Lionel Sanders' incredible journey

Lionel Sanders has overcome many hurdles to become one of the most feared athletes in the Ironman World Championship field. An inside view to his unique approach to training and racing.

| October 14, 2017 | PERSONALITY

Photo >Kevin Mackinnon

This story originally appeared in German in the October edition of Triathlon Magazine.

There can be no greater illustration of just how much Lionel Sanders has changed the landscape of the sport than to have been sitting in the meeting room in the X-Bionic Sphere in Samorin, Slovakia just a few hours after the Challenge Championship event. It was the men’s press conference – on hand were the top three competitors in what had been an epic race. Lionel Sanders, the champion. Sebastian Kienle, who had shadowed the Canadian for pretty much the entire bike ride, then duelled with him for 16 km of the run before finally succumbing to the relentless pace.

It was the man who had taken third, though, who truly put Sanders’ and Kienle’s achievement in perspective. You have to remember that Michael Raelert is a two-time Ironman 70.3 world champion. Raelert had been well ahead of Sanders and Kienle out of the water. He managed to stay clear of the two on the bike for a while. It was a short while.

“It was like I was being passed by a motor bike,” he said. “Then another one went by me. I didn’t think you could ride a bike that fast.”

It’s not as though the ride in Samorin came as any surprise to triathlon fans, either. Last November Sanders broke the record for an Ironman race at Ironman Arizona, finishing that race in 7:44:29, breaking the record previously held by Marino Vanhoenacker set at Ironman Austria. (That record was broken by Tim Don at Ironman Brazil in May.) He’s won all but one of his races this year – he was beaten by Alistair Brownlee at Ironman 70.3 St. George – and even managed to overcome a flat tire at the ITU Long Distance Triathlon World Championship in Penticton, Canada to claim his first world title in August.

He’ll take that impressive record of racing onto the Big Island for the Ironman World Championship in October and arrives as a legitimate contender for the crown. Sanders is without a doubt one of the biggest names in the sport right now, but his journey to the top ranks is radically different to anything we’ve seen in this sport to date.

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There have been drug addicts and alcoholics who have excelled in our sport before (Germany’s own Andreas Niedrieg, for example), but none who have reached the level Sanders has. A talented runner in high school, Sanders stayed close to his hometown of Harrow, Ontario, Canada to attend the University of Windsor, about 45 minutes away. It wasn’t long into his university career, though, that he got into “partying” as he’ll often describe it. The behaviour included drugs and alcohol. Then stronger drugs and a lot more alcohol. His life began to unravel. Late in 2009 he found himself in his mother’s garage, standing on a chair with a belt around his neck, ready to end his life rather than try to fight his way out of the addictions.

He couldn’t do it, though. The thought of his mother finding him hanging there was too much. He got off the chair. He even started running again. Then he asked his mother if she would give him her credit card so he could enter Ironman Louisville.

In August, 2010, he did his first Ironman. His 10:14:31 was an impressive time for a guy who had gone through a few relapses since he’d borrowed that credit card.

Photo >Erin MacDonald

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To have gone from that inauspicious 10:14 to becoming one of the fastest ever over the distance, Sanders has come up with a unique training plan and philosophy. He’s become famous for his indoor training regimen that would seemingly be mind-numbing for most mortal beings, but has become an integral part of his success. The indoor-training philosophy began on the bike.

“In the initial stages, how I discovered the indoor training, was getting hit by cars,” he says. “Four times. It came from, basically, a fear of death. After one of the crashes I woke up in the ambulance, front teeth knocked out, strapped to the board. I didn’t remember who I was for a solid 10 minutes or so. That freaked me out.”

One day, while out on a ride on a quiet country road after that crash, Sanders was almost hit by an angry driver who, with his horn blaring and middle finger pointed up, used his “motor vehicle to show his beliefs.” It was enough for Sanders, who decided to start doing more of his training indoors.

He got himself a CompuTrainer and spent hour upon hour punishing himself. He quickly realized that he was getting himself into better shape than he’d been in when he was training outside. Other than a few practice rides before Samorin on a bicycle path, he’s done virtually all of his riding indoors over the past three years.  Recently he’s traded the CompuTrainer in for a set of rollers with resistance. For Sanders it’s the final piece of the puzzle.

“I am a better rider since I started using the rollers,” he says. “My bike handling is considerably better than its ever been. I am much more balanced and my core is much more engaged. Before I was a very poor rider.”

He’s quick to acknowledge that he’ll never be a good technical rider, something he learned the hard way in Wiesbaden last year.

“You’re never going to get good at riding your bike 70 km/ hour around corners unless you ride your bike 70 km/ hour around corners,” he laughs. “But 95 percent of Ironman courses don’t require that. Especially Kona.”

