Iditarod down


anchorage start

The Anchorage start of the Iditarod/Department of Defense photo

In the wake of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race’s first, publicly revealed doping case, the International Federation of Sleddog Sports has moved to distance itself from the globe’s premier sled-dog competition.

In “an open letter” to the organizers of the 1,000-mile race from Willow to Nome, the global governing body for sled-dog sports disavowed any connection to the embattled Alaska event.

The first line of the letter posted on the IFSS’s Facebook page outlines the report of a positive test for tramadol, a synthetic opioid, in several dogs in one team after the finish of The Last Great Race this year. The second line then states “that ITC Iditarod Trail Committee is not affiliated with IFSS.” (the full press release is reprinted below)

IFSS is associated with the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which oversees doping in human sporting competitions.

“…Any IFSS accredited race has to follow the international rules concerning doping, including the publication of any positive testing results as it is the case for all other sports in the world,” the letter says.

“Numerous independent reviews of sport…have made the important point that increasing transparency in anti-doping processes enhances accountability and trust,” the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency has observed. “Additionally, transparency regarding testing results and sanctions is essential to increase athlete confidence in the anti-doping system and to deter doping.

“Independent anti-doping agencies operating under the World Anti-Doping Code have, therefore, developed well-defined processes that balance the due process rights of athletes with the undisputed importance of public disclosure of test results, case outcomes, and sanction decisions.”

Iditarod secrecy

Until this year, the Iditarod has never publicly revealed tests results, case outcomes or sanctions.

Sources connected to or once connected to the Iditarod organization and some mushers have told the recent doping case involving tramadol was not the first Iditarod doping positive. They said there have been more than a few others.

Most were reportedly kept secret because they were believed to be unintentional doping from the use of supplements or linked to hormones used in meat production. Defending and three-time champ Mitch Seavey has publicly admitted to using a supplement that if manufactured as described contains a banned substance. 

The active ingredient in the oil used by Seavey has shown no real, documented performance advantage, but in at least one case the team of a sometimes top-10 musher was reportedly found to be doped with what could be a more serious performance-enhancing drug; he supposedly got a warning letter.

Official details are difficult or impossible to obtain. Officials managing the race for the Iditarod Trail Committee (ITC) have not responded to questions about the latest doping incident, questions they asked to have submitted in writing last week.

Mushers who have talked about doping don’t want to be named. All are afraid of retribution and some seemingly terrified of the potential blowback.

The Iditarod, like the Tour de France, has its own omertà, a code of silence enforced with threats of economic or legal retribution for anyone who talks openly. And the ITC itself has a formal code of silence, a gag order stipulating that the race can sanction anyone saying anything about Iditarod the committee believes to be derogatory. 

Because of the gag order and more, no mushers wanted to be named in this story, but a couple suggested that the likelihood of doping in the Iditarod should be obvious to knowledgeable observers.

They pointed out the 4,000 to 10,000 miles some mushers now claim to put on dogs in training for Iditarod. Most dogs can’t run that kind of mileage without the aid of drugs, they said. One even invoked the name of disgraced Tour de France rider Lance Armstrong.

“Everybody wants to know what I’m on,” Armstrong once famously said. “What am I on? I’m on my bike busting my ass six hours a day. What are you on?”

As it turned out, Armstrong was doped to the gills, which is what enabled him to be on the bike training six hours a day, and the ability to train at higher volumes and higher intensities helped him dominate the Tour for seven years.

Contaminated argument

Though the Iditarod has never publicly acknowledged past doping positives, it is impossible for those familiar with drug testing in athletics to believe cases haven’t popped up, as sources now claim. There have been plenty of high-profile incidents involving human athletes who ate drug-contaminated meat, and as a percentage of diet, humans eat a fraction of the meat dogs eat,

Just this year, runner Ajee Wilson was stripped of a U.S., indoor record in the 800 meters when she tested positive for Zeranol, a growth hormone used in cattle. USADA eventually decided against suspending her. A USADA investigation led to the conclusion meat was the most likely source of the drug.

A “urine test, administered because she won the race, revealed a small amount of zeranol,” Sarah Baker wrote in a June story for Deadspin that digs down into the complicated world of doping.  “A test given a week prior showed no banned substances. Normally, USADA places responsibility for everything ingested on the athlete, but after investigating her diet and food purchase receipts (yes, she kept them), and given the low concentration of zeranol, they concluded ‘it was highly unlikely that the presence of zeranol in Wilson’s sample resulted from a source other than zeranol contaminated meat.’”

Zeranol is regularly used as a growth stimulant for cattle in U.S and Canada. Clenbuterol, a drug originally developed to treat breathing disorders, is used in other countries to promote growth. The National Football League last year took the unusual step of warning players not to eat beef from Mexico or China because of the possibility of clenbuterol contamination.

