Urine science

Happy to Rest

One of Alaska’s top canine athletes/Andrea Pokrzywinski, Wikimedia commons

News analysis

Do the dominate mushers in Alaska’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race know more about the 1,000-mile, ultramarathon’s first, high-profile, sled-dog doping case than has been publicly revealed?

The question has to be asked given a post that appeared on the Facebook page of Seavey’s Ididaride Sled Dog Tours on Tuesday reporting “high levels” of drugs in the dogs at the finish. The post was in reaction to an Iditarod press release that earlier revealed the drug discovered in several doped dogs at Nome was tramadol, a synthetic opiod.

Ididaride is owned by defending and three-time Iditarod champ Mitch Seavey of Sterling. He is the father of four-time champ Dallas Seavey of Willow. Collectively, the two Seaveys have won the last six Iditarods.

“According to the (Iditarod) press release the high levels of Tamadol (sic) detected would have had to be given at the last checkpoint or after the finish,” the Seavey Ididaride post said.

Iditarod has not, however, publicly revealed the level of tramadol – high or low – detected in the urine of a single team that contained  several doped dogs. has been playing e-mail tag with Iditarod officials all week trying to obtain that information.

What a five-paragraph Iditarod press release said was that the tramadol could have been administered in a time period anywhere from 15 hours before the test to seconds before.

Words matter

Here is the press release in it entirety:

“Wasilla, Alaska – The following is additional information related to the Iditarod Trail Committee (ITC) press release distributed Oct. 9, regarding the update to Rule 39 resulting from several dogs from a single musher’s team testing positive for a prohibited drug.

“The prohibited drug found in the dogs was Tramadol. Tramadol is an analgesic that can help control moderate to severe pain. It is listed as a Class IV Opioid drug.

“Based on the test results, it was estimated that the drug could have been administered somewhere between fifteen hours prior to, and up until the time the team was tested in Nome. (emphasis added)

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

“Again, in consultation with legal counsel, the ITC Board of Directors determined that the ITC  would likely not be able to prove intent.”

The press release makes no sense in that it ignores the normal, bio-chemical breakdown of drugs. For example, if a musher gave a dog a 50 milligram tramadol pill (a standard size) at White Mountain, the penultimate Iditarod checkpoint, and the dog was tested 15 hours later in Nome, the quantity of tramadol metabolites found in the urine would be relatively low.

On the other hand, if the same pill was given just before the test in Nome, the urine levels would be  high. Given this simple, bio-chemical reality, how the Iditarod arrived at a time frame for ingestion ranging from 15-hours to near-zero-hours is unclear.

Confusing explanation

Race veterinarian Stu Nelson emailed this explanation via Iditarod spokesman Chas St. George:

“The fifteen-hour window is based upon the potential for Tramadol to be detected in the urine.  Our drug testing program utilizes urine samples.

“(Blood) serum samples are more precise in estimating time of administration,  if detected, but urine samples are more effective in identifying any presence of medications and their metabolites, as they will be detectable in the urine substantially longer, even up to several days, than in the serum.  Thus, in this case, depending on the amount of Tramadol that was administered, when it was administered and the rate of urine production, up to fifteen hours prior to urine (collection) was a reasonable estimate for the range of potential times of administration.”

Nelson left a lot of variables in that answer: 1.) the amount of tramadol the testers believe was administered; 2.) the rate of urine production calculated for the dogs; and 3.) the rate of drug degradation.

Consider what happens with the well-studied cup of coffee and the operative drug caffeine.

“The easiest way to determine whether someone has ingested caffeine is by testing a fresh urine sample.  Though only a small percentage 1 to 3 percent of caffeine will be excreted unchanged via the urine, metabolites such as paraxanthine, theobromine, and theophylline can be detected,” according to a long explainer at Mental Health Daily.

Paraxanthine, a key metabolite, will remain detectable for two to five days. A half-dozen or so other metabolites will remain detectable for varying times. By calculating what metabolites are and aren’t in the urine, testers could begin to arrive at some sort of timeline for when you drank your last coffee.