Photo >Erin MacDonald

Once he’d realized that he could improve his performance by riding indoors, the next question was how running on a treadmill might help his racing. While he’s become an avid fan of treadmill running, his thoughts on how to incorporate a treadmill into a competitive running routine is slightly different.

“Riding is not weight bearing,” he says. “Running on the treadmill doesn’t have the same pounding that you have when running outside. A treadmill is 30 percent softer, so you lose some of the adaptation. I went two years of all treadmill running and I was finding, especially on a more technical course where there was a lot of turning, because I wasn’t doing any turning and the reduced load bearing, I was fatiguing. So now my thoughts on the treadmill (are slightly different). I think it is very good for injury protection and that sort of thing, but you do need to get outside. I would suggest a 60/40 – treadmill 60 percent of the time, outside 40 percent.”

During the summer months in Canada Sanders was doing the vast majority of his running outside, but as his mileage has increased working towards Kona, he’s starting to incorporate more time on the treadmill to avoid injuries.

“I want to continue to do this for ever,” he says. “The more I can run on a treadmill or a soft surface, the better my longevity will be.”

The logical conclusion to all this, of course, is an Endless Pool – basically a treadmill for swimming. Yes, he has one, but it’s the newest part of his training arsenal – it arrived in August of this year. Swimming has always been Sanders’ biggest weakness. When he first started swimming, getting ready for that first Ironman in Kentucky, he could barely finish 100 m in 2:40. For years he struggled to break 1:40 for four lengths of a 25 m pool. In Samorin Sanders was right behind Kienle coming out of the water. A few months before, in Oceanside, he was “only” 2:35 behind Jan Frodeno, a man who had opened up a gap of almost five minutes on Sanders at the 2014 Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Mont-Tremblant.

That improvement in the water is huge and has been the result of endless hours of swimming and a devotion to working on his technique. Sanders feels the Endless Pool is the final piece of the puzzle that will help him continue to improve his weakest discipline. He’ll continue to do the majority of his hard swimming in a regular pool, but will work on his technique in the Endless Pool.

“Even after three weeks I look like a different swimmer,” he says. “I can swim more. I can swim when I’m inspired to swim. Every single day I can take a video. (His fiancé, Erin, has become a de-facto coach and videographer.)”

With all these pieces in place, Sanders has come up with a system that allows him to stay at home for virtually all his training. Who needs to go away for a training camp when you have all the tools you need in your own home. Heat acclimation? Just turn up the heat in the training room, or do your roller workout on the deck in the heat of the sun.

“It’s another piece of the puzzle,” Sanders says. “I’m a homebody. Not in a bad way, but I love being at home, near my family. If you’re not one of those people who loves to travel and you can set up a way where you don’t have to travel and still get those training blocks, that’s going to be an asset. These last five blocks of training – 55 days or so – have been the best 50 days of training I’ve ever done. I think I am just getting a sense of how to properly prepare for these things. So, in my mind, really, this is year one. I’m just starting.”

How’s that for frightening news for Sanders’ competition? Michael Raelert thought it was like watching a motorcycle go by. And Sanders feels like he’s only just figuring out how to train.

Photo >Erin MacDonald

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Sanders believes we’re in a golden age of the sport right now.

“How many times have you had so many guys pushing the limits all at once?” he asks. He lists off the names – Frodeno, Kienle, Brownlee, Gomez … He is fully aware that if he is going to compete with these impressive athletes, he’s going to have to put in the work. He has no fear about doing that.

“I was writing down my final block for Kona this year. I read it on paper and I thought ‘this is insane.’ And yet I did 95 percent of it already. I’ve been working towards it. Ironman is so ridiculous on its own that you can’t think about it. You have to just be in the moment and not think about what’s happening as you’re doing it. That’s how I’ve got my bike and my run to the level I’ve gotten them to – by taking the mind out of the equation.”

              Sanders fully admits that his initial attraction to triathlon was that he was trading one addiction for another. Now, five years into an elite career, his mindset is different. He’s on a single-minded mission to search for his limits.

“It’s an outlet,” he says. “These lessons are much deeper than swim, bike and run. It’s about orientation and learning how to go about improving once you set your mind on something. Perserverance. How to motivate yourself when times are tough. Triathlon is just the expression of the deeper things that I’m involved in. If I couldn’t do triathlon, I would do all this with something else.”

Who knows what that something else might be. Sanders will undoubtedly become an excellent coach some day thanks to his endless study of all aspects of the sport.

But first there’s Kona. He’s got seven years before he feels he’ll be at his peak. He’s still figuring out the best way to do it all. That’s a scary thought for his competition. Samorin was exciting to watch. Kona should be a blast.