Chris Lieto: 1 broken foot, 2 U.S. Ironman Championships, and 50 triathlons later...
In 1997, ZOZI Guru Chris Lieto set a goal. The then 25-year-old wanted to be a Ironman triathlete, but he knew that turning pro wasn’t going to be enough for him. He wanted to be the best. “In most people’s eyes, I set a goal that was crazy lofty, totally unachievable, and ridiculous,” says Lieto. “Friends and family ridiculed me and told me not to waste my time.”
Far from letting that stop him, Lieto went on to win 50-plus triathlons, including more than 10 Ironman events and two U.S. Ironman Championships. He also placed among the top 10 at the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii three times, finishing with a career best of second place in 2009. Here, the triple-threat athlete slows down to talk about how he turned one heck of a career goal into a reality.
Have you always been so fit?
I played water polo in high school and college. In high school, I went out for cross country, because my older brother was on the team. After the first day of practice, I swore I’d never run again. The feeling of being unfit and running is the most painful, frustrating experience. You feel weak, you feel slow, you feel awkward, and it’s no fun.
As a professional Ironman triathlete, you had to regularly run marathon distances. What got you to try running again?
It wasn’t until I was 25 years old that I started running. My wife and I had recently moved back to the Bay Area, and I was looking for something to do. Since my background was in swimming, I decided to do the swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco as a challenge. While pursuing that goal, I met some professional triathletes. I looked at the lifestyle that they had, and I thought, “that looks like fun.”
Wait, you looked at the lifestyle of a professional triathlete and thought, “that looks like fun”?
Well, yeah. At the time, I was trying to figure out where I was going with my life. I knew I wanted to avoid being stuck in a cubicle. Was I going to end up working at a bike shop or selling women’s shoes at Nordstrom? Becoming a triathlete looked like a lot more fun. You get to travel around the world. You get to work out every day. You’re outside going to events. I heard stories about the races that they did in Thailand and how they stayed in these amazing little resorts. I wanted to do that. So I bought a pair of running shoes, found an article in Outside magazine on how to do your first triathlon, bought a bike, and followed that generic plan.
That sounds so easy. Did you face any hurdles early on?
After my first Hawaii Ironman in 1998, my best friend ran over my foot. His car knocked me on the ground as he was backing up, and the wheel crushed almost every bone in my foot. It sounded like someone crushing a bag of potato chips. I had over 50 fractures. The doctor told me I might never run again, and if I did, I’d probably be in severe pain.
Most people would have said, “Okay, my career is over. Let’s move on to the next thing.” But I was stubborn. Before the doctor even assigned therapy, I started going to the pool and jogging in the deep end or swimming. I just didn’t believe it was going to be an issue.
Of course, it was for a couple years. I had to deal with the feeling of running on skin to bone because I didn’t have pads of hard callus on the ball of my foot anymore. I didn’t let that limit what I believed I could accomplish though.
Even after that injury, you went on to win multiple Ironman championships. Do you have superhuman determination?
People say, “Well, I can’t do what you did. I can’t set a goal that high because I’m 80 pounds overweight and my knees hurt. There’s no way I’ll be able to do that.” They think they can’t relate, because it’s too far fetched and that it can’t be true for them. When my brother came and watched me do my first Ironman, he weighed 240 pounds. He was awkward and clumsy and he had issues. Now he weighs a 170 pounds and he’s a professional triathlete, too. The only limitation is the limitation you put upon yourself. I know that’s all cliche or whatever, but I think it’s very true.
Has your friend been incredibly nice to you ever since he ran over your foot?
Yeah, I actually talked to him about an hour ago. He’s still a good friend and I wouldn’t change anything. Sometimes you have to adjust. It’s like when you’re driving down the highway and there’s a crash. You can just sit there and wait for things to move forward, or you can find an alternate route and go around it.
It sounds like you got good at finding alternate routes.
I had to wrestle with that early injury my whole career. I could think, “Man, if that didn’t happen, I would have been world champion instead of placing second. Or, if that didn’t happen I would have gone to the Olympics.” I could sit and mope about it, or I could look at the relationships that I’ve built and the gifts that my career did give me.
Now I get to encourage all the professionals that I used to race against. I share the secrets that I found success with, so they can get there easier—and hopefully win. And I don’t have to do all the hard work out there in the misery and the heat. That’s way more fulfilling to me now.