Lance Armstrong, Antihero

From the beginning, the idea of Lance Armstrong the athlete was inseparable from the perception of him as a man. The 1999 Tour de France crowned a new champion and gave us fresh evidence that raw willpower, pure guts and grit, is enough to win in life. It was not so much that our champion survived a fierce cancer, which was admirable, but that he seemed to defy his own mortality by superior strength of character. With a titanic power of spirit, it seemed, he averted his own death and won the most important stage race there is.

And so, when we watched Lance Armstrong dominate the opening time trial in 1999, when we witnessed him assert his lead and cement his legacy in the Alps, we saw a man waging what appeared to be, for him, another life-and-death battle, and we were rooting for the man as much as we were the athlete. The sneer, the muscles, the grip on the bars—he appeared a prism of unbridled intensity, but more than that, he was indignant. Defiant. He competed like he was possessed, and he was determined to win. It was as if the black-and-white schematic of winning and losing drove him up those mountains as a compulsion, a matter of course.

Win is what he did—more often and more convincingly than any other cyclist in history. He won what is perhaps the most grueling endurance contest ever devised. And he kept winning. There were moments–Hautacam in 2000 and Alpe d’Huez in 2001 come to mind–that he seemed immortal.

Next to this colossal figure, other great athletes were exposed as mere mortals. Jan Ullrich had a classic Ben Jonson problem—he was a fine playwright, and at any other time he would have been the best, but by lousy luck he lived in the age of Shakespeare, who took the gold at every medley in town. When Ullrich looked to his right in the final minutes of the first time trial at the 2005 Tour (his last) only to see the Bard himself making the pass, the slowness that seemed to wash over his body was palpable, and you could feel the sadness and disappointment of coming second place.

Lance Armstrong met sport with the same objective that he met death: win at any cost. The will to win is a powerful human force, but like anything else, it can dement, corrupt, and destroy when unrestrained. And despite what we wanted to believe about Lance, the will to win, and the ability to, says little that’s instructive about character. One can hone the body to perfection while rotting inside.

Even before the dominoes of the peloton collapsed and revealed the dirty truth about cycling—that use of performance-enhancing drugs was de rigueur among the riders, that cheating was the norm—the ideas of the man and the athlete began to decouple as inconvenient realities emerged. There was the infidelity, the interpersonal strife, the bullying and the meanness. But we fought this decoupling for years, because we wanted to believe that Lance Armstrong was, at his core, at least half the man that he was the athlete—we wanted to believe there was something heroic at play, and heroes do not dump their wives on a beach.

We do not demand perfection from our athletic heroes, but we need competency. Lance, too, seemed to intuitively grasp what he should be as a person. There is now considerable irony in what he wrote in his early memoir: “I believed I had a responsibility to be a good person, and that meant fair, honest, hardworking and honorable. If I did that, if I was good to my family, true to my friends…if I wasn’t a liar, a cheat, or a thief, then I believed that should be enough.”

When we learned the scope of the lying and cheating, it disaggregated our notion of Lance Armstrong the man and Lance Armstrong the athlete, and it sullied both. That’s the tragedy in the fall of Lance Armstrong—his failures as a man eradicate his achievements as a sportsman.

Long before he won the Tour de France seven times, years before he experimented with endogenous erythropoietin protein, with testosterone, with masking agents, Lance Armstrong was a budding champion with an uncommon capacity to convert oxygen to energy—just a young kid with an exceptional aerobic metabolism. Here was an athlete with a massive engine and enough ego to require victory, who harnessed his physiological gifts to win races, and inspired all of us who watched him succeed.

The many wins of Lance Armstrong are now muted. Still, we cannot let his tragic frailty erase what we know of his greatness–his drive, his courage, his strength. We should strive to remember him not as the polluted villain he became, but as the champion he more often was. In the final analysis, we define ourselves more by our triumphs than our transgressions, but we are harder on our idols. That’s a mistake. Lance Armstrong, for all his faults, remains more good than bad, more winner than loser, more hero than antihero.

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Marathon Training

I kicked off marathon training last weekend with my longest run ever (20 miles). For my long run, I employed a foolish strategy of taking no nutrition or fluids. This was intentional. A compelling comment on the fall marathon thread on Slowtwitch had me thinking–a poster had admitted to a curious method of letting himself “bonk” on long runs during marathon training in order to become familiar with hitting the wall and to practice pushing through it. That sounded really hardcore, so I was game to try it.

