Iditarod “Saboteur X” – if he or she exists – appears to have had only a few hours to infiltrate a Nome dog yard and dope the team of four-time Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race champion Dallas Seavey in March, according to a new timeline.
Morrie Craig, the Oregon State University toxicologist who has overseen the Iditarod drug testing program since 1995, this week revised the time for administration of the drug found in Seavey’s dogs to cover a span from two to 15 hours before the dogs were tested.
Craig, who has been drug testing racing greyhounds and horses for decades, also suggested the drug found in Seavey’s dogs – a synthetic opioid pain-killer called tramadol – could enhance performance though it is not normally thought of as performance-enhancing drug (PED).
“They’d run better,” he said. “They wouldn’t quit on you if they were in too much pain.”
Tramadol is a drug widely used in another endurance sport, this one involving humans. The sport is cycling, and the drug is legal there, but a ban is under consideration given some new evidence that along with helping cyclists fight through pain it might do more.
“Tramadol allowed participants to sustain a higher power and greater cardio-respiratory stress (higher heart rate) during the 20-minute time trial than in the placebo condition,” the study said.
The study did not identify a physiological mechanism for the improvement in performance, and it was confounded by the fact that when cyclists were required to do mental exercises while on the drug the 5 percent improvement disappeared.
Iditarod dogs, however, are not doing mental exercises while trotting to Nome. Neither are the racing greyhounds or horses in which the use of tramadol, a drug created for humans as an alternative to addictive opioids, was first noticed.
Craig said tramadol first started showing up in those events years ago.
Whether the new-found performance benefits documented in humans apply to dogs is unknown, given the drug acts somewhat differently in dog and humans. But tramadol wasn’t being given to racing greyhounds and horses to slow them down.
The drug is especially well-known in the greyhound world where it is regularly administered to retired dogs dealing with pain and stiffness.
The Iditarod’s original statement on the Seavey doping put the time for tramadol administration at zero to 15 hours. That created a theoretical, 4 1/2- to 5-hour window of opportunity for someone to dope Seavey’s dogs in Nome after the finish of the race.
A doping in the dog yard is the prime theory Seavey has offered for how tramadol ended up in the four of his seven dogs tested after the race finish.
He has adamantly denied giving the dogs the drugs and charged that someone “sabotaged” his team.
A 30-year-old, science savvy former Northern Michigan University wrestler with Olympic potential, Seavey was considered the Iditarod’s brightest rising star. A third-generation Alaska dog driver, he tuned his public relations skills in reality TV and has been growing a business as an inspirational speaker.
Iditarod tried to keep Seavey’s name out of its first-ever, publicly revealed doping case. It announced only that it needed to change its doping rule to mandate strict liability because it had a doping case, but couldn’t prove beyond a doubt that the musher involved was guilty.
“Musher X” soon emerged to make an anonymous claim to innocence. That was distributed by Seavey neighbor and friend Wade Marrs, the president of the Iditarod Official Finishers Club. A select and private fraternity of those who’ve made it 1,000 miles from Anchorage to Nome by dogsled, the Finishers Club later demanded the release of the name of Musher X.
The Iditarod obliged, and ever since then Seavey has been on the offensive against fellow mushers, animal rights activists, the race-running Iditarod Trail Committee and others who he suspects could have sabotaged him.
In an Oct. 24 interview with Anchorage’s KTUU-TV, he said the doping was “probably an opportunistic thing where somebody was in the Nome dog yard and saw the dogs unattended.
“This is most likely to have been intentional,” he said, and probably would have happened when the dogs “were left unattended for 4 1/2 – 5 hours prior to the drug test.”
The new timeline tightens that window down to 2 1/2 hours to 3 hours. Under Seavey’s Nome scenario, the saboteur would have needed to be in the dog lot sometime between 7:24 p.m. and 10:24 p.m. on March 14.
