WE'VE ALL seen Lance Armstrong finish a race—cruising down the Champs Elysées, arms raised, champagne glass in hand, showing hardly a hint of weariness. So it was somewhat unsettling to watch him tiptoe across the line at the New York City Marathon on Sunday after completing his first 26.2-miler in two hours, 59 minutes and 36 seconds: good stockbroker or schoolteacher time. He bent over, grabbed his stomach and rested an elbow on an official's shoulder. For once, Armstrong looked human, not superhuman. For once, he was wondering at the achievements of others. "The two-hour guys in the front," he said after finishing, "I have no idea how they do it."
Armstrong's celebrity made him a man apart from the other 37,000 runners in the field. A Lance Cam captured his every stride for a dedicated webcast. His support staff rivaled any roster of domestiques that helped him win seven Tours de France. He was paced by Joan Samuelson, winner of the first women's Olympic marathon; former New York winners Alberto Salazar and German Silva; and Moroccan mile legend Hicham El-Guerrouj. The throngs along the course cheered loudly for him, often waving GO LANCE signs. While many runners solicited donations for charitable causes, Armstrong said he hoped his efforts on Sunday would raise $750,000 for cancer research. He wore a green Nike T-shirt that read 10/2 in honor of the date in 1996 when his testicular cancer was diagnosed.
But there's no doubt Armstrong felt—if not in his heart, then in his hammies and quads—like one of the crowd. He was a midpacker, wearing baggy shorts and coaxing sore muscles to the finish like thousands of other weekend warriors. He clearly favored a taped right shin; the man who kicked butt on mountain trails looked humbled by the gentle hills of Central Park. "Given my conditioning, it was the hardest physical thing I've ever done," he said. "Even on the worst days of the Tour, nothing left me feeling the way I do now."
Armstrong had trained a modest 35 miles a week: "consistently," he said, "but unscientifically. Just daily exercise—run, bike, swim, gym, kayak." He carried 15 pounds more than his cycling weight of 165. He told reporters he could never be an elite runner because "their legs are the size of your pens and pencils." The night before the race Salazar asked about the slowest finishing time he could accept. Armstrong said three hours. "I had to keep him from going faster than that," said Salazar, who ran with Armstrong the first 10 miles. "Breathing was easy for him, but I figured his calves would bite him at the end. Cyclists use different leg muscles."
Samuelson replaced Salazar at Mile 10 and had to fend off runners who crowded Armstrong. "I've never used my elbows so much," she said. "And his shins were bothering him. At 22 miles, we told him to key off runners in front and stay on their pace."
Armstrong needed a strong kick in the last two miles to reach his goal time. The decibel level rose for him as loudly as it had for the winners, Marilson Gomes dos Santos of Brazil and Latvia's Jelena Prokopcuka, and for Meb Keflezighi and Deena Kastor, both Americans and Olympic medalists who finished well off the pace. That response left many in the running community conflicted. "This race has two U.S. Olympic medalists who are good people," says Peter Gambaccini, author of a book about the New York City Marathon. "P. Diddy ran [in 2003], and you wonder which celebrity will next usurp the headlines real runners deserve."
Still, most elite runners politely answered questions about what one called privately "the three-hour meganame." "I hope it was really tough out there for him," says U.S. runner Dathan Ritzenhein, who finished 11th in 2:14:01. "When someone like him says it's tough to run his time, people realize how tough it is for us to run ours."
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"The 111-year-old Simmons said he might have been good enough for the majors but that 'it was useless to try.'"
—SILAS SIMMONS OBITUARY, PAGE 26
ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN CUNEO