Iditarod turmoil


Four-time champ Dallas Seavey in happy times at the start of the 2009 Iditarod/Frank Kovalchek, Wikimedia Commons


Blowback from a doping accusation against four-time Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race champion Dallas Seavey is today rattling the world’s premier long-distance sled dog race to its very core.

All of a sudden, a whole lot of dirty, Iditarod laundry is getting pulled out and hung on the line, including accusations that large numbers of dogs are routinely killed because they aren’t fast enough. (See related story)

This all began after the 30-year-old Seavey launched an aggressive campaign against charges of doping his dogs with tramadol, a synthetic opioid. He argues  his team was sabotaged either in White Mountain, the penultimate checkpoint, or in Nome on his way to a second-place finish behind his dad, Mitch, in the 2017 Iditarod.

He blames unknown individuals. He has suggested animal-rights activists, competitors who don’t like him, and even race organizers or officials with whom he has feuded in the past.

Seavey was Tuesday making the rounds of Anchorage television stations to aggressively proclaim his innocence and suggest he was being framed by someone. A small gang of Seavey fans have jumped to his defense.

But some mushers aren’t buying it, and in the battle between Seavey supporters and Seavey opponents, arguments about the Iditarod have expanded beyond doping to the culling of dogs as top kennels that each year pump out large numbers of puppies in a search for the creme de’ la creme of genetically blessed athletes.

Better dogs have no doubt reduced Iditarod finishing times by more than two days in the past two decades, but there have long been suggestions of faster racing through chemistry.

Doping is an undeniable temptation for competitors in all sports.

Tramadol treats

Peter Smars, a physician and veteran musher in Minnesota, today said he kind of wishes he had given his team tramadol during a past John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon in his home state. 

“It’s an opioid pain killer,” he said this morning in a telephone interview, and then outlined a human scenario for its use:

You’re really working hard all day cutting firewood. You come in at the end of the day with your back killing you. “You can’t fall asleep.” You take a tramadol. You sleep. You wake up still not feeling 100 percent. You take another. “Then you get up and do it again.”

In the Beargrease, Smars had a trail weary and sore team at halfway that quit on him shortly afer leaving a long rest at the halfway stop. The dogs went out on the ice of a lake and just laid down because they were sore. Smars has no doubt that if they hadn’t been so sore, they’d have marched on.

Tramadol, he said, would have helped them get started, and they would “at least not have stopped.”

Smars did not dope, and he quit sled dog racing around the start of the new millennium. He sold his dogs to Iditarod champ Doug Swingley of Montana.

“I had a sour taste,” Smars said. “I realized some people were doping.”

The name of the late Susan Butcher, an Iditarod icon, came up regularly in discussions among mushers about doping at the time, he said.

“People were starting to get aware of it,” he said. “People were starting to talk about it.”

The dominant Iditarod musher of her day Butcher won four Iditarod championships between 1986 and 1993, and never finished worse than fourth in those years.  The Iditarod introduced drug testing for the dogs for the first time in 1994. 

Butcher retired after the race that year. She said she wanted to start a family. There is no evidence she ever doped.

After her retirement, Swingley took over as the dominant Iditarod musher, winning the 1995 race and finishing second in the next two Iditarods before running off a string of three victories starting in the year 2000.

During the Swingley era, Alaska mushers talked openly of their suspicions that he was doping his dogs, but Swingley denied it, and the Iditarod never reported a positive drug test.

For a span of 23 years from the start of the drug testing program until this year, in fact, the Iditarod never reported a positive drug trust, although informed sources tell that at least one top-10 finisher was sent a warning letter about drug use in recent years.

Over the 23 years that followed the start of drug testing, the Iditarod also went from a 10-day, 13-hour race to this year’s record 8-day, 3-hour race. 

Mushers and long-time race observers agree an improved trail accounts for some of the more-than-two-day faster time, but a lot of mushers are of the opinion that to get the kind of canine athletes necessary to run an 8-day race, you either need to dope, or breed a large number of dogs and select for only the best of the best among them, or maybe both.


Seavey, and even more so Seavey fans, has pushed the idea that tramadol is a sedative, and that a sedative would act to slow dogs – not speed them up. But the situation is more complicated than that.

The drug could be used to both help dogs rest and recover, as Smars said, or to give them an emotional boost.