Publicly revealed doping cases have made life hell for some athletes. Cyclist Alberto Contador lost his 2010 Tour de France title and took a global pounding in the press after clenbuteral was found in his urine. Contador has steadfastly claimed innocence, but clen is a powerful weight-loss drug that many still suspect he might have used.

After serving a two-year ban from cycling, Contador  returned to the road and rebuilt his reputation. He retired this year and was honored for what was considered a hugely successful career.

A sport with a rich history of athletes trying to cheat by doping, cycling has tried to be as transparent as possible about positive tests, outcomes and sanctions.

Lack of transparency

Iditarod’s past policy appears to have been just the opposite.  It appears to have kept positive tests secret in the apparent belief they did not influence the competition and that revealing them might damage a musher’s reputation.

Why the ITC decided to reveal the doping case this year remains unclear.

For unknown reasons, officials appear to have concluded this case couldn’t be ignored.  But even then ITC released scant details, originally disclosing only that the urine of “several” dogs in a “single” team had been found to contain “a prohibited substance” and because of that the rules were being changed.

Under pressure from mushers and others, the race later disclosed the drug was tramadol, a pain-killer, and 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.”

The zero-to-15 hour timeframe has only served to create confusion. After drugs are administered, they are secreted in urine in varying rates and forms over time. According to the World Health Organization, about 30 percent of tramadol from an oral dose is excreted as tramadol, 60 percent as metabolites, and the remaining 10 percent as excrement.

As a general rule, a parent drug passes through the body more quickly than its metabolites. Authorities on drug testing say one would expect to see a high level of unaltered tramadol in the urine if the drug was recently taken with metabolites becoming the more obvious marker over time. The Iditarod has not explained how it established the window of zero to 15 hours.

It has also not explained why – after years of covering positive drug tests – it released news of a positive this year.

The organization’s credibility is so low, and its internal politics so bitter, that some mushers admit to being skeptical there was a positive drug test. Even some mushers adamantly opposed to doping say that possibility cannot be ignored. It is unlikely but not impossible the Iditarod would phony up test results for political reasons, they said.

“It is unfortunate for the world of mushing that the ITC chose to follow an anti-doping protocol that it cannot enforce,” the IFSS said, “and that the ITC’s inattention to developing an infallible anti-doping protocol has put at risk the reputation of a potentially innocent musher, the integrity of the Iditarod race itself and the entire world of mushing, which is made up of dedicated, concerned, animal lovers, the vast majority of whom would never consider doping a sled dog.”

Mushers speak

One musher – defending and three-time champ Seavey  – has publicly taken to Facebook to say the doped dogs were not his, and he dipped his toe into gag-order territory by arguing that because Iditarod checkpoints are unguarded someone could have slipped drugs into a musher’s dog food as a means of sabotage.

Other mushers are skeptical of sabotage for practical reasons. It would be easier, they said, to dope a competitor’s dogs to damage the team’s performance than to count on the sporadic drug-testing program to catch and, more importantly, punish anyone. It is worth noting no one has been punished in this case.

Still, one musher said, if you believe that someone might dope to win (which is the reason for conducting a doping program to begin with), you logically must believe that the same person would sabotage another musher’s team to keep it from winning.

To try to get to the bottom of whose dogs were doped, has been polling mushers either over the phone or via text message or email to ask if their dogs were the dogs doped, and to ask whether they’d doped anyone else’s dogs, given the Seavey accusation of possible sabotage.

Most of the top-10 teams have now responded. Only the top-20 teams are tested after the finish in Nome, and only the top-10 are vying for serious prize money. The prize money falls precipitously from $71,250 for winning to less than $28,000 for 11th place. It costs most mushers more than that to cover the costs of running the Iditarod.

Along with first place-finisher Seavey, third-place finisher Nic Petit from Girdwood, and fourth-place finisher Joar Leifseth Ulsom from Norway, said the doped dogs were not their dogs nor did they dope anyone else’s. Petit’s answer was an emphatic “f— no.”

Fifth-place finisher Jesse Royer from Montana could not be reached because she was in the field guiding elk hunters, but her mother was pretty sure the doped dogs were not her daughter’s given that the family had heard nothing about dog doping until the case made the news Outside.

A statement from a “Musher X” claiming to be the guilty party emerged this week saying there had been several talks with Iditarod officials about the doping positive, and that he – Musher X – thought he’d been cleared. Royer’s apparent lack of discussions with Iditarod officials involved with the doping case would appear to remove her from the list of possibilities.

The “Musher X”statement was supplied to the Anchorage Daily News by Wade Marrs, the sixth-place finisher this year and the current president of the Iditarod Finishers Club, a private group limited to those who’ve completed the 1,000-mile run up the trail to Nome.

Asked via Facebook message whether his dogs had been doped, Marrs sent this response:


A request for an answer more thorough than an emoti went unanswered. Given that the response came from Marrs via Facebook, it is impossible to know for sure if it came from him or someone with access to his Facebook page who thought they were being really funny.

