Iditarod starts drug testing; defending champ cries foul

Every human competitor now running the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race will be tested for alcohol and illegal drugs on the trail for the first time in the history of the 1,100-mile race – a change defending champion Lance Mackey believes is directed at him.

"I know for a fact," said the three-time winner.

Mackey, who has been open about using medical marijuana on the trail, on Tuesday was among the early front-runners in the race, which began with 71 teams Sunday in Willow. Canada’s Sebastian Schnuelle was in the lead, arriving first at the Athabascan village of Nikolai, 236 miles into the race. He was followed by 2004 winner Mitch Seavey of Seward, then four-time champion Jeff King of Denali Park. Mackey was running 8th.

Four mushers scratched Tuesday. Michael Suprenant of Chugiak and Zoya DeNure of Gakona cited personal medical problems. Karin Hendrickson of Chugiak cited a damaged sled and equipment problems. Kirk Barnum of Seeley Lake, Mont., said his dog team was tired.

Race organizers aren’t saying when or where on the route the testing will occur, but they add that they aren’t excluding anyone driving the 16-dog teams in the race. A musher who tests positive could face disqualification, a period of ineligibility from future races or both.

"We’re going to test everybody," said Stan Hooley, executive director of the Iditarod Trail Committee. "It’s not going to be random."

Race rules have included a policy on drugs and alcohol since 1984, but it has never been implemented, although the sled dogs have been tested for performance enhancers since 1994. Race organizers say they decided to formalize the policy for testing mushers beginning this year at the request of the Iditarod Official Finishers Club. The service is being provided by a drug testing company that’s among the Iditarod sponsors.

Officials say the idea has been discussed for years. However, Hooley said it would be difficult to deny Mackey’s contentions that he is being singled out for his acknowledged pot use and that other mushers have complained about it.

"The reality of it is he’s won the race three times and people would like to figure out a way to beat him," Hooley said.

Mackey, a throat cancer survivor who is seeking his fourth consecutive win, said other competitors have stated that his use of pot gives him an edge in the trek to Nome, which he adamantly denies. The 39-year-old Fairbanks resident is facing a misdemeanor count of marijuana possession after being found with a small amount at the Anchorage airport in January, after his medical marijuana card had expired.

The cancer, diagnosed in 2001, left him with lingering physical ailments, such as pain, bone deterioration and loss of his saliva glands. Marijuana helps him cope with his health problems, and it’s absurd that anyone would think that’s why he’s been winning, he said.

"Some people think that’s an advantage?" he said. "I don’t wish cancer on anybody."

Still, Mackey said he’s abiding by the new rule. He even will abstain from his prescription of government-approved Marinol, which contains the active ingredient in marijuana. Race officials say exemptions include the drug, but Mackey said he’s not taking any chances.

The 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, which Mackey has won four times in a row, has no rules that specifically address drug use among mushers.

Most mushers interviewed said they have no problem with the Iditarod policy.

"I think it’s about time," said Iditarod veteran Paul Gebhardt, who has twice placed second in the race. "The Iditarod is the Super Bowl of dog mushing and as far as I know it’s the only major sport that didn’t have drug testing for the athletes in it. They had drug testing for 16 of the athletes on the team, but not for the human one."

Canadian Hans Gatt, who won his fourth Quest in February and is running his 12th Iditarod, said the policy doesn’t matter to him because he never uses drugs. But he supports it because he considers the Iditarod a professional sports event.

"I think it’s a good thing," he said. "It keeps us clean."

Mackey conceded the Iditarod organizers are doing what they believe is necessary. But he does not consider himself a paid professional, because unlike other professional sports organizations, the Iditarod Trail Committee does not pay him a salary. If it did, he could understand being under its control in the Iditarod.

"It’s an event that we run nine days of the year," he said. "So what I do on the other 350-something days of the year is up to me, not them."