Never before has the 49th state’s biggest sporting stumbled toward its early March start surrounded by so much controversy and disarray.
With CBS Sports nationally headlining that “Alaska’s Iditarod sled dog race under fire for doping, corruption and cruelty,” it is a hard not to feel for mushers pleading for some sort of positive angle on an event that has been in the spotlight of bad press since October’s revelation the team of 30-year-old Dallas Seavey, arguably the race’s biggest star, was found doped in Nome last March.
A four-time Iditarod champ, the youngest ever to win, and a driven competitor, Seavey is not generally representative of the dog drivers in The Last Great Race. Sixty-seven mushers are scheduled to show up at the Anchorage start line on Saturday. More than half of them are nobodies hitting the 1,000-mile trail to Nome not to race for victory but to test themselves and some of their four-legged friends against the Alaska wild.
They are those like 58-year-old Alan Eichens from Wasilla who keeps a relatively small dog lot and runs dogs purely for fun. Eichens’ best finish in the Iditarod is 53 in 2016, but he does hold one distinction no other musher can claim.
Eichens has run three Iditarods, and in all of them he has paced his team so carefully and cared for the dogs so well that all reached the finish line. And among those dogs in 2016 was Zeke, a little husky abandoned broken and abused at the Fairbanks animal shelter in 2015.
Malnourished and suffering from mange, Zeke probably should have died, but the Fairbanks Animal Shelter Fund saw to it that he got medical care, and eventually Kailyn Davis, a then 23-year-old student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, came into his life.
“I just felt so bad for him,” Davis said. ““I honestly didn’t think he would live.”
Davis adopted Zeke anyway, took him home, endured the ups and downs of returning him to good health, and one day when he was better put him in harness just to see if he had any desire to pull here around on skis. That turned out to be an eye-opener.
Zeke wanted so badly to run he could barely contain himself. Skijoring became Zeke’s passion. Davis, who’d spent some time training with Eichens’ dog team, eventually asked if she could try Zeke in the bunch Eichens let her run in the Copper Basin 300 Sled Dog Race, a mid-distance competition in Eastern Alaska.
The rest is history. Zeke performed so well Eichens asked if he could put the dog in harness for Iditarod.
“It’s just a miracle the dog even lived,” Eichens said, “and then he turned out be one of the best ones.
“He was a superstar. The whole way to Nome, he was just the cheerleader. He was always the first up no matter how far we’d run. He’d start howling and start barking and get the rest us of the team up.”
Davis was in Nome to welcome Zeke to the finish line, give him a hug, and load him on airplane home to Fairbanks to rejoin his house mate, Panda.
“Those are her kids,” Eichens said.
These days, a fit and healthy Zeke is back in the Interior with Davis, sometimes couch surfing, sometimes running local skijor races and overall enjoying life. Eichens, meanwhile, is getting ready to head up the Iditarod Trail with another odd collection of dogs and the hope he can yet again guide all 16 to Nome.
He is one of the many sort of lost in the Idit-a-shitstorm of the day.
Sadly the atmosphere hanging over the race – with charges of doping and sabotage still in the air, protesters from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals reported on the way north to Alaska, and rumors of mushers abusing dogs circulating – looks a lot like the weather for the ceremonial Anchorage start:
Four-time champ Seavey from Willow, a one-time Alaska reality TV star, is gone to Norway to run the Finnmarksløpet, a 1,200 kilometer (746 mile) race with a piddly little purse of 68,000 Norwegian krone, but he remains in the spotlight with a continuing assault on what he contends is a corrupt Iditarod Trail Committee (ITC).
He billed his jump to Norway as a protest. It’s certainly not a great business decision.
As of this writing, 68,000 krone equal $8567.58, which is probably less than the 20th finisher in the 2018 Iditarod will collect. The Iditarod has yet to publicly announce a detailed breakdown of the purse, but did reveal that overall it is down $250,000 because of pre-race, fundraising difficulties blamed in part on animal rights activists.
