Adventure Racing with Clifton Lyles and Team Onyx

When we think of racing normally we center on running, biking or other forms of competition. When we think of extreme racing we normally look no further than a marathon, ultra marathon or a Tough Mudder-like event. What most of us never think about is adventure racing otherwise known as expedition racing. This form of racing usually consists of trekking, mountain biking and paddling with a team that usually consists of a runner, paddler, guide, coach, organizer and most of all a captain. 

Clifton Lyles and Team Onyx

Captain Clifton Lyles of Team Onyx set out to break down the barriers and walls in adventure racing, showing that there is indeed a space for people of color to race and be welcomed. Clifton created Team Onyx the first ALL BLACK adventure racing team which was featured on The World Toughest Race Eco-Challenge Fiji. This team includes a mix of all ages ranging in their 20s through their 50s all with one common goal, to open the door for more people of color to join adventure racing. 

MSM: First I’d like to say thank you for taking the time to chat with us here at Mid Strike Magazine, how have things been since the show? 

Cliff: Things have been crazy since the show aired, it’s been great to see how many people of color felt what our participation in the race was all about. 

MSM: Adventure racing isn’t something that’s on the radar of most people, especially people of color. What led you to want to get into adventure racing?

Clifton Lyles 2006. 24 hour Mountain Bike Race

Cliff: I watched my first race back in 1999 and at that time I had never heard of adventure racing. For me it was Eco Challenge Morocco which was a five-part series on Discovery Channel. The first day I saw the race I was like man these people are crazy and by fourth day I was hooked, and at the end of the next episode I went out and found a race and did my first adventure race. I was all in afterwards.

MSM: Before adventure racing what other types of races drew your interest?

Cliff: Before I started adventure racing I was into traditional sports. I played football, wrestled and ran track in high school. So adventure racing was a completely different world than any  I was familiar with. At this time I was in the Marines so that was the closest experience I had to adventure racing.

MSM:  What was that first Spring adventure race like back in 1999. What drew you back to wanting to continue those journeys of endurance racing? I find that most marathoners, such as myself, after the first one say “that’s it, i’m not doing that again” yet the challenge to do or be better always draws us back. Is the feeling mutual with adventure racing?

Cliff: My first sprint race was a race that was a part of the High-Tec race series in California, At the time I put together a team, all people of color, from a group of friends from a gym that I was going to. The things that drew me to do more races was that it was so much different than anything I had done before and it was one of the first sports that I had tried that I wasn’t naturally good at. My first race kicked my butt! For me, after completing it, was at that instant I wanted to do it again as I am wired to push myself. The feeling I have after finishing is it’s never that I will not do that again, it’s more like now that I know what I know, now I know I can do this better next time.

MSM: I’m sure these types of races at the beginning for you were very white. Was there ever a time where you felt like an outcast in an environment where people of color don’t normally gravitate to? Did it push you to train and work even harder?

Cliff: Yes, at the very beginning, I did feel like an outcast. There was no one that looked like me. Everyone looked at me like why are you here??? Yes it was a huge driver in pushing me to be better than everyone around me. In competition, people make judgments of the people around them and the fastest way to change that perception is when you beat them.

MSM: We spoke a bit in our pre-interview about the negative comments having an all-Black team featured in endurance racing. While racing have you or your team ever experienced this first hand while on the course? Take us through some of those thoughts. 

Cliff: No we have never experienced [racism] directly on the course, but we are apart of social networks online where other racers are openly bad mouthing us even tho they do not know us our have ever raced with our against us.  

MSM: I’m sure this eventually led you to move forward in creating an all-Black adventure racing team. How were you able to find folks for this type of racing. Most of all being able to mesh and understand each other goes a long way. How was the process in building chemistry amongst each other? 

Team Onyx meeting for the first time.

Cliff: Yeah the lack of diversity and the way I was covered in a show that I raced in back in 2006 led me to make sure that the face of the sport changed. I used social media to find the people on the team, [and] I had an idea of what I was looking for in each person and I used that to look for a very specific type of person that based on my experiences that could finish the race and would enjoy the challenge of it all.

MSM: Take us through some of the personalities of your teammates. Are most of you the same or complete opposites? Does this help while on the course during competition?

