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Veteran Iditarod mushers weigh in on race's first-ever drug disqualification

Jillian RogersThe Arctic Sounder
Loren Holmes photo

Drugs and sports have always sparked rigorous debates and the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, a 1,000-mile trek from Willow to Nome, is no exception.

The most recent flash was sparked earlier this month when Iditarod officials announced that musher Matt Giblin had been disqualified from the 2012 race after testing positive for THC, the active compound in marijuana. Giblin finished 38th and did not return a request for comment.

He is the first musher to be disqualified from the race for drug use, though two mushers also tested positive for THC last year, but were not kicked out. Iditarod has been testing mushers for the past three races.

Giblin contested the charge, but was disqualified after an appeal.

"The rule was enforced this year because there was a positive drug test," said race director Mark Nordman. "There were positives (in the past) but the way the rule was written, we weren't able to enforce it."

The question of how, or if, smoking a little reefer out on the trail enhances or impairs a musher's performance is irrelevant, according to some professional dog drivers. A rule is a rule and drug testing is just part of life, whether in professional sports or employment.

Iditarod rule No. 30 states: "Alcohol or drug impairment, the use of prohibited drugs by mushers, and positive results on drug or alcohol tests administered during a Race are each prohibited. Violations of this policy shall result in disqualification from a particular Race, and may result in ineligibility from participation for a specified period of time in future Races. …"

"I think drug testing is good, and needed," said veteran Iditarod racer Sebastian Schnuelle. "Jobs drug test. Me, as an employer, I will always choose a clean employee over one with a drug or alcohol addiction."

Schnuelle has finished in the top 10 four times in his career and was second in 2009.

Schnuelle is a former employer of Giblin.

"If a musher cannot even pass a drug test during Iditarod, even knowing that it will happen in White Mountain, that is a pretty bad sign," Schnuelle added, referring to the second-to-last checkpoint on the race when samples from mushers are collected for testing.

Mushers are tested for substances including cocaine, PCP, amphetamines and opiates, along with THC. An updated list is released annually. Tests are performed via urine samples, saliva and breathalyzer.

Mushers are also subject to testing for alcohol impairment. The drug rule has existed in some form since the race's inception in 1984 but was not strictly enforced until this year.

And that enforcement is something the mushers themselves asked for as a whole, said Iditarod veteran Aaron Burmeister of Nome.

"It's a rule," Burmeister said. "It's been a rule for years, but was pushed by the mushers in the IOFC (Iditarod Official Finishers Club) to be clarified and enforced.

"It's a pretty cut-and-dry argument. Rules are rules, and if you don't abide by the rules, you're going to get busted. Iditarod is expensive and takes a lot of time; it's an incredible investment. So why would you risk that investment with a rule infraction? It's no different than me going to work, I have to work for a living, and if I fail a drug test, I lose my job."

Meanwhile, besides the fact that smoking dope before or during Iditarod is against the rules, perhaps a more important factor is that mushers are public figures and are followed by thousands of fans. Many of those fans are students who participate in Iditarod units at school.

"Us mushers act as role models," Schnuelle said. "Iditarod has a great teachers' program (and) we get stacks of kid mail. We should conduct (ourselves) accordingly and not (portray) ourselves in a way that (says) dope smoking is acceptable."

And not just during the 10 days on the race trail, he said, but all year long. Fairbanks dog driver Aliy Zirkle, who finished second this year, agreed that Iditarod mushers have an obligation because they are representing the race and the sport all the time.

"The Iditarod is a sporting competition of the highest caliber," she said. "I think sometimes people forget this and think that dog mushers are just out in the wilderness playing with their dogs. The Iditarod is the Iditarod. It's a big deal. That's why mushers now must meet intense qualifications and stand by the expectations and standards of the race."

Zirkle is also the musher representative on the Iditarod Trail Committee Board and said that at the 2012 post-race meeting, most mushers voiced in favor of drug testing.

Some even wanted more strict rules against drugs, she said. "After Matt was (disqualified) I actually haven't gotten in any debates about the rule. I would imagine that if Iditarod mushers were very 'for it' or 'against it' they would speak to me personally about implementing a change to the policy. So, if Iditarod mushers want a change to Iditarod rule 30, they should let me know," Zirkle said.

Not all mushers were as vocal about the punishment or whether they agree or not.

"I'll be racing in Norway (next) year," was all Iditarod veteran Hugh Neff wrote in a message when asked for a comment. The reason for the move wasn't clear. But according to Nordman, no one's really complained about the ramifications mushers face for getting high on the race.

"There really hasn’t been any backlash," Nordman said. "The rule has been in place for some time. This shouldn't have been a surprise to anybody."

As for Giblin, he will forfeit his title as a 2012 finisher and will have to pay back his $1,049 in prize money.

"Matt has been tremendously respectful of the event through this whole process," said Nordman. "He's a good man and is respected by his peers."

This article was originally published in The Arctic Sounder and is reprinted here with permission.