Clifton Lyles’ two decades of adventure racing began when he watched Eco-Challenge on TV in 1999. While the TV show, created by Mark Burnett, ended in 2002, Lyles kept racing—and even did so on TV. In 2006, he competed in the North American expedition race Primal Quest, which aired on ESPN2.
In those two decades of competing, Lyles noticed something very conspicuous. “I literally could count on one hand the number of Black people that I have ever seen race on any level, from sprint races to expedition races,” he told me. “The reality of it is that it is mostly just white people.”
He decided to change that. If Eco-Challenge “ever came back,” Lyles decided, “I definitely want to do it because it’s what got me started. And I wanted to have an all African-American team, if it was possible.” It was, and he did.
Lyles’ team, Team Onyx, was one of the teams that Amazon’s reboot of the Mark Burnett-created series, World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji, focused on, and while they didn’t win, that wasn’t the point.
In an interview with reality blurred, he talked about everything from behind-the-scenes details about what happened to Team Onyx during the race in Fiji to forming the team to his work as a chef for an airline and how that’s helped him give back as he works for a company that creates school lunches.
How Team Onyx was formed
“Every major race that happened for a 10 year period, I would go on the website and look at all the team photos to find the lone African American who had done an expedition race,” Lyles told me. “It was really easy to find those people who were qualified and had the experience, but I only had two options.”
Yes, Cliff and his eventual teammate Chriss and one other person—who was unavailable to do Eco-Challenge—were the only options he had to recruit Black adventure racers. “We’re only three that I know of in the world ever to embrace an expedition race anywhere,” he said.
So he kept searching. “I literally sought out every individual that’s on the team, through Facebook and Instagram—wherever I could find people that had the endurance, passion for the outdoors, and wanted to do something that crazy.” He found ultrarunner Corree Woltering on Instagram, for example.
His daughter, Mikayla Lyles—who acted as the team’s support person, and is a filmmaker—produced their audition video, filming each of the team members: Clifton, Corree, Samantha Scipio, and Chriss Smith.
Training for Eco-Challenge
The team learned they’d been selected in the early spring—”February, March-ish,” Cliff said—and the race was actually run in September 2019.
That gave them five or six months to train and practice. But because of their schedules, they only had one chance to be together as a full team before they arrived in Fiji.
“We actually only got together as a team once for about a three-, four-day training session to get our certifications that we needed for the race,” Cliff told me. “And then we didn’t meet each other again until the race.”
Three of the four team members did do a race together in July, and Cliff said he met with them one-on-one to “either train or just start building a relationship and rapport.”
Do teams know what obstacles to expect?
Teams on Eco-Challenge race using a variety of methods and skills, including mountain biking, hiking, sailing, paddle-boarding, climbing, and white water rafting. So how much can they actually train for?
“We probably knew about 60 to 70 percent of the different sports—or disciplines, as we call it—that would be in the race,” Cliff said. “But there were definitely the surprises that we didn’t know.”
They’re told in advance about most of the disciplines so race organizers will know team members have “a level of proficiency,” some of which is measured with actual certifications.
Getting help along the course
Teams on World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji worked together, of course, but they also interacted with—and got help from—people in Fiji, whose communities the course went through or past. I didn’t remember previous teams getting so much help, whether it was just advice or assistance the teams paid for, and asked Cliff about that.
“They definitely allowed more of it in this race than any race they’ve ever done, from being able to have people guide you through difficult areas to carrying your gear,” Lyles told me. “Definitely was a first for that.”
But he appreciated the opportunity. “It did allow us to have some amazing interactions and build some friendships with the people who are in Fiji, who are so great and hospitable. It was great to be able to have that additional time and bonding with them,” he said.
Competing to win, and the pressure to perform
“The race within the race within the race” is how Lyles explained to me how Eco-Challenge teams have different kinds of opponents during the race.
There are the elite teams, “the top five or 10 teams that are really competing for who’s going to win this thing,” he said. They’re obviously just racing against each other.
Team Onyx was a “middle of the pack” team, and all of those teams “are really trying to outdo teams that they either know, or place in a position that they feel based on skillset and ability, they should” be able to achieve, he said. “We go with our own personal expectations of how we expect to perform, and we use that as our guide to see how successful we are.”
The final race within the race is against the course itself: “The course will throw mud at you,” he said, being both literal and metaphorical.
Despite being a middle-of-the-pack team, Team Onyx had “a level of additional pressure in the sense that you want to show the world that African Americans and people of color are capable,” Cliff told me.
The team accomplished that. “I’ve gotten so many heartfelt thank-yous for showing people of color doing these things too,” he said. “Grown men telling me how they’ve been on the sofa crying with their children, because they and their kids got to see someone who looked like them do something that they never thought they could do.”
“I even get choked up now to talking about it, because it has shown people that we do have the ability to do any—and every—thing, and that we can be—and are—accepted when we do these things,” Lyles said.
What Eco-Challenge didn’t show
With a cast of 264 people racing, plus a support person for each of the 66 teams, the actual television show ignored most teams and competitors.
