC says this: “In addition, tramadol inhibits the reuptake of norepinephrine and serotonin in the dog’s brain, which increases the level of these chemicals in the bloodstream, and creates that feeling of euphoria and well-being that human patients sometimes experience.” emphasis mine. given what appear to be differing reactions to the drug from different dogs, if this was me doping, i certainly wouldn’t want to be experimenting with tramadol on the way to the Iditarod finish line, but if i knew i was going to get the effects just mentioned…. yeah, welcome to the world of drugs and sports. anything is possible. i know humans who’ve put all kinds of crazy shit in their bodies to enhance performance. i’m frankly surprised we haven’t had a public issue with doping in Iditarod before this. and i have to doubt that it would be an issue today if this happened post-race and some handler came forward to say, “oh geez, i gave the dogs some Tramadol in the dog lot in Nome because they were uncomfortable. i thought they’d already peed.” i’m pretty confident that sort of case would have been handled behind the scenes at Iditarod as i now understand other drug-related issues (sub-threshold positives for hormones in meat and saliscylate) have been handled. that this didn’t happen would lead to Mitch Seavey suggesting possible “sabotage,” ie. someone slipping tramadol into dishes in the Nome dog lot to get a team DQed. is that possible?

  4. Seems like in the big picture, this is another issue that should hopefully cause the ITC to worry about “momentum”, and the survival of the Iditarod. With pro sports (football, baseball, basketball), the inevitable scandals, mismanagement issues and crises soon blow over because of the size of the sports enterprise. The momentum of these pro sports keeps the game going despite the side shows. The Iditarod these days doesn’t have such momentum. The Iditarod is becoming a “fragile” sport due to falling sponsorships, a decreased purse, pressure from animal rights groups and the rampant flip-flopping of race rules: 2 way communications illegal one year, not the next, surprise race re-start locations, sled trailers legal one year, not the next, doping rules that are nebulous and ineffective, etc. Most people want to see the Iditarod survive. But if the ITC continues to rule by knee-jerk, illogical and ambiguous rules, less people will care about running or watching the Iditarod. Their mismanagement will cause the Iditarod to lose the last of its momentum, and the race will die.

  5. Mitch and Dallas Seavey are about the only two mushers for whom the ITC would go to such ridiculous lengths to protect (and who have more money to spend on lawyers then the ITC does to defend its own policies). And if it wasn’t one of them, they would both be screaming bloody murder to the media about sportsmanship and the integrity of the competition.

    But even if it turns out neither Mitch nor Dallas are implicated in the Tramadol scandal, they still have both detailed extensively their experimentation with various prohibited and unregulated suppliments on their dogs, and they are certainly leading the pack in terms of Iditarod’s larger problems.

    Portions of “Sled Dogs” were filmed at Mitch Seavey’s kennel and the dogs filmed throughout the 2016 Iditarod — including one covered with bloody diarrhea and another unable to even stand — were Mitch Seavey’s dogs from his slowest team in the race. It’s not hard to read between the lines as to what the dogs on the fastest Seavey teams are being put through to keep a pace exceeding 100 miles a day.

    Off the race course, the Seaveys are operating full blown Iditarod dog farms. The film shows row after row of Mitch’s dogs short chained to plastic barrels and being fed from a bucket of slop. In his own book about mushing, Mitch details the many phases of breeding, beating, and culling the dogs, and how to push the survivors well beyond their psychological and physiological limits. When a Seavey dog fails to earn its keep, it is taken out back and shot in the head.

    And for what?

  6. i think the fact that the itc by not just being direct and transparent, naming musher, naming drug, letting them defend themselves, gave people the space to bark up the young living oil tree is ridiculous. looks like a pr mess which gets worse every day, and which should have been handled much different. maybe time for chas to move on.

    • Why is it ridiculous? Though less severe than Tramadol, he’s using a prohibited substance which can have performance-enhancing effects. Why does that not matter?

      • the reason i think its ridiculous–> I think it just creates to much space for speculation when the race org does press releases that are not specific, and also i compare the young living oils to things like algvyal and tea tree oil and anti inflammatory linemeants that lots of mushers use and dont think its something that should have be blowing whistles for dopin. mitch and his wife are health concsious, i seen him eating granola yogurt on the trail and drinking tea, hardly things most mushers choose for cusine. this extends into brand relationship with something like young living oils: i just think there are other issues in terms of the sport and its development that are more significant. and I definitly would hesitate considering that qualified as a dog doping issue. but jessie royer seems to be using the young living oils too and had a great race this year so maybe there is something special about that stuff , i dont pretend to be an expert. i did point out prior to the tramadol thing that i thought if its the young living oils thing its a little preposterous.

        my conclusion: if there was an issue they should just name the person and move on.

