Last Great Mess II


The athletes now the focus of an Alaska doping controversy/Frank Kovalchek, Wikimedia Commons

Almost 11 months after the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race received a letter reporting on doping in the 2017 version of the 1,000-mile run to Nome, race organisers finally released the unabridged document to Anchorage’s KTVA-TVthe official TV station of the Iditarod – on Wednesday.

Apparently, it was hoped the action would clear things up. But it only added to the who-done-it doping controversy that has surrounded the race for months.

The letter shed little light on a Tuesday eruption that saw the partner of Iditarod dog driver Wade Marrs accuse the race’s drug director of trying to coerce Marrs into keeping quiet about doping issues.

“…Dr. Morrie Craig informed Wade that in 2017 his teams urine contained trace amounts of a prohibited substance and if his ‘workings’ within the IOFC (Iditarod Official Finishers Club) and specifically with Dallas Seavey did not cease that information would be released,” charged Sophie DeBruin.

Craig quickly said that wasn’t his recollection of the conversation to which only he and Marrs were privy, and the Iditarod moved to smooth things over only to make them worse.

“Of note in the (April 10, 2017) letter and toxicology results obtained by KTVA Sports Tuesday,” the station reported in a unbylined story, “the Lidocaine – and the low level of Lidocaine – indicates that it was used as a salve, which contradicts what the Iditarod said when it claimed the drug had been ingested via meat.”

The issue is proving a serious distraction from the race now underway to Nome. The leaders were headed to the ghost-town of Iditarod and an expected long rest on Wednesday as behind them doping discussions swirled. 

The Iditarod Tuesday said the drugs found in Marrs’ dogs were likely from contaminated meat only to see that refuted by the race’s own drug report. Marrs is the president of the Iditarod Official Finishers Clubs (IOFC) and a friend of Seavey, whose dogs were found doped with tramadol in Nome last year.

Seavey said he didn’t do it and was sabotaged. Marrs had been maneuvering behind the scenes to try to help Seavey, his former neighbor in Willow, AK.

Before the 30-year-old Seavey, a four-time Iditarod champ, was publicly identified as the musher with the doped dogs in Nome, Marrs delivered to the Anchorage Daily News (ADN) a memo from a “Musher X” protesting that Iditarod officials had earlier cleared him only to turn around and try to destroy his reputation.

Seavey later publicly made similar statements on YouTube, while Marrs stayed in the background with his own dog problems hidden. Marrs contends he didn’t learn of those issues until the race restart in Willow, about 50 miles north of Anchorage, on Sunday.

Which raises other issues.

Drug-testing rules

“Chas St. George, COO of the ITC, said the levels of Lidocaine were so low that Iditarod policy didn’t require them to notify the musher, Wade Marrs,” KTVA reported. “Iditarod officials knew about the Lidocaine test result all along but maintain that it is not a positive result. That’s why, St. George says, the ITC kept it quiet and did not speak publicly.

“‘It did not rise to a level and we did not notify the musher,’ St. George said. ‘It’s a moot subject as far as we’re concerned. There was no second positive test in 2017.'”

Unclear as of yet is when the Iditarod Board was notified of the second test or whether it was notified. Iditarod drug testing policies explained to Alaska reporters in an Iditarod handout a little over a week ago make it clear the Board is supposed to decide what is or isn’t a positive test. 

“The role of the Drug Testing Program is to detect the presence of performance enhancing medications….It is a consulting role, as enforcement follows a Chain of Command beginning with the Race Marshall and concluding with the ITC Board of Directors as the ultimate enforcing authority,” the handout said.

Noting the distinction between a drug “detection” and a “Positive Doping Test” and a flexible Iditarod standard for what constitutes the latter, the handout outlined a procedure whereby detections are sent to Race Marshal Mark Nordman who then takes them to the Board to determine whether any of the tests should be judged doping positives.

Marrs is a member of the Board.

The April 10 letter the Iditarod finally released Wednesday is addressed “Dear Stan, Stu and Mark.” That would be Mark Nordman, the marshal; Stuart Nelson, the chief veterinarian; and Stan Hooley, the race’s executive director.

The letter outlines a number of drug detections categorized as “trace,” and two clearly forwarded to the Board as in need of review and a decision. The teams involved in those positive tests are identified simply as “Team 1” and “Team 2.”

Neither Seavey nor Marrs are named in the letter. “Team 1” is the dogs with Tramadol, later identified as Seavey’s team. “Team 2” is a team with three “batched” samples from two dogs each that came back positive for Lidocaine.