For tramadol “in urine, approximately 30 percent of tramadol is excreted as unchanged drug, while approximately 60 percent is excreted as metabolites (N- and O-desmethyltramadol). The half-life of tramadol and O-desmethyltramadol is approximately seven hours,” according to the Mayo Medical Laboratories.

That 7-hour half-life, however, is for humans. Iditarod sled dogs have much higher metabolisms. An authority on dogs and dope said the half-life for an Iditarod dog would be more like 2 hours.

Timing drugs

“….Tramadol administered orally in dogs as an immediate release tablet is 65 percent
bioavailable with a short half-life of 1.5 – 2 hours,” according to a paper from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. 

The half-life of tramadol and its metabolites is one way Iditarod might have arrived at a 15-hour time limit, but that would tend to rule out the race discovering “a high level” as the Seavey’s claim. This is simple math. If the drug’s metabolites are falling by half every two hours – 100, 50, 25, 12.5, etc. – the levels are very low after 15 hours.

The rate of excretion also raises questions about the six hours that passed between the time the musher in question finished the race, and the time the dogs were tested. A musher hoping to avoid a positive drug test might want to put off testing as long as possible to lower the levels of tramadol metabolites in the urine.

The Iditarod’s 15-hour time frame would appear to indicate small amounts of drugs were discovered when the dogs were finally tested. But it is possible the Seaveys know more than what has publicly been revealed about the quantity of tramadol in the urine sample.

Mitch has not returned a phone call.

Drug absorption and excretion always fits some sort of curve, Caffeine, which has been well-studied in canines, rises rapidly to peak availability two to four hours after administration and then falls just as rapidly to very low levels that then ever so slowly decrease until the drug is totally gone.

Caffeine is a proven performance enhancing drug, something the late George Attla knew well. An Alaska sprint mushing legend nicknamed the Huslia Hustler in honor of his home village in the wilds of Central Alaska, Alaska liked to juice his huskies with coffee.

Doping is not something new in Alaska sled-dog sports. Doping controls are much newer and wholly untested. The doping positive this year was the first the Iditarod has ever publicly reported, and all race organizers did was change the drug rule to make it easier to enforce the next doping violation.

Who cheated – and cheating is what the doping rules are intended to protect against – and where exactly the Iditarod believes that cheating took place remain unknowns. The Iditarod refuses to name the former, and the latter could be difficult to determine without a confession.

A 2015 study in The Journal of Chromatographic Science, however, reported “a novel, simple, specific and sensitive gas chromatography–mass spectrometry method…for analysis of tramadol and O-desmethyltramadol in human urine. Furthermore, the method has good linearity, precision, accuracy and sensitivity according to the results obtained from validation data.”

The study came up with a “cumulative excretion curve” – or what a layman might call a pee curve – that plotted the speed at which the body rids itself of tramadol.  A similar curve for dogs might help sort out where it most likely the dogs in question were doped.

Nelson has been sent a long list of further questions about how the Iditarod determined the window for tramadol administration.















19 replies »

  1. Just imagine that an organization like the NFL would tell participants that the only chance you have of getting a drug test is the week of the Super Bowl….doping for the other 11 months would go undetected.
    So until the ITC begins “off season” testing of it’s participants, there really is no “anti-doping” program at the Iditarod.

  2. I use Tramadol myself for nerve pain , the result of heavy chemotherapy. I use it for foot pain and like a good opiate it is the most effective stuff there is for pain. I can stay on my feet for much longer than I would without and be a much more productive citizen. I can sleep better at night too. Like any other opiate there is some constipation which is very effective for diarrhea.
    Recently an old dog of mine needed major surgery and he came home with Tramadol. I was surprised that the dose was the same as what I was taking. I weigh more than twice that dog. It would be very easy to overdose on tramadol. There is a fine line between enough and too much.
    If I practice a little bit, I bet I could stop a team on the trail and cram a pill down ten gullets and be back on the runners in a couple minutes. It would be a better way than mixing the drug with food. You more concisely control the dosage.