A synthetic opioid developed as a pain-killer, tramadol also appears to provide some of the same pleasurable feelings that attracted people to other opium-based drugs. Morphine, the active molecule in opium and the rest of today’s opioid drugs, locks onto the “endorphin-receptor sites on nerve endings in the brain and begins the succession of events that leads to euphoria…,” noted the PBS television program Frontline in a documentary on The Opium Kings. 

Euphoria is a good thing for competitive athletes.

“Using tramadol can feel as good as getting a blood transfusion for athletes,” Ian Mullins, an elite mountain bike race, told the U.S. Anti-Doping Administration (USADA). “You can pop a pill 18 hours into a 24-hour endurance race, and it’s an immediate boost that helps you power through the end.”

The USADA has been lobbying to have the drug banned for human use by the World Anti-Doping Administration. Iditarod years ago banned it for use on dogs.

How could it be useful in the Iditarod?

By the time the dogs in the top Iditarod teams reach the coast, all of them are tired and many of them are sore, just as with human competitors in ultramarthons. Part of this is about the distance, but a lot of it is about the speed.

The faster an athlete covers ground – any athlete – the more the physiological stress put on the body. Soreness is inevitable. This is why runner Stephanie Ehret took 12 tablets of ibuprofen, a non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) and pain killer, on her way to setting a 24-hour record for mileage covered on the track in 2009.

It almost killed her.

Shortly after the race, Runner’s World reported, “she was in a Phoenix emergency room, vomiting up a strange substance, which a doctor informed her was part of her digestive-tract lining.

“A few hours later, doctors diagnosed the problem—rhabdomyolysis, a potentially fatal precursor to kidney failure. Though dehydration and overexertion contributed to Ehret’s condition, doctors told her that the 12 ibuprofen pills she’d taken during the 24-hour race had pushed her kidneys into the danger zone.”

Deadly digestion

The Iditarod bans NSAIDs, but despite that the pace of the race is now so fast that veterinarians prescribe anti-acids for the dogs. Why?

So their digestive tracts don’t begin to fall apart the way Ehret’s did.

‘Studies by Dr. Michael Davis from Oklahoma State University have shown that exercise-induced stomach disease may affect 50 to 70 percent of the dogs that enter the (Iditarod) race, a number far higher than is seen in non-racing dogs,” reporter Jill Burke wrote in 2012 in story headlined “How Iditarod dogs outrun Grim Reaper.”  “Those that develop the condition are at risk to develop ulcers, a more serious progression of the illness.

“Quietly and with no outward signs, ulcers wreak havoc with a dog running intensely. Chronic slow bleeding, an acute onset of major bleeding, and vomiting that leads to choking all can be fatal side effects of this otherwise silent condition.”

Most of the dogs that have died in the modern Iditarod have fallen victim to bleeding ulcers or aspiration pneumonia, which comes from coughing up stomach contents that are then inhaled.

Former Alaska musher Dave King, who now lives in Sweden, tangled with the WADA-linked  International Federation for Sleddog Sport in Europe when he pushed to have antacids allowed in IFSS-sanctioned races as in the Iditarod.

European mushers, he texted, are more ethical than Alaska mushers, but the dogs in European races suffer – and sometimes die – because of IFSS limits on prophylactic treatments.

King continues to push for changes in European rules to allow antacids, but he concedes that the stomach problems in dogs might simply be a sign of races now being run too fast.

“…If we want to NOT have to use prophylactic solutions,” he texted, “then we need to have the discussion about changing the very structures of races to reduce or avoid these conditions manifesting in the first place. In my opinion, the greatest evil on the long-distance racing field is the lack of rest. Change that, and it would change many things, and not necessarily impede competition.”

Some veteran Iditarod mushers contend that the pace of the Iditarod today has forced mushers to resorto to big breeding operations or drugs or both, or trust to incredible luck, to get into position to win.

Big breeding operations – dog farming as some mushers long ago labeled it – require big efforts to place unwanted dogs with foster homes to avoid needing to kill surplus animals.

Smars, who has remained an observer of the sport since his retirements, thinks that in many ways a sport that got cleaner after doping rules were first imposed and selective breeding increased has slid back toward its bad old days.