Craig summarized the data this way at the end of the letter.

“In conclusion for Nome, the Lidocaine confirmed positive at approximately 2-8 ng/ml (nanograms per millilitre) is a relatively low dose. Lidocaine is a common analgesic agent and this low level might be indicative of it being use as a sav (sic). On the other hand, the Tramadol sample was greater than 254 ng/ml and is indicative of a large dose administered relatively recently.”

A toxicologist working for Seavey was the first to suggest in mid-February that the Iditarod had another doped team, but the accusation then appeared to be pointing at metandienone, an anabolic steroid and known performance enhancer; theobromine, a stimulant and known performance enhancer; or naloxone, an emergency treatment for opioid overdose.

Those drugs were in notes at the back of a lab report.

The Iditarod said almost nothing about that first report of a second doped team.  Then Seavey upped the ante just before the Iditarod race start with an 11-page manifesto claiming a doping coverup involving the second team.

Iditarod response

The Iditarod’s response to Seavey was to invite reporters in individually or in groups to talk about the Iditarod’s drug program. This reporter ran into ADN reporters Tegan Hanlon and Kyle Hopkins coming out of their meeting.

These meetings were attended by Nelson, Hooley, Nordman and St. George. Craig, the man in charge of the Iditarod drug testing program, was absent. Along with answering some questions, Iditarod provide a handout titled “General Summary of the ITC Drug Testing Program” and a new “Dropped Dog Manual,” which included some changes in protocol to make things safer for dogs being shipped home. The latter has attracted no media coverage.

At the meeting, in reply to a specific question, Nelson said Nic Petit from Girdwood was not the second musher with doped dogs. The name of Petit had been spread widely in the sled-dog community. The name of the musher with the second doped team was not revealed.

And drug use other than the Tramadol was down played. Nelson said it was uncommon to have drugs show up in Iditarod testing. Nordman jumped in to say the race had once had a problem with Procaine positives. Nobody said a word about Lidocaine, which is a drug very similar to Procaine.

The handout explained that “sled dogs are unique, compared to most other athlete species. In general, the mean 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, horse, etc.) medications in urine drug testing.”

How the Iditaord defines “trace” was not explained. Nelson said the race has no “threshold limits” for any drugs. Threshold limits are used as a bar to decide when a drug is incidental and when the drug’s use as a performance enhancing product may be indicated.

Not long after Iditarod met with the press, mushers were given a “Synopsis of General Summary of ITC Drug Testing Program.” The only thing that changed from what the media received was the second word in the penultimate line where “foreign” became trace.”

But there was also a new last line:

“Every year we see 30-35 teams with these trace amounts” of drugs, it read. Why the media was led to believe drug detections were relatively uncommon when there are normally 30-35 per yer is a question that has not been answered.

But the lingering question now is how Marrs, who is on the Board, did not know his dogs were found to contain drugs. It could be the Board was never told the names of “Team 1” and “Team 2,” though Seavey has claimed Board members were “leaking” his name to people when he was still publicly only “Musher X.”

It could be the Board was told the name of Musher X from “Team 1,” but not Musher Y from “Team 2.” It could be Iditarod staff decided the board didn’t need to know about “Team 2” at all, and thus never forwarded the Craig letter for Board consideration as outlined in the Iditarod protocols.  It could be the Board somehow made a decision not to declare “Team 2” a doping positive in some sort of meeting from which Marrs was excluded.

Or it could be Marrs knew he had a Lidocaine problem and is feigning surprise about Craig coming to talk to him about it.

There are a lot of possibilities. The Iditarod’s public relations council emailed Wednesday afternoon that she was trying to obtain an explanation of what exactly transpired.

New drugs

Meanwhile, the full Craig letter is out there, and it has revealed new and more drugs: possible Ranitidine, a drug known to most as Zantac and is  used to fight stomach acid; Benadryl, a well-known anti-allergy drug; Vetalog, a fairly common steroidal anti-inflammatory; and a couple more interesting drugs: Meloxicam and Glaucine.


Meloxicam is found in the prescription, veterinary medicine known as Metacam. It is most often used in dogs for pain and inflammation associated with osteoarthritis, but would likely be used in an Iditarod dog to treat an injury that is causing inflammation.

Some vets believe Metacam causes fewer digestive problems than Rimadyl, a popular non-steroidal anti-inflammatory. Some mushers also use steroidal anti-inflammatories. Iditarod this year provided mushers specific instructions on how to make sure the most popular of the latter were out of the dogs before drug testing.

