Lance Armstrong crosses the finish line of the Rev3 Half Full Triathalon with his 10-year-old twin daughters Grace, left, and Isabelle, right. (Steve Ruark/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

They came in all shapes and sizes and ranged from their teens to their 60s.

But what nearly all had in common, the nearly 1,000 men and women who shimmied into wetsuits Sunday before plunging into a chilly Howard County triathlon, was a personal stake in the fight against cancer.

On this point, the most famous among them, Lance Armstrong, was no different.

Armstrong started the 70-mile contest alongside roughly 40 cancer survivors, telling his assigned swim buddy, “Take it easy on me.” And he was the first among them to cross the finish line four hours, 16 minutes later, completing each phase of the race (the 0.9 swim, the 56-mile bike and 13.1-mile run) with a world-class athlete’s unmistakable focus and drive.

Armstrong’s time mattered not. The only relevant statistic to organizers of the race, which benefitted the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults, was the extra money and exposure Armstrong’s participation brought to the cause of helping those aged 18-39 with cancer.

The decision to grant Armstrong a starting spot in the Rev3 Half Full Triathlon wasn’t without controversy.

Armstrong, 41, was banned for life after dropping his fight in August against the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which has charged him with using performance-enhancing drugs. That ban extended to races sanctioned by USA Triathlon, so the Howard County event’s organizers chose to drop that association, forgoing the USAT’s insurance and national ranking points for participants, in order to include Armstrong in the field for the 70-mile distance.

It was an easy decision, said Brock Yetso, president and CEO of the Ulman Cancer Fund, noting that once Armstrong’s participation was announced, 300 more competitors entered (paying fees of $170-$250) and more volunteers and sponsors came forward. Only two triathletes withdrew in protest, he added.

“The purpose of event is the raise awareness and raise money,” Yetso said. “Adding him is just a huge score.”

And those who came to compete or cheer Sunday seemed far more interested in Armstrong’s battle against cancer than his battle against the international cycling community. To them, Armstrong retains his most significant title — “survivor”— 16 years after being found to have testicular cancer just weeks after competing in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. And to them, Armstrong’s advocacy and fund-raising on behalf of cancer patients through his foundation and the Livestrong movement represent an achievement that carries no asterisk.

“Lance is kind of like the Muhammad Ali of my generation: A person who transcends sports,” said triathlete Tom Collins, 46, of Silver Spring, whose father died of colon cancer. “In this day and age, it’s hard to know what is the truth and what’s not. But I know what’s in my heart. And Lance has certainly brought a lot of awareness to people”

Armstrong, whose seven Tour de France titles came after his diagnosis, refused to speak to reporters before or after the race. USADA has stripped him of his titles; the International Cycling Union, which sanctions the Tour, has yet to issue on ruling on whether it will strip Armstrong of his Tour victories.

Armstrong spoke frankly and with conviction during a panel discussion billed as “Lance Unplugged” at Ellicott City’s Centennial High on Saturday night, sharing the stage with Doug Ulman, the Howard County native whose cancer diagnosis as a college undergraduate prompted his family to start the foundation to help young people. Ulman now serves as president and CEO of the Lance Armstrong Foundation.

Armstrong spoke to the capacity crowd about the shock he felt upon being diagnosed with cancer at age 25, quite sure he was in the peak of health, if not invincible, at the time. And he spoke about the fear and confusion that followed, while paying tribute to the oncology nurse who gave him faith when his own was shaky.

Armstrong was never asked about the doping allegations that have exiled him from elite sports but alluded to it when asked how surviving cancer had prepared him for life.

“Look, let’s not beat around the bush,” he added after a pause. “My life has been ultra-complicated the last few years. My experience as a cancer survivor, going back to 1996, has changed my view on everything — whether it’s trying to win the Tour de France once or seven times or just dealing with other drama in life.”

The battle he recounted — the periods of fear, fatigue and loneliness while undergoing treatment in an Indianapolis hospital far from home — resonated with the rapt audience.

“When you’re weak and bald and all you want to do is get the hell out of there and get back home and get better—that’s the best preparation for any hardship in your life,” added Armstrong. “It helped on a sporting level, for sure. We saw what my career was like before and what my career was like after.

“It doesn’t have to be the hardships that we all know and read about in the press. It could be the hardship of having to raise five kids. . . . It was the best preparation for many parts of my life.”