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.

Advertisements

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.

Background

In the fall of 2011, I was trudging through a trail run in the foothills when I became privy to the exotic sensation known colloquially as “runner’s high”—an experience that serious runners, with a kind of earned condescension, refuse to acknowledge to their more sedentary counterparts. Privately, most admit—there you are, physically suffering but mentally high, hurting in the legs and lungs but overwhelmed by feelings of ease, intensity, power, well-being…euphoria. The ideas are fast and frequent like shooting stars, and you follow them. Sometimes it happens that the most insane thought, the most impossible conception, will become so fixed in one’s head that at length one believes the thought or the conception to be fated, inevitable, foreordained. That’s when I decided I would become a triathlete, and not just any triathlete, but a bona fide, long-course-proven Ironman.

I had some reasons: I had been a good runner in my younger days (those days were long gone, having recently clocked a 1:31 downhill half marathon, just fifteen minutes shy of my personal best from high school). I had started frequenting Saturday morning group bike rides, where I failed to stay on the wheel of even the most overweight middle-aged warriors. I swam back when my age was a single digit and thought Michael Phelps a swell guy.

Reasoning aside, I decided I would do this thing, and I would do it as well as I capably could. Like anything I ever opted to do in life, I’d go full throttle, because what was worth doing was worth doing well, or else I might as well quit, give up, walk away for other pursuits. Moderation has never been possible—all or nothing, on or off, heavy on the accelerator or stopped dead in the tracks.

But first, I had work to do. I didn’t sign up for a race; I signed up for a lifestyle. I became a student of the sport, designing my training regimen and fitness roadmap with all the foolishness of a novice, but with all the necessary pieces: swimming, biking, and running in large doses.

Since starting my training on October 1, 2011, I have found in triathlon a lot that’s mean and a little that’s sublime. But most importantly, what I’ve found is what I knew already: triathlon, like real sport of any kind, reduces you to your lowest terms by challenging the basest part of your being, your physical limitations…your threshold. To martial the tenacity of your mind in order to tempt that threshold for a day; to summon the strength or the courage to supersede that threshold for a week; and, perhaps, to wage warfare on the disquieting protests of your head to raise the threshold of your corporeal self…for years—and, to emerge victorious!—that’s the hardest, meanest, most empowering life there is. The self-created, self-granted, self-assumed power to bend your body to your will—by god, that is the point. If done right, the component parts of raising your threshold—the 200 meters or 20 minutes or four miles, repeated—will permeate all the bone and marrow of your being and produce a life that is sturdy and true, calcified…Iron.

May this be a record of one such life.

——————————-

Having now set the stage with totally unnecessary, overwritten pomp, I hope to use this blog for more practical reasons: to post a weekly training update, race reports, other training tidbits, and to air the occasional multi-sport focused commentary.