NIKOLAI, Alaska - Dogs, not mushers, are tested for steroids, stimulants and other performance-enhancing drugs in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
That says something about which ones are the real athletes in this 1,100-mile journey over snow and ice.
These knee-high Alaskan huskies and other mixed breeds, weighing on average about 45 pounds, run silently and openmouthed over frozen rivers, lakes and mountains. They bark only when they know they're getting ready to leave a checkpoint, showing their eagerness to get back on the trail. After reaching the next checkpoint, they curl down onto beds of straw scattered by their mushers, then eat and snooze, even when surrounded by a dozen or more other teams.
It is this absence of barking, this tender silence amid the muffled landscape of snow and black spruce on the hills, that is most surprising to someone who has never been on the Iditarod Trail.
Norwegian Robert Sorlie, the 2003 champion, was the first to reach Nikolai, population 109 and the first of many Native villages along the trail, at 11:16 a.m. Tuesday as brilliant sunshine reflected blindingly off the snow in windy, 25-degree weather. The only ones not wearing sunglasses were the dogs, who run better the colder it gets.
They had run 80 miles through the starry night from Rohn as the northern lights put on a spectacular display, twin ghostly arcs spanning the horizon. The teams crossed the Kuskokwim River, climbed up and down sharp hills with steep grades, negotiated a deep drop at Tin Creek to the canyon floor and a climb up the other side. It takes more strength for the dogs to pull a musher and loaded sled uphill, but it takes more of a toll on their shoulders coming down. They kept going through tunnels of spruce and alder to Farewell Lake, through more forests, over the Salmon River to rest by the schoolhouse in Nikolai, 770 miles from Nome.
Sorlie had slept only one hour since the race began from Willow Lake, outside Anchorage, on Sunday. He looked as tired as his dogs, though they nodded off quickly after he used an ax to chop up frozen red meat, heated it up in a stew and fed them.
"They had a good rest, 8 hours, in Rohn," said the 47-year-old Sorlie, his eyelids droopy and his speech at times making him sound punchy. "I slept 1 hour, then nothing. I just lie down and take it easy. The first night John Baker lay near me and snored. I don't know why I can't sleep. Same as last time."
Sorlie was followed into Nikolai an hour later by Ramy Brooks and DeeDee Jonrowe, both runners-up twice and both running one dog short with teams of 15 after dropping struggling dogs. Rachael Scdoris, trying to become the first legally blind musher to complete the race, was at least a day behind in Rainy Pass.
Sorlie said he doesn't take any drugs to sleep or stay awake. If he did, it wouldn't matter as far as race rules. Iditarod officials don't check mushers for stimulants, steroids, blood doping or anything else. They do check the dogs for all that and more - painkillers, anti-inflammatories, diuretics, muscle relaxants, tranquilizers, opiates and still other substances.
When the teams of veterinarians examine the dogs at the checkpoints, they go around with cups attached to sticks to collect urine samples. Dogs are subject to collection of urine or blood samples at the discretion of the testing vets at any point from the pre-race exam until 6 hours after the teams finish in Nome.
No one has been found to be doping their dogs, but there are suspicions among some mushers that it's been done, if not in the race, then in training. Anabolic steroids and blood doping - the injection of whole blood, packed blood cells or blood substitutes - could help make the dogs stronger and enhance their endurance and resilience.
"There might be a few mushers who give the dogs a little help," Alaskan musher Ramey Smyth said. "It's not common. And none of it's proven, so it's total rumor.
"So much of what the dog does is in the brain. Even if you give them steroids, it would not be that much help. They give themselves a lot of their own hormones. You can have a slow dog, but if he has a brain that has drive and desire and heart and courage, he can overcome the rigors of the trail much better than a dog who looks like a tall greyhound. The dog that's tough can deal with it. Drugs are really not an issue, but that doesn't mean there might not be somebody who used some."
Two more mushers, Sonny Lindner and Jacques Philip, scratched a day after G.B. Jones pulled out.
Lindner, 55, a Michigan native who lives in Two Rivers, Alaska, developed heart palpitations and was flown from Rohn to see a cardiologist in McGrath, race marshal Mark Nordman said. Lindner, who finished 11th in his first Iditarod in 1978, was 10th two years ago.
"He had heart troubles years ago," Nordman said. "Something's come up. He's concerned, himself."
The French-born Philip, a 48-year-old doctor now living in Nenana, Alaska, severely injured the middle finger on his right hand coming into Rainy Pass.
"It swelled up the size of his knee," Nordman said. "They tried to duct tape it down, but it wasn't staying there."
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