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Lionel Sanders: From Drug Addiction to World Ironman Championships
(Novus writes inspirational stories of people in the news who have overcome addiction. This is not to infer that these people are connected to Novus Medical Detox Center but simply to provide hope and encouragement to those fighting addiction.)
A Canadian athlete is proving not only that drug addiction can be overcome, but also that the lessons you learn about yourself while getting clean can lead to a better life than you ever dreamed possible.
Six years ago, Lionel Sanders was a drug addict with little hope for any kind of rewarding or meaningful future. Today, Sanders has not only put cocaine, alcohol and other drugs behind him, he’s transformed himself into a world-class professional triathlete.
Since 2010, Sanders has competed in dozens of triathlons all over the States and Canada, and to the surprise of almost everyone, including himself, he’s won many of them.
Most recently, Sanders competed in his first World Ironman Championships at Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. The Kona Ironman was the first Ironman ever held, back in 1978. It has since become the Ironman World Championship, and it’s the most prestigious triathlon event to win – or even to place in the top 25.
Up against a field of seasoned international pros for the first time, Sanders came in at a respectable 14th – well ahead of many professionals with far more experience than himself. But since then, he’s won the Arizona Ironman in November and is pressing ahead for more wins, undaunted by the Kona results.
The high Sanders is on from accomplishing his goals as an athlete, and pushing himself to levels of physicality he never imagined possible, can’t even be compared to the false “high” one gets under the influence of drugs.
Toughest in the world
Ironman triathlons are a series of three long-distance races, and they’re widely considered to be the toughest, most physically demanding tests of strength and endurance ever devised.
An Ironman Triathlon includes a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride and a marathon 26.2-mile run – a total of 140.6 miles. They’re raced in that order, without a break and in almost all weather conditions – occasionally it’s so inhumanly hot, or cold, or wet, in other words so terrible, that it poses a real threat to human life and safety. Only then is a race postponed.
There are also “Half Ironman” competitions, sometimes called “Ironman 70.3” competitions for 70.3 miles – half the total distance of a full Ironman race.
Most full Ironman events start at 7 a.m. and have a strict time limit of 17 hours to complete – 2:20 for the swim, 8:10 for the bike race, and a final cut off, after 6:30 hours, at midnight for the run. These times include getting into and out of whatever the appropriate clothing is – shorts, shirts, shoes, finding your bike among hundreds of others, making your way to the appropriate starting point – and so on. A participant who actually completes the triathlon within these time limits is officially designated an Ironman – even the women.
Ironman races have categories for both men and women, and both amateur and professional. They’re held all over the world and they continue to draw hundreds of the toughest athletes you can imagine. These are people willing to compete under the most severe conditions. In Kona, this means bicycling 112 miles in 85 to 90 degree heat, immediately followed by running 26 miles on 115-degree pavement-level heat.
As a professional triathlete, Sanders competes in roughly 20 competitions a year, both full and half Ironman races and numerous other kinds of marathons. On average, that’s swimming, biking or running close to 300 miles a month all year long. And when you add in the daily training time, it’s a schedule so demanding, so physically punishing that it would likely crush most single-sport athletes in a few days or less.
Ironman competitions are widely considered the most difficult one-day sporting events in the world. One has to wonder what would possess anyone to decide to enter such a grueling competition – especially someone who had spent the last few years living in a hovel estranged from family and blitzed out on cocaine 24/7.
From weed to booze to cocaine and oblivion
Lionel Sanders was born on February 22, 1988, in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, right across the Detroit River from Detroit, Michigan. Windsor has a long history of association with the American automobile industry.
Sanders’ family, however, lived in Harrow, Ontario, a tiny, one-stoplight town some 45 minutes south of Windsor. Sanders was a decent runner at Harrow District High School and, as a teen, he captained the Harrow Hawks basketball and cross-country running teams. At one point, he was considered one of the top distance runners in the Province of Ontario. But in spite of the natural talent, Sanders says he was more interested in the concept of winning than in actually running. In fact, Sanders says he started smoking marijuana in Grade 8 and increased his weed abuse all through high school – which may have had something to do with his ultimate lack of interest.
