It's been 10 years since Lance Armstrong was first diagnosed with cancer, 10 years since doctors gave his life a sentence he refused to accept. And to celebrate, Armstrong is doing what any cancer survivor would do -- chasing down a life goal he has yet to attain.
On Sunday, Armstrong will join 40,000 people for the ING New York City Marathon. He's traded in his bicycle for a pair of running shoes, left behind the treacherous 2,241-mile climb up the French Alps for 26.2 miles of pounding his knees on the streets of New York City.
In an exclusive interview with ESPN.com this week, Armstrong declined to talk about doping or other issues in his former sport, but discussed why he's running the marathon, what his personal goals are for the world's most famous footrace and why this might not be the last time we'll see him in such an event.
ESPN.com: For most people, a marathon is a major hurdle, something that challenges the core of who they are but offers a tremendous sense of accomplishment when they're finished. As a world-class athlete, what's your motivation in doing this?
Lance Armstrong: Well, honestly, I don't think I'm that different than those people you've described. The perception is that I've done a marathon before because of the triathlons I used to run. People think "Ironman," and they think I've run a marathon. But I haven't done a marathon. The longest I've ever run is 16 miles and that was a week ago. This is a milestone for me as well. I'm nervous. It's something I always wanted to do. And it's something I considered doing again, but now we'll see.
ESPN.com: So the longest you have ever run is 16 miles?
Armstrong: A lot of people say 20 miles is the halfway mark, so yeah, I'm nervous. But at the same time, I'm hoping to rely on 20-plus years of endurance to get me through this.
ESPN.com: There are a handful of places you could have chosen to run -- Boston, Chicago, maybe a smaller event in your home state of Texas. Why New York?
Armstrong: Aside from the biggest and most prestigious marathon, it's arguably the greatest city in the world. New York has always been great to me. And then you get into the aspects you hear about later on, the support from the community, from the boroughs, the party atmosphere, that appealed to me. It's not the fastest or the easiest marathon, but it's such a great city.
ESPN.com: I know you said that time is not important to you, but you're also a competitor. And anybody who runs, whether it's 2 miles or 20, has a time in the back of his head. What's your goal?
Armstrong: I'm targeting 3 hours. I'll be happy if I finish in under 3.
ESPN.com: You've done 20 years of crazy amounts of training and strict dieting. Now that you're in your so-called "retirement," how have you balanced preparing for the race while, well, retiring?
Armstrong: That's a good point. I did spend 20 years dieting fanatically and training and studying and analyzing everything and that was really what defined my career. This is the antithesis of that. This is not that at all. Ironically enough, running is the most convenient thing because I travel so much now. Bikes are hard to carry when you don't know the roads. Carrying a bike is harder than carrying a set of running shoes on a plane. There's just not, there hasn't been a lot of planning besides consistent daily exercise. There's still time on the bike, in the gym, in the pool, a whole mix of cross training.
ESPN.com: I read where your travel schedule has made training a challenge. What are some of the stranger places you've been forced to run? And who are some of the more unique people you've come across in your training?
Armstrong: I run everywhere. In Iowa, in Central Park, in Miami, in L.A. I like to workout outside. If the weather is bad outside, I'll go to the gym. But if I can be outdoors, I'll be outside.
ESPN.com: And who are some unique people you've run into?
Armstrong: One day I was running in Central Park and catching this old boy, who was wearing a yellow band. I thought that was pretty cool. Well, it was [North Carolina Sen.] John Edwards, which definitely was pretty cool. He was surprised and we ran for a while and talked, but then he asked me to go on ahead. He wasn't quite interested in running that fast.
Also, in both of my last two times in the park, I've run with the Columbia [University] cross country team. It's pretty cool to see kids out there for their school. They see me coming and they start running the other way. We run together for a few miles and they ask me questions, I ask them questions. It's just a cool thing.
ESPN.com: There are a lot of people who physically can't handle the pounding that running takes on a body. They prefer swimming or cycling. How has your body responded during your training?
Armstrong: I'm one of them. It's been up and down. When I first got into it seriously, I had hip flexor issues. They have gone away, but they've been replaced with shin splints, about the worst thing you can have for running. But I'm icing them, getting massaged, taking ibuprofen -- just trying to keep it together for Sunday.
ESPN.com: You started running when you were in grade school. That led to joining the track team, then swimming and then to the bike. Right now, if you had to quench your thirst for adrenaline and had no training requirements, which of those three physical challenges would you pursue? Why?
Armstrong: Hands down, it's not even close I still much prefer a bike. When I get back to the bike, even now with the shin splints I've been riding every day, you just can't replace that feeling. A run is great and all, but a good bike ride is and always will be my favorite.
ESPN.com: Speaking of your love for cycling -- you were always known as a fierce competitor. Do you miss competition? How do you quench the desire to compete?
Armstrong: I don't need to win anything here. I know I'm not going to win. But I have little competitions with myself. The other day I ran a mile as fast as I could. I wanted to see how fast I could run. I had a time in mind, maybe 5:00, 5:05 and I ended up beating that by quite a lot. I ran in 4:51. That was a victory for me.
ESPN.com: Unlike the Tour de France, where you're competing against the world's greatest cyclists, in this event, you'll be running alongside the everyday 35-year-old stock trader. What do you anticipate that's going to be like for you?
Armstrong: Well, that's sort of the beauty of this, isn't it? I didn't want to, after so many years of professional and competitive sports, not to name names, but I didn't want to be the typical professional athlete, where the tendency is to get lazy and sedentary and not doing anything. Especially those first couple years. I didn't want that for my life. It's not good for my health and I don't want to be a 40-year-old 50 pounds over weight. Now, on Sunday, I'll be like every other 35-year-old guy in the field who has an hour a day to exercise, has kids to tend to, business to take care of and drinks a beer or two every night. My publicist is giving me the finger, joking that maybe I should add a zero to that. In many ways, I'm just an average dude, like so many of the other runners out there.
ESPN.com: You mentioned the shape that most professional athletes grow into post their playing days. Beyond the marathon, what sort of long-term fitness goals do you have for yourself?
Armstrong: I don't know. After this, I won't rule out another marathon. I wouldn't rule out a triathlon or an adventure race either. There are other events in cycling I'd like to do, like the Leadville 100, an extreme mountain bike race in some of the highest parts of Colorado. I don't think people have to worry -- I'll find something to keep myself motivated.
Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.