Last month I let the GTB’rs know that Lance recently raced in a triathlon – a Half Ironman down in Panama. He came in 2nd place losing by :42 to an Olympian, and while beating a solid stable of professionals. It was the first time he took part in a multisport event of this distance in over 20 years. On Sunday, he straps it on again withanother Half IM in Galveston, TX. I will be following closely.
What casual observers in general may not know about Armstrong is that prior to becoming a dedicated cyclist, he was a professional triathlete. Back in the early 90’s, Lance was a teenager competing in and winning triathlon events as a cash-earning pro. As Wiki or Triathlon Magazine will tell you, he turned pro at 16 when his “points earned” status had himself ranked above 5 other professionals. And before that he was excelling as a junior swimmer. At the age of 12, he finished 4th in the Texas state 1500-meter freestyle. It’s info like this and more I’ll share later that is physiology based that, for me anyway, sheds at least some doubt on him being a cheater. And I said “some”, not “all”, so relax.
I’m a dabbler in the tri-world and have been for 8 or so years (oooh, look at me!) which means not a whole lot other than I spend most of my non-family time with other triathlon folk in the pool while wearing speedo’s or on the road in sweet bike shorts. In fact at this moment I’m in my goggles and jammers. For the past year+ it’s been fairly well publicized that Lance has been preparing to get back into the sport with the intent of being in Hawaii (Kona) in October for the World Championships. If you follow him on the Tweeter, you may have noticed on occasion he updates his 3 or so million followers with his workout for the day. The tweets are pretty telling. He’s knocking back big-boy/big-girl workouts. In fact for the first three weeks of the month of March, his training took place in Hawaii, as in Kona. I always thought that these tweets were his way of letting the multi-sporters know that he was gunning for them. I think I was right.
My fellow tri-geeks and I were very interested in his return and specifically his results from that race in Panama. It’s probably safe to say I speak for the majority that semi-seriously participate in this sport that they were too. Why? Well, curiosity as to how or if he would be able to compete against the pros for starters; where he’ll race exactly knowing that we could actually end up being in the same event; the type of exposure, if any, his presence will bring to the sport; and the inevitable doping speculation and stories that will be given re-birth if he sees any success. But it’s the first one that really piques our interest. How would he fare against these guys? Yeah, he’s arguably the best biker to have ever lived….but he is 41 years old, he hasn’t raced in a triathlon since Moby Dick was a tadpole thus hasn’t put the time into the sport with exception to the last year or slightly more.
So he does this Panama race. A pretty quick recap for ya’s. It’s a Half Ironman – 1.2 Mile Swim / 56 Mile Bike / 13.1 Mile Run. He comes in second place with a 3:50:55 finish. He does the swim in 19:22 and is 8th out of the water. The first guy out of the water beats him by :33 and the eventual winner, Bevan Docherty (you’ve heard of him right?) clips him by :28. I’d have to guess that Lance was tickled at that point. You can’t win the race with a great swim but you can lose it with a bad one and he didn’t have a bad one. To give you an idea of how well he did while doing my best to compare apples & apples, the 1650 (.94 miles) yard male college national champion will move at a rate of about 53 seconds per every 100 yards. A Half IM swim is 1.2 miles, or 2112 yards – Lance completed his 2100+ yards at a rate of 55.01 per 100 yards. That’s not a very big difference. Now granted, there are some imperfections here such as a swim course that could easily have been shorted by 50 yards or more, or a helping current, wind etc. On the flipside though, Lance didn’t have a line painted on the bottom of the Panama Canal or designated swim lanes. And I doubt I need to point out that the 1650 is a shorter swim made by young men with two testicles and who only work on their one discipline – swimming. There’s a young gent in our swim group who swam four years at Georgia on a full-ride. He’s fast as shit and used to be a lot faster as a competitor in the SEC. The Monday morning after Panama we were in the pool – his first words of the day were, “Did you see Lance’s swim time yesterday?” Nineteen minutes is f’ing FAST.
Naturally everyone is expecting Lance to destroy the bike segment. That doesn’t happen. Not only does he not crush everyone, he comes in with the 3rd fastest time. D’oh! In fairness, there was a pretty big drop-off beyond the top trio who finished within :25 of one another. The rest of the field came in 3+ minutes later. In a post-race interview he downplayed his bike performance stating that he just wasn’t sure how much more he should have pushed it knowing he still had a half-marathon to run. This by the way is the most common response from those that place 2nd and beyond in a long-distance triathlon. With this coming from Lance though, it held more salt for sure due to his being away from the sport for so long. But shit, the man is at that moment in the top 3 with 80% of the race behind him. He averaged 25.8 miles per hour on the bike…for 56 miles, which means he was quite likely cruising along on flat surfaces at a 35-38 mph clip for portions of the segment.
Time to run. Not me, Lance. At this point he is almost 4:00 ahead of the eventual winner. Unfortunately he is not equipped with that knowledge. He is well aware of the fact that he’s not only in the mix, but with a real opportunity to win it. For the next 77 minutes, he runs a sub 6:00-minute per mile pace – 5:52, in searing heat & humidity, the low-mid 90’s. In the last mile, he gets passed by Docherty who finishes the half in 1:12:50. That’s a 5:33 pace. On the Tuesday morning after I received an email from an old buddy from high school who was a runner in college and a very good one. He recently tipped his toes into triathlon but running is his passion. To qualify, he has run dozens of marathons, with a few being under 2:30. He’s doing Boston next month with a goal of 2:40. His email to me was simply, “Did you see Lance’s running time?” We had not spoken at all about Armstrong racing in a triathlon prior to that nor had my swimmer pal and I.