I found the wall around mile 17, and it was like nothing I’ve ever felt. Bonking on the bike is mostly a fatigued, crappy feeling that develops over time–the long run bonk felt musculoskeletal, and came on instantaneously. My legs were suddenly leaden and crampy and every stride felt forced. The final three miles were as hard as the initial 17, for which I settled in at around goal M-pace +~0:10 without too much trouble (definitely very hard, but manageable).

Now I know what marathoners are talking about. I think the forced bonk was actually a valuable exercise, though I wouldn’t wish it on another. The key is to not experience this during a marathon. If you are trained properly, and if you pace properly, you shouldn’t find it on race day. Here’s hoping.

What’s Next?

First, rest. And a lot of Chipotle burritos. Some booze and NFL and late nights. And a bit of a work block if you will–time spent focusing on my real job. Generally, healing physically and recharging mentally while unwinding a little bit to take my mind off triathlon. However, it will be good to get back out there–I am beginning to suffer from the condition known as post-Ironman (70.3) depression–the emotional and physical funk triathletes slip into soon after completing the athletic goal they’ve been focusing on for months. Google it–it’s sadly a real thing.

Run: Once I feel up to it, I will start training for the Philadelphia Marathon, which will be my first crack at the distance. I was on the fence for a while because I wasn’t sure my hip would cooperate for a running focus. Further, I am sure an open marathon is not the best thing for me as a triathlete. However, I want to experience 26.2 as a distance without 5-6 hours of exercise beforehand. And I like to run, so there’s that. My reach goal is to pop under 2:40, but that is contingent upon actually getting respectable run mileage completed while keeping in check all the various pains that running invariably inflicts. I know a sub 2:40 (and possibly sub 2:35) is in me in life, I just don’t know if I will be able to do the necessary training to get there in the next 6 weeks. I plan to keep the engine tickling over in cycling and swimming, but I won’t be logging much volume.

Swim: Then, I’ll let my running injuries heal as I put in a 6-week swimming block (*shudder*). This will consist of swimming nearly every day and logging upwards of 25-30 km per week. I may do some of this with a local master’s squad to keep it interesting. Unfortunately, I need to do this because a) my swim was by far my weakest split in my last race at Pocono and b) I have stopped seeing improvements with the 15 km or so I have been logging. Below, especially by looking at the 6-week moving average (the black line), you can see that I got a lot faster at first and a little bit faster as I increased volume, but this improvement has largely stagnated.

I haven’t done enough research to know what kind of training I need to do (e.g. should I really start doing strokes other than freestyle?), but I know simply swimming more is fundamental to every school of thought on fish development.

Bike: Finally, around the new year, it will be time to raise the left even as I fill the right on the bike–that is to say, I plan to work on my threshold power while doing a lot of endurance and sweet spot riding…a lot of riding in general, really, up hills and through valleys, on the road bike, on the tri bike, on the trainer…I may even join a few spin classes. My goal is to go into next season with a ironclad threshold power of 300 Watts. I like the roundness of that number, and it would represent a healthy improvement of about 5% compared to where I am now.

“The Beast” of St. Croix 70.3

Triathlon: In March and April, I’ll be hammering on all three disciplines during the most important build yet–and on a fourth discipline, too, which is heat training–in preparation for Ironman 70.3 St. Croix in May and Ironman 70.3 Eagleman in June. Both will be hot, both will be hard, and both fields will be stacked with top-caliber competition.

My early goal is to ride St. Croix at this year’s half-Iron power but with an Intensity Factor closer to 0.8 than 0.9 (i.e. at 80% of my threshold power) so that I can have a very strong run. The run at St. Croix (and the stifling heat and humidity) is notorious for chewing up athletes who push the very difficult and hilly bike–not just newbs either, many a top pro have crumbled during the last leg on that island.  If I can bike well but easy enough to set up a solid run (“solid” means under 1:25 given the anticipated conditions), it will set me up nicely in the age-group race.

While you can’t control who shows up and who performs on race day, I’d be remiss if I didn’t state flat out what my macro goals are for St. Croix (or, failing that, for Eagleman): the Kona slot. That’s right, I said it…I want to race the biggest and most important race in long-course triathlon on a pristine tropical island against the best triathletes on the planet. I want to do the full 140.6. But I want to own the half Iron distance first and prove that I’m ready to go long and that I’m ready to take the heat. St. Croix is like a mini Kona–my performance in the Virgin Islands will either confirm or deny my readiness for Hawaii. (Ironically, I may be so broke from these races, plus Vegas 70.3 World Champs in September, that I can’t afford Kona, but I guess that’s what credit is for.)

