A month on from the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race’s first, publicly reported case of doping, four-time champ Dallas Seavey has hired a self-proclaimed San Fransisco “fixer” to clear him of doping accusations, and one of the many volunteers who make The Last Great Race a reality is questioning Seavey’s claim his team was sabotaged in Nome.
Bill Dickinson from Grand Rapids, Mich., was working the Nome finishing chute of the 1,000-mile race this year and was regularly in and out of the nearby dog yard on the evening Seavey finished. He is skeptical of the sabotage claim.
“I don’t have anything against the Seaveys,” he said in a telephone interview on Saturday, but 30-year-old Dallas’s suggestion that there were a lot of people in and around the dog yard who could have slipped a pain-killing drug to his dogs just doesn’t hold water.
“I didn’t see anybody doing anything with the dogs,” said Dickinson, who described a quiet dog yard all through the evening of March 14. Mitch Seavey from Sterling, Dallas’s father, reached Nome at about 3:40 on that Tuesday afternoon to claim his third Iditarod victory.
His son followed about two hours and 20 minute later to claim runner-up honors. Over the course of the next four hours, only Frenchman Nic Petit from Girdwood joined the group. The teams of these three mushers were the only ones in the dog lot during the time when the dogs could have been doped with tramadol, a synthetic opioid, according to the timeline compiled by drug testing authorities.
Mitch had 11 huskies left in his team when he finished in Nome; Dallas, seven; and Petit, 13; for a total of 31 dogs in the yard
Four dogs in Dallas’s team were later found to have been doped with tramadol, a synthetic opiod. They were the only four Dallas dogs tested by Iditarod officials. The four out of four selection from a pool of seven makes the probability high all of the dogs were doped.
None of the dogs in Mitch’s team or Petit’s team were doped.
There weren’t a lot of dogs to watch over in the dog yard, Dickinson noted, despite claims Dallas made to Alaska Dispatch News and other news sources that “it’s not uncommon to see a couple hundred dogs” in the lot. And Dickinson didn’t much like Dallas’s finger-pointing at others involved with Iditarod.
“They (the Seaveys) don’t have to be blaming everyone else for what they did, for something they did,” he said.
Dickinson is one of the army of 1,500 to 2,000 volunteers who each year enable the Iditarod Trail Committee (ITC) – a private, non-profit with a paid staff of only eight people – to stage the race from Willow to Nome or, sometimes in recent years, from Fairbanks to Nome.
Many of the volunteers are Alaskans, but a significant number come from Outside. The 66-year-old Dickinson has been coming for the past five years and plans to be back this year.
His annual Idit-a-adventure annually costs him $5,000 to $6,000, he said, but he loves watching the race and talking to the mushers. Still, he admits to concerns about where the race is headed.
“They need to clean up the top of the Iditarod,” he said.
The top has pushed the Iditarod from a 9- to 9 1/2-day race at the start of the decade to an 8 1/2-day or faster race in the last two years. Mitch set the course record this year with a time of 8-days, 3 hours and 40 minutes. Dallas’s time of 8 days, 6 hours, 24 minutes also broke the 8-day, 11-hour record he set only a year earlier.
Dickinson watched a youtube video in which Dallas proclaimed his innocence. The video did not leave Dickinson with the impression Dallas wanted to convey.
“You look at Dallas. You watch him talk. He’s lying,” Dickinson said. “He’s a liar.”
In part, Dickinson bases this conclusion on the video, but not just the video. Dickinson worked the Iditarod’s ceremonial start in downtown Anchorage as well as the finish in Nome this year.
Despite finishing with the second fastest time in race history and with the smallest team in the race – due to injuries or fatigue Dallas dropped more than half of his 16 dogs at checkpoints along the trail to Nome – the seven dogs behind which Dallas arrived in Nome were, in Dickinson’s view, downright frisky.
After 1,000 miles in only eight days, “shouldn’t they be tired?” Dickinson asked. “They looked like they were getting ready to start.”
Still, a canine researcher who has studied the drug extenstively said “the myth of tramadol in dogs is greater than the reality,” largely because the drug doesn’t produce the same opioid-like response in dogs that it does in humans. But, he added, tramadol can produce effects through serotonin and norepinephrine pathways.
He compared it in that way to the the popular human drug Cymbalta. Cymbalta is an anti-depressant now widely prescribed to treat fibromyalgia, a chronic disorder marked by widespread muscle pain and tenderness, and overwhelming tiredness. These are ailments from which Iditarod dogs often appear to be suffering as they near the end of the Iditarod.
How dogs look at the finish of the Iditarod is a decidedly subjective matter. Dallas himself has offered conflicting views on the state of his team.
