By Alaa Abdeldaiem
Lionel Sanders had to pinch himself to make sure he wasn’t dreaming.
The 27-year-old triathlete had just completed a 140.6-mile course at the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, a race he had been dreaming of competing in since he first started running competitively six years ago.
It was a race that he described as being “larger than life,” one that ended with Sanders greeting his family at the finish line in tears, enwrapped in his Canadian flag.
It was also a race Sanders wasn’t sure he would be able to make.
“I’m just grateful that I was there,” Sanders said. “There were a lot of question marks going in. I constantly had this battle in my mind whether or not competing in Kona was realistic. I wasn’t sure that it was.”
With the life he had been living about ten years ago, it’s easy to see why.
Sanders was always known to be an exceptional athlete.
In the small town of Harrow, Ontario, Sanders traveled everywhere by bike, a virtue he believes got him in good shape at a young age. His home by a lake only added avenues for which his athleticism could grow, and Sanders recalls spending most of his childhood swimming recreationally with his friends.
Then he met Jason Hernandez, a young third-grader who won almost every track event his elementary school had to offer.
“I thought he was the coolest person ever,” Sanders said. “I wanted to be Jason Hernandez.”
Just a year later, he was. Sanders out-performed everyone at his level in every competition.
By the time Sanders got to high school, he was revered as one of the best runners in Ontario. He finished 10th at his district’s championship as a freshman and 10th again at the Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations’ steeple-chase contest as a junior.
But just as quickly as he had found success, Sanders began to feel discontent.
“Everyone suddenly started expecting that I was going to run and do all of these sports,” Sanders said. “I started to become resentful. I didn’t want to devote myself to it anymore.”
Soon, Sanders found himself quitting running all together. He started on what he believes was a slippery slope, hanging out with older friends and finding himself in situations he knew he shouldn’t be in.
It was in one of these situations that Sanders decided to try marijuana.
“I was in your typical peer pressure, ‘Just say no’ situations,” Sanders said. “One of my friends invited me to a party and we ended up going out to his garage for part of it. Someone lit up a joint and everyone started smoking it, and I remember thinking, I don’t want to do this, but I just couldn’t say no.”
If he had, Sanders may have been able to avoid the pressures at Windsor University, where yet more ‘no’s’ would have to be said.
Hitting Rock Bottom
Sanders always prided himself in his ability to “go hard” in everything he did.
Going “all in” once meant competing athletically at a high level. In college, it meant otherwise.
“My personality changed once I got into university,” Sanders said. “I prided myself as this guy who could party hard with the rest of them and still make the honor roll and still do well in sports, all at once.”
Soon, Sanders realized the need to excel at everything was no longer necessary. He didn’t need to go to class. He didn’t have to wait till dark to smoke.
The realizations lead to Sanders smoking on a daily basis. As his addiction progressively worsened, Sanders became desensitized. Suddenly, it wasn’t just marijuana; Sanders was on whatever drugs he could get his hands on.
Cocaine, mushrooms, molly, LSA, ecstasy—everything was fair game.
“It didn’t matter what it was. I just wanted to get high,” Sanders said. “If I could sniff some gasoline from the lawnmower, sniff some glue or down some NyQuil, that was good.”
When Sanders wasn’t high, he was delusional. A pterodactyl was living in his attic, he would try to explain. The FBI was tracking him.
His social life was next to none. Sanders spent sleepless nights rehearsing trips to the grocery store in his head—how he would enter the store, what isle items on his list were, how he would pay at the register and leave as quickly as possible.
“I had this whole world happening in my head that wasn’t real,” Sanders said. “I didn’t want to see anyone, run back home and not come out for a week.”
He was suicidal. One time, as a friend drove down a freeway, Sanders, who was drunk, banged his head against the window in attempt to jump out of the vehicle, convinced that death was his only option.
Still, Sanders spent every last dollar in his bank account on drugs, dropping out of college after using all of his student loans to pay for his addiction. He was so dependent that, after running out of cash, he asked his dealer if he would take credit.
“He just looked at me and said, ‘Man you have a problem,’” Sanders said.
He just hadn’t realized it yet.
High on Hopes
On Nov. 5, 2009, Sanders decided to start running again.
He was 40 pounds lighter than he was two years prior, his skin a ghostly white. But after spending time at another one of his usual parties, this time sober, Sanders had finally “seen the light.”
“I remember watching my friends being all loving to one another one minute and then hating each other the next, all over a line of cocaine,” Sanders said. “I just thought, Wow, that is pathetic. These people are pathetic, and then realized, ‘That’s you. You’re pathetic.’”
Three days later, Sanders went on his first run in more than four years, hoping that the old habit would rid him of the bad ones. After searching online for races to get involved in, Sanders decided he wanted to be an Ironman, signing up for the 70.3-mile triathlon that would take place in Louisville the next summer.
Slowly, things started to change. Sanders saved enough money to buy a gym membership and a purchase his own bike. He began competing in duathlons and triathlons shortly after, and in August 2010, he did it.
Sanders became an Ironman.
“The first thing I thought when I finished was, ‘Wow, why would anyone ever do what I just did?’” Sanders said. “That slowly gave way to, ‘Wow, that was amazing,’ though. I couldn’t believe I did that.”
Yet that’s exactly what Sanders started doing: believing.
Sanders enrolled back into the University of Windsor and ran cross country there before moving just outside of Toronto and competing at McMaster University.
In 2013, Sanders made his first professional debut at Muskoka 70.3, a race he finished in first with Ironman legend Andreas Raelert in the field. He quickly emerged as a contender among the best in 2014, winning 70.3 races in Muncie, Ind., Racine, Wis., and Benton Harbor, Mich.
In a stacked field for the 70.3 World Championships in Mont Tremblant, Quebec, Sanders fought his way from last out of the water to 14th after the bike leg. He finished fourth after the run, just short of the podium that featured Olympians Javier Gomez and Jan Frodeno and world champion Tim Don.
That, Sanders said, was the start of what he hoped would be his road.
“I’ve dreamed of being one of those guys my entire life, and to actually be there, shaking their hands?” Sanders said. “I was high on that weeks later.”
This Is It
Sanders really did pinch himself. The pain served as proof that he wasn’t dreaming.
He wasn’t high, wasn’t hallucinating. Sanders had actually completed the Ironman World Championship, and slowly, his initial disbelief gave way to a different rush of emotions.
He was excited. He was elated. He was proud. Sanders had climbed out from his darkest times to achieve what he once thought was out of reach.
For the first time since falling to drug addiction, he was grateful.
“There’s a saying that goes, the worst day in an atheist’s life is the day when he’s truly grateful for something. To who, to what, I don’t know, but you just want to say thank you to somebody,” Sanders said. “After that race—after the trying journey to this point—it’s like that day for me.”
There was a time in Sanders’ life where he had no direction. Now, he was there, and in a life full of uncertainties, Sanders knew one thing for sure:
He never wanted to leave.
“There were times I contemplated quitting, times I relapsed back into my old habits,” Sanders said. “But being in Kona was a testament to the power of perseverance. Now I know I can do anything I truly want to.”
And while racing in Kona was a dream he had long hoped to complete, Sanders believes this is nowhere near the finish line. He has new dreams, new ambitions to fulfill.
This was just the beginning.