The race expects a payout of about $500,000 total. The last time the purse was near that small was 2010, and the 20th finisher pocketed $9,200 – slightly more than the winner will get in Norway. The musher 20th in 2010 was five-time champ Rick Swenson from Two Rivers.
Seavey has strongly hinted at a belief that Swenson, now retired but a member of the ITC board of directors, is among those who engaged in an underhanded whisper campaign to out the doped Seavey team the Iditarod kept under wraps for months.
Seavey believes there was a conspiracy on the part of the board to force his doped team into public view and, worse yet, a conspiracy to cover up a second Iditarod doping.
Seavey’s first accusation is old news; the second arrived in the form of an 11-page, single-spaced manifesto Seavey lobbed into the Iditarod firestorm from Norway last weekend.
Citing documents delivered by Iditarod to Seavey per his request for detailed information on the testing of his dog team, Seavey wrote that he’d found “very strong evidence that there was in fact another positive test this year.”
Seavey cites a data log for 27 urine samples from Nome dogs tested March 15 by Industrial Labs in Wheat Ridge, Colo. The “Result” column on the test starts with the letters NV (No Value) with a long line stretching down to the middle of the page that ends in an arrow below which three tramadol positives are listed.
Those came from four Seavey dogs. Two were from individual dogs, and the other was from two dogs batched in one sample. Tramadol is a synthetic opioid available in both human and veterinary forms.
Below the Seavey positive are again the letters NV, and another line ending with an arrow that runs down through five samples before it hits an empty, white box where data was covered up. It appears someone pasted a small piece of paper over what was written there before copying the report to send to Seavey.
Below the missing data are more NVs.
“ITC has repeatedly claimed there was only a single positive test this year that caused the rule change,” Seavey wrote. “This shows that there were at least two just from the Nome testing.
“Earlier, Stu (Iditarod Chief Veterinarian Stuart Nelson) said that the bench notes are just preliminary. So, this clearly says something made it past the bench note stage and onto this page.”
Seavey then goes on to engage in a lot of speculation about which team might have been involved and about the apparent discovery of nalaxone in another team.
“If the team tested for nalaxone that could be a hint that the other team was using tramadol while resting their dogs and then countering it with nalaxone prior to running to avoid the negative side effects of tramadol,” Seavey charges.
Nalaxone is a drug used to reverse opioid overdoses in humans. People and dogs metabolize tramadol in significantly different ways, however. Dogs appear to have trouble utilizing the synthetic opioid in tramadol, although a study on greyhounds did find they enjoy “a significant increase in pain-pressure thresholds…five and six hours after administration” of the drug.
The exact reason why is unclear. And there are no studies on countering tramadol doping in dogs with nalaxone to get the dogs to run better. There are also no indications tramadol has a negative affect on running dogs.
As noted above, it decreases pain, which is why some professional cyclists use it in competition, and why it has been found in some race-winning horses. It is unclear an Iditarod musher doping with tramadol would even want to give his dogs nalaxone.
The nalaxone is but one of several distractions in Seavey’s latest wandering and in some cases contradictory attack on the Iditarod, but he makes a sound argument that “in the 2018 Iditarod you are not racing under a strict liability rule, you are racing with a selective strict liability rule. If the ITC can choose who they call out and who they ignore then it’s not really a strict liability rule.”
The ITC, in meeting with reporters last week, issued a handout on the “General Summary of the ITC Drug Testing Program,” which in some ways only reinforced that Seavey accusation. The key points were these:
- “A (drug) ‘detection’ is not necessarily synonymous with a ‘Positive Drug Test.’
- “The role of the Drug Testing Program is…a consulting role as enforcement of suspected infractions follow a Chain of Command beginning with the Race Marshal, and concluding with the ITC Board of Directors as the ultimate enforcing body.”
