I get to race a nice bike at cool places thanks to these guys:

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Nick Backstrom: A More Reasoned Reaction

My entry on Sunday was a quick scribble of knee-jerk reaction and a regurgitation of select facts, combined with bonk-fueled speculation about Nick Backstrom's positive drug test and his subsequent disqualification from the Olympic Gold Medal game in Sochi.  I've had a few days to look for some better information, and I am decidedly not writing this entry immediately after a 2.5 hour workout.

To be fair, I still am unclear as to which organizations are pulling what strings in this ordeal.  Is it the IOC pressing this matter, or the IIHF?  Is WADA even involved?  Are the using WADA's banned list?  Without knowing these things, I can't do more than unintellligibly shout that this is someone's fault.  Still, after looking through all the details I have been able to find, I am still holding to my original general consensus that this isn't any one person or entity screwing up badly, it is more likely a sum of a number of unfortunate happenings all snowballing into a very, very sad result for Nicklas Backstrom.

The first 'shame-on-you' finger you'd throw if you are a Nick Backstrom fan would be pointing straight at the Olympic officials...that is to say, whatever group/s that are in charge of drug testing and subsequent rule enforcement.

I was right there with you in being angry with these folks.  At the very least, they have admitted by apology that they took too long to analyse Nick Backstrom's urine sample, and you'd have to assume that they 'get it' about how poorly timed the actual disqualification was.  Still, I would contend that if they were truly compassionate to what has happened here, this matter would already be concluded: they would have given Backstrom a 1-game suspension (the Gold Medal game he was pulled from) and awarded him the Silver Medal that his team earned.  Per Greg Wyshynski on Twitter, the IIHF Chief Physician says Backstrom is "an innocent victim".  This is important.

Shortly after I posted an initial rant on Facebook about this affair, an old coach of mine and devout hockey dad forwarded me an old Sports Illustrated article from 1998 titled 'Hockey's Little Helpers.'  I assumed this was going to be something about mighty mites on ice, but after clicking on it, my eyes immediately parsed the word Sudafed a few lines into the article.  The piece goes on to describe how NHL players and trainers admit to pseudoephedrine being used deliberately as an ergogenic aid during games.  This caused me to have a very big sad.

If you are a cycling reader of mine, then this sort of documentation about the abuse of drugs in sport will be 'cute' compared to reading details of blood doping taking place on team buses in between races.  If, however, you are a hockey fan who discovered my blog just the other day and are not used to investigative journalism on doping, I implore you to not go very far down the rabbit hole.  It is an extremely toxic subject that can ruin the way you look at players and spoil your enjoyment of the game.

The main takeaway I took forth from the SI article is not that 'some hockey players cheat', but that the IIHF likely knows to look for pseudoephedrine abuse.  If Hockey is (or was) saturated with Sudafed abuse, it is understandable that the initial reaction for a positive drug test of the substance would be to impose a sanction, regardless of the indicated quantity of pseudoephedrine found.

Still, the IIHF had its Chief Physician quoted as saying he (Backstrom) is an innocent victim.  Surely he can read between the lines and see the difference between a daily dose of Zyrtec-D, and gobbling more than a few sudafed pills right before a game.  Yes, rules are rules, and Nick Backstrom has indeed broken the rules by taking enough of his allergy medication to break the allowed threshold for pseudoephedrine.  Yet, I still maintain that WADA, as recently as 2010, adjusted the allowed limit of the substance to eliminate punishment of those taking it for reasonable medicinal uses.

The 150 microgram per milliliter limit was an extrapolation of what they found in tests to be the average concentration of the substance you would find in someone taking a standard dose of Sudafed (240 mg).  The actual verbage in the WADA document describing their threshold reads:

The threshold level has been established based on the intake of therapeutic doses of 
PSE, defined as a maximum daily dose of 240mg

I highlight average because, while there is an allowable limit, everyone's metabolism is different.  (Cited is a study showing how multiple people can take the same dose of pseudoephedrine and come out with different urine levels)  This means that, despite WADA allowing some leeway for an athlete to take an acceptable amount of the medication, you can take this dose that they attempt to make legal and STILL go over the threshold in a urine test.  I maintain that WADA is trying to do the right thing with this threshold allowance, but unfortunately, I think they are setting the cutoff a little bit too short.  One other bit that isn't taken into account is the residual buildup of pseudoephedrine that occurs when taking it daily over a period of time.  I don't have any studies to cite and back this point, but it is only logical that this drug will show up in your urine for more than 24 hours, and so, when taking it daily for reasonable medicinal purposes, your urine concentrations of pseudoephedrine are going to rise.