He told Anchorage’s KTVA-TV. that he thought his dogs looked “down” in Nome, and when later informed they had been doped with tramadol, which can make some dogs sleepy, he suddenly knew why.
“…When this whole thing came up, it was like, “Oh, now I see what was going on. They were hit with a heavy sedative,” he said, adding that “I’ve never seen them finish like that, or after the finish be like that. And that was a bit concerning.”
Despite this early suggestion the dogs were doped before arrival in Nome, Dallas later changed his story to suggest the doping took place after the finish.
The “most likely scenario,” he later told the Alaska Dispatch News in a videotaped interview, was that “somebody had this drug, and was standing there, and the dog yard is vacant at 10:30-11 at night in Nome. there’s not a soul around, and took the opportunity.”
Requests to Dallas for some explanation of how he arrived at this magic half-hour for doping have gone unanswered. Dispatch News reporter Tegan Hanlon did not ask Seavey any questions about his “most likely scenario.”
Seavey’s dogs were drug tested just before 00:30 on the morning of March 14. He had arranged for the testing to take place at the end of the maximum 6-hour window for testing.
Drug testers have calculated Dallas’s dogs were drugged anywhere from two hours before the test to 15 hours before the test. A 10:30 p.m. doping just fits in their window.
Since Dallas was first revealed as the musher with the doped team, his defense has focused on sabotage either in Nome or possibly White Mountain, the penultimate checkpoint where mushers and their teams are required to take a mandatory, 8-hour rest before starting the final 80-mile push to Nome.
Though liquid tramadol is not easy to get – the drug usually comes in pill form – Dallas has suggested someone could have “injected” tramadol into his dog food in White Mountain.
“You’re going to run a needle into dog food that’s frozen into ice like a rock?” Dickinson asked.
Almost everyone associated with Iditarod agrees that the injection Dallas suggests would be difficult if not impossible. But if someone was committed enough, they could arguably grind tramadol pills into dust and figure out a way to get the dust into a musher’s dog food somewhere along the trail.
And if, as Dallas believes, there are other mushers out to sabotage him because they’re jealous of his success, or race officials out to sabotage him because he has at times challenged them, or animal rights activists looking for a way to discredit the race, there are potential motives for a doping Dallas calls “malicious.”
On Saturday, however, the Dallas anti-doping offensive shifted slightly from sabotage to faulty drug testing.
“Four-time Iditarod champion Dallas Seavey made a formal demand this week for test results from race organizers that allegedly showed his dogs tested positive for a banned substance in this year’s competition,” Singer Associates of San Fransisco said in a nationally circulated media release.
The company is led by Sam Singer.
“He has been dubbed ‘The Fixer’ by the San Jose Mercury News, a ‘Top Gun for Hire’ by the San Francisco Chronicle, and one of the most powerful people in the San Francisco Bay Area by 7×7 Magazine for his ability to impact the news for his agency’s clients,” according to his company bio.
“Singer represented Assemblywoman Mary Hayashi after she was arrested for shoplifting from Neiman Marcus. The media said that Singer helped her look ‘sympathetic,'” the company says on its Our Projects page.
The Iditarod release from Singer marked the first time anyone in the Seavey camp has suggested the dogs “allegedly” were doped. Up until Saturday, there had at least appeared agreement on that one fact. Singer is now trying to raise doubts.
“The transparency of the testing process, test methodology, chain of custody of samples, and results from the race organizers, Iditarod Trail Committee, must be made public,” the press release said.
The Iditarod had already outlined much of the methodology and chain of custody in an Oct. 23 press release responding to accusations from a Musher X, who questioned the drug testing. Musher X turned out to be Dallas.
The ITC response to Musher X outlined how “three trained individuals took urine samples in bags from four dogs;” “batched” two of the samples (a cost saving measure), and placed the samples into three tamper-proof, barcoded cups. Dallas’s wife, Jen, witnessed the collection of the urine and signed off as the witness to the seals on the cups.
The cups went into a locked box. The box went into a secured freezer in Nome for the night and was shipped to an accredited lab Outside the next day. The urine was unsealed and scanned using liquid chromatography mass spectrometry. The lab technicians saw only bar codes on the samples.
Sample submission cards with the identity of the dogs and the musher remained with Dr. Morrie Craig, the Oregon State University toxicologist who has overseen the Iditarod drug testing program for more than 20 years.
When the samples came back positive for tramadol, they were retested. They came back positive again. Craig then connected the name of the musher to the samples and notified Iditarod. Iditarod notified Dallas.
“The lab result data was transmitted to Musher X (Dallas) shortly after April 10, 2017,” according to the Iditarod. Seavey appears to now want another copy.