Let me reiterate that this was Lance’s first triathlon in 20 some years. And he barely lost to a guy who will be in London this summer competing in the Olympics. And he beat a shit-ton of other pros with really nice careers behind them who have been racing competitively for 10-15 years. It’s all they do, every day, and have done, every single day, for years. Yes, he does have some things going for him for sure beyond his abilities as an athlete. He’s loaded. You knew that though. I’m sure he’s got a team of people including coaches and others at TREK or Nike or both that pore over his race data and create his training & race plan for the next race, tomorrow’s event in Galveston, TX. But…the other pros have the same luxuries – not with truckloads of cash but they are sponsored and are afforded the luxury of being able to train all week long. It’s the “time he has put into the sport vs. the time say a top-20 pro has put into it over the last 5+ years” factor that makes this more than a little nutty, to me anyway.
One week after that event I was at a fellow tri-guy’s house for a little play-date for the kids. We hadn’t seen each other or spoken that week between Lance’s Half IM and this particular day. My buddy qualified for and raced in Kona last year. To qualify for Kona as an amateur, you must finish a full Ironman event in the top of your age group. The # of slots available per race, per age group varies, but in the end it typically translates to being in the 98th – 99th percentile. In the world. He qualified by finishing 5th in his age group out of 390, and 54th overall, out of 2400 at an IM the year prior. That 54th overall includes 29 pros, 20 male & 9 female. He’s an amateur and has a job but he’s good enough to be sponsored (free gear/bike). I didn’t give him a chance to bring up Panama & Lance. I brought it up and was obviously a little more curious as to what his thoughts on the subject were given his skill level and having just done Kona. Yeah, I think Lance could win the Ironman but really, what are the chances and what the hell do I know? Now, if my boy thinks he can win it, well that’s another thing altogether. “Very Doable… He’s definitely going to give the pros a very hard time.”
Earlier I made reference to Lance having some physiological advantages. It is true. Every blue moon it still airs on National Geographic – The Science of Lance Armstrong. Look for it and watch it. In short, he’s got a big heart and a very low lactic acid level which means he pumps more blood than we do and takes longer for him to feel pain, among other things. This helps as he puts out Hoover Dam type power for extended periods of time. Bikers and triathletes regularly test their power output by means of….wait for it….that’s right - a power test. LA was able to put out an average of 495 watts for a period of 30 minutes. Listen, there are a few bike miles traveled in my not too many years doing this, and 495 watts has been approached for nary 10 seconds. Next time you go to the gym or a hotel fitness center hop on one of those stationary bikes that give you a watts reading. See what you can put out for 2-3 minutes straight. On the bike. With your clothes on. If you can stay above 200 for more than a 4 minutes I’ll send you a set of steak knives. Actually – I won’t b/c a couple of you can probably do that. So never mind.
It’s cliché, but there’s the mental toughness thing. There just aren’t many people out there that can endure the pain he can. He is not only comfortable with it, he f’ing embraces it, yearns for it, and wants it to last. The 6-8 guys that will be in the running tomorrow in Galveston and the 10-12 in Kona – they know before the cannon goes off he’s already out-toughed them. That can really screw with you over a 70-mile/140-mile race. I just hope he stays healthy and makes it to Hawaii – it will be a spectacle.
I’m not a jock sniffer or celeb gawker. But Lance and I are scheduled to meet up in May and I have to tell ya…I think that’s pretty nifty. “Meet up” would be defined in this instance as being in the same town in the same event while possibly not even seeing each other. Lance and I are going to tango at Florida’s Half Ironman (Haines City!) on May 20th, and once again I must say, I think that’s pretty swell. The chances of not seeing him pre and/or during the race are pretty slim in reality. It is ALMOST guaranteed we will be within urinating distance of one another at one point on the race, and only one which is unusual and saddening. That would be on the 3-loop run course – I envision Lance passing me while on his 3rd and final loop and me on my 1st, depending on when my wave of age-groupers goes off. There will be some differences between our respective strategies and goals, albeit small ones for sure.
I think Lance is probably a prick to most unless 1) famous, 2) an accomplished athlete, 3) a hot babe who can’t get pregnant, 4) a sponsor, or 5) a cancer patient or survivor. It is my belief he has at a minimum cheated at some point in his career. Whether it was minimal or bunches, I would probably be a little disappointed but that’s about it. It just doesn’t matter to me that much. If he did cheat, I think we can all agree that he was GREAT at it. Definitely the all-time best at cheating, no? Doesn’t he deserve some credit for that? When so many around him also cheated but got caught?
Lance is a lot like Tiger with me. When both were dominant, I always rooted against. I think I was looking for a rivalry to emerge. It never did. Plus, I just hated them winning all the time. And they both had and have a very similar persona in the press room. It really grinds my gears. They are both a combination of tool/prick/douchebag/smug ass, but so compelling to watch due to their superiority over everyone else. And now that Lance is doing the tri-thing and on this stage, well, I’m rooting for him and rooting for him in a big way, at least until he wins the big one at which point I will probably shift gears. No pun intended. So before this year, Lance was always up there with me as one of the greatest athletes. If he wins Hawaii, well, I will look forward to other opinions. Today – Galveston – Ironman.com!