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.
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 craigmedred.news that at least one top-10 finisher was sent a warning letter about drug use in recent years.
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.”
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,” AlaskaDispatch.com 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.