I'm concluding this 'sciency' part of my analysis by saying that hockey blog and forum commentors insinuating that 'maybe Nicky does dope...is that how he can stick handle so well?'  No...just...no.  Read into that SI article posted above; a veteran player believes a lot of the angry and hyped-up, dirty play could be a result of players taking stimulants before games.  Nick Backstrom is one of the coolest, most calm players you will see in the NHL.  I'm not going to say that I know how pseudoephedrine effects different people, but he doesn't look like he has been taking a bunch of uppers before games for the past 7 years.

Moving on, I'd like to clarify some of my conspiracy theories I jotted down the other day having to do with Team Sweden.

As an athlete eligible for USADA and WADA testing, I would be expected to file a TUE if I took Zyrtec-D every day (for you cycling heads, I hate the -D formulations of antihistamines and rely on regular Zyrtec and Benadryl for my own issues) .  Nick Backstrom says the Swedish team knew about his Zyrtec-D, and he made certain that the doctors knew.  Perhaps they could have filed a TUE with the organizers?  The form is right here!

Secondly (and I am far too lazy to research this), what if the team doctors live in a country where Zyrtec is not offered in the variant that contains pseudoephedrine?

Here in the U.S. you can buy brand name decongestants that have taken pseudoephedrine out of the formula and replaced it with phenylephrine.  This is the difference between the sudafed you can pick up off the shelf, and the sudafed that you have to show your I.D. for.

I see two instances where the team doctors could have reasonably 'dropped the ball' here:
- Misunderstanding Nick's Zyrtec-D for a formulation that does not have pseudoephedrine
- Not being aware that the 240mg 'allowance' set by WADA is not rigidly reliable, (as we've explored above)
Prospective blame aside, these teams have a lot to do in a very limited time to prepare for international tournaments.

Let's move on to how Nick Backstrom is, well...moving on from this.  Yesterday, Monumental Network posted a press conference with Nick held at the Kettler Iceplex.  The Capitals' local sports reporters immediately asked questions about his Olympic experience and its tragic end.  By his answers, it sounded like Nick's head was in the right place: not focusing on what has already happened, not dwelling on the toxic and murky nature of doping sanctions, and looking ahead to his NHL teammates and the remaining regular season campaign.

Reading into this press conference, I compare it to past interviews of pro cyclists who would later be revealed to be dopers, denying accusations and proclaiming that they are 'clean'.  To be honest, there is no comparison to be made.  Nick is forthcoming in his answers and the most frustrated we see him is when he says 'next question.'  Look at Lance Armstrong's "I'm sorry you don't believe in miracles" speech, or Floyd Landis' explanation of Jack Daniel's roofing his testosterone levels.  Then there is the often repeated, stern assertions of being a clean athlete.  Nick simply stated that he's taken the drug before in international play, and it has never been a problem.

As Team Sweden said: this is NOT a case of doping.  Given the circumstances, the limited level of pseudoephedrine found to be above the legal threshold, and the rocky stance the NHL has in allowing its players to compete at international tournaments, I sincerely hope that Nick gets his medal.  The Sochi games hooked a lot of new hockey fans over the past two weeks, and I'm sure that the familiarity of so many NHL names was no small part of that.

Yes, he broke the rules.  Yes, the IIHF have good reason to be proactive against this drug in particular.  Yes, Team Sweden should have filed a TUE.  Yes, an officer of the IIHF knows this is not a case of stimulant doping.  So far, this is a calamity of errors.  Let's cross our fingers that the IIHF and IOC put an end to this negative cycle and do the right thing: levy no further sanction against Nicklas.

I leave you with a photograph of me, beginning a bicycle commute to downtown D.C. wearing my Nicklas Backstrom jersey over top of my backpack.  I hope this all brings out the Mean Lars for the last half of the NHL season.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Nick Backstrom Positive

Warning: wall of text ahead!  I'm not going to bother proofreading this, but I wanted to get it out there.  I've seen a lot of unsure information on the web today, and wanted to voice some science and editorial.  I'm sorry if I'm missing recently published information; I was on the bike all afternoon and started punching away at the keys as soon as I got back.

Today, Nick Backstrom was disqualified from the Sochi Olympic games, roughly 2.5 hours before he was set to take the ice in the Gold Medal game against Canada.  The reason for his DQ was a substance test of his coming back positive for psuedoephedrine.