Seavey finished the race at 6:24 p.m. His dogs, however,were not tested until early on the morning of March 15 because he had requested the maximum, 6-hour delay Iditarod allows after the race. Seavey said he spent an hour to an hour and a half with the dogs after the finish before going to get pizza and then sleeping for hours.
Seavey has avoided craigmedred.news except to post a comment.
In a videotaped interview with the Alaska Dispatch News, Seavey conceded there were people keeping an eye on the Nome dog yard after the race, but the “dog yard monitors, they can’t monitor 500 dogs.”
They watch well enough to report when one of his dogs has been coughing, he said, something for which the musher expressed appreciation, but they can’t watch everything.
“It’s not uncommon to see a couple hundred dogs” in the lot, Seavey said.
There were a total of 31 dogs in the lot on the evening in question. Eleven belonged to race winner Mitch Seavey, Dallas’s father; seven belonged to Dallas; and 13 belonged to third-place finisher Nic Petit from Girdwood.
Doped in Nome?
Dallas has generally stuck to the view his dogs were doped in Nome, though he did suggest to Anchorage’s KTVA-TV that they were doped before Nome.
In the ADN video, he sounds confident of the Nome doping scenario saying first that “looking at the half-life (of the drug) it is most likely it was given after the finish,” and then later taking a giant step beyond that:
“I don’t know where they came up with the 15 hours,” he says. “The timeline on this drug is incredibly short. We’re talking 1.3 to 2 hours is the half-life. So it’s going to depreciate from there.”
And those half-lives, he argued, were based on sedentary beagles, not trotting Alaska huskies with a higher metabolism
“Of course, if a dog is active they’re going to burn this stuff more quickly,” Dallas said. “It’s going to go through their system even faster.”
He argued the Iditarod should have held a formal hearing on the doping positive so he could present experts to testify on how people should “look at the level of this. This is ridiculous. This was clearly given after the race….What sane musher would give a drug to their dog knowing it was going to cause a positive drug test?”
The answer to that question is simple: A musher who doesn’t fully understand the physiology.
Seavey is right about the short half-life of tramadol. It is a drug processed quickly in dogs as a handout from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine notes.
But half-life describes only what is happening to the drug as it is burned in the body. Because of the short half-life, levels fade fast in the blood. If someone gave a dog 100 mg of the drug 15 hours before it was tested, and the half-life was 1.5 hours, the drug would fade to 50 mg at 1.5 hours; 25 mg at 3 hours, 12.5 mg at 4.5 hours, 6.25 mg at 6 hours, 3.125 mg. at 7.5 hours, 1.6625 mg, 0.83125 mg at 10 hours, 0.415625 mg at 11.5 hours, 0.2578125 mg at 13 hours, and 0.12890625 mg – a minute amount at 14.5 hours.
Suffice to say that after 15 hours, because of the short half-life, the dog wouldn’t have a lot of the drug in its blood.
Urine, however, is a different matter. All of the drug stays there – either as the parent drug or as metabolites – until the dog urinates. The kidneys are scraping off part of the parent drug and sending it to the bladder. The liver is cleaning out the metabolites from the drug that has been used and sending those to the bladder.
If the dog goes 15 hours without peeing – not impossible for a sled dog used to controlling its bladder for an extended period of time while confined to a small dog box – the concentration of drugs in the urine just keeps going up as the drug and its metabolites accumulate in the bladder. If the dog pees a little, the concentration drops. If the dog empties its bladder and fully rehydrates, the concentration really drops.
How much Dallas’s dogs peed in the last 15 hours of the Iditarod is an unknown, but by the Bering Sea coast, most Iditarod dogs are struggling to maintain hydration, and they often aren’t peeing much along the trail.
Whatever the case, the high concentration of tramadol in the urine in no way means the drugging happened in Nome, although it would be a good thing if that was the case given Dallas’s suggestions on doping suspects.
Clearing other competitors
In the KTUU interview and elsewhere, Dallas has pointed a finger at other mushers.
“I have to consider that as an option,” he told KTUU. “I have my suspicions.”
