As It Happens

Ontario's Lionel Sanders overcomes addiction, sets new Ironman world record

On Sunday, Lionel Sanders crossed the finish line in Tempe, Arizona, to beat the existing world record time in the gruelling Ironman competition by minutes
Lionel Sanders of Windsor, Ontario holds the new world record in the Ironman Competition. He completed the gruelling triathlon in 7 hours, 44 minutes and 29 seconds. (Courtesy of Lionel Sanders)

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It's one of the most grueling events on the planet. And last weekend, Windsor, Ontario's Lionel Sanders was crowned king of the Ironman Triathlon.

He cycled, swam, and ran to a new world record at a race in Arizona. Which is all the more incredible given what he had to overcome to get there.

(Joana Draghici/CBC)


Lionel Sanders spoke to As it Happens host Carol Off from Tempe, Arizona. Here's part of their conversation.

Carol Off: Lionel, congratulations.

Lionel Sanders: Thank you very much.

CO: Wow. So this is nearly eight hours of biking, swimming and running?

LS: Indeed, yes. I wanted to do it as fast as I can, so I could be done as quick as I can.

CO: Well your "fast as you can" was a world record.

LS: I guess so.

CO: Seven hours, 44 minutes, and 29 seconds.

LS: Yeah. It was a pretty amazing day. Something I certainly will never forget.

"The sport changed my life, and continues to change my life. So to become part of history, it's something that I will cherish for the rest of my life. I had tears coming down the cheeks and shivers down the spine. It was an amazing experience.- Lionel Sanders

CO: How did it feel when you crossed that finish line?

LS: I mean, I love the sport: the sport changed my life, and continues to change my life. So, you know, to become part of history, it's something that I will cherish for the rest of my life. And you know, the announcer got the crowd all hyped up and everything — so it was hard to hear it was so loud. And someone handed me the Canadian flag as I was coming through. So I got to fly that proudly. I had tears coming down the cheeks and shivers down the spine. It was an amazing experience.

CO: In what way did the Ironman race change your life?

(Courtesy of Lionel Sanders)

LS: I got into Iron Man back in 2010. I was kind of a troubled young guy, abusing drugs and alcohol. And I kind of needed something to change my life, and I found out about the Ironman. It kind of just popped into my head. So I Googled it, and I found [out] it's this very extreme race: it's a 3.8 K swim, to a 180 K bike ride, to a marathon — a 42.2 K run. And I thought to myself, "Wow that is amazing. I can't even fathom doing that. And so I figured if I enter this thing, one of these races, there's no way I can continue to live this way, and yet complete this race.

So I signed up for the race and I trained for it really hard for the next 10 months. It was in Louisville, Kentucky, in August of 2010. And you know, when I first crossed the finish line, I was like, "Oh my God, that was the stupidest thing I've ever done. That was insane." But then, once I got some calories in me, and I got rested up a bit, then I was like, "Wow that was amazing." I couldn't even fathom doing it, even 20 miles into the marathon, I still couldn't fathom finishing — it was just so hard.

"It was my career-best swim. It was actually so good I thought that I had taken a wrong turn. I had to sort of turn around and do backstrokes for a second to look, because I thought, 'Where is everyone?'" - Lionel Sanders

CO: And so that was in 2010. How old were you then?

LS: I was 22.

CO: So you're 28 now, and you've done it. Let's just go through the three stages. You start off with the swim. How did you do?

LS: It was my career-best swim. It was actually so good I thought that I had taken a wrong turn, because usually I'm behind the chase pack of guys — usually about 15 or 20 guys — and usually I'm behind them, and for most of the race I watch them sort of get further and further away from me, and then I come out of the water like two-and a-half minutes behind them. Whereas this time, by the halfway point of the swim, I actually was leading the chase pack. So I had to sort of turn around and do backstrokes for a second to look, because I thought, "Where is everyone?" And so that sort of set the tone for the day, right there.