Let's set things straight here: psuedoephedrine can absolutely be used to gain a competitive edge on your opponents.  It is a stimulant that is expressedly prohibited by WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency), and it is commonly known as the Sudafed that you have to get from behind the counter at your local drug store.  

According to Nick Backstrom, Team Sweden, and the Washington Capitals, he suffers from severe allergies, and uses an allergy medicine regularly to control his symptoms.  By the reporting, it appears he uses Zyrtec-D (good choice!)  Also reported is that his doping control test showed 190mg of psuedoephedrine.

The very first thing I want to clear up is the technical side of the chemical being in his system, and what that means.

The bit going around the sports reports of his test showing 190mg is an accidentally false statement.  The way they do the test (unless things have changed since WADA published its 2014 Banned Substances List), they look for concentrations of chemicals in urine.  Psuedoephedrine is actually legal by WADA's standards up to 150 MICROgrams per milliliter of urine.  If Nick Backstrom pissed a sample that contained 190 mg of psuedo, he is going to be the subject of a spinoff from Breaking Bad.  More than likely, someone misheard micrograms for milligrams, and along the story went.  From here on out, I'm going to assume he was popped and the findings showed 190 ug/ml.

WADA's limit of 150 ug/ml is set up to allow for the reasonable use of common medicines in amateur athletes.  In the sport I participate in, cycling, there are many opportunities for me to race at a high level where I will be subject to drug testing.  Rather than expecting every athlete under the sun to read the rules (which you are usually required to), they found it easier to put a threshold number out there so that someone who took a sudafed two days ago wouldn't have to go through a positive doping control.  

This 150 ug/ml limit is derived from a rounded estimation of how much pseudoephedrine you would expect to find from a urine analysis of someone who took a recommended day's worth of Sudafed.  See here for a WADA document detailing this.  This is actually really cool stuff that WADA thought things through so that you can take a day's worth of sudafed in whatever form it might be dosed out as, and after it breaks down in your body and you pee it out, you should be under the threshold!

Well, they only really thought about that first day of dosing.  In Nick's case, he is taking Zyrtec-D on a daily regiment.  The thing about drug testing is that different substances stay detectable in your body based on your own body's metabolism, as well as their basic half-life.  For Nick, taking Zyrtec-D every day keeps a concentration of psuedoephedrine going, its metabolites build up quicker than they can be totally cleared from the body.  The end result is that while he may only be taking a standard dose of Zyrted-D or Sudafed each day, he is pissing out a bigger number than WADA built in to their threshold level.  

I know this because I am an amateur athlete with major allergy problems.  Because I compete at the top level of amateur cycling, I educate myself on the rules that I sign my name to when I am issued a racing license.  A few years ago, I saw an allergist and tested highest level sensitivity to every allergen except for peanut butter (which is ironic, because I always thought I was allergic to PB!)  Right then and there, I was given an albuterol inhaler, a few epi-pens, and Zytec-D along with orders to go through a few years of weekly allergy shots.

Without thinking, I switched out to regular Zyrtec, and only used Sudafed when my sinuses became congested.  For me, I feel like crap when I take Sudafed and try to train.  I feel weak, a little feverish, and I bonk pretty easily.  Still, daily Zyrtec and allergy shots changed my life.  In years past, I would lose weeks of training in the spring due to various eruptions of hayfever and sinus infections.  I'd blow all my sick days and more because I was incapable of operating on a basic level.

This might be a conspiracy theory, but what if Backstrom's susceptibility to migraines is not a result of Rene Bourque's horrible elbow-to-the-head, but rather his allergies blowing up?

Rene Bourque should be universally booed in the DC Area

When I have a REALLY bad allergy day, things get so bad that I am sort of like white-blind or snow-blind.  I've gotten on the wrong Metro train before, gotten off at the wrong stop, went to get food and walked around the block mindlessly for 15 minutes because I am unable to constructively figure out what I am trying to do.  

I am also very sensitive to other athletes using allergies as a con.  While I was given an inhaler to use, I never do.  I feel that it opens your lungs up too much, and causes you to suck in whatever allergen you react to deeper than your body's natural defenses would otherwise allow.  I used my inhaler once before a race during allergy season, and I ended up wheezing really badly at the end all the same, and ended up sick for a week afterwards.  I once advised a fellow racer on seeking advice for how to deal with allergies.  He asked me so incessantly on where to go, who to see, and what it was that got me the inhaler...I answered him truthfully and in particular, that I advice against using an inhaler for racing and training.  Three weeks later, I am beside him at the starting line of a race and watch him pull an albuterol puffer out from his pocket and just go to fucking town on the thing.  'You are fucking kidding me' I muttered, and never spoke to him again.