He suspects both dog farming and dope have helped get the Iditarod down to an eight-day race. Without out-of-competition testing for drugs, he noted, the doping program that only this year finally reported catching a musher doping is largely doomed.

As even some of Dallas Seavey’s supporters have noted in backing his claim of sabotage, it would make little sense to dope in White Mountain near the end of race given that the real big gians are to be made by doping in training to boost muscle mass and endurance heading into the Iditarod.

CORRECTION: An early version of this story mistakenly misidentified the Swingley era and mischaracterized ibuprofen.





37 replies »

  1. It’s appalling the Iditarod doesn’t value accuracy. According to Tegon Hanlon in the ADN, urine samples from two of Dallas Seavey’s dogs were “batched” or combined. This sample tested positive for Tramadol. Were two dogs administered the drug or one? We’ll never know because the drug would be out of their systems by time the results came back and the dogs could be retested.

    Furthermore, the Iditarod speaks as if all dogs on the twenty top teams are tested for drugs. That’s simply not true.

    • You are really splitting hairs here Lisbeth, IMO.
      Its not that important to know if one or both of those dogs tested positive, frankly, but only important to know that at least one of them did (which implicates the team, along with the other two dogs tested). Also, I believe the Iditarod says that the top twenty teams are tested, but that only means a sample of the dogs (I believe they selected four individual dogs this year).

      • I value accuracy and truthfulness. When samples are batched, they don’t combine the entire amount of urine. But that’s what the Iditarod did. Normally, if a sample shows positive, the individual samples are retested. In the case of the two dogs whose urine was batched, there were no individual samples kept. And, it was too late to get urine samples from the dogs that would show valid test results. So, we’ll never know if one of the two dogs tested positive or they both did. As I said before, the Iditarod doesn’t value accuracy. Also, the Iditarod should say what it means and mean what it says. If some of the dogs in the top 20 teams are to be tested, they should say: Some of the dogs in the top 20 teams will be tested in Nome. Better yet: the should give a percentage.

      • Actually Lisbeth, in this case there were no individual samples taken (since you are interested in accuracy)!
        Also, I know of no announcements saying that all dogs of the 20 top finishers will be drug tested.

  2. These dogs deserve warm, loving homes. They should not be doped and forced to race for a prize they don’t even get to enjoy. End this cruelty and set these dogs free.

  3. Just when you thought the Iditarod couldn’t stoop any lower… But I’m not surprised. Dogs and dope. Why on earth would anyone who claims to love dogs want to support the Iditarod?

  4. The only thing I want to hear about Iditarod is that it’s been shut down for good. Drugging dogs and abandoning them to die is despicable. No one should win money for such heinous acts.

  5. Five dogs died this year. Some 150 have died in the race’s history. An elite musher named in a doping scandal. Reports of dogs being killed because they aren’t fast enough. Shut the Iditarod down.

  6. How many more dogs must suffer and die before this cruel spectacle is banned? This year alone, in just one week, five dogs died during the Iditarod. Dogs deserve better than to be treated as snowmobiles with paws.

  7. Considering that dogs are routinely abused and neglected before, after, and during the race and literally run to their deaths (5 dogs died in just one week in this year’s race), I’m not surprised by doping allegations. What does surprises me is that this cruel race continues to take place every year.

    • Hi Amy. Maybe you and I would agree on more than we disagree, but the dogs that die are not typically “literally run to their deaths”, as you say. There are unfortunate accidents, as you will find when you look into it. This is a good argument and worth talking about for sure, but please don’t think or spread the notion that these mushers run the dogs to death.

  8. 1. You don’t have to “love” the Iditarod to be a true Alaskan. Similarly, you don’t have to “love” forest fires to be a real Californian.

    2. Read Mitch Seavey’s book to learn that he encourages people to beat their dogs. As a testament to what he really thinks about his dogs, Seavey calls them all sorts of horrible names.

    3. Talk to Hugh Neff.

  9. The Iditarod is a quintessential clandestine cult like organization.
    Rookie members are indoctrinated into the cult through the ritual of culling.
    The rookie handlers usually come from “the outside” and feel isolated at their musher camp in Alaska.
    If these handlers continue in the cult, they may have a chance at the “runners”
    As the handler progresses into the musher personality, they are tested at their ability to “shut the fuck up”
    if the musher keeps the Omerta’ for the dog Mob, then they are allowed into the holy grail….Iditarod race.
    Years on the trail these young mushers will develop a Stockholm syndrome for the abuse they witness.
    Only a small percentage will make it into the “inner circle” with fellow Top 10 mushers.
    So with this cult higher hierarchy of demigods, it is easy to see how fellow members vouch for one another!

