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Kristin Armstrong embraces life after Lance

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AUSTIN, Texas - You're married to the world's most famous cyclist. You stand by his side during the aftermath of cancer. You give birth to his three children. You follow him around the world, watching him capture one Tour de France after another.

And then it's over. Two years after the breakup, you can't even go to the neighborhood Starbucks without seeing his fiancee's face on the CD rack near the cash register. It's one thing to be divorced but quite another to be divorced from someone so famous.

So what do you do?

How do you recover?

In the case of Kristin Armstrong, the 34-year-old ex-wife of Plano, Texas's Lance Armstrong, you move on. You don't just dive into running - you start running marathons, and even as a rookie, in the 28-degree chill embracing White Rock Lake, you finish in less than four hours.

You delve deeper into spirituality. You reconnect with your Catholic roots and get to know your friends in the most vulnerable way possible - by baring your soul and letting them guide you through your darkest chapter.

You become even closer to the mom and pop and kid brother you've always adored, and eventually, you even risk dating again, with a guy who lives in Chicago.

Life has been anything but easy since 2003, but you'd never know it by the way Kristin looks or feels.

"It was a difficult thing for me, very much so," says this slender reed of a survivor, curled up on her Austin, Texas, couch on a chilly fall morning. She has long blond hair and green eyes, which are casting a friendly glance at the cat just a few feet away.

The cat is a holdover from the Lance era. Its name? Chemo.

"On one level," Kristin says, "it's as simple as recovering from heartbreak. But it's also a real crisis in terms of identity. Because if you see yourself as part of a family - as a wife and mother - you end up having to redefine yourself.

"For a period of time, you're always at a crossroads. You can choose to become this kind of woman or this kind of woman. I wanted to do the best thing for me, but I wanted to make the best choices and be the best woman I could be for my kids. This is not what I ever would have intended for my life, but here it is. So what do I do?

"How do I want my kids to see me years later, looking back? How do I want them to reflect on who their mother is as a woman? And so the choices build up to that, every single one of them. And to me, that's huge."

During the worst of it, she tried therapy (a waste of her time, she says). So, in the end, she turned to friends to repair her damaged heart. She all but plunged into running, friendships, family, writing and painting, but all of them paled in comparison to ...

"Faith. My faith in God. I'm a Christian ... Catholic. I've always been this way, but I think definitely any time you go through a season of trial in your life, your faith deepens. It's something beautiful that comes out of a difficult time. At least, it worked that way for me. There's no doubt about it. I wouldn't have made it without it."

What it gave her, she says, along with those other healing tools, was a "sense of peace, a calm on the inside, a steadiness at the core, that translates into every part of your life - to your children, all your other relationships. It's not just about church. It's about your life, your focus, your direction. How you derive your peace and your stability."

The former Kristin Richard was born in Westlake Village, Calif., the older of two children of a kindergarten-teacher mother and a dad who worked as an on-the-go IBM executive for 30 years.

Her parents and younger brother moved to Austin a few years back, just to be closer to her and the kids - 6-year-old Luke and twin girls, Grace and Isabelle, who turn 4 later this month.

For Kristin's family, moving was a familiar ritual: Because of her dad's work, her childhood was nomadic. Never much of an athlete, she was a shy, bookish girl who made terrific grades and buried herself in reading. She went to college at Miami of Ohio, majoring in marketing and communications, and, after graduating, traveled even more than she had already. The passion intensified in 1997, when she met Lance, to whom she was married a year later.

She had always been a runner, but soon became even more of one. Her Nikes followed him to the south of France; to Como, Italy; to Barcelona, Spain. And the running grew more intense after giving birth to Luke. She calls it "the quickest way by far to achieve the shape you want after pregnancy." She's never had a weight problem, but for a while, found herself falling into the "mommy eating trap," consuming the same things her babies were - "a lot of crust," she laughs, "Goldfish crackers ... I was tired a lot."

At the moment, she prefers running with friends even more than running alone, but on solitary outings, she likes listening to "up-tempo songs, songs that get me going" on her iPod (a little Coldplay, a little David Gray) or using it as "a time to pray." She also shares her enthusiasm with others: She's a contributing editor to Runner's World and the author of a published children's book, "Lance Armstrong: The Race of His Life" (Grosset & Dunlap, $3.99). She's now working on a new book, to be published by Warner Faith: a daily devotional for women recovering from divorce.

While running had long been a passion, marathons were something new. She completed her initial marathon in December 2003, after enduring 10 months of anguish stemming from the breakup. So, well before agreeing to run the Rock with friends, she had weathered the worst of feeling alone and scared. She was eating and sleeping poorly, if at all, and her friends took note. For them, her survival became a personal collective mission.

"I was not taking care of myself," she says. "They talked about it amongst themselves but didn't tell me. So we'd out be running, and they'd say, We're going to run 10, maybe 15 miles.' And I'd say,Oh, OK, that's cool.' See, they tricked me into it!"

She laughs, and says, "But guess what? Suddenly, I was hungry, and I was tired. Soon, I had developed a much better pattern, so what they did for me was really a gift. It's not something I would have ever wanted to do on my own. But in the end, it was so nice ... to have people who love me like that."

She finished White Rock in a rookie-quick 3 hours 48 minutes. But her most dramatic moment came last month in the Chicago marathon, which she finished in a near-incredible 3 hours 35 minutes - meaning she qualifies for the gold standard in marathons, the Boston Marathon, which demands a daunting finish of less than 3:40 (something she never thought she'd do).

To be, in essence, a rookie marathoner and qualify for Boston is, well, quite an accomplishment.

"It was an awesome day," she says of Chicago. "From the moment I woke up, it was one of those perfect days. Everything just fell into place. It ended up being just amazing. It was ... huge."

So Chicago signified a kind of turning point.

To a large extent, Kristin's running has been about emotional recovery anyway, and, she says, continues to be a work in progress. She runs five to six days a week, averaging four to seven miles an outing. On weekends, she runs anywhere from seven to 20 miles. She sees a personal trainer and works out in a gym one day a week. Another day is spent with her running group. And one day a week, she does "absolutely nothing," meaning she stays home with the kids and eats pancakes.

So how does she feel about him?

"Just a part of my life," she says. "A great adventure. ... I wouldn't trade it for anything. I've got three great kids and had all kinds of wonderful experiences I wouldn't have had any other way. I feel lucky, and I've learned a lot. And now Lance and I are in a really good place."

She sighs and says, "If you have spent time in the public eye, you can't pick and choose when people are allowed to be interested in your life. When things are beautiful, it's out there. When things are difficult, it's out there too. At one point, our story was truly beautiful ... and back then, the love and support for our family was a gift. When things fell apart, the love and support was still a gift. Only this time, for me it was wrapped in humility and grace."

Her happiest moment?

"I haven't had it yet," she says with a smile. "If I were to die tomorrow, I would look back and think, `What a great life.' I've had total bliss, fantastic moments, really difficult and dark moments and everything in between. But to be 34 years old and feel that ... Well, it's huge, don't you think?"


(c) 2005, The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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