11 Apr Meet TV’s First All-Black Adventure-Racing Team
Adventure racer Clifton Lyles assembled his most recent team of action-sport athletes to make history. Given a chance to try out for a spot on World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji—Amazon Prime’s 2020 revival of a reality series that broadcast from 1995 to 2002, hosted by Bear Grylls—the former US marine put together Team Onyx, the first all-Black American adventure-racing team.
Lyles is one of a growing number of Black men and women making a name for themselves in adventure racing, an adrenaline-fueled sport that pits competitors against one another and the elements in the form of a nonmotorized race across many miles of terrain via foot, mountain bike, watercraft, and sometimes horseback.
When Lyles first got into racing 21 years ago, he was almost always the only person of color at the starting line and got more than a few side-eyes. “I’m just too stubborn to quit,” he told Sierra. “It was one of those things where they saw me at this race, then the next race. I got better—I went from not finishing to winning.”
PHOTO BY POBY/AMAZON
After taking a break from competitions in 2012 to spend several years working overseas, Lyles returned to the United States only to discover that little progress had been made to improve the diversity of adventure racers. So when the World’s Toughest Race reboot was announced, Lyles recruited veteran adventure racer Chriss Smith Jr., competition cyclist Sam Scipio, and ultra-marathon runner Coree Woltering.
“There were [other] teammates I’ve raced with for years, and I had to tell them, ‘You know what? I love you guys and I want to race with you, but this is something I feel like I have to do,'” Lyles said. “And so we applied as Team Onyx and were fortunate enough to get in.”
Over nearly five days, Team Onyx attempted to claw its way through 400 miles of Fiji’s islands, across dense jungles, over mountain passes, and along mud-soaked trails—grueling travel that required standup paddleboarding, outrigger canoeing, and mountain biking. They enjoyed crew support from Lyles’s daughter, Mikayla, but otherwise had only maps, compasses, and digital watches—adventure racing does not allow most modern technologies.
PHOTO BY IDRIS SOLOMON/AMAZON
The openly gay Woltering joined Team Onyx to set an example for fellow nontraditional racers who might not yet see themselves as part of adventure culture. “There are people who are Black, and who are gay, who love the outdoors,” he told Sierra.“World’s Toughest Race is a great way to show that.”
Sadly, Team Onyx was among the 22 teams that failed to complete the Eco-Challenge Fiji course. In a mountain-biking crash during a downhill descent, Lyles sustained a concussion, and, erring on the side of caution, he withdrew Team Onyx.
“We came here on a mission, to make sure that those people who feel marginalized, unseen, underrepresented—in not only the outdoors but in society as a whole—feel that they have a voice,” Lyles told the camera as he departed from the show. “We are the first all–African American team to ever be in Eco-Challenge. We may be the first, but we don’t want to be the last.”
Since returning from Fiji, Team Onyx has continued to train and recruit new athletes. They’re making plans to compete in World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Patagonia, though it’s unclear when and where the season will air. Lyles, who has recovered from his injury, is now more determined to inspire others to test the boundaries of human endurance and perseverance.
“We’ve started building up infrastructure, allowing people who haven’t had a community to find other people who are like-minded, who are willing to do things that people of color just don’t normally do,” he said. “I think the fact that we reached for the stars and we fell short is not a failure at all. It was just part of the journey as we continue to move forward.”
This article appeared in the March/April edition of Sierra Magazine with the headline “Team Onyx Accepts a Challenge.”