The dose of Metacam was reported “at 150 pg/ml,” by Craig, who added, “this is also a trace amount.” The volume is tiny. A picogram equals one trillionth of a gram, but “trace” is a relative term.

Alberto Contador lost a Tour de France title after testing positive for only 50 picograms of Clenbuterol. “Clen” is well-known among cyclists as a powerful weight loss drug that eats fat while actually helping to build muscle. The website Livestrong describes it as “a successful repartitioning agent, increasing the ratio of lean body mass to fat mass in animals and humans.”

In some countries, most notably China and Mexico, it is also used by farmers to put meat on the bones of their cattle. Contador argued he must have been sabotaged by Spanish farmers who surreptitiously and illegally doped cattle that produced contaminated meat he then ate. He lost that argument.

More interesting than the Meloxicam, however, was a report of suspected Glaucine on the scene in Alaska. Glaucine is something new and novel.

Three dogs tested in Fairbanks before the 2017 restart were suspected of containing the drug. The report describes Glaucine as “a cough syrup at trace levels,” But Glaucine is also being investigated in the equine world as a performance-enhancing drug.

Researchers at this point aren’t exactly sure what to make of it.

“Glaucine: Next Big Performance-Enhancer or Accidental Contaminant?’ Thoroughbred Daily News headlined in 2016.

A year later, The New York State Gaming Commission announced 11 horses had been disqualified from competition and “more than $100,000 in purses returned…plus additional fines and suspension for a single trainer whose horses had particularly high levels of the substance,” Harness Racing Weekend reported.

Questions have been raised, however, about whether the horses could be getting the Glaucine from shavings of the tulip poplar tree in which the drug normally occurs. Some dog owners, like horse owners, use wood shavings for bedding.

“Over the past year, the Commission and the New York Drug Testing and Research Laboratory have collaborated with other jurisdictions and national racing organizations to conduct research on Glaucine, which may be naturally found in wood shavings used to line horses’ stalls,” the Harness Racing report said. “New research conducted by New York and Pennsylvania officials substantiate that Glaucine levels of 500 pg/ml or greater in a horse on race day indicate that the horse was introduced
to a potentially efficacious dose of the substance on race day.”

The Iditarod report did not find measurable quantities of the drug, only indications that it might be in the urine. Glaucine, described as a hallucinogenic in people, is apparently used to open up the breathing passages of animals. The New York gaming commission has already set threshold limits. 

The Iditarod has not asked either of the mushers with doped teams to return their earnings from last year. Neither has the ITC suspended or fined any mushers.

Lastly in the Craig letter, there is the suspected positive for triamcinolone acetonide, commonly sold as Vetalog or Panalog. It is another anti-inflammatory drug and in this case a powerful, synthetic glucocorticoid.

It could be used as a drug to treat inflammation from over-use running injuries or possibly as a salve to treat harness rub on dogs. Cyclists use it to treat saddle sores; Lance Armstrong once claimed he used the drug for that reason in order to obtain a back-dated temporary use exemption (TUE) to keep from getting tossed out of the Tour..

Vetalog also happens to be one of the drugs about which Iditarod specifically warned mushers this year:

“To protect your dogs from a positive drug test, it is recommended that all medications containing prohibited substances be discounted at least TWO WEEKS prior to the start with the exception of  ‘long-acting’ respiratory products, ie. Betasone, DepoMedrol, Vetalog and others. These should be discontinued at least four weeks prior to the race. If you have any questions about medications, please contact me.”

Glucocorticoid drugs have been linked to an increased risk of gastric ulcers in dogs as has regular training.

“Athletic animals do suffer more from gastric ulceration…,” a 2013 review of the subject in Vet World reported. Gastric ulcers have long been an Iditarod problem. They have been linked to some past deaths, but the race has managed to largely cure the problem with the prophylactic use of Pepcid, an antacid.

There is some debate about the performance-enhancing powers of glucocorticoids, but they  are considered enough of a problem in the Mideast that UAE University in the United Arab Emirates is trying to eliminate their use in camel racing.

The university has been working on a program to analyze “the hair of the animal for corticosteroids, also known simply as steroids, which can be used to enhance performance to gain a competitive edge over others,” The National reported.

“The time limit for glucocorticoids in most biological specimens, blood and urine, is from a few hours to a few days, while hair provides a wider window of detection, varying from weeks to a year, depending on the actual length of the hair,” Dr.  (Ahmed) Murad was quoted saying.