Cliff: We all have different external personalities but all have the same internal drive. Chriss Smith Jr: outgoing funny guy would do anything for the team, driven former Navy Seal that knows how to endure. Sam, super smart and curious, has deep internal drive to explore the world and definitely who she is; Coree shy, sassy and life of the party, looking to show the world that a Black gay man can do all of the hard shit you can do and most likely will do it better than you! Then you have myself: team builder and driven. I’m always looking to push the limits of myself and that status quo. If I think I can be better I’ll push my self to be better. If I think things can be better I’ll push things to make them better.

MSM: Adventure racing I’m sure has taken you all over the globe. What were some of your favorite places you’ve been to?

Cliff: I will have to say the last race in Fiji was my favorite, being in a country of Black people, being in a part of the world that I never thought I would get to see. Having such a life changing experience during the race. That by far is at the top on the list for me.

MSM: Team Onyx, the FIRST ever ALL-BLACK team to be in the World’s Toughest Race, as you and your team walk into a race do you all have a sense that you all have to prove you belong?

Cliff: We know we belong, I think what we are working on is getting other non black or brown people to understand that now not only do we belong here but we are capable of excelling and doing this at the highest level possible.

MSM: Can you take us through some of the responsibilities of your teammates. 

Coree Woltering: He is a great athlete. He helps by bringing a calm yet upbeat energy to the team. Coree also ran 1146 miles in 15 days.

Chriss Smith Jr:  He is a true coach and mentor, he works to bring the best out of people while cracking corny dad jokes to help lighten the mood.

Ali Monguno: He is the strong supportive work house, he is a guy that will do what ever it takes to make the team successful.

Mikayla Lyles: The brains of the team, she likes to sit back to see the big picture and looks to see where she can best insert her self to make sure that she is providing max value to the team.

Jonny Altogge: Outgoing, mission driven. He wants to make sure the kids see people that look like them doing amazing shit. So that they realize that they should not limit themselves based on what everyone tell then they should our shouldn’t do.

Dennis “Kofi” Borie: The organizer, for the last few years even before there was a Team Onyx, he was working to build awareness to adventure racing in the African-American community. 

Mary Brown: Mary is a mountain guide from Alaska. She is also and cyclist and a very warm hearted person. Like all of us, she wants to do her part to help show Black people, and all people of color, that our only limits are the ones we place on ourselves.

MSM: What has been the biggest challenge for Team Onyx?

Cliff: Bringing awareness and finding the financial support to grow the team and our message. People see what we are doing as being interesting but sometimes don’t take us seriously. So we know in our minds to get the same level of support and funding as other teams we will need to be twice as good.

MSM: In episode 5 you suffered a concussion, and my wife and I were concerned while watching. Would you care to share any info on how to recognize a concussion, especially for our readers that are bikers and may suffer a fall. When this happened what was going on behind the scenes?

Cliff: At the time of the crash I didn’t notice, I was in race mode and my adrenaline was pumping, Luckily Sam, the cyclist on the team, checked my helmet and noticed that it was cracked, indicating that the impact was pretty hard. I didn’t really face all of the symptoms… for me they varied. I had muffled [hearing] on the left side of my head where the impact was. I didn’t have a headache, but felt pressure on the left side of my head. Later I had a hard time being able to concentrate or do any complex problem solving. 

MSM: When preparing for such a race what does your training look like? Do you have a set amount of miles in running, biking and hiking? 

Cliff: Each training series is based on the type of race and the length of the race: for this race I trained 20-25 hours a week but I could have single training session that lasted 24-36 hours straight.

MSM: What would be the process for someone looking to get into adventure racing. How would we find and register for those types of competitions?

Cliff: Getting started is pretty easy, if you just do an internet search in the area that you live in you can see what races are close by. For training I would say focus on, biking, hiking/running  and paddling (kayaking or canoe) as these are the main three disciplines to adventure racing.

MSM: What’s next for Clifton Lyles and Team Onyx? And how can our readers stay informed?

Cliff: you can follow us on Instagram @onyxadventureracing or our website at Team-Onyx.com. We have several races planed for 2021 internally and here in the US. We have also started a Join-us program for anyone that wants to be a part of the movement that we are staring around promoting diversity and inclusion in the outdoors and in outdoor sports.

MSM: I think I speak for everyone when we say we are super proud of what you and Team Onyx are doing. The team at MSM wishes you nothing but strength, power and good health. Keep striving and keep breaking down the walls.

Cliff: Thank you, we hope that the team at MSM and everyone else out there get to see the team again in the 2021 race in Patagonia.

“World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge: Fiji” creator & executive producer Mark Burnett (right) with Team Onyx

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