Bob Duff: Harrow’s Lionel Sanders answers Ironman challenge


Lionel Sanders rides during the cycling portion of the Ironman World Championship Triathlon, Saturday, Oct. 10, 2015, in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Lionel Sanders rides during the cycling portion of the Ironman World Championship Triathlon, Saturday, Oct. 10, 2015, in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

The day after completing his first Ironman triathlon world championship in Kona, Hawaii — a 2.4-mile swim, a 180-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run — Harrow’s Lionel Sanders did what you’d expect someone who’d just exerted themselves to the extreme would do.

He hiked up the side of the world’s largest volcano with his family.

Wait — what?

“I had a bit of soreness, particularly in my gluts, but I’m able to persevere,” said Sanders, 27, who finished 14th in his first attempt at what is considered the world’s most demanding physical pursuit.

“Fortunately, I’ve been blessed with a body that recuperates very quickly. You have to have that. It’s kind of a prerequisite to compete at the ironman distances.”

Mauna Loa, the Hawaiian volcano Sanders visited with his parents Doug and Becky and fiancée Erin MacDonald, features a summit with 4,169 metres of elevation.

“It was my parents’ last day here,” Sanders explained. “I hadn’t been able to do much touristy things because of the race, so I wanted to.

“We did a couple of different hikes through the lava tubes. They don’t let you get too close to the actual crater itself because if you fell in you would be burned alive.

“I believe they’ve had that happen before.”

There was a time in his life, Sanders frankly admits, when such an ending might have seemed appealing to him.

Today one of the world’s fastest-rising stars in long-distance triathlon, it’s hard to believe that not so long ago the only pursuit that interested Sanders was a journey that led to his next line of cocaine.

Once a high-school cross-country runner, partying became his only objective and Sanders found himself in a downward spiral that led to suicidal thoughts.

That’s when – and to this day he doesn’t know why – he found his saving grace in triathlon.

“It really was completely by chance and this has made me believe in a higher power,” Sanders said. “I was in a really crappy head space and didn’t really have hope or anything and then the idea to do an ironman triathlon popped into my head.

“It seemed like something that was really hard and something that I wasn’t even sure I could really do at the time.”

He sought out help from his folks to pay the registration fee for his first competition. Originally they were reluctant, thinking it was a scam to get more money for drugs.

Becky Sanders opted to believe in her son, and lent him her credit card.

Saturday, when Lionel crossed the finish line, Becky was there to embrace him.

Sanders makes no bones about it – this sport, one that possesses the ability to push someone to what must feel like the brink of death, is what saved his life.

“I enrolled in one of those races and it really did change my life,” Sanders said. “I devoted myself to it and I developed many characteristics that I had been lacking, like motivation and discipline.

“I didn’t think to myself that I could be good at this. It was purely like a rehabilitative endeavour in the early stages. And then, after about a year or so, that’s when I started to think, ‘Maybe I could do it at the next level.’”

In a bizarre way, the same addictive traits that turned Sanders into a drug addict have turned him into a world-class triathlete.

“I sort of figured out how to use my personality in a healthy, more positive way,” Sanders said. “In the past, I used the exact same characteristics in negative, self-destructive ways.

“I’m kind of an extreme person. I’m very single-pointed in my motivation and my focus.”

The perfect type of personality, as it turns out, to excel at this most demanding of pursuits.

You need to be able to be by yourself and be alone for very long periods of time,” Sanders explained. “Those are all things that are kind of built into my personality.

“I definitely am competitive, too. I enjoy competition for the sake of competition. I definitely have that sort of motivation for success. Those are sort of the things I’ve come to embrace I guess, particularly the extreme one-pointed mindedness. It is really rewarded in a sport like IronMan, which really takes you to be very focused for very long periods of time without really wavering that focus.”

Competing in his initial IronMan, Sanders posted an overall time of 8:36.26, less than 24 minutes behind the winner, Germany’s Jan Frodeno.

As much as he’s trained for it, Sanders wasn’t certain of what to expect in his first attempt at the race, other than he would learn even more about what makes him tick.

“The things I’m doing now, I couldn’t fathom doing just two years ago,” Sanders said.

Running across the lava fields of Kona, temperatures soared above 32C and up to 43C when factoring in the 60-per-cent humidity.

“I’ve never really raced in those kinds of conditions, especially for that long,” Sanders said. “I definitely learned a lot of lessons that will apply the next time around.”

He also grew even more familiar with the weaknesses in his game that must be addressed if he intends to someday climb up on the podium as IronMan world champion.

“My swim is killing me and this race really highlighted that for me,” Sanders said. “I’ve done a lot of wetsuit swims in very calm water, whereas this was a non-wetsuit, open-water ocean swim with swells and everything, so it was a very challenging swim and brought to the forefront my weakness in the swim.

“I’m really going to devote myself to improving my swim over the winter. Another thing that came to light in this race was just how poor my aerodynamics are on the bike.”

He plans to do aerodynamic testing in a velodrome to discover ways to go faster in the biking portion of the race.

What Sanders does know for sure is that time is on his side. At 27, he’s a pup in long-distance triathlon. The top 10 finishers were all in their 30s, with an average age of 31.1.

“Prime for this sport is somewhere between 32-36 years old,” Sanders said.

He’ll be back for more, armed with an education that’s only gained via experience.

“I gave everything I had on the day,” Sanders said. “I really didn’t have anything left. It was the best I could do with where my current swim is at and where my legs were at on the day. I have no regrets on how I raced.

“In some twisted way, I enjoyed every minute of it.”

Lionel Sanders rides during the cycling portion of the Ironman World Championship Triathlon, Saturday, Oct. 10, 2015, in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Lionel Sanders rides during the cycling portion of the Ironman World Championship Triathlon, Saturday, Oct. 10, 2015, in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

We encourage all readers to share their views on our articles and blog posts. We are committed to maintaining a lively but civil forum for discussion, so we ask you to avoid personal attacks, and please keep your comments relevant and respectful. If you encounter a comment that is abusive, click the "X" in the upper right corner of the comment box to report spam or abuse. We are using Facebook commenting. Visit our FAQ page for more information.
Your voice