      • What Steve’s saying is not bullshit. I lived it. I failed when it came to “shutting the fuck up.” I tried. I wanted to run the Iditarod so badly – it had been my dream since grade school when we followed it and I read Winterdance over and over and over and wanted to experience the magic of crossing Alaska by dog team. So I got a couple dogs and learned from local sprint and dual/purpose purebred mushers, saw a couple things I was uncomfortable with, but figured everyone wasn’t like that. Then I got hired as a handler for 7 months in Minnesota at a 75-dog kennel, did some racing, did some handling, traveled around and met a lot of famous mushers and trained dogs with them – saw a lot of stuff I was uncomfortable with, but again I figured this can’t be how the whole sport operates; figured there had to be a higher circle of better mushers doing right by their dogs. Then I got hired at Mitch’s kennel in Alaska in November of 2003, and that broke me. I was at what was supposed to be one of the top kennels in North America. My dream was to go to Alaska and train and run the puppy team and then race Iditarod and live in Alaska. I figured that the more famous the musher, the better the care would be. If someone is the role model in your sport, you’d think they would have the best dog setup available. You’d be wrong. I was wrong. And after two weeks I was left to find my own way back to the airport from Sterling. I’ve met all the Seavey’s. They’re what finally turned me to rescue and away form racing.

      • Well HM, you sound like a disgruntled former employee of Mitch’s who got sent down the road for unknown reasons (incompetence I’d guess).
        And just because you have a similar ideology does not make Stine’s “bullchit” true!

      • Bill, It is obvious that you got stuck in the “Stockholm Syndrome” as a former musher….never made it to the top 10, yet probably regret the dogs you shot out back.

      • That’s how it is with “strawmen” Steve-if you can’t prove it then all your other assumptions are also false!

        My kennel in the 80s had a high-point of 22 dogs that had come from various sources (some borrowed), two borrowed dogs came from known dog mushing kennels. I continued running dogs for a number of years, after the Iditarod, and eventually gave in to an iron dog for winter travel.

        Iditarod had plenty of mushers that were on a so-called “camping trip”, that became an economic problem for the race, and new rules stopped those slower teams. That was a good description of myself in 82 race and your “Stockholm Syndrome” strawman has nothing to do with me. It appears that it is you that has suffered some sort of trauma, relative to dog mushing or at least Iditarod mushing-is that based on hearsay??? All you’ve been coming up with is “bullchit,” Steve.

        Try coming up with some real stuff, here. Go ahead and try it.

      • Bill:
        You have an interesting bi polar way about you. And a very unpleasant side that all who read your insulting comments recognize. Take your meds and chill Bill.

  10. Yeah, the sponsors could all walk. But the Iditarod won’t die. It would go back to being a long camping trip with a bunch of rag-tag mushers if sponsors bailed. Just like it was in the 70s (pre-Butcher) days. That might not be a bad thing. But if I were to bet money, the Iditarod will weather this shit storm and continue to be a highly-competitive dog race. The Iditarod has a mystic for millions of fans that won’t die. Anyone can ride a bike, so anyone can get an idea of what the ToF is all about. But very few will ever mush a dog team. So the mysticism and romanticism of dog mushing, in the minds of fans, will always be marketable. Yes, mushing will always have its critics. But they far outnumbered. Just go to the ceremonial start of the Iditarod in Anchorage. How many protestors do you see in the thousands of fans that line the course? I’ve never seen a one.

    • James:
      A lot depends on whether the “culling” of dogs story gets the coverage it deserves. It is not a matter of if dogs are killed in order to get better racers. That occurs and many have been aware of it. But if the numbers are as they have been mentioned and there is an unmasking of the practice, the Iditarod, as we know it, will be gone. Sponsors will dry up. Without the money there will be little interest in the event. This could easily go viral with pictures of dogs, gratuitously killed, shown around the world. You can bet that this scenario is the musher’s and the Iditarod’s worst nightmare. And they will do what they can to cover it up.