Seventh-place finisher Ray Redington, Jr. from Wasilla said the doped dogs weren’t his, and he hadn’t doped anyone else’s.

Eighth-place finisher Aily Zirkle from Two Rivers emailed “nope” to both the question of whether the doped dogs were her’s or whether she’d doped others. It was the same for ninth place finisher Peter Kaiser from Bethel and 10th place finisher Paul Gebhardt from Kasilof, who also wondered if the musher with the doped dogs would tell the truth when queried.

A response is still awaited from second-place Dallas Seavey from Willow, Mitch’s son and a four-time champ.

Gebhardt’s question is a good one, but the truth in cases like this generally emerges over time. The Iditarod Official Finishers Club is now calling for transparency and demanding the ITC named the musher with the doped dogs and come clean on what else it knows about the case.

Any musher caught lying would likely suffer severe economic consequences. After Armstrong was finally caught doping, after years of lying about it, all of his major sponsors abandoned him.

Mushers are even more dependent on sponsors than cyclists. Unless you are independently wealthy, it is difficult to cover the cost of feeding the dogs in even a small dog lot without sponsors.


This is the full text of the IFSS statement:

Open letter to ITC Iditarod Trail Committee and to whom it may concern

Regarding the recently revealed news of dogs in a top 20 finishing Iditarod Trail Race 2017 team testing positive with Tramadol.

IFSS – International Federation of Sleddog Sports – the official international organization for sleddog sport, member of GAISF – Global Association of International Sports Federations hereby states that ITC Iditarod Trail Committee is not affiliated with IFSS.

IFSS works close with WADA, World Anti Doping Agency and IOC International Olympic Committee and any IFSS accredited race has to follow the international rules concerning doping, including the publication of any positive testing results as it is the case for all other sports in the world.

It is unfortunate for the world of mushing that the ITC chose to follow an anti-doping protocol that it cannot enforce and that the ITC’s inattention to developing an infallible anti-doping protocol has put at risk the reputation of a potentially innocent musher, the integrity of the Iditarod race itself and the entire world of mushing, which is made up of dedicated, concerned, animal lovers, the vast majority of whom would never consider doping a sled dog.

IFSS is proud to have developed an anti-doping protocol in accordance with WADA that is far more robust and unimpeachable in its protocols and how they are carried out such that any presumptive positive results can be enforced without challenge. If an IFSS doping test is positive, it is positive.

IFSS urges ITC to improve the anti doping rules and regulations to support the sleddogsport and the sleddog community worldwide.


Helen Lundberg
IFSS President

7 replies »

  1. This Tramadol issue opens up a huge can of worms at this current time.
    Alaska is in the middle of an Opioid crisis and Tramadol is sold as Ultram, a drug commonly sold and abused on the black market here in the Valley….
    So, is Musher X an addict (him or herself)?
    Was this drug purchased on the black market? (Illegal and punishable by Alaskan law)
    Was the musher also taking these pills to fight off pain & fatigue?
    Regardless of the ITC’s decision, Our community needs to be aware that the Iditarod culture has their hands on Opioid pills…a highly addictive and destructive force!

  2. You must be kidding. A musher tells you he/she did not dope his dogs or anybody else’s dogs and you consider that proof of innocence or “speculated innocence/” Obviously, you haven’t been through many court cases! Finally, I would like to point out that there is NO security at these checkpoints as I’ve been “out in the field” so to speak. You can go to where the dogs are resting and administer whatever you want.

    • do i unequivocally believe it, Kathleen? no. do i tend to believe it? yes. the downside of publicly lying on this one is large. anyone with half a brain would simply avoid answering. publicly claiming it wasn’t you, and then having it come out that it was…
      well, that would certainly shoot to shit your credibility in trying to argue that you didn’t dope the dogs, wouldn’t it?
      and i agree, there is no security at those checkpoints, but then again there is. we’ve both been there. at a lot of the checkpoints, though clearly not all, i think a complete stranger wandering around in the dog lot would be noticed, especially if he or she were trying to stuff pills down a dog’s throat or getting into someone’s drop bags.
      one musher sabotaging another musher? that seems more plausible, but if that’s a serious danger the Iditarod has bigger problems than i even want to think about.

      • Mushers were allowed, at one time, to utilize the left over food from mushers who had already moved through a checkpoint but that was changed sometime after the early 80s. That indicates, to me, that those food bags are guarded to some degree even for those mushers who had already passed through.

      • All sorts of people wander around checkpoints. There’s no need to stuff a pill down a dog’s throat. Stick a pill in a wad of bread, burger, peanut butter, etc. and a dog will down it without chewing. Carry these pills in your pocket and toss them to the dogs. It’s oh so simple.

  3. People lie. A person claiming innocence may actually be guilty.

    It will be interesting to see if a company that had only sponsored a musher also sponsors the race in 2018.

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