Ironman champion Liz Lyles—who earned that title as a rookie pro at 2012’s Ironman Wisconsin—juggles the demands of competing at the highest level in a three-discipline sport alongside her role as a full-time mom (son Luke is 5 and daughter Emma is 3) and part-time spin instructor. With the support of her husband, Chip, (the two were college sweethearts and recently celebrated their 12th wedding anniversary) Lyles navigates a nearly nonstop schedule from her home in Reno, Nev.
The former high school soccer player and swimmer discovered triathlon in 2001, winning her age group at the Mission Bay Sprint Triathlon—albeit on a mountain bike. Next up was the race now known as Ironman 70.3 California [then a Kona qualifier], where she qualified for the Ironman World Championship in her first attempt. But Lyles’ initial interest in triathlon was simply to enjoy the lifestyle with her husband (who still competes in the age-group ranks). “We would train but then we would go drink beers and hang out with friends and do stuff that people in their 20s were doing,” she says. After achieving her goal of qualifying for Kona again in 2006, plus finally winning the grueling Donner Lake Triathlon after placing second for three years in a row, Lyles was ready to tackle a different challenge: motherhood.
During Lyles’ two pregnancies, triathlon training took a back seat. But she did maintain spinning, mostly in order to combat severe morning sickness. “I was so sick that the only way I could actually get hungry enough to eat was to take a spinning class,” she recalls. But once she made the decision to return to the sport, it didn’t take long for her prior fitness to resurface. After turning pro in August 2012 and scoring the Ironman Wisconsin win, her 2013 season showed even greater success–she finished third at Wildflower, first at Boise 70.3, fifth at the Ironman European Championship in Frankfurt, fourth at Ironman Lake Tahoe and first at Ironman Western Australia, her second iron-distance victory. For 2014 Lyles has her sights set squarely on improving her Kona best (16th in 2013).
Lyles allowed Triathlete a look inside her life as she juggles the demands of her multiple roles and responsibilities.
“I started working with Cliff English a couple months ago,” says Lyles, lauding the empathetic approach of her new coach. “I send him my kids’ schedules and we work my schedule around theirs. I can’t just pick to do anything at any time.”
Although Lyles is noted for her run speed, her cycling has improved due to her commitment as a spin instructor—four weekly sessions that she simply can’t skip. “Every day I’m up at 5:20 a.m. I teach spin from 6 to 7 four days a week, and then one day I do a strength training class. I come home at 7:15 and my family is just rolling out of bed, so I’m getting five hours a week of training in before anyone else wakes up.”
Lyles recently partnered with Squaw Valley Resort, a family-friendly hub for year-round outdoor activity. Her 2014 training will include leading group rides from the resort. She logs laps at two of Reno’s 25-meter pools–the Montreux Golf and Country Club, where her entire family swims in the summertime, and the Double Diamond Athletic Club during the winter months, where she takes advantage of the quality daycare. “I have friends with kids in the same preschool and then we go to the same gym, so it’s nice because the kids know each other and feel comfortable. They kind of have a play date at the gym while I’m swimming.”
Between her children and her training schedule, virtually every minute of Lyles’ day is accounted for. “Let’s say I drop Luke at preschool at 8:30, get to the gym at 9:00, put Emma in daycare, run for an hour and 20 minutes and then have a 50-minute swim. I have no time in between to fuel, hydrate, talk, socialize—I’m one hundred percent focused on getting the exact workouts in. There’s no time for procrastination, which I think makes me faster. When I run, I do it faster and I make sure I get my miles in. I actually noticed during the summer when we were on a little more flexible schedule I wasn’t feeling as productive as when the time constraints are much more serious.”
Recovery time is a rarity for Lyles, though she finds creative ways to squeeze it in when she can. “Neither of my kids nap, which is huge—once the naps are gone it’s just a free-for-all, all day long. So at 2 p.m. I say ‘OK, let’s try to be quiet until 4.’ I have to do sponsor stuff and I have to make my playlist for spinning the next morning, so I try to do that while I’m lying down with the computer in my lap in bed. The kids will come in every 15 minutes or so screaming, ‘Mommy! Mommy!’ So there’s a lot of ‘I’ll buy you an iPad app if you’re quiet for 30 minutes,’ or, ‘You can have ice cream after dinner if you let Mommy work.’ I would say 30 minutes straight of quiet time is a success. It’s hard. There’s a little bit of bribery.”
Lyles’ mother—her parents also live in Reno—helps with the children one day a week so that she can log more miles on the bike. Chip’s job with AT&T keeps him at the office all day Monday through Friday, but on the weekends he flips into Mr. Mom mode and enjoys quality time with the kids while Liz churns out longer training sessions. “The daytime weekend stuff—like other kids’ birthday parties—I miss out on a little bit. But our kids still get to do it all. They just get to go with Daddy,” says Lyles.
