Lionel Sanders is a force of nature. He’s changing himself and along with it our sport.
Every so often someone comes along who changes the rules. Someone who redefines what is normal, or reasonable or even what’s possible. Lionel has been challenging our perception of what’s normal or reasonable with his unorthodox training methods. Training almost exclusively indoors all year round was unheard of before Lionel.
Now he has shown that he has what it takes to change how races at run and he is determined to etch his name on the monument of our sport, Ironman Hawaii.
Sure lots of people have turbo trainers and did lots of their winter training on them but Lionel also has a treadmill and an endless pool in his house. On top of that he has a training room where he can simulate the oppressive heat and humidity of Kona in his basement. He doesn’t need to ever go outdoors to train and mostly doesn’t.
I became a Lionel fan back before he was the star that he is now. I heard an early interview with him, probably with Bob Babbit and I thought his story was really incredible. The resurrection from a life almost ended by drink and drugs to being a world class professional triathlete. It was fairy tale stuff, you couldn’t make it up and if you did it just wouldn’t be believable.
I was working on a project back in 2015/16 and reached out to a number of professional athletes for advice and Lionel was one of the few who replied and helped me out with it. He was certainly the highest profile athlete who got back to me. The fact that he took the time and effort to reply personally turned me into a lifelong fan. Since then he has only reinforced that with the way that he races and trains.
Back then he was an absolute axe on the bike, he could run, but I thought of him as an uber biker first and foremost. really best known for having a world class bike. And for being an aggressive racer.
I’ve read a lot of sports books and one of my heroes despite the fact that I never saw him race when he was alive was Steve “Pre” Prefontaine. Pre had the most incredible aggressiveness when it came to racing. He thought it better to race from the front as hard as he could even if it meant other runners benefiting from his slipstream might come around him at the end and beat him.
He thought it was better to race hard and honestly and lose rather than “sit in” and kick at the end. He was a “front runner”
He was exciting to watch and his legend lives on long after he was killed in a car crash because of that racing style. He may well have won more races had he raced more tactically instead of racing with his heart. But then he would never have become the larger than life legend that he is with a legacy (or legend) that lives on.
Wanting to race the best even at the cost of winning
Sanders reminds me very much of Prefontaine, his desire to race the best and to do so on his terms. He want’s to take on the best in the sport and he wants them on their best day. It seems like whether he wins is almost secondary to how he races. When he finished Kona last week in second he said that he could accept his place because it was the race he had dreamed of having.
Like Dave Scott. Reinventing himself
I remember listening to a Legends of Triathlon interview with Scott Molina where he talked about Dave Scott. He marvelled at how Dave constantly reinvented himself to fight the ever evolving challenges the sport threw at him. One of the things that really stood out for me was how he described Scott and in particular his run.
Molina: The most remarkable thing about Dave is if you look at his progression (in Kona)
Bevan: Yeah cause he wasn’t fast in the first one was he?
Molina: No, he was a big fat cow who could barely run. You look at his running form even, it was horrible, and yet the guy just kept getting better and better and better and better and in ’89 he ran 2’40 for that marathon. I mean that’s remarkable. Remarkable how he kept reinventing himself and getting better.
There probably isn’t more than a handful of people on the planet who could get away with calling Dave Scott a big fat cow. Scott Molina, one of the original “big four” superheroes of our sport is probably one of them.
Now I’m not for a minute calling Lionel Sanders a big fat cow, the guy is ripped, but looking at him run out of T2 last Saturday I thought he was in big trouble. He looked like he was falling apart, maybe it was his hip flexors, maybe his hamstring maybe both. Whatever it was he looked like like he was suffering. And badly. He wasn’t quite running like a big fat cow but he looked like he was hurting.
Sanders looks like a big solid unit, muscular shoulders and chest. Heavy muscular legs that looked perfectly at home the shit out of everyone on the bike but somewhat out of place running at sub 6 minute miles along Ali’i Drive.
He also did not look for one minute like he should be pulling away from former winner here Sebi Kienle who was chasing him out of transition. But he was. Sebi looked like he was running well, his form was great, he looked strong and fast. He didn’t quite look as beautiful and graceful as Eliud Kipchoge trying to break 2 hours for the marathon but he looked good and he looked fast.
Yet Sanders who looked like he was about to keel over at any second with a race ending injury was still pulling away from him.
Unbelievably Lionel kept the lead. Seemingly by sheer force of will. It didn’t look like his body was cooperating. It was just being dragged along for the ride. Like a child throwing a tantrum and being dragged along by their parent. Lionel was dragging his body along kicking and screaming. His mental strength and drive and willingness to hurt himself is staggering, and scary. For 23 miles he held onto the lead fighting every urge to give in to what looked like considerable pain.
We’ve all had times in races when we start to reach our physical limits. The pain and exhaustion battles with our will to keep going. Sometimes we can overcome the physical discomfort through stubborn pig headedness, fear of losing a place or a desire to succeed but usually we can only put up with that level of pain for a very limited time or distance.
Sanders didn’t seem to have a limit to how much he was able to suffer and hurt himself. Starting a marathon in that level of discomfort and pushing through for almost 3 hours without giving in is quite incredible.
My heart broke a little for him when he was passed by Patrick Lange who at mile 23 was still looking every inch like a Kenyan marathon runner. For Sanders to have gotten so far against the odds was so impressive and would have made the perfect end to his fairy tale story of disaster, resurrection, fight and ultimately triumph.
I think Sanders will go home and reinvent himself just like Dave Scott did year after year and the rest of the pro field needs to look out. Someone with an uncompromising “Prefontaine” style of racing, a completely unique take on how to train and a willingness to do what anyone else would regard as crazy is a force to be feared.
Sanders has seen that he can win Kona and he won’t give up until he prevails. He also believes he has a lot of scope for improvement. Everyone else be warned. Lionel is only starting his Kona journey.
“As for the future, I see lots of room for improvement in all three disciplines. I’m not sure if there is anything more motivating than being passed at mile 23 of the run at the Ironman World Championship. I am more motivated than ever to get back to work. If you need me, I will be down stairs in the training room”
You can read Lionel’s post Kona blog here