Most importantly, I want to keep having fun with this thing. Towards the end of this season, I was feeling awful physically and burnt out mentally. Sometimes you just need to go out and enjoy a bike ride or a run and forget about what it says about you as a human.

Ironman 70.3 – Pocono Mountains Race Report

Pre-Race / Goals: In late June, I scribbled down some specific time goals for this race (my end of season “A” race). I kept this paper pinned up at my office. I knew the bike target was a stretch, since I had averaged roughly 21 mph and 22 mph in my first two Olympic-distance bike legs (my first two triathlons, raced without power)–so I was aiming to ride much faster for more than twice the distance. I thought that such a ride would trash me were I even physically capable, so I penciled in a 1:25 half marathon, which I knew was well within reach if I could maintain my run fitness though the fall.

Original Goals

It was cycling, however, that was the weak link. In the weeks that followed, I invested money, time, and sweat in my cycling–I bought a power meter and set out on harder and longer bike rides than I’d ever done before. I had to learn to push on the pedals–by focusing on power, I was logging my hard rides with an average heart rate almost 20 beats higher than I’d ever seen before for long rides. At the beginning of power training, I figured 225 watts would be a reach goal for Pocono and would likely get me close to my goal time. But I surprised myself out there–the numbers on my rides were progressing almost linearly through the end of summer. I did a 20K time trial at 298W, indicating a threshold power 15 watts higher than I’d pegged prior. I logged an 82-mile, four-hour ride in the Poconos at 238 watts followed up with a hard trail run. At Delaware Diamondman, my dry run/dress rehearsal for Pocono, I managed 251 watts (~3.9 W/kg) for 52 miles (course was short) and had a decent run.

Everything seemed to be set, except my first half Iron in Delaware levied a heavy toll. Despite taking more rest than I ever wanted to or thought I would need, I just couldn’t train like I had been training. Race power felt arduous and forced, whereas before it felt steady and smooth. Even during easy “active recovery” workouts, my heart rate was much higher than it should have been for my fitness. I crumbled completely during several sessions–I could run 6-minute pace for a few short miles before fatigue permeated my quads and hamstrings and crippled my stride, after which I’d be tired for days–and I wondered if I hadn’t burnt out my body right before it mattered most. I tried to rest as much as possible without losing my fitness…I focused on good sleep and good eats–I even had a few salads, so desperate were these days.  “Sharpening” workouts–fast intervals at threshold or V02 max leading up to a key race–were out of the question.

Pre-Race Logistics

So I went into Pocono worried as hell about a blowup–even in my shakeout ride the day before, my legs were wooden and flimsy like driftwood. Every data point I had indicated a poor race was coming. But to paraphrase a Chuckie V comment, a heart rate monitor cannot measure heart and a power meter cannot measure will power…my goals remained: swim strong, ride 245 watts average or around 250W normalized, and run a low 1:20s half marathon. Secondarily, I hoped to qualify for the 70.3 World Championship in Las Vegas. In the back of my mind, I thought that if I felt great out there (like I did in Delaware) and was able to pump higher than planned wattage, and depending on the days others were having…an amateur title was within the realm of possibility.

Swim: Going into the swim, I had hoped to find the legs of Bill Robertson, who I chatted with before the race. I knew Bill had outsplit me by about 30 seconds on the swim at the Red Bank Tri in May (before he went on to claim 2nd overall and crushed the bike). My swimming had improved since then, so I thought I could keep his pace. The start was a whirlwind of flying arms, and I had no sooner earned some space from my wave than I caught up with the slower swimmers from previous waves–the Clydesdales and the like, who created frustrating obstacles. I saw a white cap (my wave) to my right and swam roughly in line with it until the turnaround, then made an effort to bridge over to it. As it turned out, I found myself on the legs of an Xterra wetsuit, and I surmised it was Bill. I followed him through the end as we weaved in and out of slower age groupers. The swim was more an obstacle course than anything, so it wasn’t physically taxing, but we got out of the water with a solid split around 25 minutes (it may have been a bit short). Frankly, I was disappointed not to have had a chance to really swim hard and reap some reward from those exhausting, god-forsaken pool sets, but my swim fitness at least ensured I was fresh starting the bike.

BikeI hustled through transition, hoping to sneak out and get a jump on Bill since I knew I needed it with his bike skills (he split ~64 min to my 71 at Red Bank). I tore out of T1 and down the 4-mile descent, which I knew from riding the course required no brakes and no time on the hoods. Despite weaving around terrified riders while screaming “on your left” repeatedly (and crossing over the double yellow lines numerous times to avoid catastrophe), I set a new downhill speed record at nearly 52 mph, around the same max Jordan Rapp achieved at Leadman…I’m finally growing some balls for descending.