Summary: There is a positive drug test only when the board decides there is a positive drug test.
The press release said the Iditarod couldn’t have a zero-tolerance policy “largely due to the fact that dog foods are not human grade and may contain some levels of contaminants.”
Other sports have settled this problem by establishing threshold limits for possible contaminants. Greyhound Racing NSW in Australia in 2012 set a threshold for Procaine, a pain-killer often mixed with the antibiotic penicillin in a cocktail used to treat ailing livestock. The threshold is below the dose that would be expected to be seen if someone shot an injured greyhound up with Procaine to allow it to get on the track.
Nelson said the Iditarod has no threshold levels for any drugs. Race Marshal Mark Nordman said Procaine has popped up in Iditarod drug test samples in the past, but the levels were judged to be due to contamination.
Nelson said last week he didn’t know how often testers spotted this sort of food contamination, but a Thursday handout to mushers said “every year we see 30-35 teams with these trace amounts.”
The musher handout is almost identical to that given the media, but the revelation about the number of annual detections of contaminants is missing from the media statement.
Meanwhile, in response to the Seavey accusation of a cover-up of a second Iditarod doping, the ITC on Sunday issued a press release saying it only withheld information about which contaminants were found.
“The other substances found in the samples were consistent with substances that may be present in feed-grade meats and are substantially below levels that might have been intentionally administered to the dogs for therapeutic or performance enhancing purposes,” said a statement issued under Nelson’s name.
It did not explain why the ITC was unwilling to name the chemicals in question. And it contained this rather contradictory line:
“Urine testing performed by the drug-testing laboratory utilized by the ITC uses qualitative methodology, rather than quantitative.”
It did not explain how the ITC could conclude that drugs that could come from contaminated meat, or that could also be used to dope, were “below levels that might have been intentionally administered to the dogs for therapeutic or performance enhancing purposes” if it had no quantitative data.
The four paragraph statement said Seavey didn’t get additional information because “the packet was not intended to supply information about all of the other samples that were analyzed at the same time. Hence, as part of the data packet preparation, the information redacted was not relevant to the positive samples.
“Sled dogs are unique, compared to most other athlete species. In general, the meat in dog food is not graded for human consumption, and contaminants may be present. In addition, sled dogs are typically fed high levels of additional meats, also often not graded for human consumption. Thus, foreign substances may be present in these foods that would then be ingested by the dogs. It is not unusual to detect trace quantities of ‘large animal’ (beef, etc.) medications in urine drug testing.”
The Iditarod’s public relations firm added that “this will be our final statement on this subject.”
That is unlikely to sit well with the Iditarod Official Finishers Club, which had asked for release of the redacted information. It earlier asked for the resignation by Feb. 15 of ITC Board Chairman Andy Baker.
Baker refused to resign, and the IOFC did nothing. With the race getting underway, it would appear unlikely the IOFC will do anything further about the redacted drug information. The group claims to represent all 700 living finishers of Iditarod, but less than 50 people appear to be regularly active in the group.
What the ITC drug testing program for this year looks like is unknown. Nelson last week said the Iditarod does about 300 drug tests per year.
The accounting for 2017 provided to Seavey revealed only 196 tests were done – 71 in Anchorage, 46 in Fairbanks, 21 in Tanana and Nulato combined, and 58 in Nome. The numbers indicate that if a musher did want to dope dogs after the restart (which was in Fairbanks last year but will be back in Willow this year), the chances of getting caught would be slim.
And some drugs, like the blood booster EPO, clear the system in a matter of days. They could potentially help a dog team power through the early and middle parts of the race. Five months ago, with the Idiatrod having never publicly reported a positive doping test, the idea someone would resort to such tactics to win would have seemed farfetched.
The report to mushers of 30 to 35 positives for contaminants every year might make a reasonable observer ask whether the key to being competitive in the modern Iditarod is feeding the right kind of supercharged beef.