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Lance Armstrong’s Ironman Quest – a look back at his short return to triathlon

We revisit a feature on Lance Armstrong that appeared in the July, 2012 issue of Triathlon Magazine Canada, printed just a few days before Armstrong was formally charged by USADA.

This weekend ESPN will be airing the first part of a documentary on Lance Armstrong. While many know of Armstrong as the disgraced seven-time Tour de France champion, he was also an accomplished triathlete before he turned to cycling. In 2012 Armstrong made a return to triathlon with the goal of competing at the Ironman World Championship. As the editor of Ironman.com, I was assigned to cover Armstrong’s triathlon events. A few days after we published this story in the July issue of Triathlon Magazine Canada, Armstrong was barred from competing at Ironman France when the US Anti-doping Agency formally charged him.

Lance Armstrong. Ironman. Arriving in style in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands.

Just looking at the monitor you could sense his frustration. I was sitting in the Ironman live control room – OK, to be more specific, the Ironmanlive tent – at the finish line of Ironman 70.3 Texas. I had just watched Lance Armstrong have his second solid swim at a 70.3 race (he was third out of the water in his first race, Ironman 70.3 Panama and amongst the lead group in Texas). With a cameraman on his tail, Armstrong blitzed out of T1 in chase of the leaders. Within a few kilometers he was in front.

So why the frustration? For 15 km Armstrong put his head down and hammered. When you’re arguably one of the world’s greatest cyclists and you decide it’s time to put your stamp on a race, you’re used to seeing the rest of the competition crumble. Remember the look? When Armstrong looked over his shoulder at the base of one of the epic Alp climbs, seemingly daring Jan Ulrich to try and come with him? There wasn’t a look this time, but you could tell that Armstrong was expecting his competition to, well, disappear.

They didn’t oblige. When Armstrong looked back at the 18 km point of the ride, he saw a line of eight athletes hanging on for dear life. Earlier that week some of the sport’s best cyclists had proclaimed that they were going to do everything they could to stay close to Armstrong on the bike, no matter what he threw at them. They were doing just that in Galveston, and Armstrong wasn’t happy. Eventually he just sat up on his bars and let the entire group ride by.

How much did you know about the Tour de France in 1999, when Lance Armstrong won his first title? If you knew about the event, here’s possibly a better barometer: how much did your non-athletic neighbours know about the Tour in those days? How about seven years later? It’s hardly overstating the case to say that Armstrong transformed the sport of cycling in North America.
Ironman is hoping he’ll do the same for triathlon. In February, just days before he competed in his first 70.3 race, Ironman announced that they would be partnering with the Livestrong Foundation to raise a million dollars to “raise funds and awareness for people affected by cancer,” Armstrong said.

That frustration I saw when Armstrong was out on the bike makes it easy to believe that he’s a competitor first and the fundraising stuff sits more on the back burner, but Armstrong’s life is hardly that simple. Make no mistake – Armstrong is passionate about his cause. He is fully aware of just how many people are lining the streets while he races wearing the Livestrong yellow bracelets that have raised so much money over the years. Everyone who is close to Armstrong says the same thing about him – they all can’t figure out how he does everything he does. They have no idea how he manages to train upwards of six hours a day, run a foundation and stay on top of his various business interests.

Then there’s just trying to get around. Those of us in the Ironman world got a glimpse of the bedlam that is his life at the pro meeting in Panama. Set in a tent next to the finish line, the meeting became a circus within minutes. Once the crowd realized that Armstrong was in attendance, they surrounded the barricades around the tent, desperate for a glimpse of their hero or to take a picture.

“Look over here, Lance,” one man kept yelling. “Over here for a picture.” When Elizabeth Kreutz, basically Armstrong’s personal photographer, asked the man to quiet down so he could hear what was going on in the meeting, the man started swearing at her.

