- Associated Press - Thursday, August 13, 2015

TORONTO (AP) - When life was at its most bleak, Lionel Sanders sought solace in what he knew best. He ran.

Every day for a month straight, he ran - the first steps out of a life of using hard drugs to becoming one of the world’s top young professional triathletes.

Sanders is a favorite to win the Subaru Ironman Mont-Tremblant on Sunday. And in the hours before he steps to the start line, he’ll sit in quiet contemplation.

“I think about some of those experiences that I had and the feeling. … I used to not look at myself in the mirror. I would brush my teeth and look down at the floor because I didn’t want to see what I was doing to myself,” Sanders said.

Growing up in Harrow, a town of 3,000 near Windsor, Ontario, Sanders was a strong runner, even in elementary school, and competed in the sport through high school. But by that time, he’d grown resentful of the sport and lost his love for it.

Partying had replaced training. When he halfheartedly tried out for the University of Windsor cross-country team, he didn’t make it.

“That just put the nail in the coffin,” the 27-year-old triathlete said.

The next few years were a blur of parties and drugs. His mom Becky admitted him one night to a detox program. He woke up having no memory of how he’d got there.

He said he suffered from amphetamine-induced psychosis: hallucinations, delusions, paranoia and social phobia that made him afraid to leave the house.

“If I had to go to the store to buy groceries, I would stay up all night and I knew what time the store opened so I’d be in the first one in,” he said. “I’d get everything I needed as fast as I could, look no one in the eyes, look no cashier in the eye and get out as fast as I could.”

By the time he hit rock bottom, he’d lost 40 pounds and was considering suicide.

“I had just terrible shame inside, I was just very, very inside myself and I was starting to have these ideas of taking my own life,” he said.

One night, he decided to stay sober and watch his friends get high. It was like an out-of-body experience, he said.

“Everyone was telling each other ‘Aw, I love you man!’ having what we thought at the time to be deep conversations,” Sanders said. “And then, about five hours later when (the drugs) ran out, then there was nearly a fist fight in my front room.

“I really didn’t like it, it took me aback.”

So on Nov. 5, 2009, he decided to run. His ran through a graveyard, which would become his daily route.

After a month of runs and looking for a larger goal, he decided on a triathlon. He borrowed the $650 entry fee from his mom, “and that was the start of the journey.”

Sanders is now No. 9 in the Ironman world rankings and the youngest person in the top 10. He’s also the only athlete with four Ironman 70.3 victories this season. A 70.3 race is also known as a Half Ironman and refers to the total distance: 1.2 mile swim, 56-mile bike ride, and 13.1-mile run.

His mom and his fiancee Erin MacDonald both compete in triathlons. His mom is hoping to qualify for the world championships in her 50-54 age category in Hawaii in October.

Sanders said looking back over the rough road he’s traveled, he realizes going “really hardcore into things” is part of his personality. With triathlon, he’s been able to harness that energy and apply it to something positive.

“It’s interesting, what I’ve come to find is that your greatest strengths… can also be your greatest weakness,” he said. “So for me, it was my greatest weakness for a long time. But now I’ve made it into my greatest asset.

“It’s a rehabilitative thing, and now I’m just doing it because I enjoy it. It’s changed my life.”

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