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. Craigmedred.news 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.
“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.
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.
“….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.