Related Video: Lance Armstrong interview after his race at Ironman 70.3 Panama

In Panama the President’s own security team helped keep things under control for Armstrong as he tried to move around. Press conferences that used to have 40 or 50 people in attendance at Ironman events are suddenly seeing hundreds of fans and journalists desperate for a chance to interact with triathlon’s new star.

“How much of a difference is Lance going to make for the sport?” Marino Vanhoenacker said in reply to that question at the press conference in Texas. “Look at the crowd here right now. That says it all.”

Last year at Ironman Austria, Vanhoenacker won his sixth straight title, his 7:45 becoming the fastest Ironman time ever at an official Ironman race. (A week later Andreas Raelert would set a world-best time in Roth with his 7:41.) Vanhoenacker is, in a word, frightening to see on a bike. I was on hand when he won his first Austria title. On that day I watched him ride away from Olaf Sabatschus, the German super-cyclist who had ridden an other-worldly 4:17 bike split on the Austria course the year before.

Vanhoenacker was one of those athletes who said he wasn’t going to let Armstrong get away in Galveston. He was part of that eight-man group who pushed way too hard to stay close to the cycling star. After the race, he had some interesting insights into the source of Armstrong’s frustration.

“Things have changed a lot in the sport since Lance raced back in the 80s, but especially in the last 10 years or so since the ITU guys have started racing longer distances,” the Belgian says. “They’re so used to sitting in a group and waiting for the run, they don’t ever panic. Even in Abu Dhabi, with a 200 km ride, they’re happy to sit and wait. I can’t do that – at 100 km I start to panic and feel like I need to make a move.”

When he looked behind in Galveston, Armstrong was getting a quick introduction to the new world of triathlon. Before that first race in Panama in February, he joked that “you ride for show and run for dough.” In Texas he was learning that wasn’t a joke in this era of triathlon racing.

But should Armstrong have anticipated that he could dominate on the bike in a triathlon as he had in bike races? Before that first race in Panama, I was one of the naysayers on that front. Obviously Armstrong is one of the greatest cyclists who has ever lived, but laying low in a time trial position for 90 or 180 km is very different to sitting in a group for four hours, then blasting up a mountain for an hour. I’d seen athletes like Chris Lieto power through a 4:18 bike split in Kona – I had a rough time imagining anyone could go much faster and then run a marathon. To see Armstrong ride with, and in some cases dominate, some of the world’s best triathlon cyclists was a bit unexpected. In hindsight, though, it hardly should have been.

Many people probably don’t realize just how good a triathlete Lance Armstrong was. At 15, in the bold, brash Texan way that he would dominate seven Tour de France races, he burst onto the triathlon scene. A sixth-place finish at the President’s Triathlon in Texas earned him grudging respect from one of the greatest in the sport, Mark Allen.

“He was just this you guy, and I was shocked when people told me his age,” Allen is quoted in John Wilcockson’s book, Lance: The Making of the World’s Greatest Champion. “I wasn’t ancient, probably 25, but a ten-year difference at that age … I thought back to what I was doing at age 15. I was a swimmer, and nowhere near world class. Athletically, development-wise, I just thought, man, here’s this kid who’s 15 and keeping up with the best guys in the world … just this kid who’s doing really well, who told people he was gonna do well.”

Armstrong would turn pro shortly after that, and would win the U.S. Pro Sprint title two years in a row before he was whisked off to the cycling world. That was a different era of triathlon racing. In those days, while a group might have come out of the water together, typically things split up quickly on the bike. Athletes like Armstrong, Canada’s own Andrew MacNaughton, Mike Pigg and Jimmy Riccitello were renowned for their ability to get away on the bike and either hang on for the win, or force speedy runners like Allen to catch them. Even on the hilly course in Panama this year Armstrong learned that those days are long gone – at the highest levels, triathlon has become very much a strategic sport.

“It was different than I thought,” he said after the race. “If I had one word to sum it up, it would be tactical. It’s very surgy. Although everybody stayed outside of the draft zone, it’s still very strategic. Everyone is looking at each other. And these guys are strong, so it’s hard to get away from them. Ultimately, I guess, if you stay on the pedals and keep the power up you can get away, but you still have to run.”

