One of the hardest things a competitor can do is quit.
Of course, there are obvious times when you have to concede the day, such as when broken bones, medical intervention, and conditions beyond your control wrest the decision from your hands. Those days are clear-cut and, while there is sadness, there is little remorse at walking off the course.
It’s the days when you’re just not sure that test your soul. It’s the races where you’ve invested months and maybe years of training time into merely getting to the starting line and then everything goes wrong. You question, you wonder: if I push just a little further, if I try something just a little different, can I salvage this day? Should I stick it out? Will I quit and then regret it forever?
Lance Armstrong made the toughest decision of his career last night. He issued a statement that he was no longer willing to fight the US Anti-Doping Agency’s (USADA) charges, which means that he will be stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and banned from cycling for life. “There comes a point in every man’s life where he has to say, enough is enough,” Armstrong wrote. Armstrong has made the tough call to DNF this race.
I’ve read Armstrong’s books and I’ve watched him race over the years. I was there in New York City near the finish when he ran his first marathon, and watching that raised Armstrong to a new level for me. I’d run 15-20 marathons at that point and I knew a little of what it takes to do what he’d done. The look on his face when he finished and his concession of the difficulty of that sub-3:00 run illustrated to me that the man is a fierce competitor, not simply a winner. There are all kinds of winners who will give up. A competitor may not always win, but a competitor will always fight the good fight. Armstrong is a fighter.
Many people will posit that Armstrong is simply “taking the easy way out” and “avoiding being caught.” But I disagree; there’s nothing easy about what he’s doing. There is no possibility of a positive outcome for Armstrong in this race because he cannot properly compete. He’s been denied the framework of reliable rules and process. I believe that, even if Armstrong were to proceed with the case and (by some miracle) have his name cleared, that, after his death, the USDA would dig up his body and test again to “prove” that he doped.
Do I believe he doped? Honestly, at this point, I DON’T CARE. The time to care was during and after the many races when he was subjected to some 200 tests and incredible scrutiny. He passed those tests—all of them. So, actually, the issue now is not whether he doped but whether the tests were accurate. At the time of the tests, Armstrong was deemed clean and those were the rules. Isn’t that the American way, to be given the rules, play the game accordingly, and abide by the outcome? I’d hate to sign up for a race and, while running, find that the judges keep moving the finish line because, clearly, if I’m succeeding, I must be cheating. The idea of running forever and constantly failing is the stuff of nightmares. The USADA seems to be saying that they realize testing isn’t accurate or appropriate and, therefore, this justifies ignoring negative doping results. They’re moving the finish line.
I do believe that doping is rampant in professional cycling and that, unfortunately, clean cyclists are the minority. I wish that the USADA had chosen to spend the time, money, and professional expertise devoted to the Armstrong case toward assessing how and why the cycling culture has evolved to this point and how best the Tour and other events can be changed to discourage the need for cheating through doping. Let’s eliminate the need to commit the crime rather than focus on punishing after the fact as a deterrent.
So I applaud Lance for making the incredibly difficult decision to leave this competition. And I hope with all my heart that the cyclists who love the sport will use this moment to reflect on how each of them can stand up in the saddle and say, “Enough is enough.”
And, Lance, that stocky older woman on the trail, the one in the Austin Fit Magazine t-shirt who sometimes bursts into spontaneous applause those Thursday mornings when we pass each other on the run—that’s me. I can’t wait to cheer you on in your next triathlon.