By the time he got to the University of Windsor, Sanders says he was smoking pot on a daily basis. He did try out for the track team, but didn’t make the cut and didn’t much care. Sports, education and planning for the future took a back seat to full-time partying. He soon graduated from marijuana to cocaine, dropped out of school after his second year and stopped running altogether. After that, things went from bad to worse.
He found some freelance writing work online and was able to make his tiny monthly rent with nearly enough for all the drugs and alcohol he was consuming. He sniffed glue and gasoline and popped pills, even trying to boil down NyQuil pills to get a buzz.
Mom, dad, and the big turnaround
Sanders had made some efforts at getting himself cleaned up. But all attempts to quit drugs had failed. One time, Sanders was straight for nearly six months, but a couple of trips to rehab ended in relapses.
Then one day in November, 2009, Sanders was watching some fellow addicts squabble bitterly over who should get the final line of coke on the table. The desperate truth of his miserable life hit him, and hard.
After a couple of days sober, Sanders says, he put on his running shoes and went for a jog. And then again the next day. And the next. And the next and the next. He ran farther and faster, day after day. And the world began to change around him. Or, the truth is, he began to see the world in a new way.
In December, 2009, Sanders asked his parents for some money. Sanders was 21, pale and rail thin, 40 pounds underweight, a recluse and an admitted drug addict. They didn’t trust him. The last time they’d given him a credit card for food he used it to buy cocaine.
This time it really was different. He wanted the money to register for a triathlon. He’d been running, he said. He’d stopped the drugs and alcohol. And he had this crazy idea that running a triathlon, an Ironman event, would help him recover from addiction for good.
He was nowhere near ready, but his folks relented and paid for the registration.
Now signed up for his first Ironman-type event, to be held in August, 2010, in Louisville, Kentucky, Sanders had something concrete, a real goal, to work toward. But in March, after three months of being sober, Sanders relapsed again.
This was the worst relapse yet, he says, in terms of his feelings of shame and guilt. He almost took his own life, he said, but he fortunately couldn’t go through with it. And a good thing, because he continued his training, continued to stay clean, and has since become a world-class triathlete competing with the best in the sport.
Kona and international recognition
After dozens of firsts, and a lot of seconds, thirds and fourths in qualifying races over the past few years, Sanders was finally accepted for the World Championships in Hawaii this year.
He had won many 70.3s with ease, even though he was almost always last out of the water. Some people said his swimming looked like someone drowning. Yet he finished fourth behind international stars like Jan Frodeno (who won at Kona this year) and he outran Andreas Raelert, the world record holder for the Ironman, who came second at Kona. He knew he could run. But the biking and swimming took years to improve his technique.
Shortly before the race in October, Sanders told Runner’s World magazine, “Absolutely, this is the pinnacle of the sport and I want to be known as the best.
He said he thinks that he has an advantage stemming from his innate drive to succeed, to be the best he can at anything. The personality trait that almost killed him, he said, the one that made him crave cocaine and do whatever it takes to get high, is the same one that makes him such a competitive triathlete.
“This is my theory that you can observe in people,” Sanders explained. “What makes you successful tends to be your Achilles heel. For me, when I do something I do it hard-core. I focus on it. I want to excel at it. I put everything I have into something. In some twisted way that’s what made me successful in using drugs and alcohol. I was hard-core into it. I could outlast anyone in partying. I have learned to accept that trait of mine.”
Doug Sanders, Lionel’s dad, told The Toronto Star that his son “likes to do everything very well. He wanted to be the best at partying too. He’s come a million miles in a very short period of time.”
“I am a true believer that you can do anything,” Sanders said. “If you want it enough, you have the mental strength to persevere.”
Here at Novus, our patients would suggest that being addicted to drugs and alcohol may be the worst one can be, no matter how “good” you are at partying. But we agree 100 percent with Lionel Sanders that dedication to the goal of sobriety, wanting it enough, is a huge part of recovery.
For more about Lionel’s journey, you can visit his website.
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