Lionel Sanders said this of his second-place finish to Patrick Lange at the 2017 Ironman World Championship: “There was no way to convey what I was feeling. No shame. No negativity about my performance. It felt like Patrick and I were actually feeling the same energy. It was the battle. It was the effort. It was everything I had. He came by and my brain said Go! Go! Go! And my body said: Absolutely nothing left. Sorry! It was the experience of an amazing day. I had no regrets. To improve upon it was irrelevant.”
But of course he wanted more and the place is not irrelevant.
Last year I got it 99.5 percent right. Then of course I succumbed to the Second Place syndrome. I was tempted to try big changes.
Lionel Sanders did try to switch over to a completely vegetarian diet. He lost weight. Got temporarily weaker. Then he modified it and stayed as strong as he needed to be ready for Kona.
As part of that impulse, Sanders took a wider look and came to an important realization.
“I was already 99.5 percent there. I think the perspective I’ve gained is: Now you just need to be one percent better this year. I need to swim one percent better. I need to be one percent better on the bike. I need to be one percent better on the run. One percent better in nutrition. One percent better in pacing. One percent better was my motto. That is how I need to look at it this year.”
Maybe his math of accumulated one percent improvements is a bit off, but the principle of small changes leading to big results is on target.
One of his key lessons not carry out any single good idea to an extreme. “You come to a race where you ask your body to stay in its absolute aerodynamic place for four and half hours,” he says. “Not move. And so I would go bad the second half of the run.”
And one more critical idea: “I had been ignorant of my high sweat rate. I paid for that on the run. In my case my hamstrings and my glutes paid the price the last half of the run.” So Sanders says he has worked with the Gatorade Endurance scientists to improve his hydration and nutrition system.
Sanders also remembered an early lesson: “Once again back to the lesson I learned in 2014… You will race your best race when you’re having fun. Rather than putting all this grim pressure on yourself. You just need to aim at the best performance on the day for the shape you are in. And react to how everything unfolds.”
Strong final workouts
Lionel: I had a pretty good practice swim on the Saturday before the race [51 minutes]. I felt I could swim better than last year’s race [53 minutes]. It was my first day into my taper.
ST: What are the most important improvements?
Lionel: I’ve swum 25k a week since January. I just want to minimize the losses to the best of my abilities. I wanted my effort to be 8 out of 10. If I swim 10 out of 10 I end up feeling like garbage.
ST: What about the bike?
Lionel: Next, I do not want to push so hard after the downhill from Hawi to make up for my inadequacy in descending. Last year, I watched Cam Wurf go, and once we reached Kawaihae, Sebastian Kienle went with me and we both paid for it. I did a 350 watts surge for 15 minutes. That was just pure glycogen at that stage. I now know that would have come in handy in the final five miles. While I bridged the gap, I burned up massively that final 20k of the ride. But it didn’t do much for me.
ST: What have you trained to prevent top cyclists leaving you on the descent?
Lionel: If I am with a group of guys, I have decided I’m not going to get dropped. Already in training I have gotten close to 90km an hour [54 mph] on the descent from Hawi. When I go hard coming down I’m pretty good. Not feeling scared. In fact I was laughing out loud. Almost had tears coming down my cheeks because it was so much fun.
ST: Does that mean a reduction in effort?
Lionel: Of course I will be required to put out the same amount of power. And I will do that. Just want to get smarter, pace better, close better.
ST: What have you focused on in your run?
Lionel: The big lesson I learned in training camp was: I’ve been trained as a young runner to smash the up hills. And to run hard basically from the gun. Here you do not want to do that. Patrick [Lange] is a great person to emulate. He runs steady. He reached the half at 1:20 and he finished in 2:40 [2:39:59]. He runs diesel engine steady. He is not hammering the ups, cruising on the downs. He keeps his heart rate as steady as possible.
ST: You are different than Lange. How will you play your strengths against his?
Lionel: You have to realize who you are. What your limitations are. I know I’m not going to run toe to toe with Patrick. He is probably the best runner ever seen on the island. But I know I am capable of better than the 2:51 I ran last year.
ST: Any details in training not simply related to run distances, intervals?
Lionel: In our training camp I was followed by a pedal bike with tons of sponges and bottles to practice loading up at the aid stations. I definitely will use that stuff in a systematic way. At Mile 10, that will help me not feeling down like I did last year. And especially from Mile 17 to 23 - that is where I had a massive blowup.
ST: What was your best long workout?
Lionel: Yesterday I had a good long day. I went out and swam the course at tempo then I biked the course. And then I ran 25k out to the Energy Lab and back. And I was good. I thought if this was a race, I have a good 17k left in me. I hadn’t been able to say that before. It was probably the best long day I’ve ever done in Kona conditions other than the three times I have raced here.
ST: What struck you most about that day?
Lionel: It was a terrible day for riding a bike. There was a headwind on the way out. Had a bit of a tailwind on the way down. Then the wind switched and I had a headwind all the way back. I could totally see how that can be demoralizing and would destroy you mentally if you had not experienced that. I was pushing 280 watts going 35 kilometers per hour or something like that. Whereas last year in the race, we were 42.5 kilometers per hour on similar watts. But I am all for it on race day. That would be great. The harder the bike the better.
ST: Sebastian Kienle told Bob Babbitt that you love pain.
Lionel: The answer is rooted in this negative framing of pain. I think there is some confusion what pain is. Pain is when you stab yourself in the leg. You have emotional pain when you break up with your girl. Out here in the Ironman, I think we should get another descriptive word without negative connotations.
ST: What is your definition of Ironman pain?
Lionel: First off, Ironman pain is self-inflicted. Is it really that painful if you bring yourself to it? I think a lot of the times you get beat down in your mind. You’re thinking these negative things. Holy crap it is HOT out here! That feeling is all tucked away but it is going to come out at Mile 20 of the run.
Sound mind, able body. This is a fairly affluent sport. We practice it in the most beautiful places in the world. How can we talk about this being painful? It’s fun. It’s a very extreme sensation. That’s part of the fun of it. It’s screaming at you. What is it really?
It’s the body’s preservation mechanism. It doesn’t want to go beyond what it is capable of. Currently. But it can and always will have that capacity. It’s got a check valve at maybe 10 percent less than what you are actually capable of. And if you know this and you experience it, you can go much deeper into that sensation. That’s the fun part. That’s what we are doing this for. That sensation.
ST: Is there love in the pain?
Lionel: So do I love pain? Do I love suffering? Absolutely not. I don’t love any of those things. But I certainly love what I experienced out there on Mile 20. It’s taken me six months to wrap my head around suffering to the capacity that I suffered last year. I had memory loss from the second half of that run, delving so deep into myself. But here I am. I’m fine. I was fine the next day. I was eating a bag of chips poolside. No problem. What happened to me, it’s just a safety mechanism. You can go far, far beyond that.”