As tactical as things were in Panama, though, they were even more so on Galveston’s pancake-flat course. You don’t win seven tours without the ability to figure out how to win, so it came as no surprise to see Armstrong figure out a new strategy. He bided his time at the back of the group, waited for the course to turn slightly into the wind, and broke away as the rest of his competition slowed to grab a water bottle at an aid station.

He would lead off the bike, but suffered through the latter stages of the run, walking across the line a frustrated seventh. Like all great champions, though, you could see that Armstrong was learning from the experience.

“It’s an issue of nutrition and hydration,” he said after the race. “Not that I neglected it, but whatever I’m using on the hydration end … it was not working. I had significant GI issues on the run and even on the bike. I have to figure that part out, otherwise you always run into issues where you can’t get food and liquid into the body.”

As he has done virtually all his life, Lance Armstrong did figure it out. Before he embarked on this latest athletic endeavor, he convened a group of experts – the same ones that once helped him prepare for the tour – to come up with a plan to succeed. Everything from equipment to nutrition to training was analyzed. Then it was time to get down to work. Armstrong has never been afraid of hard work as an athlete. He was a successful age group swimmer long before he got into triathlon or cycling. His cycling career began as a way to get to and from swim workouts because his mom, who was raising him by herself, couldn’t get him to swim practice and also get to work.

“I would swim 4,000 meters of laps before school and go back for another two-hour workout in the afternoon – another 6,000 meters,” he wrote in It’s Not About The Bike: My Journey Back to Life, the book he wrote with Sally Jenkins in 2001, of those days as a 13-year-old. “That was six miles a day in the water, plus a 20-mile bike ride.”

When Armstrong saw an IronKids flyer advertising the three sports he was doing at the time (he’d been an elementary school cross country running champion), he immediately signed up and won. Within a few years he was competing with the world’s best. Now, in triathlon career number two, his goal is to compete at the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii and, while a top-finish would be enough for most 41-year-old Ironman rookies, Armstrong seems intent on more.

After his race in Galveston, there was another frustrating third in St. Croix. Then came a wire-to-wire win at Ironman 70.3 Florida in Haines City. (Armstrong would also win Ironman 70.3 Hawaii a few weeks after his win in Florida.)

“I can’t deny or lie that I didn’t want to come back to the sport and win some races,” he said after the win. In Haines City, Armstrong lit up the bike course with a 2:01 split (yes, that’s an average of almost 45 kph) and maintained his lead thanks to a 75-minute half marathon, the fastest of the day. “I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into in Panama, but in Galveston and St. Croix I wanted to be in contention for the win and I wasn’t there. I certainly came here with the goal of winning. For me, it’s cool to win,but, even more importantly it’s great to be 41 years old and be fit and healthy.”

Healthy is one thing, but Armstrong’s approach to the Ironman is much more than just a quest to be fit. During his domination of cycling’s most prestigious race, Armstrong routinely out-prepared his competition. Nothing was left to chance as he would pre-ride each stage of the tour. Coaches were always around, as were massage therapists and mechanics. A look at the entourage that has been accompanying Armstrong on his personal jet to his Ironman events shows that things haven’t changed in this new hunt.

That support certainly helps, but it’s hardly what defines Armstrong as an athlete.

“Lance is not having fun unless he is hurting and making others hurt more,” says Calvin Zaryski, a multiple age group Xterra world champion who has ridden with Armstrong on numerous charity rides and watched Armstrong’s Xterra races last year with keen interest.

