When a chronic lower leg injury flared up during Sunday’s Ironman Coeur d’Alene, Chris Lieto made the tough decision at mile 80 of the bike to call it a day. In doing so, he lost the opportunity to validate his spot on the start line for this October’s Ironman World Championship. (While Lieto has amassed the requisite ranking points, WTC qualifying rules also require him to complete an Ironman to be eligible to race Kona.) He spoke with Triathlete editor-in-chief Julia Polloreno about the state of his injury, missing out on Kona, the Lance Armstrong situation and his shift in racing goals.
Julia Polloreno: What’s going on with your injury?
Chris Lieto: Basically, I’ve had a lower leg tightness, which has manifested in Achilles tendonosis most likely—it hasn’t been officially diagnosed—but swelling in the Achilles near the heel. I’ve been dealing with it for about 15 months, so pretty much all of last year. I’ve been able to train and race but have always been dealing with a limited ability to train and run, having to cut things back or do things delicately or adjust. It feels like putting in about 70 percent of the work, especially in the running leg while still having some good results last year—becoming U.S. national champion and winning Texas 70.3 and then also finishing second last year at 70.3 worlds. So I’m still having some results, but maybe not the string of performances I’ve had in previous years. Now it’s hit or miss in a sense because of that limited mobility and tightness in the lower leg.
So this year, i.e. Coeur d’Alene, I just had to make a call, not wanting to inflame it anymore or create any long-term issues. I could have surely finished the bike, but I was wrestling with the idea of jogging the run. I didn’t want to take any risks at that point. A lot of times things that manifest in your leg while running may be coming a lot of times from the bike. We have to evaluate: has my position on my bike changed and am I changing my pedal stroke in a way that’s creating tightness in my calf?
When you do an Ironman, you can’t play around with it like you can with an Olympic or half-Ironman. You have to be very careful with that load—you don’t want to hurt yourself long-term. There’s a point where you have to realize that Ironman is not your life, and that you have to look at what you want to do with the rest of your career and get healthy. When it’s all said and done, does it really matter if I go to Hawaii or not? Do I come back 100 percent next year versus having a lackluster performance like I did last year in Hawaii because of the same issue?
But it’s getting better; I have the world’s top therapists working on it. We’ve seen a lot of improvement post-Honu—that’s where it kind of flared up. It limited my ability to run there. We just want to continue in the healing process. During Coeur d’Alene I felt a little tightness in the calf and just decided to stop at that point. My Achilles and calf and low leg felt better than they did before the event. That was the goal—to see what I could do but keep on the momentum of slow healing versus pushing through and taking one step forward and two steps back.
JP: Did you ever consider taking time off completely to heal or was that not an option and you just wanted to train and race through the recovery process?
CL: I think that’s a question I probably should have addressed more carefully at the beginning of the year. Leading up to Panama [70.3], everything was great and totally fine and about two weeks before Panama it started to flare up a little bit. At that point, and with all the build-up to the race and the media and excitement around it, I felt like I still needed to go, and also because it was a high points half-Ironman. That was one of the weights I had on me—this is a high points half-Ironman; if I don’t do it, I may run the risk that I won’t qualify for Kona. There’s only X amount of high-scoring half-Ironmans so I felt like I needed to do it and had to do it to stay in the ballpark to even be in the running to qualify for Kona. It’s kind of a pressure or stress—Ironman didn’t put it on me, I put it on myself—and I felt like I had to do it, to perform there in February. It flared up a little after that and then it never got better because I was always looking at the next race that I had to make sure I got to so I could keep my points rolling. At that time I should have said, ‘Ok, do I take a month off and get completely better?’ I probably would have gone back and performed better at the next race, and would have done Texas and things would have been a lot better, but that’s hindsight.
JP: You’re talking about all the building excitement leading up to Panama—are you referring to Lance Armstrong being there and the surrounding hype about you two going head to head?
CL: Yeah, sure.
JP: On that topic, what are your thoughts on the WTC not allowing Lance to race their events in light of the ongoing USADA investigation?
CL: I think it’s pretty cut and dry in that they have a rule in the contract that we sign as professional athletes that states very clearly if there’s an investigation you can’t race. I don’t know if I agree with the rule, but I give credit to WTC for sticking to their rules mid-season. They made a good claim in that these are rules that everyone signed and agreed to, and if any of us didn’t agree with them at the beginning of the year we should have addressed it at that point. I have a feeling that the rule will probably change for next year when the contracts are up. I feel bad that he is unable to race; I wish he could race. I think he does a lot for the sport and it’s exciting. Whether it was Lance or another pro in the same situation I would still feel bad. Nothing has been proven, and you should be able to participate and do what you need to do in your career and in life. It’s a sticky situation. A lot of us don’t know exactly what’s going on, we don’t know what the case holds, we don’t know what Ironman had to go through to think through this process of sticking to the rules. It’s a tough decision that probably will hurt them, but they stuck to the rules at the end and their integrity through that.
JP: As of now, do you think you’ll be racing the 70.3 world championship in Vegas?
CL: Yeah, that’s definitely the plan. I’m looking at that as the place I can come back to. I’ve been taking the last three weeks to address this issue and get it healthy and will take the next couple of weeks to make sure it gets back all the way. It gives me plenty of time to prepare and be ready. I’m still riding and swimming and doing a little bit of running now, so it’s not like I’ll be starting over—I’ll be starting from a place of fitness already. I feel good about it.
JP: Earlier this year, you said you’d be approaching Kona a little differently—maybe not investing so much emotionally into Hawaii. Are you still thinking that way, especially in light of your chronic injury?
CL: I don’t remember making that comment, but I could definitely see myself making that comment. It’s interesting how, if I did make that comment, that probably I should have stuck with that from the beginning. Instead of feeling like I had to put that pressure on myself to get to Hawaii. At this point, yeah, that’s the realization I’ve made in the last month: You know what, Hawaii is just Hawaii. It is a world championship event, but there are many more races out there. At this point I’m not qualified for Hawaii. I have enough ranking points but I haven’t fulfilled the final stamp by finishing an Ironman. Looking at the future of my career and wanting to race well in September and do well at worlds 70.3, I don’t think an Ironman is in the cards for me, even just to finish. I don’t want to go and participate in an Ironman and swim easy, ride easy and walk an Ironman just to get that validation spot because that shouldn’t be the intent of the qualifying process. The qualifying process should be based on every time you race you give your best performance, not to fulfill a stamp of approval to get in. It’s highly unlikely I’ll be racing the Hawaii Ironman this year. I’ll just focus on 70.3 worlds and there are plenty of races going on around the Ironman Hawaii that I can focus on, as well as coming back next year full force there. A lot of that depends on what the qualification process is next year and if it changes from this year. I know at my age I can still contend for the win there. I know there’s a rumor that I’m retiring. Absolutely not.