Enduring Questions: Armstrong vs Marathon: Preview

Some people think Lance Armstrong is a pretty decent cyclist. Me, I’m fascinated by his running. The legendary cyclist has entered this autumn’s New York City Marathon and many of us are itching to see how he will fare. Armstrong won the first distance race he ever entered as a teenager. He obviously had legs, guts, and stamina from the go.

He also won a more 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 mid-event 12-mile mountain-bike leg, but Saeger paid for his audacity. Armstrong comfortably beat him on the concluding three-mile cross-country race, running the fastest leg of anyone in the competition (20:16) and winning the event overall.

Aside from these running achievements, Armstrong has enjoyed unparalleled success in the Tour de France. Last summer he won it for the seventh time, before announcing his retirement. While I realise that's pretty impressive, 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 such as 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 VO2 max and use the impressive numbers to bolster their confidence. Armstrong knows his VO2 max, too. His long-time friend, confidante, and coach, Chris Carmichael, has had his star pupil tested on several occasions. In one, Armstrong put oxygen into his legs at the astonishing rate of 83 millilitres per kilogram per minute.

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