From substance abuser to Ironman devotee, Lionel Sanders followed an extraordinary path to becoming a 70.3 champion.
At a very young age, Lionel Sanders recognized he had an addictive personality. The 26-year-old played practically every sport possible while growing up in Windsor, Ontario, finding early success in running. But by the time he hit high school, he had run so much he started to hate it. Which is when he discovered partying.
“I was drinking often, smoking cigarettes, smoking pot and experimenting with other substances,” Sanders says. “I was still identified as an achiever, so I was boastful and proud of the fact that I could still do really well yet I was partying hard on the weekends.”
Once he got to college, Sanders quit running altogether. The next couple of years led him down a drug-induced spiral. He smoked marijuana every day, then progressed to cocaine, ecstasy, mushrooms, methamphetamine, and even resorted to sniffing glue and taking shots of boiled-down Nyquil for a “cheap high.”
He would stop for months at a time, but then inevitably relapse. At his lowest point, he had lost 40 pounds, was having intense hallucinations and attempted suicide. On Nov. 5, 2009, Sanders decided it was time for a change.
So he went for a run.
The next day, he went for another, then another, until he hit a month straight. He got the “crazy idea” to do an Ironman, despite never having raced a triathlon, and his goal became Ironman Louisville in 2010.
He convinced his mom to pay for his registration fee, and he started going to the gym to swim laps, ride a spin bike and run. He saved up $1,000 and bought a used time-trial bike from the classifieds. His penchant for fixation had a new outlet.
“I thought, ‘I wonder if I can win this race,’” Sanders says. “I printed the results and a picture of Craig Alexander when he won Ironman Hawaii in 2011. I would put the photo on the treadmill and use it as motivation to keep going and go faster.”
After he panicked and came out of the water in almost last place at a local triathlon, he realized winning wasn’t going to happen. He still finished Louisville in a respectable 10:14. “When I finished, I felt like I could do anything,” Sanders says. “My foundation was strengthened.”
When he got home, he had a Facebook message from Barrie Shepley, the former Olympic coach of Simon Whitfield, who had been following Sanders as a runner since high school. Shepley invited him to come meet his training squad, C3 Training, in Hamilton—six hours away. Long story short, Sanders wound up moving to join the group, and in the past couple years, he’s earned national duathlon titles in Canada and the U.S.
His most meaningful accomplishment came last September at Ironman 70.3 Muskoka. It was his first race as a pro and, until he saw the start list a couple weeks before, he thought he could win. The final list held some world-class names, including one of his triathlon heroes, German Andreas Raelert. As a surprise to most, Sanders out-biked the field and ran a 1:10:58 half-marathon to win by more than six minutes.
“I can’t describe what it felt like,” Sanders says. “It’s not the end result, but just to realize a dream, and to see it. … I was glowing for a week after.”
His ideal end result, of course, is to win Kona someday. “I picture running down Ali’i Drive in the lead, and it’s the motivating factor for everything I do,” he says.
With new financial and sponsorship support, Sanders’ main 2014 goal is the Ironman 70.3 World Championship.
“Do I regret everything? No, because it made me who I am today,” Sanders says. “My motivation is that I remember a [past] girlfriend once said to me, ‘You’re a drug addict … you’re not going to change.’ I remember that clearly to this day. It’s now my goal to be proof that not only can you change, but you can turn yourself into something great in the process.”