        It really gets into the realm of tho: is there an objective drug testing program going with the race? or an objective anything. or consistency on anything? are you going to trust itc to do drug test objectgively? looks like they found something than proceeded to cover it up. its been said a million times, but u got race officials in bed and in business with mushers, and mushers and their families in bed and in business with race officials. @onedogclass has much more information on this, if anyone cares for details. but its , like others mentioned. really problematic in terms of how it shapes community and competition over time.

        Look at something , comparably like crossfit games. a much bigger sporting event than iditarod. their organization tests their athletes for drugs, but they are also very much in business with athletes. they, like iditarod. are not going to turn in their top stars for doping even if they are caught doping. i promise u that.

        now go look at the olympics. or lance armstrong. u get the picture.

        i would hate to guess which team, cuz it could be anyone. katherine keith? background in sports with doping issues? dallas? a reddington (itc would protect them no matter what)?…. ken anderson(since he is bowin out of competition after this years race)? a foreigner? but regardless. i would almost think legally iditarod would have to disclose this. and in terms of suggetion that the dogs could have got on some drugs after the race, well if thats as simple as it is, than i think its just something that should be disclosed etc.

        is it possible like mitch suggests that someone else doped the dogs. yeah definitly. and maybe someone had good intentions. not bad. like a handler or vet post race. but if thats the line of thought, and defense for the accused musher and their team. than why the lack of transparency and why dont are they (specific musher) not just saying this. it makes it look like its dallas and mitch is defending him.

        i wouldnt trust the race organization on anything tho. and thats whats really troublesome. if theres an enemy of that race, its the ITC.

      • John: a timeline that pushes the administration of the tramadol out to 15 hours pre-test makes the post-finish drugging argument hard to buy. tramadol drops out of the system faster than caffeine. if, as is now being reported, Mark Nordman told “Musher X” that he was going to be let off on this infraction, one has to believe the levels detected were very, very low. that would dismiss the idea of a handler giving the dogs drugs to make it easier for them to rest after the finish. it doesn’t rule out sabotage, but it would mean we likely had the budget saboteur roaming Nome giving out little bits of tramadol pills to dogs.

  7. Tramadol is a controlled prescription medication.
    Either someone is miss-using their prescription or giving their dogs prescription medication they bought illegally.

    just saying

    • in response to craig: i was readin in guardian etc that the dogs were tested six hours after they finished. in that six hour window could not have someone else administered dosage of tramadol to dogs? I have no idea, the lack of clarity is a big problem for ITC. i think the finishers club should just demand that ITC be transparent. a burmeisters suggestion in that article that the musher shuold come forward is crazy, why cant the race enforce their rules? ipod and your gone, drugs and was there intent? come on.

      • on that, John, i guess we have to take them at their word, although “Iditarod tries to frame Invisible Musher” would make a hell of a headline for a story!

      • craig: with the amount of discourse and friction behind top teams over things like crating dogs, or any number of other things. the last decade. i think it wouldnt be out of the realm of possibility for itc to cast shade in a reactive way at a musher, or people within the organization. remember it was just last summer dallass and others had a petition re the rules in terms of crating and resting dogs while others run. which the itc rejected.

  8. Am I reading this right? The drug could have been given after the race was over? Could the musher be concerned his or her dogs were in pain and not taking enough food or water to recover from running a thousand miles?

    • certainly a possibility as i read it, but the dogs are vet checked at the finish line, and it would be easy enough to “drop” a dog that was in pain there and let the vets take care of any significant issue. plus it would be beyond stupid given that everyone in the top-20 knows their dogs are going to be tested at the finish. who their right mind is going to give a bunch of dogs a prohibited drug just before it is known they are going to be tested? now, if someone other than the musher took over the job of feeding and watering at the finish, which is certainly a possibility, the chances for Mitch Seavey’s argued “sabotage” do increase. but if it’s sabotage, the Iditarod has a bigger problem than just doping, and the race ought to be deep into a Nome investigation right now.

  9. I have Zero issue with the use of the Wintergreen oils as it helps the dogs on a topical level and doesn’t get into their blood to affect them internally one way or the other. Still, why even ban it then Knowingly allow Mitch Seavey to endorse & use it for 3 straight races? As far as this Tramadol goes, we are looking for a musher who was likely down to 8 dogs or less and who Believed this drug would give him the Best chance to get to Nome the fastest. Who has the most to gain at that point?

    • that is the question, isn’t it? what good are rules if they aren’t enforced? if Mitch can use Wintergreen and thus break the rule on methyl saliscylate without anyone saying anything, what rules can other top mushers ignore? this raises a lot of troubling questions.

  10. Why did you single Zoya out? It doesn’t seem fair to her, though your article clears Mitch Seavey, what about the other mushers? (and in that context why doesn’t the ITC acknowledge the musher?

    • i singled her out to clear her. a bunch more are cleared in the update. only the top-20 teams get tested in Nome, which is what i thought when writing the original story but i didn’t want to report that until confirmed. so i cleared the one musher i could. 40 or so others can now be considered in the clear.

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