Addicted to Iron

Lionel Sanders fights past demons to become triathlon champion

Lionel Sanders
Photo: John Segesta

Lionel Sanders hit rock bottom struggling with addiction, feeling like he had nothing to live for.

“I would wake up, then go back to sleep, wake up then go back to sleep until it was absolutely impossible to sleep anymore,” says the elite triathlete from Windsor, Ont. “I then would stare up at the roof and cry because I couldn’t think of any reason to get up.”

Sanders, 27, was once a top Ontario high school runner, but expectations haunted him and he grew to hate running. “I was also doing a lot of partying at the same time, so I got cut from the team.”

On Nov. 5, 2009, after years of cycling through addiction and recovery, Sanders went for a run on his own terms. The next day he laced up again and for a month straight he hit his favourite running routes again and again.

“I was running solely for myself and my own well-being. When you do something because you want to do it, you tend to have more success,” he says. “For much of my high school running career I did it because I felt obligated to compete, mainly because I had some modest success early on.”

The toughest thing in his recovery was staying clear of the party crowd. “I had to disconnect for a long time in order to reconnect with my core self,” he says. “It is very scary to disconnect from your friends and everything you find familiar. But, over time you create new social networks and are given a new life. The new life I created is much more in line with my true self. Needless to say, I don’t wake up and stare at the roof wondering why I am going to get out of bed anymore.”

Regaining control of his life, Sanders got this “crazy” notion that he wanted to do an Ironman. He convinced his parents to help fund his training and with one sprint triathlon victory under his belt, he crawled his way to the finish line of Ironman Louisville in August, 2010. On Cloud 9 and still running for his own enjoyment, he re-enrolled at the University of Windsor, catching the attention of coach Barrie Shepley after a 12th place finish at the C.I.S. Cross Country Championships.

Based in Hamilton and part of Shepley’s High Performance Team, Sanders is training full time and racing professionally. Sanders kicked off his season with a podium finish at 70.3 Oceanside in March, finishing third.

He won his last two races in Muskoka and Mont Tremblant to move up to third in the world rankings. That’s on top of victories last year at Ironman Florida and American 70.3 races in Muncie, Steelhead and Racine. He also won the 2104 Niagara Falls Barrelman and has Hawaii in his sights this season.

“Kona is the pinnacle of long distance triathlon, and long distance triathlon is my passion, so for the next 10 years or so all of my focus will be on performing my best at that race.” So Sanders is doing what he loves, not to please someone else.

“I am one of the lucky ones to have made it out relatively unscathed. Addiction is a terrible thing,” he says. “When I began running again, I asked my mom what she thinks I ‘always wanted to be.’ She said I always wanted to be a professional basketball player. That didn’t quite pan out, but a professional triathlete has a nice ring to it as well.”

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