He’s not competing. There are no awards. And the event isn’t even going to be timed. But there still promises to be plenty of gawking.
Lance Armstrong’s entry in a Feb. 13 training event tied to the famed 100-mile Western States Endurance Run has already attracted plenty of attention in ultrarunning circles and raised questions about the disgraced cyclist’s potential role in his adopted sport.
The notoriously difficult Western States is arguably the most prestigious event in the niche world of ultrarunning, with a race course that winds its way up and down mountainous terrain from Squaw Valley to Auburn. The training run will cover the final 20-mile segment, which will end at the Placer High School track.
“I think it’s going to be funny to watch and see how people react,” said five-time Western States champion Tim Twietmeyer, who is now a board member for the race. He said the board plans to meet soon to discuss how the race will deal with those who have been caught using performance-enhancing drugs.
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Victory Velo, a popular bike shop in Auburn, plans to get active, too – in getting the word out about the former cycling star. Hard feelings at the shop? Not at all, said Andrew Clark, who works the sales floor.
“At the end of the day, we all concur the dude is an amazing athlete and think it’s great that he can still compete,” Clark said. “I don’t have any problems with him coming to the area, and I would love to meet him.”
In his heyday, Armstrong was on his way to becoming known as the greatest cyclist of all time and one of the most beloved athletes of his generation. He made millions, flew in his own private jet, hobnobbed with celebrities, helped many battling cancer through his Livestrong Foundation and inspired millions with a personal tale of surviving the illness and winning the Tour de France seven times in succession.
Those titles were stripped from him, along with his lucrative endorsements, after he admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs, including in a public confession to Oprah Winfrey.
Banished for life from competitive cycling and relegated to entering the occasional second-tier triathlon, the 44-year-old Armstrong has now shown signs he’d like to get a toehold in ultrarunning, where he has received a lukewarm and occasionally hostile welcome.
In Auburn, he’ll be joining Eric Byrnes, a former major-league baseball player who started endurance running in retirement. Armstrong also volunteered to be one of Byrnes’ pacers during the June 25-26 race.
“I really enjoy running with him. He actually reached out to me about pacing me,” Byrnes said. “When you have what I consider the greatest endurance athlete of all time actually want to pace me in the Super Bowl of endurance competitions, I’m not going to let that one pass.”
Armstrong has not said he will try to qualify for the actual race in subsequent years, but his participation in the training run has triggered all kinds of questions. Should he be allowed? What’s he trying to prove? Will he deign to ride the school bus to the start like everybody else?
Armstrong ignited a minor dust-up in December when he entered a Bay Area trail race, the 35-kilometer Woodside Ramble, and promptly won it. There were no confrontations or protests at that race, and Armstrong apparently had a great time, going on Twitter to gush, “Can’t remember the last time I had this much fun suffering for 3 hours.”
Reached for comment, Armstrong’s publicist Mark Higgins said via email, “Lance didn’t really want to go on the record about his plans at the moment. But I can confirm that he is running this weekend” of Feb. 13.
If the cyclist wants to fit in and be accepted, he should probably get on the school bus and show that he embraces the values of ultrarunning, said longtime runner Bob Crowley.
“One of the things we love about our sport is it’s a community. It’s very accepting, and it tends to be very humble,” said Crowley, a private equity investor who splits his time between Boston and Sacramento. “If Lance wants to be part of all that, then I think he will be welcomed with open arms.”
Before his doping caught up with him, Armstrong attempted a comeback by entering the Nevada City Classic cycling race in 2009, giving the event a magical quality, with fans lining the streets and cheering on their hero. It remains Armstrong’s lone cycling victory after coming out of retirement – and many have insisted that race director Duane Strawser strip Armstrong of that title, too. Strawser said Armstrong passed the drug test and will not lose the title.
When told that Armstrong would be returning to the area for the Western States training run, Strawser said he had mixed feelings. No, Armstrong would not be welcome back to the Nevada City Classic. He has hurt too many people and was too devious for so many years, but if he wants to get into ultrarunning, go for it, Strawser said.
“While I have no compassion for Lance because of what he did to people personally, so many cyclists at the world level doped at that time. For Lance to be banned for life and so many others are back in cycling, that part is inequitable.”
“I think people just need to move on. He should not be put in the dunce corner and eliminated from participating in things as a human being for the rest of his life. It doesn’t mean I condone what he did, and it doesn’t mean I think he is a quality human being.”
Byrnes said Armstrong has embraced ultrarunning and is open and friendly with people who recognize him.
“I think Lance would be the first person to tell you that he’s made some mistakes in his life,” Byrnes said. “But he has a passion for this sport, and he has embraced what it is about.”