Going the Distance
Ironman Triathlete Lionel Sanders Gives All in Competition and in Life While Traveling in a Winnebago Revel
Professional triathlete Lionel Sanders starts most of his days with a 90-minute swim, followed by a two-hour bike ride in the afternoon, and wraps up his day with a 60–90-minute run in the evening. Most of us would topple over from exhaustion just thinking about this schedule, but Lionel absolutely loves training and says that it doesn’t require a lot of internal talk to motivate him. He has always been an athlete and was a natural at cross-country running in high school and university in Canada.
In 2009 he competed in his first Ironman triathlon as an amateur, which gave him the inspiration and drive to be competitive as a professional. An Ironman triathlon is considered one of the most difficult one-day sporting events in the world and consists of a total of 140.6 miles: a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.22-mile run, in that order. With a lot of discipline and preparation, Lionel turned pro in 2013, and at 34 years old, he has two second-place finishes at the Ironman World Championships, 30 Ironman 70.3 (half Ironman) victories, is the winner of the 2017 continuous swim-cycle-run Long Distance Triathlon World Championships, and in 2020 broke the Canadian national hour (indoor cycling) record with a distance of 51.304 kilometers (31.87 miles).
On average, Lionel competes in a half Ironman about once a month, several Ironman events yearly, and pure running races and cycling events. His wife Erin left her job as a dental hygienist to become her husband’s full-time social media manager so they could travel the world together. They also travel to many of these races in their Winnebago Revel Class B motorhome from their home in Arizona. At this writing, they had just welcomed their son Levi into the world and were looking forward to many adventures together as a family of three—make that four, with their dog Chewy. Lionel thinks that his most meaningful race is yet to come: “I envision that race being my first win as a dad.”
Lionel grew up in Harrow, Ontario, Canada, and says small-town life has a lot of upsides, including that everyone looks out for one another. Because class sizes were small, he got a lot of one-on-one time with teachers and developed a strong bond with his high school gym teacher. His family did a lot of camping while he was growing up and his fondest memories are of riding through campgrounds with his friends on BMX bikes. Fast forward a couple of decades and he’s still pedaling hard with enthusiasm!
RVM: How does the Winnebago Revel make things easier for you?
Lionel: We have the freedom of an off-road 4×4 combined with the living quarters of a typical RV. It is rugged yet refined, and we are loving it! As a professional triathlete, there’s a lot of gear required to bring to any given event so having all the storage space makes it convenient. If we end up somewhere a bit more remote, the RV is loaded with all the bells and whistles to camp out. In the past, we would get in and out of a race as quickly as possible, but since having the Revel, we can explore the places we go to with more ease and accessibility. We are looking forward to that, even more so with Levi.
RVM: What motivates you?
Lionel: I first got into triathlon as a way to get out of a negative place in my life. I have quite an addictive personality, so although I was just training as an age-grouper, I took things quite seriously. Then, when I became professional, the motivation shifted to try to be the best in the world or at least compete with the best in the world. And now, since the birth of my son, the motivation has shifted yet again. I am still motivated by the pursuit to compete at the top, but providing for my family is also at the top of the list now.
RVM: What crazy thing has happened to you during an Ironman competition?
Lionel: Last year, we were in Mont-Tremblant, Quebec, for the half Ironman event, and while on my bike, I grabbed a water bottle from an aid station and went to open it with my teeth as I normally do. I didn’t realize I was trying to open it backward, and I actually popped my filling off of my front tooth and did the rest of the race with a missing front tooth! I went on to win the race, though, so guess it was worth it!
RVM: An athlete who inspires you?
Lionel: I have always been greatly inspired by Craig Alexander also a professional triathlete who has won the World Championships. There’s a photo of him crossing the finish line in Kona, gritting his teeth and grabbing the finishing banner with every muscle in his body flexed. That photo was on a wall in my training room … and provided a lot of inspiration to keep training hard. He is a true example of greatness in our sport. A humble guy with immense talent but a work ethic that can’t be taught. Thanks, Craig!
RVM: What do you consider your biggest strength?
Lionel: I think it’s my capacity for hard training. My body seems to be able to withstand a pretty intense training load without any injuries. [Knocks on wood.]
RVM: What other hobbies do you enjoy?
RVM: Best day ever?
Lionel: If you asked me this a few weeks ago, definitely marrying the love of my life, Erin, on the beach in the Dominican Republic, surrounded by our closest family and friends. That day is now a very close second to the birth of our first son, Levi. We are overwhelmed with joy, and the love we have for him is immeasurable.
RVM: Is a lot of your training done indoors at home?
Lionel: Yes. One of my partners, Zwift, is an online cycling platform that is basically an interactive cycling game. I ride my bike on an indoor trainer and have an avatar in the game that rides while I ride. It is quite fun! I have a heater and humidifier, and to simulate race conditions, I can either heat or cool the room or make it humid or dry.
I LOVE the outdoors, but for me, the training required for triathlon is superior inside. There are no stoplights, and I don’t worry about getting buzzed by a car. I also have a treadmill and can run on Zwift, too. Running is a bit different, as I do a lot of runs outside as well as inside.
RVM: How do you feel the day after an Ironman triathlon?
Lionel: The day after a full Ironman is always an interesting feeling. Depending on how hard the race was dictates how the body feels. Usually, my legs are a little sore and heavy, so a complete rest day is in order. Depending on where the race is, we may squeeze in a round of golf and go out for a nice dinner.
RVM: What is your advice to someone thinking about doing an Ironman?
Lionel: If you’re on the fence about it, just sign up! It will change your life in so many ways. If you treat it as a journey, it can be immensely rewarding. The main objective should be to just try and finish it. Prepare as best as you can and try to enjoy the process. I owe my life to the sport of triathlon!