Hair tests could stretch the detection period out to as long as year.  Hair testing been suggested for Iditarod dogs, too, but it remains in the experimental stage.











14 replies »

  1. I’ve been racing dogs for over 30 years and now finding that I am embarrassingly naive. I haven’t even heard of most of these drugs. I know the drugs routinely prescribed for spays and neuters. Also Prednisone and a few routinely given out on races by the vets. Other than that, I’m in the dark. Looks to me like we could print a 40 page list of prohibited substances and then find someone just came out with something new?
    Maybe— as has been suggested by some– we just count the dog that is the first one across the finish line. Drugs or no. Possibly we could bring back Martin’s sail and Jeff’s wheeled sled? Might even add a motor– as long as the dogs stayed in front.
    Seriously. The kennels need to begin drug testing as soon they are signed up for the race. Dec. 1 as of now.
    24 dog pool as of sign-up day. That would solve a fair number of issues to start. Also piss-off most of the larger kennels. Damn good thing I’m not writing the rules. I like a lot of Jeff’s rest suggestions, some of which would also negate the advantages of doping.
    Minor tweaks to the rules now in place are not going to solve the doping problems. Major sweeping changes are in order. Zero tolerance for prohibited substances for at least one year prior to entry. Contrary to the hair detection that was mentioned earlier as experimental, that method actually seems quite accurate, if I can believe what I read.

    • John, the International Federation of Sled Dog Sports (IFSS) has a 47-page drug policy applicable to just the dogs that is WADA compliant. The use of any substance on the “prohibited list” (a separate 3-page long document) both out of season and during events requires a veterinarian to sign off on and the organization’s approval to race the dog.

      By contrast the ITC’s drug policy and prohibited list fit on a single page (Rule #39) and could easily be interpreted as saying drug use outside of the race is just fine…but not too much during the race or we might decide to take some arbitrary action against you. If the IFSS rules were in effect for the Iditarod, Wade, Dallas and the 30-35 mushers with “trace” amounts of prohibited substances detected in their dogs would have “positive” tests and be sanctioned accordingly.

  2. The Iditarod, the board and the mushers, need to go through each and every drug being tested for and decide if they really want it banned. If they are telling mushers to discontinue using certain drugs a number of weeks before the race, that means that they are really OK with the mushers using those drugs. There’s nothing wrong with saying that they all agree that this or that drug are OK to use therapeutically. They can agree that wintergreen is OK for example. Or not. It seems to me that some of these drugs are useful and shouldn’t be considered cheating. You don’t have to use the same banned list as for other sports, human or animal.

    To facilitate that decision making process, maybe they should get a report on each drug on the testing list, describing potential for abuse, benefits, side effects, potential for harm and so on. Food contamination is really also going to be a problem if the testing is going down to the picograms per ml. You and I and everyone not eating organic everything would test positive for all kinds of things. Seriously. Reasonable threshold limits should be established.

  3. Prednisone, a steroid, is very powerful. A magic pill. Until you have experienced its effects personally or in a chronically ill animal, you can not really understand its power, or its risks. ‘Steroids’ are also a biological necessity and include the naturally produced cortisol and corticosterone, vitamin D, and the sex hormones. Prednisone is not to be equated with anabolic steroids either, like the famed Stanozolol, which felled Ben Johnson, and has also been used in horse racing. These are made with synthetic and/or natural androgens, like testorone, and are used to increase lean muscle mass.

    Regarding Rimadyl: it is an NSAID. I have used these on dogs (Metacam). Anyone who has competed seriously in athletics also uses NSAIDs. In fact, it has been the ‘go to’ prescription for dealing with a soft tissue injury (STI). We were told that to keep the initial inflammation down was key to recovery. It was a standard of care for an STI. Also, the ‘beta’ now is that you must keep a soft tissue injury moving to lessen the adhesions caused by scar tissue. Massage has also proven to be very effective, and you see many mushers using this modality also.

    Just because a kennel has a jug of Rimadyl or Metacam does not mean that it is being abused, just as, in my day, a big bottle of ‘Vitamin I’ (Ibuprofen – also an NSAID) did not mean I was doping prior to my competitions.

    This statement, “It seems to me that quite a lot of “medicating” of sled dogs goes on without the direct supervision of vets” is full of presumptions and not evidence-based. I suppose however, if Steve Stine considers Pepcid ‘medicating’ then it is so, but this, for dogs, just as in the horse world, has proven to eliminate GI upset and ulceration thanks to scientists like Mike Davis. This was pointed out in the article.