With my personal story said, I understand Nick Backstrom's issue fairly well, and I also understand why WADA needs to have a line that you cannot cross...they problem is that they drew the line in the very middle of an extremely grey area.  

As an allergy sufferer, it is insane to think of traveling and sleeping in a hotel without loading up on antihistamines.  Sleeping on a foreign pillow can give me bad congestion and sensitivity to light.  When you travel to a different area, sleeping accommodations aside, you have to think of the new local ecosystem, what different types of grass or tree pollen there might be, and what time of the annual allergy calendar it is there.  At the Sochi games, Nick Backstrom did inform his team management that he took Zyrtec.  This is where things get even looser.

Backstrom earns his primary paycheck from an NHL team, the Washington Capitals.  The NHL seems to be responsible for drug testing its own players, rather than leaning on WADA or USADA (US Anti Doping Agency).  I don't know this for a fact, but I believe it to be true, as Nick and the Capitals state publicly that he's been taking this allergy medication for several years, and it has never been an issue.  Any USADA test would have triggered an adverse analytic finding, and this discussion would have been on a different day under much less devastating circumstances.  

The NFL is another example of a league that deals with athlete doping in-house.  You occasionally hear about positive drug tests (most recently, one of the Seahawks' secondary players taking adderall), but because it is kept in-house, the NFL can manage how (and possibly IF) the information is released to the public.  In this instance, under international rules, there is no league entity looking to protect itself and its players, similar to my sport of cycling.  Cycling continuously turns out doping positives because every single possible positive is IMMEDIATELY published and propagated.  There are some organizations in cycling that are responsible for hosting major races such as the Tour de France, but they have only loose associations with teams, and do not fully cooperate with teams.  As such, the sport is very 'open' which allows for new teams to participate, but it misses out on the stability that sports with built in governance enjoy (such as the major sports here in America.)

Back from that tangent, the takeaway is that Team Sweden and Nick Backstrom should have thought to register for a Therapeutic Use Exemption, or TUE.  A TUE is a document that you get a doctor to sign off on saying that you have a legitimate reason to use a prescribed amount of a banned substance because of clinical reasons.  

It is reasonable to say that Nick simply didn't think about this.  Being a member of the NHL, he likely doesn't have to worry about this sort of thing and it didn't cross his mind.  He did go as far as making sure Team Sweden knew about it, which leads to another wild thought: what if the team Doctor didn't think about a TUE because Zyrtec is not sold containing Psuedoephedrine in Sweden?  This is a wild, shot-in-the-dark explanation for how the ball may have been dropped multiple times by multiple people; I'm just trying to illustrate how this is all such a grey area that you could call it...50 shades of grey.

Finally, I will get to my pissed-off-fan-of-Nick-Backstrom side:  why in the hell did it take the IOC decide to disqualify him two and a half hours before the gold medal match?  As an athlete, I've raced against guys who have been busted for LEGIT performance enhancers: steroids, EPO and the like.  It always takes WADA and USADA months and months to actually do anything to someone who gets popped.  Meanwhile, the athletes who test positive area usually allowed to finish out their seasons before any announcements are made.  One particular local rider won a National Championship on the dope.  Months later, USA Cycling would DQ the result and award the win to the rider who placed second, but that rider never got to enjoy the victory.  They never got their photograph on top of the podium with the national champion's jersey on their shoulders.

In Sochi, at the highest level of competition, it seems only reasonable that, not only are they taking urine samples for doping controls, but they are running the tests on-site so that they can catch cheaters immediately.  The worst thing of this whole story is that, apparently, Backstrom's sample that tested positive for 190 micrograms per milliliter (or milligrams...whatever) was taken a WEEK ago. Edit: Reader Ron W points out that his sample was taken on Wednesday, which would allow three days to process and analyse his sample.  To stick to my ranting tone, I am not editing any further text. They let him play though games all week, and only two and a half hours before the biggest game of this man's life do they sent a man in a coat to escort Nick from the dressing room and inform him that he has been disqualified, that he cannot help his team bring home gold for their country.  Imagine what thoughts and sorrow must have been going through Nick's head as his teammates struggled to find the back of the net against Team Canada.  I'm sure he felt cheated, felt confused, and felt that he somehow let down his teammates.

