Lionel Sanders can swim!

Lionel Sanders has improved dramatically in the past few years. In addition to his string of Ironman 70.3 wins and many race-best bike and run splits at the middle distance, Sanders made a great leap forward last November with an Ironman brand record time of 7:44 at Arizona.

This marks him as an A-lister in the everyday Ironman and Ironman 70.3 races. But his forays into the World Championships at those distances have been disappointing – especially for a competitor of such talent and drive.

Recently, Sanders has achieved such confidence in his bike and run training, he is beginning to take some time to work on his swim. And it showed in Oceanside. Sanders, who became used to arriving at his bike last among the pros, finished his swim in 25:20, 2:35 behind leader Jan Frodeno and just 1:40 behind swim star Andy Potts. Before this race, Sanders was happy to keep his 70.3 swims within 4 minutes of the leaders.

This he says is the key to a breakthrough at world championship events – which he explains in this post race interview in Oceanside.

Slowtwitch: When did you catch Jan Frodeno and what did you feel when you saw he had a flat?

Lionel Sanders: I was just about to catch him when he pulled over on the side. It was about 15 miles in. I was sad. I hated it. I wish we had something to prevent this. It’s just so lame. We’ve sent people to the moon. And we are talking about sending people to Mars soon. And we get flat tires. We are racing professionally. And his race was ended because of a fricking puncture! Ah. I feel like all the patents have been bought up by the tire companies. I think things like that could be corrected.

ST: At what point did you assume the lead?

Lionel: Right then.

ST: That was quicker than usual. All credit to your swim?

Lionel: This was the best swim I’ve ever had in my life. By far. Against Jan the closest I’ve ever been was about 8 minutes down in Kona. If you halve the deficit to account for the half distance in a 70.3, four minutes would be par. That was the closest I’ve been to Frodeno. In the 70.3 Worlds last year I was about 3:40 down to swim leader Josh Amberger. That was my best to that time. So I guess at 70.3 Worlds, I was about 2:50 down to the front chase pack. It’s the closest I’ve ever been. So today I was about 2:30 minutes down to Jan. That is by far the closest I’ve been to the leaders after the swim.

ST: Why has it taken so long to fix your swim?

Lionel I am swimming better. So far swimming has been an afterthought, basically, for the last four years. Now I am finally I feeling like I have my bike and my running training down. I understand how to prepare for it.

ST: What are you doing about it?

Lionel: I joined the swim club back home [in Canada]. I swim with the kids. Eight and nine year olds are whipping me. I literally line up on the blocks for a 50 free. And I finished second to last place. Eight or nine, just this tall. [Sanders held his hand out about belt level] But that is what all these guys [in triathlon] did. I just am starting over again I guess. And integrating the swim into the bike-run training. That is the new frontier for me.

ST: How long before you were like The Little Engine That Could and started to believe you could have a decent swim?

Lionel: Look at the best swimmers in the world. Triathletes are nowhere near. Even the best triathlon swimmers. So I am not asking myself to do something which, by human standards, is like asking me to run 27 minutes for a pure 10k. I am not asking myself to do something that is insanely hard – to swim to make the pack. So I believe I can do it. And I just believe I’ve not been doing it right.

ST: Have you had some encouragement? Or are your rivals just happy you’re bad?

Lionel: Some guys have been giving me a lot of encouragement. Leon Griffin and I talked at the last race we were together. He won Duathlon Wolds in 2006. He was a bad swimmer, but now he pretty much makes the back of the front pack every time. Ben Hoffman is also a guy who worked really hard to get a good swim. Even Kienle has only made the front pack at Kona once. He always bridges the gap at Kona. Anyway, all these guys are inspiring to me. Now I feel like I am starting to do it.

ST: Will this set you up for a better race at Kona and 70.3 Worlds?

Lionel: At 70.3 Worlds last year I got a real lesson in championship racing. Unfortunately, a lot of times in championship racing, there is a massive front pack. If you are not in that front pack, you are at a very large disadvantage. I don’t care what anyone says. Even if the Specialized wind tunnel says there is no draft effect - zero percent. If anyone in that front pack is being honest, it creates a massive reduction in power. If you are not part of that you are screwed for the most part.

ST: What happened with your bike power today?

Lionel: To be honest with you, my power today was less than my power at 70.3 Worlds. I got off the bike with 17 guys at 70.3 Worlds. I averaged 356 watts at 70.3 Worlds.

ST: What else is improving your race fitness?

Lionel: I feel like I am getting a better grip on how to train properly. I do tons of high end stuff. But I am not doing a ton of volume and I am nice and fresh coming to these races. I am not coming in to races over trained. I am pushing myself over the edge.

ST: How has this race set you up for your two big unfulfilled promises at Kona and 70.3 Worlds?

Lionel: Oh yes. I have to learn how to swim. That’s all there is to it. And then I take a bite out of Kienle’s book. You need to be able to push 400 to 420 watts until you catch the lead swimmers at Kona. Don’t come there then if you can’t do it. Because if you can’t swim front pack and you can’t push 420 watts until you catch them, then you are irrelevant. Because the moment you or Kienle hits the pack at the front of the bike, the whole group accelerates even more.

ST: Is that what you learned?

Lionel: That is what I took away from Kona and 70.3 Worlds in particular. I said, as things are, I am irrelevant. I am not coming back until I learn to swim better.

ST: Is it more desperate at 70.3s – you have a shorter time to catch someone like Frodeno in a 70.3?

Lionel: I rode 390 watts for the first 15 miles at Oceanside.

Two weeks ago I pushed 415 watts for 50 minutes on four minutes recovery. That is getting pretty close to threshold now. Four hundred watts for an hour of power. Maybe 410. I could probably do that for an hour.

ST: Your run is quite good. How much did you miss a return duel with Frodo?

Lionel: I reckon I am a good runner and I can run with Frodeno. I have been dreaming of this race for basically two years since I ran side by side with Jan two years ago and he dropped me. Today he got a flat tire. I hate it when that happens.