Sunday, November 4, 2012

Overstimulated

T6, the 'Carousel' at NHIS. The Skorpion had a tendency to understeer, which is visible in this pic.
The recent Ant West 'doping' incident reminds me of my own experiment with 'nutriceuticals' in search of a racing advantage. It was 1999; I raced in the Loudon Road Racing Series club events. So my 'home' track was a 600-mile drive each way.

At the time, New Hampshire International Speedway was basically the home track for everyone in the Northeast, drawing racers from as far as Washington DC to the South, and Ontario and Quebec to the North. On a big weekend, over 300 racers showed up; 1,000+ entries was nothing. The paddock was bigger, and the best-equipped teams were better-funded than Canadian championship races. Donna Karan's boyfriend used to show up with a 40' transporter and mechanics from Fast by Ferracci.

It would have been an understatement to say that I was outgunned. The year that I left my old club, out West in Calgary, I earned enough points to be promoted from Amateur to Expert. But when I showed up at Loudon to register the first time, I told them I wanted to transfer in as an Amateur.

I raced a shit bike, an MZ Skorpion, in three or four classes per weekend, and spent the first season learning the track and accumulating points. The LRRS club was so big that you didn't graduate straight from Amateur to Expert status, you went from amateur to 'junior', and then started accumulating points again towards your e-ticket.

The Junior races were real dogfights. I mean, in the Amateur class there were quite a few backmarkers who really had no aspiration of moving up. But the only people in Junior were young lions desperate to make Expert ASAP. Although I'd never really openly talked about it, at that point I'd already formulated the idea of going to race on the Isle of Man. I knew that step one was to get an AMA Expert license, which meant that I too had to graduate from the Junior class.
Slicks, Chevy sticker on the number plate. This must be an AMA Pro Thunder race, the year after I had an experience with a bark that was worse than most bites...
The bane of my existence, at that point, was a buzzing pack of Honda RS125 riders who populated most of the classes in which the Skorpion was eligible. The big points opportunity (based on grid size) was the GP Singles class, where winning was nigh impossible, given the technical superiority of the 'strokers.

In between races, I had a pretty comprehensive (OK, World Championship-level) training program going, in spite of the fact that originally mild lupus symptoms were worsening for me. I spent many hours a week cycling, alternating between long cardio stints on the road and short, intense burst training on a mountain bike, on a clearcut hillside near my house. I also had a bicycle trials training area in an abandoned quarry. I might've been old, on a shit bike. I felt as if all my joints were full of sand, and the clock was ticking on my racing 'career', but I had a resting pulse of 38.

I needed any and every advantage (or an RS125, not in the budget) so when I noticed an article about high school football players abusing a combination of creatine and some African bark extract -- the combination was said to increase muscle mass and raise testosterone levels -- I looked into it. At the time the yohimbe bark extract was banned in Canada, but available in the U.S. So on my next trip back from Loudon, I stopped off in Bangor ME, and bought some.

There was no measurable increase in my training capacity. (And I did measure everything.) But that's not to say that the bark extract didn't have some physiological effects. It sure as hell did. It made my heart beat incredibly, incredibly hard. Like, seriously, you could see it through my shirt. It was alarming, but I used it a few times because I thought, maybe it really will work.

I was already skeptical by the time of my next race weekend, but I had some of the bark-extract capsules with me, and on the spur of the moment, I took some before the Grand Prix Singles race. My rationale was, maybe a little extra testosterone wouldn't hurt my chances.

You had to take the bark-extract some prescribed amount of time before your workout. (40 minutes? Four hours? I don't remember.) Anyway, while I waited for the race and my physiological kickstart, it rained. That distracted me, as I had to run around and swap to full-wet tires.

From the off, it was pretty clear that rain was to my advantage. I'd had the 'benefit' of several races' worth of experience, running DOT tires in heavy rain on my previous bike (a Yamaha RZ350) and was used to the weightless feeling of hydroplaning. By contrast, the full-wet tires I now had (so did all my principle rivals) felt supremely planted. I always got a good jump on the 125s into the first turn, but usually lost several places as they got up to speed. This time, only two or three got past, and of those one or two scared himself, letting me by again.

I was in what felt like a safe second place, able to close the gap to the leader every now and then but we were pretty evenly matched for pace. I was doing the math in my head and realizing that second would pay well for points, but that first would be all I needed to qualify for my Expert license. I hounded the dude looking for a passing opportunity when he solved my problem by crashing out in Turn 10, a scrappy, slow, 'folded' right hander where the road course drops down a hill and rejoins the oval's infield.

I couldn't believe my good fortune.

Then, the yohimbe kicked in. My heart started to pound so hard it was bone-bruising my sternum from inside. I actually thought, I'm having a fucking coronary right now. When I tucked in, on the straightaway, my redlining heartbeat pushed my body rhythmically up and down on the tank, ba-bump, ba-bump. With about three laps to go, I agonized over pulling into pit lane, but honestly I felt so close to just dying that I thought, there's a good chance I'll pull into pit lane and keel over there. I figured if I was going to die, I might as well die on the track.

If you're in a safe first place, you really, really want to see that last-lap flag. But usually it's because you want to win, not because you're worried that you're about to have a major heart aneurysm. The last lap took forever.

I did, of course, survive. And while I treasured that crappy first-place trophy, I never took yohimbe again. It was not until just now that I Googled the stuff, and read this under 'adverse affects'. [Comments in red are mine.]
Higher doses of oral yohimbine may create numerous side effects, such as rapid heart rate[no kidding], high blood pressure[ditto], overstimulation[already plenty of stimulation in the race],insomnia and/or sleeplessness. Some effects in rare cases were panic attacks[not good in a motorcycle race], hallucinations[ditto], headaches, dizziness, and skin flushing. 
Yohimbine in combination with drugs that inhibit the reuptake of norepinephrine, such as dextromethorphan, tramadol, some antidepressants, and central nervous system stimulants used to treat ADHD, can cause a hypertensive crises. This is due to those drugs in combination with an a2 receptor antagonist leads to too much norepinephrine in the brain, which causes blood pressure to spike to dangerous levels[I wasn't using any of those drugs, but I was experiencing the symptoms of a hypertensive crisis, which include extreme anxiety. Who wouldn't be anxious, thinking they were having a heart attack during a motorcycle race?]
More serious adverse effects may include seizures and renal failure. Yohimbine should not be consumed by anyone with liver,kidney, heart disease, or a psychological disorder[which pretty much describes anyone who wants to race motorcycles].

While I treasured that crappy first-place trophy, I never took yohimbe again. I'm not sure how the second-place guy would've felt if he'd known I was an unwitting (or perhaps merely witless) drug cheat. I doubt that, after all these years, LRRS expunge me, Lance Armstrong-style, from the record books.

I did use the points to move up to the Expert class, gain an AMA Expert license, use that to qualify for an FIM Expert license, and thus meet the criteria to apply for a TT entry. By then, I was taking lupus control drugs that, while they didn't make me feel funny, would have made me medically ineligible, so I did keep a little drug secret until the end of my racing days.

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