Still, what if none of what I wrote is true.  What if his allergy story is just a story?  What if he was trying to one up his abilities in hockey by taking a drug?  If you were a professional hockey player, and would stop at NOTHING to win a gold medal in the olympics, what drugs would you take to play 'out of your mind' as they say?  Testosterone?  EPO?  Maybe you'd look into HGH?  How about a stimulant?  I heard adderall is all the rage in the NFL and crossfit gyms, it must be pretty good.  What about something simple and legal, like loading up on caffeine?  There are lots of studies about how caffeine is a legal performance enhancer that works...Naw, screw that.  Give me some psuedoephedrine!  I'll take one 24 hour tab, plus a tiny bit more, that will work way better!

Please.  I'm so glad that anti-doping attention can be placed on a beloved Swede who took Zyrtec-D, while the EPO positive of a biathlon athlete has gone mostly unnoticed.  I hope that that Nicklas receives the silver medal his team earned without him, and that his forced and untimely disqualification per a substance rule that should be adjusted is punishment enough.  Again, while it is awesome that WADA had the foresight to build in some tolerance for reasonable use, their 150 ug/mg limit should probably be bumped up just a little bit to accommodate therapeutic use spanning multiple days, but not so high as to accommodate abuse.

Picture ripped from RMNB

TL;DR: Nick Backstrom took Zyrtec-D daily to combat allergies.  WADA prohibits excessive use of the 'D' ingredient.  Their limit as to what 'excessive' is accommodates roughly 1 day's typical use of the drug.  Nick probably took it every day, so he was over the limit and produced a positive drug test.  This is against the rules, but the rules were not laid out to 'bust' people who took regular amounts of allergy medication.  Also, fuck the IOC for waiting until just before the gold medal match to disqualify Nick Backstrom.  Finally, I threw away all my maple syrup in my fridge.  (that's for you, Jared Neiters)

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

2014 is Here

What a busy stretch it has been since I last had the time to write an entry here.  This weekend, the William and Mary Tidewater Classic is happening, and I am going!  With that, I thought I'd jot down some things that have been on my mind since last August.

The first thing a lot of you will notice if you find me at the races is that I'm shaving my head.  Not razor to scalp, but close enough.  For the past few years, I've been losing my hair, and I went through your typical 20-something obsessing over their image phase for a while.  I did Monoxidil, Nizoral shampoo, and even Emu Oil (which is actually awesome for the skin).  My takeaways are that Monox gave me the little documented 'aging' look in the face, and didn't help at all with hair loss on the front.  I never even considered Finasteride...too much risk of permanently changing your body chemistry with that.  Nope, after a few years of seeing it happen in the mirror, I finally too the guard off the clippers and chopped all the hair off, and I couldn't be more relieved.

All that anxiety because my hair was falling out and I was freaking.  I should have just accepted that I was going to lose my hair and shaved it and dealt with it once it really started.  When Monoxidil was kind of keeping it in check, I didn't look at my hair and say 'yeah, awesome'.  Some people care a lot about their image and go a lot further to preserve or regain their hair, and that is great if that is what they want to look like.  Me, I don't really care about what people think of my appearance, and it was only some phantom insecurity I developed because I thought I wasn't going to look young anymore.  End of 20's going on 30's isn't exactly young...my parents had me when they were 21/22!

There is a lot more I could write about the topic, but the moral of the story for me is that I came away with some personal growth and a little bit of 'recalibration' at how I need to hold myself in society.  I still feel like I'm the same person as when I was 13, but I'm certainly not, and I need to remind myself of this every once in a while.

Anyways, if you are reading this and are in a similar position, just know that no one else really gives a shit about your hair except for you.  Go see a hair replacement clinic if that is what will make you happy, but don't make the mistake in worrying about how others perceive you.

On a different note, I've been making a concerted effort to stay more in touch with family.  I had a slightly alternative upbringing, with seasonal stepsisters, custody agreements, and an entire family on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.  I was never able to spend as much time with everyone as I wanted to, and I fell into a sort habit of solitude.

This is a little bit ironic for me, but a product helped me out; I got a MotoX smartphone a few months ago, upgrading from a hand-me-down HTC Incredible (1).  My new phone runs all the apps and has a front facing camera.  I can easily hit up all my family members on all the different channels they hang out on.  Facebook, Google+, Txt, Instagram, Skype, Snapchat, etc.  This has been so awesome that I even went and got an iPod so I could facetime with people who use that as their primary channel.  I'm really late to the 'stay-in-touch' party, but I'm trying to make up for lost time...

Peace from the Salt Ponds