- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 5, 2006

NEW YORK — A fellow journalist sarcastically said this to me at Friday’s press conference for the New York City Marathon at the trendy Tavern on the Green in Central Park: “The New York Road Runners ought to hire somebody just to be their ‘celebrity runner coordinator.’ ”

At the front of the room was Lance Armstrong, following a cast of stars which included supermodel Kim Alexis, seven-time Olympic medalist Shannon Miller and Tom Cavanagh, the former star of the TV series “Ed.”

Also in the room were Catherine Ndereba, Jelena Prokopcuka, Lornah Kiplagat, Stefano Baldini, Tom Nyariki and Ernst Van Dyk.

No doubt, the journalists were interested in Ndereba, two-time New York runner-up and the most dominant women’s marathoner of the decade. They also huddled around Baldini, the reigning Olympic marathon champion and a contender here today in his fourth New York marathon.

But the buzz was about Lance, you know, seven-time Tour de France winner and cancer survivor. How fast will he run? What’s this LanceCam all about? What is he thinking right now? How is his training going? What will he do if he gets a flat? Scratch that.

To say that the 37th running of the New York City Marathon has become all about Lance may be an exaggeration, but not by much. Ask anybody on the street, even if they aren’t involved in some fashion with the marathon, which famous runner is running today and the answer is almost unanimous — Lance.

There are billboards with his likeliness. Every paper you pick up has an article about him. The current issue of Runner’s World dons Lance’s picture on the cover, just below the banner “LANCE VS. THE MARATHON.” Message boards on runners’ Web sites banter endlessly about him.

And now, you can even log onto the largest sports betting site on the internet — PinnacleSports.com — and bet for or against Lance in his first and certainly only marathon. It’s like putting your money where your mouth is.

Knowing Lance’s competitive nature, the oddsmakers list his chances finishing the race as an overwhelming 1/4 favorite. Meanwhile, the odds that Lance will not finish the marathon stand as a 7/2 long shot. They also have created an over/under line on his finishing time — 3:10, although Lance did say at Friday’s press conference: “If I broke three hours, I’d be content.”

He won’t break three hours but don’t bet on Lance no finishing, even if he has to walk.

To accommodate their star, the New York Road Runners have bent the rules and are permitting Lance to be paced by three former world-class athletes — Alberto Salazar for the first 10 miles, Joan Benoit Samuelson for the next 10 and Hicham El Guerrouj for the next six. They are all Nike-sponsored athletes in a race heavily sponsored by competitor Asics.

Race officials also have given Lance his own security team of New York police.

We see this all the time. Celebrities are a mixed blessing — they bring additional attention to your event and you give them the VIP treatment. The Marine Corps Marathon had Oprah one year and the sea of runners parted for her. The Marines even gave her a bathroom of her own near the start line. Wives of Red Sox players enter the Boston Marathon each year and grab the pre-race headlines and hype.

Politicians are great for marathons because they are used to running. In fact, Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee is on the list of 21 celebrity runners registered for today’s race.

Who wouldn’t want Lance to make your race his debut marathon? And who wouldn’t want Alexis, a life-long athlete and seven-time marathon success (3:52 personal best) whose face has appeared on more than 500 magazine covers and inside six Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues?

Unfortunately, the celebrities unnecessary steal some of the thunder that should be reserved for our sport’s marquee runners. The dichotomy is that one camp still believes marathons should be covered as a competitive race — in the Sports section — while a much larger camp believes marathon should be viewed as participation events, which I believe should be covered in the Lifestyle section.

Marine Corps leftovers — To clear up some confusion and misreporting in print and broadcast media alike, runners at the Marine Corps Marathon do not take Metro to cheat. Metro is not necessary to cut off massive real estate on this course. Think of the course as a big octopus — cut off most or all of its tentacles and there is not much left.

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