Lionel Sanders believes that limits don’t exist. The 27-year-old is currently the youngest top 10 Ironman triathlete in the world and has experienced a stellar race season so far this year. With three Ironman 70.3 wins already this summer, Sanders has his sights set on something even greater. He will stop at nothing to win Kona, a thought that consumes him. While in his “pain cave” — his name for the small 10’ by 10’ room he does the majority of his training in — he tries not to let his mind wander but admits that his thoughts always seem to come back to Kona, so much that it keeps him up at night.
Despite being a talented young runner, Sanders’s youth turned away from sport and towards partying during his late teens. After getting into drugs like Cocaine and MDMA and reaching a point of depression that led him to wanting to kill himself, Sanders believes that it was a higher power that brought him to triathlon. “I didn’t even know what Ironman was before,” he said of when the idea to race one popped into his head. “That’s how I know a higher power exists.” He got clean and saw early success in the sport. He recalls being passed by pro Paul Ambrose in his first race and being in awe of Ambrose’s speed. That moment sparked his interest in becoming professional himself. He is now two years into racing pro.
Sanders’s training schedule is unique in that instead of it falling into weekly systems, he prefers to plan in 18- to 21-day blocks. During this time the intensity of his workouts gradually increases so that by the last workout his body is begging for a rest day. The swim is his weakest leg of the race, so no matter what he swims every single day. As a talented cyclist, Sanders is able to make up lost time from the swim on the bike and aims to hold a wattage in the mid-300s during half distance races. If he were to compare his cycling ability to that of a Tour de France rider, he thinks he would be a B-level rider or “domestique”. Having been hit by cars on four separate occasions while out riding, Sanders prefers to do most of his riding indoors. The same goes for run workouts, during which he sometimes goes over a year without training outdoors. In his small training room he used to cover the walls with motivational quotes. Now he just has one phrase, something his Dad used to say to him when they would train together and one which he mentally refers to during races when he wants to push himself harder: “Go through the door and puke, I dare you.”
Sanders welcomes his critics. For those who doubt his cleanness in the sport given his past with drug abuse, he brushes it off and likes to leave people wondering how what he does is humanly possible. His goal is to push the limits of the sport and argues that what wasn’t possible before has been achieved now and will continue to improve in the future. Pushing himself and being the best human being he can be are what motivates him most in life and this certainly shows itself in his perspective on defeat. He believes that all athletes should experience some form of defeat or adversity. If not, they are depriving the person who worked harder of their glory. This is a mantra he stuck to during his most difficult race, the North American Ironman Championships in May where he finished fourth after overcoming a nine-minute deficit from the swim and battling extreme heat on the bike and run.
Lionel Sanders is at the forefront of Freshii’s new campaign as their first sponsored athlete. In honour of Freshii, his triathlon kit and Louis Garneau bike feature the company’s fresh green colour scheme.