    • that’s an intriguing question, Lisbeth. i believe you know the history. Joe Redington and others started the race in the hopes of ensuring the survival of Alaska huskies, which were rapidly being replaced by snowmachines in rural Alaska, and maintaining a sport they enjoyed, racing sled dogs. they obviously succeeded at the latter. but your question goes to the former.

      i can’t answer it because, in part, it just raises more questions. are the short-haired, houndish dogs of today, the dogs the race founders were trying to save? was their vision of a sled-dog a dog that needed a coat in bad weather to keep it from freezing to death? are there now a lot sled dogs in villages? did the race do anything to slow the takeover by of rural Alaska by that snowmachine technology? has it kept alive the culture of man and dog on the trail in rural Alaska? big questions.

      answers? i do not know.

      • Thank you for your response. Is it better for dogs to exist and suffer greatly or not to exist at all? From what I’ve seen and read,
        dogs benefit little from the Iditarod. So I ask, should an event that’s of little benefit to the primary participants (mushers have admitted that dogs do all the work) exist? Is the existence of the Iditarod ethical?

      • well, Lisbeth; i’d have to take issue with “suffer greatly” part. as someone who has done some human wilderness racing in wild alaska (and traveled there a bit on my own and with others), i have personal experience and observations of “suffer greatly.” i don’t think i’ve seen, in my experiences around Iditarod, dogs suffering more than i’ve seen people suffer, and i’d say the occasions where i’ve seen them suffer as much are rare.
        benefit? well, that’s a hard question to answer because we can’t see into the minds of dogs. but they do like to run. and they are naturally pack animals. and i’ve seen a few that having been dropped in checkpoints put up such a fuss about the team leaving without them that you’d think they were being tortured. they clearly wanted to be part of the team heading out of there whether dropped because they were simply tired or, in some cases, injured.
        i’d say the benefit question is pretty hard to answer from both a human level and from a dog level. i’ve seen plenty of overweight, unhealthy but happy dogs that clearly thought the were benefiting from being stuffed with food like little porkers, but of course they weren’t benefiting at all.
        and clearly, i’ve been out with my Labrador retriever in some conditions – snow, ice, freezing water – that an objective observer, looking at Lars shivering like a mad dog to stay warm, might conclude met your standard of “suffer greatly,” but it was pretty clear to me that he was loving every minute of it, which is not to say he was always loving every minute of it.
        there have been occasions when i’ve decided to call it a day because it became clear he was cold, tired and not having any fun anymore, and believe me i can tell when he’s having fun.
        it’s this sort of thing that makes a question of value judgment such “suffer greatly” and “benefit” so difficult. i have no doubt some dogs, maybe many, benefit from running the Iditarod. they get to lead happy, healthy lives in a pack led by someone they like. other dogs?
        well, that gets into a complicated area of whether humans should have dogs or so-called companion animals at all, right? because really, at the end of the day, it’s all about us, not them. none of us, if we’re honest, keep dogs to benefit the dogs; we keep dogs to benefit ourselves.

  3. Craig, What’s with all this science you are quoting? That isn’t going to make any difference. Mafia is the issue, not science. The ITC takes good care of the mushers of the inner circle. Musher X, who is obviously in the inner circle, will be well protected by the good ole boy network of the ITC. Science be damned. Now if it was someone outside of the inner circle, like Brett Saas for example, then the musher would be tarred and feather and thrown to the media dogs. That’s the way it works with the ITC mafia.

      • Buser sends his required GPS tracker back in his drop bags. Race marshal lets it slide, because Buser is in the inner circle. Jonrowe forgets her GPS tracker at Takotna. Race marshal lets it slide, because she is in the inner circle. Saas forgets that his iPod can send texts. Race marshal comes down hard on him and boots him out of the race, because he is not in the inner circle. Wake up Yankee. Favoritism is rampant in the way the Iditarod enforces rules. Always has been. Anyone that is around the game can see it easily. Except, apparently, you.

      • Well James, you certainly have your own opinion that appears to hinge on race marshal making all of three calls that you don’t agree with. And all of two calls alluding to your “inner circle!” Some circle.
        Of course that equates to an ITC Mafia! Heheh!

