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How Fast Could Lance Armstrong Run A Marathon?
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In the Tour de France, Armstrong devours riders over 2,000-plus miles. Could he do the same over 26.2?

By Amby Burfoot

PUBLISHED 09/29/2006

Some people think Lance Armstrong is a pretty decent cyclist. Me, I'm fascinated by his running. After all, Armstrong won the first distance race he ever entered, way back in fifth grade. The kid obviously had legs, guts, and stamina from the get go.

Unlikely as it seems, Armstrong also won his most recent running race. This time it was a run-bike-run affair called the Dirty Duathlon in Rocky Hill, Texas, back in December 2002. An upstart named Jason Saeger beat Armstrong by more than two minutes in the midevent 12-mile mountain-bike leg, but Saeger paid for his audacity. Armstrong spanked him bad on the concluding 3-mile cross-country race, running the fastest leg of anyone in the competition (20:16) and winning the event overall.

In between his first and last running victories, Armstrong turned to the Tour de France. Last summer he won it for the fifth time, surviving a series of blips, flips, and clip slips that made his victory just about the most dramatic thing ever to appear on Reality TV. This year's Tour begins July 3, and I can't wait to follow Armstrong's quest to become the first six-time winner.

Still, when it comes to endurance sports, I see things through a runner's eyes. I naturally wonder how tough the Tour really is, and what kind of marathon Armstrong could run. The answer hinges on stuff that's familiar to runners-aerobic fitness, biomechanics, lactic acid, and energy supply-but also less-familiar things like power output and gravitational force. Most important, there's the je ne sais quoi that separates the champs from the chaff.

The best runners are incredible oxygen-delivery machines who know their max VO2 and use the impressive numbers to bolster their confidence. Armstrong knows his max VO2, too. His longtime friend, confidante, and coach, Chris Carmichael, has had his star pupil tested on several occasions. In one, Armstrong jackhammered oxygen into his legs at the astonishing rate of 83 millimeters per kilogram per minute.

This figure wouldn't mean much if it weren't for the pioneering research of famed running coach Jack Daniels, Ph.D., who first published his Oxygen Power tables in 1979. According to Daniels, who's rarely off by more than a smidgen or two, a max VO2 of 83 is roughly equivalent to a 2:06 marathon.

The problem is, Daniels is talking about the oxygen power of runners on treadmills, not of cyclists. No one can say exactly how the two differ, but they do. Triathlon legend Mark Allen has lived in those narrow spaces. Allen is the fastest runner ever to win six Hawaii Ironman Triathlons. In 1989, he closed with a 2:40:04, still the Hawaii record, after first swimming 2.4 miles and then biking 112 miles.

Always a strong runner, Allen had a lightbulb moment one year at the Cherry Blossom 10-Mile in Washington, D.C. He was warming up, doing some strides, when he noticed other top runners doing the same. "They seemed to be floating across the road, with a light stride and a quick turnover," he says. In contrast, Allen felt that he was thumping the road with his well-developed leg muscles. "It's tough for a lot of triathletes and bicyclists. We tend to have bigger legs and to run more stiffly."

Carmichael says Armstrong moves oxygen as well as anyone, burns more fat than most endurance athletes (a good thing), and is able to cycle very hard without producing much lactic acid (a very good thing). Still, he agrees that cyclists don't easily convert to runners. "Running and cycling might seem similar," says Carmichael, the moving force behind the Web site, "but there are distinct differences. And they require different kinds of animals to perform well." For one thing, the top Tour riders weigh 30 to 40 pounds more than the top marathoners; Armstrong checks in around 165 pounds.

To get a better understanding of cycling, I called David Swain, Ph.D., from Old Dominion University. Swain's planning a 3,400-mile coast-to-coast bike ride this summer, but once ran 2 miles in 10:54 in army boots. Swain tells me that the Tour is basically three events-long peloton rides, devastating mountain climbs, and muscle-crunching time trials-while the marathon is just one.

A marathoner simply has to get his skinny aerobic butt to the finish line as fast as possible. If he encounters hills along the way, that doesn't much change the physics involved. A Tour winner has to mesh colliding worlds. He needs to be fit, lean, and strong. The five- to six-hour peloton rides demand a high level of aerobic fitness. The mountain climbs require serious pedal pushing, but from a lean frame. If you carry too much weight, gravity pulls you backward. A Kenyan 10,000-meter runner on a bike might perform quite well in the Pyrenees. But the same Kenyan would get crushed in the time trials, which demand brute power. I happen to live in the same community as bicycling's Olympic sprint champ Marty Nothstein, and I've seen him compete. His 6'2", 215-pound body dwarfs his bike as he attacks the pedals in a piston-pounding frenzy. To win the Tour, a rider has to be one-half Kenyan and one-half Nothstein. And that's a rare breed. "You have to be an unbelievably superb athlete to do it all," Swain says. "We're talking one in a million."

Last summer, Spanish physiologist Alejandro Lucia, Ph.D., wrote "The Tour de France: A Physiological Review," in which he noted that the first Tour winner was a French chimney sweep. "The recent winners are highly trained, professional cyclists," he wrote, "whose lifestyle is oriented to reach top endurance performance."

Lucia, who has run a 2:52 marathon, says that riders must be ready to call on their superhuman skills at any time. "A rider must be able to perform for three weeks in the face of accumulating fatigue without knowing when he will be called upon for a maximum effort," he says. "Days that are supposed to be easy can turn difficult."

Whew! It's enough to make you feel thankful for even-pace marathons. Not that Lucia thinks it's easier to win the Boston Marathon. "It's very difficult to win the Tour," says Lucia, "but it's even harder to win a big international marathon, because there are so many great runners worldwide and far fewer Tour participants."

So how fast could Armstrong cover 26.2 miles? His coach, Carmichael, says, "Lance will probably rip me when he hears this, but I don't think he'd run faster than 2:30 to 2:40." Allen says 2:20 to 2:30. Lucia says sub-2:20 but not sub-2:10. "What are those guys thinking?" asks Swain. "With his aerobic engine, Lance could run 2:10 or better."

But the greatest athletes have more than the best bodies-they have the best minds. "The Europeans don't train as intelligently as Armstrong," says Lucia. "They are stuck with their old thinking, their traditions."

Mark Allen now coaches other athletes on the power of mind-enabled performance from an aptly named Web site, And he believes Armstrong's success stems from his inner drive. "When Lance sets a goal," says Allen, "he's got the tenacity of 50 people wrapped up in one body."

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