Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Lance Armstrong’s Trail Race Win Draws Controversy

Lance Armstrong, the seven-time Tour de France cycling champion who was subsequently stripped of his titles due to doping violations he’d long denied, won the Woodside Ramble, a 35K trail race in California, in 3:00:36 on Sunday. Even before Armstrong ran his first steps at Woodside, controversy was erupting over whether he, as an athlete banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency, should be permitted in even a low-key race like the 35K, which had 50 entrants.

In wet conditions in the canyons and forests of two parks on the San Francisco peninsula, Armstrong defeated runner-up Roger Montes by nearly two minutes and subsequently tweeted, “can’t remember the last time I had this much fun suffering for three hours.”
Lance Armstrong runs on the trail during the running portion of the Xterra World Championship triathlon in Kapalua, Hawaii, on October 23, 2011. Armstrong’s win in a trail race last weekend has sparked discussion about doping in trail races
Lance Armstrong runs on the trail during the running portion of the Xterra World Championship triathlon in Kapalua, Hawaii, on October 23, 2011. Armstrong’s win in a trail race last weekend has sparked discussion about doping in trail races
Armstrong had said “part of me wants to go run an ultra” in a Sound Cloud podcast before appearing at Woodside. He indicated he might “find a 100-miler to run or go find an obstacle-course race that’s super challenging,” most likely in 2016.

Tim Stahler, the race director of the Woodside Ramble, which also had 10K, half marathon, and 50K races, operates Inside Trail Racing with his wife, Tanya. On the organization’s Facebook page, Tanya Stahler explained, “To us, Mr. Armstrong was just another paying registrant; a person visiting a friend [Inside Trail team member Scott Dunlap] who wanted to go for a long run. We did not publicize his presence or treat him any differently than we did other runners, nor did he receive any kind of cash prize - he didn’t even take a medal or T-shirt.”

Runner’s World made multiple attempts to contact Armstrong’s publicist, Mark Higgins, and race director Tim Stahler, but received no responses.

Stahler found out about Armstrong’s interest in running the Ramble five days before the race. By email, he told Competitor.com that, after some initial misgivings, he felt Armstrong’s presence could be a positive thing for the ultra community. Finishers enjoyed seeing Armstrong out on the course, according to Stahler. “A few people discussed his past actions, but never made a disparaging remark about him running,” he wrote.

But the operators of the Ultrarunner Podcast, having heard of Armstrong’s interest in turning to the trails and ultras, wrote, “Dude, no. Just no. So [race directors], consider yourself warned: Enact change now (before he signs up), and you can avoid a massive PR nightmare.”

Joe Gray, a five–time USA Mountain Runner of the Year, commented on Facebook, “I hear people talk about second chances for a 'particular' athlete (who is making their way into trail racing). What of the second chances for the athletes who lost their careers due to being cheated by this athlete? They do not get a second chance do they? They lost something that can never be replaced.”

Montes, the runner-up to Armstrong in the 35K, had a different take.

“No, I do not feel cheated” by Armstrong’s presence, he told Trail Runner. “Lance Armstrong never took anything from me. Instead, I saw it as an opportunity to push myself hard and race against a strong athlete.”

In his prime, Armstrong was the most celebrated individual sport athlete in the United States. He was widely lauded for battling back from potentially fatal testicular cancer to earn his Tour de France victories from 1999 to 2005 and for starting the Livestrong Foundation to aid cancer victims. (He is no longer involved with the foundation.)

After the Tour de France streak, he turned to the marathon. His 2006 and 2007 New York City and 2008 Boston efforts were all under 3:00, with a best of 2:46:43 in New York in 2007. Armstrong started competing in triathlons, with several victories, before his suspension by WADA in 2012.

The suspension covered not just cycling but, due to a mutual recognition principle, as Runner's World reported, extended to races sanctioned by USA Triathlon and USA Track & Field. A race permitting Armstrong to compete would face losing its accreditation from the relevant governing body. But a smaller race like the Woodside Ramble is not a signator of the World Anti-Doping Agency code and is not under its jurisdiction.

Armstrong’s 2013 televised confession to Oprah Winfrey that he doped was, according to some news reports, provided in the hope that the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency might reduce his lifetime ban. But it drew harsh criticism from prominent runners like two-time USATF 5,000 champion Lauren Fleshman, who wrote in an open letter to Armstrong, “In your warped world, everyone is a cheater, but in reality, 99% of us are doing it right. A commitment to fair play is THE defining element of the profession."

Ultra and trail running have generally been exempt from doping scandals. But earlier this month, competitors in the The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile in California were upset that an Italian runner, Elisa Desco, would race for the $10,000 first prize even though she had served a two-year doping ban. She began the race but is not listed among the finishers.

The North Face race did not, at the time, have drug testing or a policy regarding convicted dopers. The event’s marketing director, writing that it was “important that lasting change is created by doing it right, which takes time," said they would soon devise a solution and share it with the public.

Ian Sharman, race director for the U.S. Skyrunner Series, told Runner’s World he was pushing for life bans for convicted dopers for all of his organization’s events. However, he added, “we can’t change our rules at this point without the rules being changed for the entire International Skyrunning Federation, so that’s where we’re aiming to make the change, so we can send a clear signal that cheating isn’t acceptable.”

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