“The kids won’t eat anything green,” says Lyles, who often cooks three separate dinners on a single night. “The other night I blended up carrots and tried to sneak them into mac and cheese. My daughter spit it out in her hand and threw it across the kitchen. That was a waste of time, so I kind of just stick to the basics with them. And I love having a huge spinach salad every night, but Chip is a meat and potatoes guy. So it’s at least two dinners a night, sometimes three.”
Fortunately Luke and Emma make no bones about going to bed early in the evening, exhausted from their all-day antics. “Pretty much they’re in bed every night at 7:30,” says Lyles. “Then my husband is like, ‘What are you going to do now?’ And I’m like, ‘Are you joking?’ I’m in bed and asleep by 8:30 or 9 every night.”
“On the weekends after I get home from training I can’t fathom showering and getting dressed and going out,” says Lyles, describing how her and Chip’s social life plays second fiddle to triathlon. “But that’s OK. He gets the kids really tired out by taking them to the pool or wherever, so we put them to bed early and then we have a quiet Saturday night together, which is what both of us like. We met in college, so we partied and got it out of our systems really young. Now we’d rather stay home and have ice cream than go out for drinks.”
She’s also learning to let go of her compulsive cleaning tendencies. “I am a neat freak,” confesses Lyles. “When we first had Luke, everything had to be perfect: beds made, laundry folded, everything. I’m always cleaning the floors, wiping stuff down, I make the beds every morning—but since I’ve been doing Ironman training I’ve completely let go of some of that stuff. It’s going to be fine tomorrow if I go to bed and the playroom is a disaster. There’s marker on the wall, but whatever—in five years things will be easier and we’ll get it fixed then.”
Lyles relies heavily on food on the go—as well as coffee. Breakfast is usually a smoothie with protein and spinach and “all sorts of stuff thrown in.” She’s also a self-professed addict of Nature’s Bakery fig bars—a local Reno company and her first-ever sponsor. “We eat boxes of fig bars,” she says. “I just have to eat when I can. I very rarely sit down and eat, even at dinnertime. It’s like: Mommy, I need a juice! I need milk! Uh-oh, I just spilled everything on the floor!’”
Lyles also credits another local sponsor, Kees, with keeping her fueled and fit. “They make these incredible protein drinks,” says Lyles. “They’re fruity and refreshing and light on calories, but have 22 grams of protein. Those and the Nature’s Bakery bars are a big part of what helps keep me healthy and strong.”
“Having children has taught me more about being disciplined, having responsibility and being persistent,” says Lyles, who believes the lessons learned through parenting have positively impacted her triathlon career. “When you have a baby and you haven’t slept all night but you have to keep going—feed the baby, change the baby, wash the clothes—it’s never-ending. You’re on their schedule, not your own, and that’s the biggest thing that has helped me become better. My training has to be quality training, and also I don’t overtrain. I can’t overtrain! Plus I’ve had to learn to be really patient with my kids and say things 10 times in order for them to understand, and that translates into my racing because I can be really patient and keep pushing through.”
“If you want to make triathlon a priority, you can choose to do so and feel confident in your decision,” Lyles says, offering her advice for other triathlon parents. “I’m a more confident person now having chosen the path I want to take. I’m happier for it, because I’m not influenced by what other people think I should be doing. When I first had the kids it was like: Do I need to do five play dates a week? Do I need to get them into art, gymnastics, piano? Are they going to the right school? There’s so much competition in the parenting role! But something was missing for me. So I went for it with triathlon, and nobody’s mad at me for doing what makes me happy, at least for a portion of the day. There are a lot of things—like going to the spa or getting my nails done—that would also make me happy, but I don’t do all that. I always have wet hair, I shower three times a day, I wear workout clothes one hundred percent of the time and that’s who I am. And I think it makes me a better person and I know my kids are super-proud of me.”
Lyles’ children are starting to show an interest in sports. Luke’s T-Ball trophy sits next to his mother’s Ironman award. But Lyles is intent on letting her kids pursue their own passions. “We’ll introduce them to things and then they can pick what they like,” she says. “But I think that everything we do, showing them that we’re active and fit, definitely helps them. And anywhere we go, people say, ‘I can tell they’re your kids, because they never stop moving either!’”
Lyles normally trains 16–20 hours weekly, and ramps up the volume to 22–25 hours during an Ironman build. “People sometimes make you feel guilty, but I think through this I’ve found who I am and what I want to be. They ask, ‘When are you going to stop doing this?’ Um, never! I think I’m always going to be a triathlete and I always want to be active. At the end of the day, my family and their needs will always come first. But triathlon provides that balance for me to keep it all humming along smoothly. This is who I am, my family loves me for it, and I feel confident in that.”