“There are other mushers that were close to me on the race that I feel have a grudge,” he said in his own youtube video. “They do not like me. I do not want to get into all the details right now…. ”
A doping in the Nome dog lot would clear all but two mushers: Petit and Dallas’s dad, Mitch, and their handlers. No other mushers got to Nome in time to administer the drug within the proper time frame.
Petit has said he didn’t give Dallas’s dogs any drugs. Dallas and Petit are not the best of friends. The Seaveys and Petit run competing sled-dog tours out of Girdwood, a ski-resort community just east of Anchorage.
But Petit did help save Dallas’s race for him this year.
Among the mandatory gear mushers are required to have in their sleds at the end of the race is their “vet book,” which tracks veterinarian reports on their dogs over the course of the 1,000-mile adventure that this year ran from Fairbanks to Nome because of bad trails conditions in the Alaska Range mountains.
Dallas left his vet book in Safety, the last checkpoint before the finish line. Petit grabbed the book for Dallas there, carried it to Nome, and handed it over to Dallas so he could officially finish. The move appears to have cost Petit almost $5,000, the difference in prize money between second and third in the Iditarod.
Without the vet book, Dallas could not have officially finished, and Petit would have moved up from third to second.
Dallas has also offered an alternate version of when his dogs were doped.
“In Nome, after, after the finish in Nome, um, we talked to another vet that we’ve worked with in the past,” he told Anchorage’s KTVA-TV. “And um, and yeah, our crew and that vet were working closely together because they (the dogs) seemed…(pause.)…down. And, um, this was, this was something, that when this whole thing came up, it was like, “Oh, now I see what was going on. They were hit with a heavy sedative.” So we had them on heavy electrolyte. We were trying to get them to bounce back. Dogs that are usually very animated and perky aren’t wanting to get up and eat. Um, something was strange. And it was a short window. We got them on the electrolytes.We got them on all this stuff, and they seemed to bounce back. It’s like, ‘OK, maybe it was just a hard race.’ But I’ve never seen them finish like that, or after the finish be like that. And that was a bit concerning.”
Under this theory, someone could have doped Dallas’s dogs back at White Mountain – the penultimate checkpoint where the teams are required to take a mandatory, eight-hour rest before the push for the finish line – or somewhere along the 80 miles of trail between there and Nome.
Dallas floats this theory in the ADN taped interview, too. He was away from his dog team for most of the eight-hours in White Mountain, he said, and that could have given one of a handful of competitors or their handlers a doping opportunity.
He suggested other mushers might drug his team based on the suspicion “they’re probably already drugging, so I’m just going to make sure that they get caught.”
Where that idea would come from, however, is unclear given that the Iditarod has never before publicly revealed a doping positive. And doping in White Mountain this year would appear to have been difficult.
The 15-hour maximum time for the doping would stretch back to 9:24 a.m. on March 14. At that time, Dallas was getting ready to leave White Mountain. He departed the checkpoint only 11 minutes later at 9:35 a.m.
Some have suggested tramadol-laced dog treats could have been dropped along the trail and eaten by Dallas’s dogs, but Iditarod dogs don’t usually grab treats while booking down the trail and at least one other musher have scoffed at this idea.
Veteran musher DeeDee Jonrowe told the Alaska Dispatch News that when a vet prescribed tramadol for her pet Labrador retriever she couldn’t get the dog to take it even when hidden in his favorite food.
“I tried to hide it in those roasted chickens and that was the only thing Parker would eat at this point and he still would not eat it,” she said. “I had to put it down his mouth.”
She couldn’t quite buy the idea of tramadol-laced treats.
“Sled dogs are not eager to eat just anything any stranger puts in front of them,” she said. “I’m not really sure how that would happen without someone physically putting some sort of medication down the dog’s throat.”
There are other problems with the treats on the trail idea. Petit was only minutes behind Dallas all the way from White Mountain to Nome; none of Petit’s dogs were found with tramadol.