While that may be true, Armstrong hardly cruised into the sport expecting to dominate, despite what any naysayers might think. Armstrong asked not to participate in the pre-race press conference in Panama because he felt his attendance would take away from the other pros at the event. When he crossed the line in second place in Panama, many felt that he “snubbed” Bevan Docherty by not going over to shake the three-time Olympian’s hand. If you were at the finish line in Panama, you’d have seen Armstrong being whisked away by security as soon as he crossed the line – he was never given a chance to interact. A lot was made of his walking by his daughter, who was holding his finishers medal, in Galveston. Having walked the last few miles of a half in my time, I don’t find it hard to believe that Armstrong genuinely didn’t see her.

So is now a good time to address the elephant sitting over in that corner? Was it coincidence that Armstrong decided to race in Panama just over a week after he was cleared of the federal investigation into alleged drug use during the years he competed for the U.S. Postal Service team? With that stress lifted off his back, Armstrong seemed determined to move onto this next sporting challenge with gusto. The closure of that case doesn’t mean that the scandal won’t continue, though. The US Anti-Doping body, USADA, continues to investigate Armstrong and his team, and could come back with findings that could strip him of one, or even more, of his Tour titles. Armstrong has always vehemently denied using performance-enhancing drugs and has never tested positive, despite possibly being the most tested athlete on the planet. But it’s easy to see how people can be skeptical. Of the eight athletes who shared the Tour de France podium with him, seven have been tied to drug use. In an era of seeming rampant drug problems in the cycling world, it is easy to question how a man who overcame cancer could somehow come back and, racing clean, dominate the sport. In a recent Men’s Journal story, Armstrong said that he won’t fight any of USADA’s findings.

But what if that USADA chooses to release a report, say, during the week of the Ironman World Championship? What will that do for triathlon? Realistically, though, what are the chances that they will find anything? If Jeff Novitzky, the FDA agent who investigated Barry Bonds and Marion Jones had to drop the case, what are USADA’s chances of finding anything?

People seem to either love, or hate, Lance Armstrong. Those who hate him have no doubts about their position on whether or not he used drugs. Those who love him are quick to point out that he’s never been proven guilty and follow the Armstrong media line that points to all the good his foundation has done. The same can be said for the triathlon community. Savvy pros know that his involvement in the sport is only going to help them.

“It’s an honour (to be racing against Lance Armstrong),” Tim O’Donnell, the winner of the Ironman 70.3 Texas race, said at the press conference before the race. “It’s going to raise the level for all of us.”

“It’s such a great thing for triathlon,” says Leanda Cave, last year’s third place finisher in Kona. “Hopefully he will do for triathlon what he did for cycling, and put the sport in the limelight. I think it will give triathlon more exposure and bring it to the mainstream. I think that’s been lagging in Ironman, and triathlon, in general.”

The exposure hardly comes without controversy, though. After Panama, Denmark’s Rasmus Henning sent out a message on twitter questioning why drug testing at the event wasn’t done on the top three male finishers. (The World Anti-Doping Administration, WADA, did the testing and did random tests among the top male finishers that day.) Before Armstrong even did his first race, many pros were upset at the possibility that Armstrong might be given an entry to Kona, rather than having to earn it through his racing.

That was before we saw the guy race, though. Whether you like him or not, you have to admit that Lance Armstrong is good. He’s an aerobic machine who is a very talented swimmer, incredible cyclist and is none to shabby a runner, either. He’s said this is his last chance to excel as an athlete. His last chance to hurt himself and any athletes who are crazy enough to try and take him.

After that race in Galveston, I found myself alone in the media area with Armstrong. None of the usual entourage was around. In Panama I’d joked that it would only get harder from here. He laughed and said “it better not.” Having just seen him suffer through the last few miles of the race in Galveston, I couldn’t help but follow up on my question from Panama. Was he still having fun?

“I’m glad you asked that question,” he said. “It was fun … (although) the last four miles was absolutely miserable. I was telling myself this just isn’t fun. I say it all the time, sometimes you’re the hammer, sometimes you’re the nail. I was the nail at the end, but that’s OK.”

Lance Armstrong doesn’t like being the nail. The question is, will he be the hammer in Kona?

Kevin Mackinnon is the editor of Triathlon Magazine Canada.