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-TV – the 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.
“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.
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.
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..
“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.