Flying Dismount #Fail

Then I went to work. In line with my recent training, my legs felt absolutely terrible. I was holding race power (~250W) but it required constant attention to my Garmin and troubling strain. Thirty minutes into the ride, I thought I would be dropping out of the race. I’d ridden 15 miles at race power and my legs felt like they’d seen 80. What kept me encouraged was the thought of my girlfriend Emma and parents waiting to cheer me on at mile 35, and also my speed–my 5-mile splits were reading faster than I’d anticipated given my power output…I tried to convince myself that my power meter was off, then, failing that, that my new latex tubes and race tires were working overtime to save my powerless prime movers. If I could just get through this bike ride…

I did, and it hurt like hell, and my legs felt like crap, and I hated weaving around 500+ riders, many of whom had no business being on the left side of the lane. And I hated the downhills where power, then confidence, flagged. And I hated watching my average power drop below 245, to 244, to 243, to 241…but I finished the ride and, despite having had no strong running under my belt in weeks, I thought I just might have the residual fitness to crush it out there.

Run: The crowd support through T2 was a big boost–having my own supporters there and high-fiving my dad early in the run had me jazzed. I saw my bike time (~2:21) was phenomenal given how I’d undershot my power goals, and I calculated that with a good run, a sub 4:15 time was within reach, which meant the high likelihood of an age-group win and a fighting chance at an amateur title. My first half mile flew by at 5:40 pace, then I settled into a more comfortable rhythm around six flat with my heart rate in check around 175. I had also been holding my hydration for quite a while–I had just cleaned my bike!–and it was a nice load off when I let that go around mile 2, right around when I saw Jesse Thomas cruising to victory…seeing him charging forward with a commanding lead–it was a motivating sight.

Hauling out of T2

Even though my legs were in pain, I felt aerobically strong–it was just a question of cramping, general muscular fatigue, GI issues, and electrolyte deficiency (i.e. the unknowns in any endurance event). After some cola at mile 3, I could not take more fluids, and the thought of a Gu repulsed me. I set my sights on competitors up the road, who were few and far between but close enough to create a game as I reeled them in. The turnaround seemed like it would never come, but when it finally did, I was pretty sure I had a good race wrapped–I was on pace for a 1:21 half marathon if I could even split, and the run back to the finish was rolling but net downhill. I just needed to open up my stride on the the descents and keep within myself on the climbs.

With a mile to go there was one short but cruel hill, on which I caught two runners and surged past them. It was a regrettable move, as my stomach immediately developed a piercing side stitch that felt like a knife in my abdomen. I slowed as I approached the finish, but when I turned the corner for the home stretch, the crowd noise was deafening and I sprinted home with everything I had. After crossing the finish line, a volunteer approached me and made a joke about the hills–I wanted to laugh but the senses were drained from my body, and I stumbled, almost falling over. I was dizzy with fatigue, but I was finished. I had run under 1:21 for the half marathon, logged a total time under 4:12, won the Men’s 25-29 age group (qualifying for Worlds), garnered the overall amateur title, and beaten a chunk of the male pros.

Finished

Postscript: Despite my trepidation heading into my key race and my fatigue issues during, I had nearly achieved my pre-race goals, and blew to shreds the targets I’d set in June. In just a couple short months, I have become a real cyclist–the development of which I am most proud. From my first tri in May, where I split a pedestrian 71-minute 40K bike leg, to where I am now, with an approximate threshold power of ~4.4 W/kg–I have bridged a wide chasm. There’s still much work to be done–by way of comparison, Jesse Thomas swam several minutes faster than I, and he’s known as a poor fish who learned as an adult; he rode 10 minutes faster and probably 50-75 watts higher (his threshold power is likely more than a full W/kg above mine); and my run is not comparable to his either (he ran sub 1:15). Even with the last leg being my strength, 22 miles per week average run mileage is not going to cut it as I look up the leader board.

Coincidentally, it has been exactly one year since I officially (in my mind at least) entered this sport, having started my training log on October 1, 2011. 533,000 swim yards, 5,600 bike miles, and 1,150 run miles later, I have found something important in triathlon: a vocation that is as uplifting as it is debilitating, that crowns psychologically as it crucifies physically, that makes me weary beyond words and cripples me, even as it bestows strength and self-assurance, and ultimately makes me better. It has been a good year in the sport–the first, I hope, of many.