Those it did focus on, like Team Onyx, had an embedded camera operator join the team at various points. (“They’re completely out of the way” and “it definitely isn’t a hindrance at all,” Lyles told me.)
But even for those it focused on, it didn’t have time to tell a complete story.
“There were so many adversities that we had to overcome in the race that people just didn’t get to see,” Lyles said. “We were a much better team than our positioning.”
What we didn’t see on TV was that the team’s “sailboat actually fell apart in the ocean on our way back to the area where we would get our medallion.”
And that led to two delays: “We lost four hours stuck in open ocean before we could get back in. And not only did we lose time, but when our boat capsized, we lost some of our gear. And so we were penalized an additional six hours,” he said.
The reason for that penalty, Lyles explained, is that each team is required to carry safety equipment “so that you can finish the race in case an emergency comes up. What happened is we lost part of our emergency gear when the boat capsized.”
Getting that gear replaced meant a six-hour penalty, which they waited out before paddle-boarding. “We had to sit there in the middle of the hottest part of the day for six hours and we couldn’t move,” he said. That’s “just unfortunately reality of racing: things happen and you need to suffer the consequences of it.”
Watching yourself on TV—and future Eco-Challenges
The first time Cliff Lyles watched his season of Eco-Challenge, 21 years after first seeing the show on TV, “it was really hard to extract myself from being on the show,” he said.
So he went back to it. “As I watched him for the second time, and was able to see it as a fan again, it was amazing how the stories were told, how it was shot, the interactions with the country, the people. It was just great to see that they brought back adventure racing and in a way that got people excited again.”
Cliff Lyles and Team Onyx have “already put in our application for Eco-Challenge 2021,” he told me, and “we’re already training.” While they’ll have a “slightly different team,” he said it’s “even stronger than the last.”
Eco-Challenge 2021 will be in Patagonia next year, though the dates remain uncertain because of current travel restrictions. But Cliff is optimistic. “They’ve done a great job of picking a location that’s so remote they can almost control who’s coming and going, so hopefully that gives it a better opportunity of happening in 2021.”
How being a chef and an adventure racer connect
Cliff has been an adventure racer for 20 years, but he’s been a chef for 25, a career that’s taken him from California Culinary Academy to leading Emirates airline’s culinary team in Dubai.
Now Cliff is at Revolution Foods, where he’s the vice president for culinary excellence and product development. The company says it “design[s], produce[s] and deliver[s] 2 million meals per week nationwide” at 2,500 schools in more than 400 locations.
“We primarily focus in inner-city areas throughout the country where kids eat free meals on the school lunch and breakfast program,” Lyles told me. “We basically are able to use the federal subsidy that’s provided—no more, no less” to produce “high-quality, healthy foods.”
“One of my skills is being able to take food and make it great,” Lyles said. That’s included challenging environments, like trying to make sure “people on planes had better meals, to working in colleges and universities across the country to turn their programs over.”
“I’ve lived and traveled around the world as a chef, and when I came back to the [San Francisco] Bay Area, I really wanted to try and use my skillset in order to have an impact. It’s been great working for companies that can monetize my efforts. But I really wanted someone who had a mission,” he said.
“I was that poor inner city kid: I came from a large family that relied on school breakfast and lunch every single day. And had it not been for those, I would not be where I am in life now. So from adventure racing to being a corporate exec and all the other things, I owe a lot of my current life to those programs that existed then.”
School lunch programs, Cliff added, were “kind of our way out of the environment in which we grew up. My coaches told me, If you eat better, Lyles, you will play better. The coaches were right. I started eating better, my performance got better. But the thing that they didn’t say was that my grades were improved. They did—I wasn’t crashing after eating junk food all the time, I could focus more in class, my grades got better, my performance on the field got better. It allowed me to be able to get out of a very troubled environment.”
“Coming to Rev was me going full circle, and trying to make sure that those kids who are in the circumstances very similar to mine will have the opportunity to have a better life than they have right now.”
During the pandemᎥc, Cliff and Revolution Foods realized that “it wasn’t just kids that we needed to ensure that were being fed but community as a whole—from adults that were losing their jobs because they were being laid off, to seniors that were falling through the gaps because they were in between programs, or their checks weren’t getting in because of the current delays in mail.”
Revolution Foods contributed to chef José Andrés’ efforts to feed people across the country—and Lyles said that his work with school lunch programs helped his organization be efficient with their contributions. “While [Andrés’ organization, World Central Kitchen] work[s] with chefs and restaurants to feed people, we were able to feed three people for every one person they were used to feeding, because of how efficient we’re able to do what we do and at the scale in which we do things.”
What does this have to do with Eco-Challenge or adventure racing? Everything.
For Black people, Cliff said, “ᴄᴏᴠɪᴅ has hit us very hard. And even prior to ᴄᴏᴠɪᴅ, we were still struggling with a lot of issues with regards to health, such as hypertension and diabetes.”
“For me, it’s really tying the two together, understanding and helping to show communities of color and the African-American community as well that we have to do both in order to be successful,” Lyles said. “We can’t just say we’re going to eat not be active, and we can’t just be active and not eat properly. It’s really showing them the heights we can truly reach when we do both.”
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