“The Iditarod Trail Committee has received the request for the drug test results and Seavey is currently awaiting the receipt of the tests,” the Singer media release said.
“I believe this is the first positive step that can be taken to shed a public light on what has been alleged, to clear my good name, and to clear the name of our beloved sport,” Dallas was quoted as saying. “I hope this effort helps all mushers and the race itself.”
Dallas has said repeatedly that he isn’t challenging the drug test solely for himself, but for the good of the Iditarod. Dallas was not punished for doping. He was not disqualified and was not required to forfeit his $59,638 in prize money from 2017.
Neither did the Iditarod release Dallas’s name when first revealing the positive drug test. The Iditarod Trail Committee, which runs the race, tried instead to amend its drug rule to contain a “strict liability” standard without naming anyone.
Strict liability standards are the norm in sports because it is all but impossible to prove doping cases beyond a shadow of a doubt unless the doper confesses. Cyclist Floyd Landis would likely still be a Tour de France winner if the U.S. legal standard of innocent until proven guilty had applied. And if Landis been able to escape the tentacles of the U.S. Anti Doping Administration (USADA), it is unlikely he would have helped to bring down Lance Armstrong in what became the globe’s biggest doping scandal.
Dallas thinks strict liability is unfair, and that he has been treated very unfairly by Iditarod. He has dropped out of the 2018 race in protest.
He is of the opinion that when Iditarod decided it couldn’t prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that he doped, the race had an obligation to prove he didn’t dope.
“What about the part where they could have proved I’m innocent and saved the sport?” he asked Hanlon in that ADN interview.
Instead of the doing that, Dallas said, they board changed the rule “without even speaking to me,” and then conspired to reveal he was the doper.
“The revised rule has been put in place because several dogs in a single musher’s team in the 2017 Race tested positive for a prohibited substance,” the ITC statement said. “In consultation with legal counsel, the Board of Directors determined that the ITC would likely not be able to prove intent.”
It said the musher’s name was being withheld because of the “sensitivity of the matter.”
That one piece of information cast a shadow on the Iditarod’s biggest names. A predictable chain of events followed. Other mushers demanded Iditarod release more information.
On Oct. 17, the ITC issued a media release naming the drug. The release also revealed that “several dogs” had tested positive and that the drug could have been given up to 15 hours before the test. But again, Iditarod refused to release the name of the musher.
Dallas was unhappy about the additional information, and the next day directed Wade Marrs, president of the Iditarod Official Finishers Club, to leak to Hanlon a “Musher X” statement claiming that “Musher X was determined unlikely to have administered a drug to their own dogs. Musher X was led to believe that the Head Veterinarian and Race Marshall suspected either an accident or possibly foul play in the Nome dog lot or food bags. They assured Musher X the issue was over, no further action was necessary, and that measures were being taken to increase security of the food drops, checkpoints, and the Nome dog yard,” the statement said.
“I also contacted you through Wade Marrs,” Dallas later told the reporter. “You can verify. I texted him a text and I said, ‘Call Tegan. Read her this text,’ saying that I wanted to speak with you anonymously. The reason I wanted to talk to you anonymously was because this information in the eyes of all my peers, all the mushers, I felt needed to be out there, needed to be observed unbiasedly.”
After the state’s largest news organization published the Musher X story, the Iditarod responded on Oct. 23 with a four-page statement defending its drug testing program. The release included this statement:
“Prior to the 2017 race, Musher X requested a delay in the collection of the urine samples by the ITC drug testing team after the finish of the Race, explaining that there were other tests that were already ordered by Musher X and that Musher X wanted to make sure the dogs were sufficiently rested for both the urine draw and the additional tests.”
Dallas then charged that the Iditarod had outed him by revealing he had asked to delay his urine test for the maximum 6 hours allowed under the rules so he could have some blood tests performed, though the Iditarod release mentioned neither blood tests nor the 6-hour time limit.
Despite missing these key words, Dallas insisted “hundreds” of mushers recognized the ITC statement referred to him. He then demanded the Iditarod release his name or he would do it himself.
In the wake of that, Iditarod that very same day finally released a statement saying that “because of the level of unhealthy speculation involved in this matter, ITC has now decided to disclose the name of the musher involved. The musher is Dallas Seavey, the drug involved was Tramadol (a pain reliever), and the tests were conducted in Nome after Seavey’s completion of the race.”
These facts can be viewed in any number of ways, but in Dallas’s view they were all part of a complicated and well-orchestrated Iditarod plan to “throw him under the bus.” Many of those familiar with the history of Iditarod can only laugh at the idea anything the organization does is well orchestrated.