    Finally, and this is meant as a general statement, sniping from the sidelines does very little to advance the science of animal care. This race, and the work of Mike Davis and others on racing dogs, has advanced the science of canine health and biology, whether you like it or not. I agree that there are likely things that could change for the better, but unless you are contributing to constructive solutions, you might be better off sticking pins in a cloth doll.

    • BJ: Prednisone is a wonder drug. I’ve used it on myself as well as dogs. It is also a glucocorticoid, and these are a class of drugs for which there some evidence of performance gains:
      There are some pretty fine lines here between what constitutes valid medical treatment and what constitutes abuse. Look no further than the drug debate now swirling around Team Sky.
      I don’t think there’s any doubt, either, that there’s “quite a lot of ‘medicating’ of sled dogs goes on without the direct supervision of vets” I’d say that’s the case with all working dogs and many horses. I know there’s medicating that goes on in my house “without the direction supervision of vets,” and we’re down to two dogs.
      Most of the serious mushers I know are pretty pharmacologically savvy. I can’t imagine them running to vet for supervision of every little ache and pain in the kennel.
      Maybe what is needed here is simple. Those vet books mushers keep during the race should be kept on their Iditarod dogs year round available to the ITC to reference.

    • Mr Anderson,
      There are many different classes of NSAID’s…
      Some are “over the counter” and some like Toradol in humans and Rimadyl in K9’s require perscriptions.
      So, it is not exactly like your bottle of Ibuprofen.
      Much different.
      The stronger NSAID’s require perscriptions so vets and MD’s can monitor patients closely.
      And furthermore, an inexperienced handler is much different from a seasoned musher.
      More oversight is needed in dog lot sports in AK.

  4. This all proves that the ITC is a clandestine organization who answers to no one.
    Dallas and Wade should have been DQ’d from last year’s finish…instead they kept their prize money.
    A positive test is just that…if they were DQ’d they would find a way to pass the test in the future, or maybe you cannot train and race sled dogs thousands of miles a year without drugs….maybe just like racing greygounds…Iditarod dogs are pumped full of drugs all year long.

  5. ITC: “Dallas, tramadol was found in your dogs’ blood test. But we can’t prove you did anything wrong, so everything is cool.”

    Seavey: “OMG! I’ve been sabotaged! I’ve been slandered! “

    Craig: “Wade, we found lidocane in your dogs’ blood tests. But it’s only a trace amount and everything is cool.”

    Marrs: “OMG! I’ve been blackmailed! Everyone is out to get me!”

    Bottom line: The Iditarod would be a lot better off if drama-queens mini-Seavey and Marrs were gone. They are too immature, paranoid (maybe from too much pot?) and stupid to be pro mushers.

  6. Metacam is routinely prescribed for pain and inflammation by Whitehorse vets, especially if a dog receives stitches; I have some on my shelf.

    • the tramadol of Canada, Pete? i have some of that on my shelf and a big bottle of rimadyl. the go-to drugs here before tramadol was classified an opiod in the u.s. and a prescription became necessary. i haven’t looked, but i’m sure i have any number of other Iditarod-illegal meds on the shelf from years of treating retrievers. it’s the complicated world of doping, especially when you get into glucocorticoids.
      they are really great for curing injuries. we had a dog with a back problem i thought we were going to have to put down. vets wanted to explore multi-thousand dollar back surgery. poor guy couldn’t get off his pad to pee. i finally just pumped him full of prednisone, figuring we’d either OD him or drive the inflation down to where he might heal.
      the latter happened. it was a damn miracle. i think it might also have made him sterile, which he proved to be when we later went to breed him, but i got years and years of great work out of that boy afterward and he was always a sweetheart around the house.
      but there’s another side to glucocorticoids, too. they could easily be abused for performance-enhancement as they have been in cycling. i don’t what the hell the answer is for sled-dog racing:

      • strictly my impression but prescribing Metacam seems to have increased over time. Used to be something really painful before you got some, now it’s hard to leave the office without any and they are happy to provide kennels with extra. The stuff I have is 1.5 mg/ml Meloxicam

      • Craig,
        Remember that Abbie said how Dallas’s kennel had a huge container of Rimadyl that was given to any sore dogs by “handlers” after a long run or when the dogs appeared in pain.
        It seems to me that quite a lot of “medicating” of sled dogs goes on without the direct supervision of vets.
        Many drugs such as Pepcid many react adversely with other medications in the dog’s system.
        We both know without urine testing outside of the race week, the ITC’s anti drug policy is not worth the single piece of paper it is printed on.

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