Imagine a life where, every single day, an unhealthy addiction consumes you. Where your mind and body are overtaken by a demon that won’t stop corrupting you until you give in to its demands. This was the life of Lionel Sanders, who found himself partying and nearly killing himself because of a drug addiction that was almost too heavy to burden.
Sanders, who was able to turn his life around after falling into a deep and dark pit for years, has found peace in a place many of us could never imagine—triathlons.
One of the top triathlete performers in the world, winning all four of his events in 2016, Lionel Sanders sat down with BroBible to talk about his journey from a drug addict who thought he once saw a dinosaur, to a man who, on any given weekend, will take first place in the ultimate test of endurance.
No longer a junky who will snort anything in sight, here’s how Sanders has steadied both his mind and body to compete as an elite triathlete.
BroBible: You’ve had quite the journey, going from a drug addict to one of the best triathletes in the world, can you talk about how you were able to turn your life around.
Lionel Sanders: “I definitely hit rock bottom on, what I perceived to be, many different occasions. I was having a hard time with auditory and visual hallucinations, delusional thoughts and paranoia, which were all signs for me to get things turned around. I had a difficult time with self-esteem, like, I didn’t even look at myself in the mirror while I would brush my teeth. Those experiences led me to wonder if that was who I wanted to be and to question what I wanted to do with my life, and it wasn’t. You get enough of those experiences that, maybe, you wake up one day and you can turn things around.”
BB: Was there a certain moment where you thought to change things?
LS: “For me, there wasn’t, no. For some reason, one night, I decided not to party at a house we would often go to, and my friends were out partying in the living room, talking about how much they loved one another and all that sort of high talk, if you will. Maybe about three or four hours later, once the drugs and the high had worn off, there was nearly a fistfight in the living room between them over where they’d be able to get some more and who they’d be able to call to get it. That happened very, very often, and I said, ‘OK, enough of this.’ It was the next day that I decided to go for a run, which started a journey that lasted about a month, and, for some reason, I decided to sign up for my first triathlon from that.”
BB: Wow, man. That’s insane.
LS: “Yeah, I needed to borrow the entry fee money from my mom because they’re quite expensive, and I didn’t even have a bike, but that started a journey that, well, I’m still on that journey, so it was worth it. It kind of revolutionized my whole world, really. I started to meet new people and felt better about myself, so things just began to fall in place as I made that step in the right direction.”
BB: What was the scariest high you ever experienced?
LS: “I’d say that one of the scariest and most eye-opening experiences was one of the times that I woke up in detox here in my hometown of Windsor. Like, I didn’t know how I got there, where I was and why my face was all bruised. I called my friends to get the story and it turns out that I went a little crazy, like, I tried to jump out of the window on the freeway before they could roll it up, and then I tried busting the glass with my face, which didn’t work. Eventually, I vomited in the car and it flew back and hit the people behind me in the car. Then I passed out and pissed myself—it was just a scary experience. They had to take me home because they weren’t sure if I was going to die or something like that, so I woke up in detox and was told that story.”
BB: That’s scary as hell. How long were you in detox then?
LS: “I was there for about five days, where I talked to a bunch of different people who were on the same path that I was on. A lot of them were doing even harder drugs like heroine and were injecting things—I just stuck with coke, for the most part—and it was quite eye-opening. One of the guys came down from an oxycotone high and was about to have a seizure because of withdrawals, and that was just scary to see, man. It opened my eyes and I tucked that entire experience into the back of my mind.”
BB: So you never got into anything harder than cocaine, right?
LS: “I tried, man, believe me. I was on the path to harder drugs, even trying to buy crack once. Luckily, the guy selling it really liked me and was looking out for me, so I he wouldn’t give it to me. But, yeah, for the most part, I was just doing cocaine.”
BB: What advice would you give another person who is going through something similar to what you did?
LS: “The biggest thing is that you want to do it for yourself. For me, for the longest time, everyone wanted me to change, but I just couldn’t do it. It wasn’t until I finally wanted to change for myself, where I started to appreciate things in my life, that I made the leap to quit the life I was living.”
BB: Had to feel good.
LS: “You know, if I had to be completely honest, I don’t think I’ll ever get rid of the euphoric recall of those experiences that I enjoyed while doing drugs. But, if you make the change for yourself, everything will fall into place. The right people will show up, the right experiences will happen, and that’s something that’s incredible to have happen.”
BB: And that change has now led you to triathlons, can you talk about what a normal day of training is like for you?
LS: “Yeah, I’ve sort of tried something new that’s working well for me and that I enjoy where I’m making my hard efforts really, really hard, and my easy efforts really, really easy.”
BB: (laughing) Man, you beat up your body every single day, you have to explain that more for us common folk.
LS: “My training volume has actually come down a lot, where I’m training between 20 and 30 hours a week, with 30 hours being a really heavy week. But I’ve trained a lot more than that in the past, even as much as 50 hours a week. A lot of it is really, really intense.”
BB: So what does a training session look like for you?
LS: “On a hard day, I’ll normally do a two-hour running workout with intervals, then will go on about a 90-minute swim that covers 90 kilometers, and, in the evening, I’ll do a run workout for about 80 minutes, covering 12-13 miles.”
BB: Damn! That’s intense.
LS: (laughs) “Well, throughout the week, I’ll do three hard days like that, and then I’ll do two long run or long ride days, and give myself two active recovery days to form a seven day period.”
BB: How about diet? What do you typically eat throughout the week while training and then prior to a race?
LS: “In the past, this is something that I was really bad about. Like, I didn’t understand how important it was, and, really, I was eating absolute crap, with people not even able to understand how I could function. When I reflect back on it, I was eating pizza three days a week, Chinese food and a bunch of processed food with empty calories.”
BB: What’s more difficult: competing at a high level as a triathlete or overcoming your drug addiction?
LS: “That’s a tough one. It’s difficult to compare the two because they’re so different from each other. Drug addiction, in my case, helped ease the pain of hating myself for a very long time. I basically hated my life. From that standpoint, the addiction was a terrible thing and came from a terrible place. The biggest difficulty in overcoming that was becoming a different person, when you’re forcing yourself to change. That can be scary. Of course, I looked at it as self-medication, with the drugs allowing me to escape those feelings. But you know, deep down, that it’s a shitty place to be in. From that standpoint, yeah, that’s difficult.”
BB: I bet. But the physical pain in training isn’t as bad?
LS: “This Ironman stuff, like, I have a good perspective on life now because it’s such a privilege. Like, I’m experiencing life, feeling good about myself and feel stable in my mind. So, I look at this as a privilege that’s quite easy when comparing it to the drug addiction I had to overcome.”