Monday, August 6, 2007

The life of an Ironman

By: Lynn Carey

He is 6 feet tall, weighs 160 pounds and has about 5.5 percent body fat. And every step Danville's Chris Lieto takes is for the business of being an Ironman champion.

We caught Lieto, 35, between workouts last week in the home he shares with his wife of 12 years, Karis, and their 3-year-old son, Kaiden. The San Ramon Valley High School graduate (class of '90) is dressed from head to toe by K-Swiss, his sponsor, which is creating a shoe that will be named after him.

Here's why: In last year's World Championship Ironman contest in Kona, Hawaii, Lieto came in ninth, and was the first American to cross the finish line. This October, he aims to be first in the world.

The Hawaiian Ironman is the mother of all Ironman events. To participate, you have to do well in a qualifying Ironman race, such as the Canadian Ironman.

But competing in an Ironman is a full-time commitment. Lieto spends most of every day biking, running and swimming. In a typical day he'll do a 3-hour bike ride, an hour run and a 2-hour swim. In a week, he'll have logged up to 400 miles on a bike, 65 miles running and 2,500 meters swimming.

This has been a way of life since he saw his first Ironman on TV a decade ago. He qualified for the prestigious race that same year.

The rest is history. Last October, he completed the World Championship Ironman in Kona -- a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 miles bike ride, and a 26.2 mile run -- in 8 hours, 24 minutes, about 15 minutes behind the first-place
Advertisement winner. This year, he thinks he's got a shot at first....If he wins? A check for $110,000, the sport's biggest payday. So what's life like for an Ironman in training? Here's what he told us.

Q: Is this what you thought you'd be doing when you grew up?
A: I didn't know what I wanted to do. I played water polo and thought maybe I could go to the Olympics. I didn't bike, except for beach cruisers. I never ran. I went out for cross country the first day of high school and realized I really hated running.

Q: How did you overcome your aversion to running?
A: Once you get fit and start slow, it is more enjoyable. I have a goal now that I can see, where before it was because the coach told me I needed to run.

Q: What's your average mile time?
A: Distance running (such as a marathon), about 6 minutes, 30 seconds. In an Olympic distance race (about six miles), 5:15.

Q: What kind of injuries have sidelined you?
A: Injuries are a common occurrence with me. You push your body as far as you can and you get hurt. I had a stress fracture in my hip that kept me from competing for a year (in 2005). I still swam and rode (my bike). I just couldn't run.

Q: Is it a living?
A: I've been racing professionally for five years. I used to do mortgage brokering part time, and when I was injured I did it full time. My wife is a Realtor. In the last two years I've gotten endorsements: K-Swiss, Trek bicycles, Oakley sunglasses, Astavita vitamins, PowerBars. I'm working on creating a line of nutritional supplements -- omegas, multis, endurance, amino acids -- for when I can't race professionally any more.

Q: When is that?
A: I figure another three years or so.

Q: How many pairs of (athletic) shoes do you have?
A: If I find a pair I like, I'll buy eight pairs at a time, and alternate between two pairs. They last about two months. Now they're all K-Swiss.

Q: When you're racing in an Ironman, do you have a support team, like race-car drivers do?
A: I can't have anyone out there during the race, but I have a support team while I'm training: my wife, my chiropractor, my nutritionist, my triathlon coach, my cycling coach, and I swim with the Terrapins in Concord.

Q: What hurts the most when you wake up in the morning?
A: Usually nothing, because I get recovery as I'm training. I go to physical therapy just to keep everything going. At the moment, I have an Achilles' heel thing.

Q: When's the last time you ate a Twinkie?
A: I can't remember. Once in a while I'll have a cookie or a piece of cake.

Q: What are your food vices?
A: Tortilla chips. I don't drink (alcohol) for health reasons. At the end of the season (around Thanksgiving), I might have a beer. I have to keep my blood as clean as possible. It's like fuel in a car; the engine runs better when it's clean. If my blood is off by 5 percent, it could make me 10 minutes slower crossing the finish line in a race.

Q: How much water do you drink in a day?
A: Usually 3 to 4.5 liters. Sometimes water with electrolytes.

Q: What's a typical meal?
A: Breakfast, four to five eggs, brown rice, tortillas. Lunch, burrito, or tuna, chicken or fish. Dinner, usually brown rice, veggies, fish or chicken. I try to avoid wheat glutens, so everything is rice- or corn-based. I might have three PowerBars if I ride my bike for three hours.

Q: Are you difficult to live with?
A: I'm not the easiest. I train 40 hours a week, so even if I'm not working, I get really tired. Too tired to interact with people in the evenings, or to play with my son as much as I'd like to.

Q: Is there pressure on Kaiden to be athletic?
A: No. Usually I'm just trying to slow him down.

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