An Auburn training run that is known as a favorite among locals got a taste of stardom Saturday as celebrity cyclist Lance Armstrong and former major-league baseball player Eric Byrnes glided to the finish at Placer High School.
Armstrong, the once-renowned athlete and cancer survivor who was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles for using performance-enhancing drugs, ran the 21-mile practice course for the Western States Endurance Run scheduled for June, despite a new policy from the race’s board that bars him from participating in the 100-mile marathon.
Last week, the Western States board agreed to ban any athlete who has been caught using steroids from the race, which many consider the most prestigious ultra-run in the country. Officials said it was something they had discussed doing for a long time, and was not specifically prompted by Armstrong’s announcement that he planned to attend the training run.
“I understand they wanted to make some rules, and that’s what they get to do,” Armstrong said Saturday. “If they said everybody has to wear purple, everybody has to wear purple. But everyone was super cool, and it was beautiful terrain, absolutely mind-blowing. … For me, there are no hard feelings about it.”
Armstrong’s presence in the untimed training run, during which he served as a pacer for Byrnes, did not go unnoticed. Several local runners took photographs with the high-profile duo in the morning before they quietly boarded the bus to the starting line with the other competitors.
There is no policy that bans Armstrong from registering for untimed trainings or from being Byrnes’ pacer in the Western States.
Candy Furlong, a 65-year-old runner, said she spent a few pleasant minutes talking to Armstrong at the aid station. She and her husband, Jerry, both avid cyclists, rode behind Armstrong in the Tour de France in 2005.
“He looked kind of reserved, like he wasn’t trying to be intrusive,” she said. “I thought it was very nice that he came.”
Many local runners said they were happy to welcome Armstrong into the ultra-running community but thought the board made the right decision in banning him from competing.
“Even if he raced, everybody would be questioning him and asking if he’s been doing something,” Jerry Furlong said. “It wouldn’t be fair to him or anybody else. It’s kind of a sad situation. He’ll always be carrying that burden.”
Tim Twietmeyer, a Western States board member, said the race does not have the budget to drug-screen all entrants but will keep an eye out for athletes who are known to be banned from other competitions by the International Association of Athletics Federations, the World Anti-Doping Agency, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency or any other national sports federation.
Armstrong flew into the Sacramento area from Austin, Texas, and posted on social media about the hospitality he received at local bike shop Victory Velo. The athlete is expected to return to the area Memorial Day weekend to serve as a pacer for Byrnes in the next training run.