  4. First, we are not talking about a human child doing something and then holding the parent criminally responsible for the actions of the child. But in many states a parent can be held civilly responsible in certain cases.

    No one can force an individual to enter a sporting contest. Individuals who enter a dog race are understood to be doing so by their own free will. By exercising this free will they are agreeing to conduct themselves according to the rules the race giving organization has stipulated as conditions for participating in the event. An individual can openly and freely disagree with any rule. It is a very easy process as the person can simply not enter the race in the first place or the person can withdraw himself or herself from the event at any time after entering the race. So, the individual never gives up the right to not participate. But if an individual chooses to participate they are choosing to abide by every rule stipulated by the race giving organization.

    Up until 1990 or so no race giving organization, as far as I know, ever actually conducted drug testing on dogs even though most major races had in their rules the right to do so. The Alaska Dog Mushing Association had such a rule. I think it was B3, which stated “The Race Marshal can test any dog in any team at any time. Failure to submit to the test shall result in disqualification.” This rule had been on the books for years.

    The ADMA conducted tests. All the participants were told, at the drivers’ meeting, the tests would take place. At least one driver had an attorney present so it was no secret that many if not all drivers already knew prior to the meeting. The drivers were told the testing was being conducted for informational purposes only and no penalties would be levied for positive tests. The drivers were also told on what day the test were to be conducted and they were also told that each individual driver could pick which three dogs out of their teams to submit for testing. Results were not going to be made public and no drivers’ names would be linked to the results.

    The tests were conducted. Were there positive results? Yes. Oh, Yes.

    Can a driver of a team be held responsible for a dog or dogs testing positive? Yes. Can the dog or dogs be held responsible? No. Even though there is one organization that would penalize individual dogs, by banning their participation in future races.

    In many races not only is the driver held responsible for their conduct and behavior personally, they are also held responsible for the conduct of their handler(s) conduct and behavior.

    In all races the driver is held 100% responsible for the conduct of their dogs. In all races the driver is held responsible for everything related to their dogs. When it comes to the dogs each and every buck stops with the driver. And every driver knows it. Because they know it, their participation in a race is their agreement to that responsibility.

  5. Everyone should ask themselves some questions

    1: “Should a parent go to jail for what their child has done?” If one look at the legal aspect of doping regulations in mushing it is way more complicated than in other sports. (mainly because their is a third party involved her that can’t read and at the same time are hungry carnivores). And where else in the free democratic world is it the accused job to prove his/her innocence for what has happened to a third party?

    2: Who on earth would use a prohibited substance just hours before they KNOW for sure their team will be tested? I know mushers are not the smartest people in the world, but one can’t be totally stupid either if one manage to train, plan and run the Iditarod in the top 20 either.

    3: Given the structure of the race and the myriad of possibilities to contaminate dogs from trail dropping, leftovers, depotbags left outside for weeks, the uncontrolled arena “facilities” and hundreds of persons involved directly and indirectly with the trails and shipment of dogfood, animalrights groups opposing the race itself for decades etc, etc. Is just a positive urinesample proof enough to condemn a musher for doping? Or should more hard evidence be presented?

    • 1: it’s not a criminal case, Snorre. and an Alaska judge has already decided it’s Iditarod’s race, and Iditarod can run it anyway it wants. they don’t even have to follow their own rules. it’s not like a government prosecution. it’s more like a job or a club. innocent people regularly get kicked out of both.
      2. where do you get the “just hours” before the test. 15 hours is not “just hours.” give the short half-life of tramadol, a musher might skate if he/she could stretch the test time out to 15 hours or more.
      3. if three was real, i’d be first to argue for just shutting the race down. but those aren’t realities. they’re not even serious probabilities. they’re possibilities. the possibility someone could die on the damn trail is higher than anything you mention, and no one has died yet. in years of traveling on good portions of that trail, i have yet to run into an animal rights activist. i think just being out there would scare the shit out of 99 percent of them. there might have been a couple vegans on bikes in the Iditarod Trail Invitational, but by the time they’re a day into that they’ve figured out that people on the trail just might need each other to survive. the last thing they want to do is make trouble.

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