  11. It’s probable that many a dog’s digestive system falls apart during the arduous thousands of miles of training. All NSAIDs don’t have equal efficiency, but all are difficult to give. They have to be given a certain length of time before a dog eats. Try cramming a pill down a dog’s throat when your hands are freezing or you’re wearing bulky gloves.

  12. Couple of questions….
    Did Dallas request a six hour rest before testing or is a six hour rest following the finish part of the testing protocol?
    Were only four of the seven dogs tested? Was Dallas able to test the same samples?

    • as I understand it he requested a full 6 hours before testing, by the rules dogs can be tested any where up to 6 hours after finishing and 4 out of 7 dogs were selected for testing. one release from the ITC said he did not ask for any retest after the positive

    • Thanks.
      So that I understand where we’re at presently is that during that six hours rest, Dallas contends that someone gave his dogs the prohibited drugs.
      The other thing, are the level of Tramadol present in the dogs at the time they were tested. The new ADN reported a timeline that was mostly rehashing what we already know, with no real quality investigative reporting. The level of the drug found in the dogs suggests that the drugs were present outside of the six hour window; this according to experts and testing?
      The other thing that I find interesting are the volunteer veterinarians approval of using Tramadol post race. This is a controlled substance and the state requires certain tracking measures to stem abuse. Is the mushing community, and veterinarians licensed in Alaska free from this requirement?
      Finally, some here have expressed knowledge of the effects of Tramadol as being non-performance enhancing, to which I disagree.
      I have had several vertebrae fused, and the same hip replaced three times. I was prescribed Tramadol. The drug does have a euphoric affect initially, but after a couple of hours it goes away and performs as intended minus the dopey sensation. Thus enabling me to go about my normal daily routine to a degree. I wish I could say it has the same effect on dogs but I don’t know that it does; but I lean this way.
      In 90-91, a musher culled his dog lot using a hammer, and then dumped the presumed dead dogs into the back of his pick-up. One of the puppies did not die, and was found by a passerby who heard the puppy whimpering. Perhaps Craig has knowledge of the incident and subsequent action that was taken.
      Dallas has a story that covers six hours of the 21 hour time period that the drug could have been administered. So far he has suggested sabotage as one possibility, but it is unsupported. Denial of wrong doing as a measure of intent is a novel concept, but a desire to win the race isn’t?
      The question I and many have is what is Dallas and the ITC trying to hide?

      • Clinton: that would be Frank Winkler in 1990 – – and it might be where everything began to change. as the associated press reported at the time:

        ‘Winkler has said in court documents that he shot some of the dogs–a kinder method, according to veterinarians–and that he was just following advice from fellow racers, known as mushers. He said he couldn’t afford to take the puppies to a veterinarian to be put to sleep.

        “‘He’s young in this business,’ said Winkler’s attorney, Ben O. Walters. ‘He just did what he was told was common.’

        “Mushers deny that such actions are common and contend that the uneducated in their ranks are ruining the sport’s good name.”

        those denials were what began to make the practice unacceptable, and it did fade as breeding became more selective in the 1990s. the doping then might have helped as well. if you can dope good dogs to get them to perform to the level of the best dogs, it might actually be cheaper than breeding and raising large numbers of dogs and culling.

        then doping controls started which made doping a little harder, though given the existing protocols there’s no way it would have gone away, and the pace of the race kept going up, so a musher needed ever better dogs to stay competitive. there is no ignoring the competitive pressure here to both breed and cull and dope. the truly amazing thing is that there are people who do try to ignore that fundamental reality.

  13. I’m afraid that irreparable damage has occurred to the ‘Last Great Race’. There are pieces in national news talking about it now and there will be more. There will be a cloud over this event for the foreseeable future. Not only will the doping claims stick, but now the culling ( aka killing) of dogs that don’t make the grade will be a subject that cannot be brushed under the carpet. Remember how we all watched the Tour de France when our ‘hero’ Lance Armstrong was winning. Well, viewership tanked after the doping scandal and sponsors dried up. This is very likely to happen to the Iditarod. The cat is out of the bag and damage is being done and it will continue. Don’t be surprised to see the Dodge dealership pull their support, followed by others.

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