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Sunday, December 13, began with a literal storm on the trails of Inside Trail Racing’s Woodside Ramble race just outside Palo Alto, California. The day ended with a figurative storm on social media, as trail-running feeds flooded with news from the race.
Through the morning’s blinding rain, Lance Armstrong—yes, that Lance Armstrong—won the Woodside Ramble 35K, traversing 3,500 feet of elevation gain in 3:00:34 (you can view the Strava file here), 1 minute 52 seconds ahead of second-place Roger Montes.
The time is not remarkable in the race’s history—the course record is held by Matthew Laye, who ran more than 15 minutes faster in 2012. The female course record is faster as well: 2:58:10, by Caitlin Smith in 2013. While Armstrong’s time may not have drawn attention on its own, his controversial background set off a social-media deluge.
“Race directors allowing [Armstrong] into racing need to understand that it’s not because of his doping alone that he is not welcome,” wrote Joe Gray, a nine-time U.S. Mountain Running national champion, on his Facebook page. Gray has been an outspoken voice on the issue of anti-doping in trail running. “It’s because of the things he did outside of doping and the fact that he could influence others to take the negative plunge he once took.”
Lance Armstrong, a seven-time winner of the Tour de France, is one of the most accomplished endurance athletes in history. However, those accomplishments were fueled (at least in part) by a systematic program of doping, which was obscured by over a decade of lies to investigators, the media and the public.
In 2012, the U.S. Anti-Doping Administration ruled that Armstrong’s cycling team “ran the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.” As a result, Armstrong is banned from all events that fall under the USADA umbrella—which excludes most trail races.
Tim and Tanya Stahler, the Woodside Ramble race directors, addressed the issue in a post by Tanya on Inside Trail Racing’s Facebook page. “To us, Mr. Armstrong was just another paying registrant; a person visiting a friend”—Scott Dunlap, a member of Inside Trail Racing’s team of athletes—”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.”
The post continued, “[I]rrespective of his past, he is still a person with an appreciation for sports. I agree that he shouldn’t be allowed to race any event at the elite level in nationally sanctioned or qualifying events, but he should be granted the right to still have fun.”
In a follow-up interview with Trail Runner, Tim Stahler echoed those sentiments. “[Armstrong] has certainly engaged in despicable behavior that harmed his sport and people close to him. He failed miserably and betrayed many, if not all, of us.”
However, Stahler said, those failures shouldn’t preclude Armstrong’s participation in local races like Woodside Ramble. “[Inside Trail Racing] hosts local trail-running events for the purpose of helping people enhance and improve their lives through running and being out in nature. I think everyone”—including Armstrong—”can benefit from getting out on the trails and running with others.”
For his part, Armstrong emphasizes that he’s not out for glory. “I’m not running for money or trophies,” he told Trail Runner through his publicist. “I run for my own personal reasons and that’s to stay fit and to remain sane. Simply put, I love running.” He also said he planned to continue running trail races.
While the broad implications for doping and trail running are debatable, one thing is not—Armstrong did beat 48 racers, all of whom would have placed one spot higher had he not been allowed to race. That is part of the issue pointed out by Ethan Veneklasen, a longtime ultrarunner, the Chief of Heard Sports Marketing and another leading voice in the ongoing debate.
“Racers running for the best place possible were robbed by the most notorious doper in history,” he says.
Similarly, Gray, in an interview with Trail Runner, called on runners and fans (and, yes, magazines) to avoid acknowledging Armstrong, because it takes away from others’ achievements. (In July, Trail Runner published a feature article, by Jenn Shelton, about the author, Armstrong and ultrarunner Connie Gardner running in the Grand Canyon.)
Not all runners feel the same. “No, I do not feel cheated,” says Roger Montes, a cyclist transitioning to trail running who placed second to Armstrong. “Lance Armstrong never took anything from me. Instead I saw it as an opportunity to push myself hard and race against a strong athlete.”
Montes added that not much talking went on during the race, but, afterward, “I introduced myself, we shook hands and I made a joke about the irony of two cyclists with running problems. He laughed, agreed and replied, saying, ‘Hey, it takes less time.’ ”
Eric Byrnes, a retired Major League Baseball outfielder who has taken up triathlons and ultramarathons, placed fourth at the race. Introduced by a mutual friend, Byrnes met Armstrong earlier that weekend for a round of golf, and decided to join him at the Ramble.
“I blame the cultures of the sport more than the individuals themselves,” says Byrnes, referring to doping scandals in baseball, running and cycling. “That does not mean I clear these individuals of any wrongdoing, but to treat them as an outcast to society and ostracize them for life is ridiculously over the top.”
Some social-media commenters have echoed that sentiment in recent days, arguing that the trail-running community should give all people—including dopers—a chance for redemption.
Ultimately, whether Armstrong himself should be allowed to compete may be less important than the larger issue of doping in trail running that his case has brought to the surface.
“From my perspective … this debate isn’t about Lance Armstrong,” says Veneklasen. “If we want to preserve the integrity of [our] sport at all levels, then we need to address doping in a responsible and proactive manner. That means adopting clear policies and testing procedures to prevent doping from ruining our sport the way it has cycling.”
Trail racing is shifting dramatically, from the grassroots, community-oriented sport to one that is becoming increasingly professionalized, at least at the front of the pack. With larger amounts of money entering trail racing, lessons from other sports (like cycling, road running and track) indicate that doping will become an issue if it has not already.
While the debate has yet to be settled, Ian Sharman, an elite ultrarunner who owns Sharman Ultra Endurance Coaching and directs the US Skyrunner Series, sums up the position of many in the trail community: “Anti-doping is a contentious and complex area, but it’s important to have a clear stance that cheating in any form is unacceptable in trail running.”
Paul Cuno-Booth contributed additional reporting. This article has been updated to include Armstrong’s comment, which Trail Runner had not received by the original time of publication.