Photo by Gregory Rothstein
In a sport where most athletes don’t experience great success until their thirties, 27-year-old Lionel Sanders had made a splash in the Ironman world. Sanders, a Canadian triathlete, currently holds the ninth-place position in Pro Ironman Rankings and third place in the Pro Ironman 70.3 Rankings, bolstered most recently by his win at Ironman 70.3 Racine in July.
After his victory, the Freshii-sponsored athlete stopped by Chicago to talk about his success in the sport, which has followed a fairly unconventional path. Sanders started partying in high school and by college had gotten into hard drugs, ultimately dropping out of school and doing whatever he could to get high. In November 2009, Sanders made a change. He began running, which he had done in high school, and a month later decided to do an Ironman. Training for the event changed his life forever.
“In the next 10 months, I devoted myself. It became my life’s mission to do that race and finish it,” Sanders says. “It taught me motivation, discipline. I saved up to buy a bicycle, I got a gym membership. The biggest thing, I would say, was I got a new social network. I had an excuse not to party. I met new people, and that gave me a new identity.”
Sanders completed his first Ironman in Louisville in August 2010. He finished 48th in the event and discovered a passion that led him to continue training and moving up in the sport, despite his unconventional training methods. Sanders trains exclusively indoors, completing all of his runs on treadmills and bikes on indoor trainers.
“I’ve been hit four times in four years by cars, and the one time I woke up I was in the ambulance strapped to the board and the first thing I said was, ‘Am I paralyzed?’,” Sanders says. “That was a very powerful experience for me. I don’t want to die riding a bike, so I do all my biking indoors for that reason.”
Sanders generally comes out of the water far behind his competitors—in a half Ironman, for instance, he often finishes the swim four minutes after the leaders—but makes up for it on the bike.
“After two, three hours [in an Ironman], it mainly becomes a mental game, especially in the pro ranks.” Sanders says. “Everyone’s training a lot. Everyone’s in good shape. It really comes down to who wants it more, who has the strategies in place so when the going gets tough, you’re able to persevere through. What I’m coming to find is true enjoyment of that moment. If you’re going to make it in the pro ranks, you have love pushing the limit, and I truly love pushing the limit.”
Sanders choses to view the pain of Ironman training simply as a sensation rather than something to fear or avoid, and says that he views the opportunity to suffer and push himself to his limits as a privilege. He doesn’t allow visual distractions in his training, keeping the television off during his treadmill runs and time on the bike trainer.
“I want to feel everything there is to feel,” Sanders says. “You go through a million mental states in those moments, and I want to feel that to the best of my ability.”
Sanders will compete in Kona for the first time this year. He expects to come out of the water far enough behind to not be involved with the group dynamics that take place among the leaders on the bike and will instead focus on maintaining the speed and power he know he can produce during that discipline. He also has big hopes for the run.
“[The leaders] are all playing the pack game, surging, race other guy’s races,” Sanders says. “My hope is to run very fast, because I’ll race my own race. That’s my shot.”