A trip to the local bodybuilders’ gym under the influence of muscle drugs
If you want to get ahead in sports, there’s nothing better than a nice big helping of performance-enhancing drugs. Just ask the guys on the Tour de France. At the end of last month the Spanish cyclist and three-times Tour winner Alberto Contador was banned from cycling after testing positive for the illegal anabolic agent Clenbuterol. He says that he accidentally ate it in a steak his mate brought him from Spain.
You have to agree it’s a great excuse. I have a feeling I wheeled out that line, or a very similar one, to my appalled mother after returning green-faced and soused in my own bile from a house party in the mid-1990s. But in the mid-1990s I was a teenage nobhead from rural Buckinghamshire, not an elite athlete with three Tour de France wins to my name.
Anyway, that was then. I did eat some Clenbuterol this week, but not on a plate of bistec. Rather, I necked it from a grubby old pill-bottle I found at the back of the medicine cabinet upstairs. I’d forgotten it was in the house.
It’s powerful stuff, the old Clen. It has plenty of interesting applications; most of them are no good to you unless you rear livestock. It is a good asthma medicine for horses, and in China they call it ‘lean meat powder’, because if you feed it to pigs they put on muscle very quickly without gaining much fat. However, humans do take it. Sometimes they do so inadvertently, as Contador is claiming. There have been mass poisonings in China in which punters eat Clen-tainted pigs’ guts and end up with violent stomach upsets.
More often, people take it on purpose. Since Clen improves your breathing, it is used to treat human asthma as well as the equine version. And because it increases your heart’s output, raises your body temperature and helps improve your body’s muscle-to-fat ratio, it is used by sportsmen, bodybuilders, Hollywood actresses and unhappy fat folk, to help them swap rippling blubber for rippling biceps.
I had my batch of Clen off a burly South African friend who prescribed it as a pep-up for my rather fruitless callisthenics. I still remember his recommendation: ‘It’s good stuff, Jones — after you take it, you feel like you’ve committed a crime.’
Which of course, you have. But being aware that you’ve taken an illegal substance wasn’t what my friend was talking about. He was referring to the buzzy sensation you get about 20 minutes after necking one of the pills. It’s a jittery paranoia: a combination of restlessness, anxiety and guilt. If you’ve ever had one of those dreams in which you’ve killed someone and eaten their corpse, then you’d recognise the feeling.
This wasn’t a sensation I enjoyed, and as a result I only ever dabbled with Clen. But in the spirit of improving my athletic performance and seeing what it feels like to be a drugged-up cyclist, I decided to give it another go.
On Tuesday, after dropping my 18-month-old daughter off at the nanny’s house, I went straight home to the Clen stash. The temptation was obviously to take a massive handful, grab the nearest Boris bike and make a swift and symbolic pilgrimage from my home in Battersea to the Olympic stadium at Stratford.
But the words of my disapproving personal trainer Jamie Sawyer were ringing in my ears. ‘If you take too much your heart will burst,’ he said. So I took a coward’s dose: half a pill. I was aware that this was a ‘show me a good time — but not too good a time’ measure. On the other hand, I knew how annoyed the wife would be with me if I went and had a heart attack.
After taking the Clen I walked to the local bodybuilders’ gym. It felt like the right place to go. I was starting to feel lightheaded and mildly sinful. As I paid my monthly subs to the gruff lady bodybuilder behind the counter, I was overwhelmed by an urge to bellow: ‘I’m on muscle drugs! I feel awful! I’m really, really sorry!’
But I did not. Instead, I went down to the weights room, picked up a heavy barbell and proceeded to lift it up and down in the usual fashion.
Or rather, not in the usual fashion. After a couple of minutes of light exercise, boiling sweat was gushing from the front of my neck. I felt like someone had turned my internal thermostat up. It wasn’t fatal. But it was uncomfortably damp.
Apart from that, the weightlifting went better than usual. It was not that it felt easier — rather that I felt more inclined to do it. Usually, after 10 minutes I would be thinking of quitting the gym and going home for a nice gin and a listen to the radio. Instead, I started thinking how great it would be to run outside and punch someone.
This was a useful feeling when transferred to the act of weightlifting, in which aggression and determination is all. Right into the swing of things, I wandered over to the mirror and gave my own reflection a nasty eyeballing. I noticed as I did so that my pupils were dilated almost to the limits of my irises.
The session lasted a full hour, and I felt great afterwards. But now, as I sit in my study typing this, I notice that my vision is blurry and my hands are shaking. It could be all the post-workout gin, but I fancy it’s the half-pill messing with me.
It makes you think. Clenbuterol is rife in sports like cycling, swimming, hurdling, judo, and baseball, all of which have banned athletes for using it. You can pick the drug up cheaply on the internet, where it is sold by cowboys who tend not to tell you that if you take it incorrectly, you can wind up dead (to avoid heart-bursting, you need to be very canny about your dose and take other supplements including taurine and potassium).
It does, however, make a delicious steak sauce — write to me via the usual Speccie address if you’d like the recipe.