And four of the dogs tested in the Dallas team tested positive for tramadol. Dallas had only seven dogs left in his team by Nome. The mathematical odds that one dog in Dallas’s team would pick up a tramadol-laced treat along the trail are one in seven, or about a 15 percent chance.
Not great odds, but possible.
The chance four of the dogs would each randomly pick up treats drops to 0.15 to the power of four, or about 0.05 percent.
Dallas has also suggested the tramadol could have been dropped into a musher’s dog food while it was being prepared in Nome. Tramadol slipped into food in Nome or placed in treats given the dogs have become the favorite theories of those who believe People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) or some other animal-rights group might have tried to sabotage Iditarod, an idea Seavey and some other mushers have tried to further.
“Look at where all of our dog coolers are sitting before the mushers finish,” Dallas told KTVA. “The handlers prepare the food. There’s eight coolers lined up. No security…
“Ninety-nine percent of them (handlers) are preparing their stuff for their dogs with no ill intent. But there’s no security for whether it’s anti-mushing, (or) a musher that I’m racing against, but maybe their handler decides this. The musher might not even know about it. There’s a thousand options.”
There would actually have been only two coolers lined up when Dallas arrived in Nome – his and Petit’s, or possibly three if Mitchs’ team was being fed again. But even without the cooler shortage, Craig was skeptical of this theory.
The toxicologist sees flaws in the drugs in the gruel theory. The drug tests indicated the dogs got uniform doses of the tramadol, he said. For that to happen, the drug would have to have been uniformly and thoroughly mixed into the food, and the dogs would all need to eat the same quantities of food.
The uniformity of the doses in the four dogs would make a pill more likely, he said.
Tramadol pills, the standard form of the drug, could have been given the dogs to help them rest by someone trying to be helpful in Nome. But Dallas himself has largely dismissed the idea that dogs were accidentally given the drug, an idea he claims was first suggested by race marshal Mark Nordman.
Nordman has said nothing since this started. But Dallas has said that after Nordman’s suggestion, “I talked to my people in Nome.
“I looked into what we had at the kennel,” Dallas said in his youtube video, “and I came back to Nordman and I told him, ‘I know I’m probably supposed to say that I accidentally gave it to my dogs in Nome, but I have to tell you there is less than a half of a percent chance that happened.'”
No one has challenged Dallas’s decision to rule out an accident.
Weeks on from when the Iditarod first revealed it had a doping case and needed to change its rules, that conclusion appears to be the only thing on which everyone agrees: the doping was no accident.
That leaves only two options: Saboteur X or Dallas Seavey.
If it’s Saboteur X, you have to feel sorry for Seavey who now finds himself in the difficult position facing anyone accused of doping in sports these days – proving himself innocent.
Dallas would like everyone to believe this is because a doping case involving the Iditarod is somehow unique, because somehow Alaska’s wilderness, sled-dog marathon is the only athletic competition in the world where sabotage could be possible.
Don’t tell that to British horse trainer Hughie Morrison, who is facing a 10-year ban from that sport (Dallas faces no ban) because one of his fillies was found to contain the anabolic steroid nandrolone.
“I’m the responsible person [at the stable] and I understand that,” he told The Guardian back at the start of summer, “but I’ve got to leave no stone unturned. I’ve basically got to find the culprit to prove my innocence. I’m doing everything I can to get to the bottom of it. I’ve reported it to Thames Valley Police and I have offered a reward to see if this could take things forward.”
Morrison posted a reward of $10,000 pounds ($13,000). He has yet to catch the saboteur or to get a hearing before the British Horseracing Authority, though the doping mystery surrounding him sounds even stranger than that surrounding Dallas.
The filly, “Our Little Sister, (was) one of the most lowly rated animals in the yard, would have been a very odd horse to single out for doping with steroids,” The Guardian noted. “There were also no unusual betting patterns around the race concerned, in which she finished last.”
Morrison doesn’t even appear to have a motive to dope.