CO: The swim, we should say is 2.4 miles [3.86 kilometres]. And then you jumped on your bike, which is a 112-mile [180 kilometre] bike trek ahead of you. And you did that in four hours, four minutes, and 38 seconds.

LS: Yes. Once again, it was my career-best: power output, as well as time, as well as speed. I know the bike is sort of my bread and butter — I do come out of the water with a deficit. I'm weaker on the swim side of things. And so I knew the bike was where I was going to be able to shine. But I knew it's a very long bike ride, and I just kept sort of repeating that in my head like, "An Ironman's a long way. Just be patient. Be patient." And so I held my power very steady from start to finish, and I didn't get too much time on the first half of the bike ride. But the second half of my bike ride, I made up a lot of time. And so I think out of the water, I was in 16th or 17th place. And by the end, I had moved into second place — about two minutes behind the leader.

CO: So you're second and then you got into the run. How long is the run that you had to do at the end of this?

LS: The run is a marathon, a full marathon. So 26 miles.

CO: Good heavens.

LS: It's a little bit unfathomable, even for myself, you know, training for this thing. You can't think about it too much, like, 'cause you'll go crazy if you actually try and sort of comprehend beforehand what you are or what you're going to achieve. And I think that's like one of the beauties of it, is even the very best don't know. It's just so crazy.  I don't know if I can cover that distance, even though I've done it before.

CO: And so you did your full marathon — at the end of having done 112 miles on a bike, and the swim — you did the full marathon in two hours, 42 minutes, 31 seconds. That's an enviable marathon time.

LS: That's also my best marathon time as well. Flat out. I mean, I've never done a flat-out marathon before, but it was also my lifetime best run in an Ironman as well.

CO: Was there any point in the course of all this — these eight hours — that there was a low point when you thought, "Oo...maybe I can't do it."

LS: Very. Yes. I got very low. I felt pretty good for the first, I would say, 15 miles of the run. And then at about 17 miles, I really started to hit the wall pretty hard, and I knew at that point that I was on pace to break the record time. But I was hurting so bad I slowed by probably about 30 seconds per mile. And I basically threw in the towel. I was like, "You know, the time's great and everything, but you're not going to be able to achieve. Seven hours 48 minutes — that'll be a great time too. There's no shame in that.

And my fiance ran to the 23-mile mark, and met me there, and was like, "You're still on pace, but you have to pick it up! You have to give everything you've got for the next three miles!" And I don't know what it was, but she got through to me, I said to myself, like, "You are going to regret this so much if you don't pick it up right now, and give it everything you've got for the next three miles. And I actually was able to get back down those 30 seconds-per-mile faster for the next three miles And I was able to come in under the time.

After being hit by four different cars in the past five years, while training outdoors for the biking portion of the triathalon, Lionel Sanders, now trains inside his self-made training room in his basement. (CBC)

CO: And break the record by a minute-and-a-half.

LS: Yes. It was by far the most I've ever suffered in a race. It took me probably 15 minutes after the race to like even be able to function properly, to form coherent sentences.

CO: It's just an absolutely remarkable story in every way — including how you got into it. Can you give your secret? What do you have to do? What do you have to have in your psyche and in your body in order to do this?

LS: Sure. I think the biggest thing has been that I really try and cultivate love for what I am doing and a passion for what I'm doing. And the day-to day-training, I don't dread it. I love every minute of it. And it wasn't always that way, you know. But I always try and put into perspective of just how much of a privilege this is — just to have use of your body, you know, and to have sound mind, and to see the value in, you know, physical activity and that sort of thing. And then as well, I would say the other thing is after every race, I try and look at it objectively — the bad ones in particular — and I try figure out a way to correct all the things I did wrong. And I do that after every single race, and I'll do that after this race as well. And there was still lots of things that I could improve upon for the next time around.

CO: You're an inspiration.

LS: Well thank you, I appreciate it.

For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Lionel Sanders.

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