Arriving in Nome I got right to work with one of the most important and unusual groups in the Iditarod…the “P” Patrol. These volunteers collect the urine samples from the top 20 teams as they arrive in to Nome. This is a very important piece of the Iditarod, one that ensures the health, safety, and integrity of the race.
As the teams pull under the burled arches, they are cheered and they celebrate. The “P” Patrol swings into action and waits for them with clipboards in hand to set up an appointment once they reach the dog lot. Volunteer Grace Bolt explains the process:
The musher or handler must be present for the sampling, and the work can go on until late in the night.
Aliy Zirkle’s team was my first experience, and the sleepy dogs were first petted and given some love to cajole them out of their nice, warm kennel to walk around a bit and do their duty. A simple Ziploc baggy collects the sample of urine, and then it is labeled and numbered to be sent to a lab for analysis of over 187 drugs and 9 different classes of drugs: NSAIDS, beta blockers, anabolic steroids, corticosteroids, opioids, etc. This makes the Iditarod a level playing field. The results come back to Dr. Morrie Craig and Dr. Stu Nelson.
As we went through the dog lot, the mushers and handlers were very supportive of the process, and many helped us pet and walk the dogs until we had enough samples to send to the lab. Nic Petit’s team had just pulled in, and after celebrating a little with family and friends, he helped us wake up his sleepy dogs so we could do our jobs.
The dogs are carefully hooked to a lead, and then unhooked from their neckline to ensure they are always connected. Then they are walked around until they look like they are about to urinate. We had many giggles making guesses about what positions looked like the moment; squatting was the most popular. Then, a Ziploc bag was held in place to collect it, it was poured into a sample bottle, and then labeled with the correct tag, team, and dog.
What is more fun that the “P” Patrol during the day? The “P” Patrol at night! Since dog teams come in at all hours, sometimes the team has to meet with handlers and mushers at odd hours to collect the samples.
We did the same job during the day, but headlamps were most important to the task with very little light in the Nome dog lot to help with “aim”.
All teams are tested along the race at some point, but the top 20 finishers are tested in Nome each year. Along the trail, mushers never know when samples will be taken. It might interest people to know that the mushers are tested as well. All of these actions help make the Last Great Race on Earth® a safe and fair event.
When the task was completed, the relieved pups were happy and ready for a nap in their warm kennels.
The 2016 Iditarod “P” Patrol team volunteers are: me (AKA the “spotter”), Holly Holman, Leonie B.T., Virginia Ruehl-Grigg, and Grace Bolt. There is even an official patch for my parka!