Muz Sanderson's incredible journey from heroin rehab to the Ironman World Championships

Muz Sanderson's incredible journey from heroin rehab to the Ironman World Championships

I met Muz during Ironman Taiwan and had the pleasure of hanging out with him for a few days leading into the event. A very pleasant and interesting character though I never thought he'd be carrying such an incredible story. The road to Kona (Ironman World Championship) is unique and full of adversity for each and every athlete and everyone, whether naturally gifted or not, has to overcome a personal obstacle to get there. Some of these stories must be shared, as they have the potential to create such an emotional impact that can change perceptions, motivate and become a catalyst for action towards pursuing a dream, any dream. Muz's story is one of those, so here it is, in his own words - Alexandros Tanti, Racecheck co-founder


This should have been just a regular race report; an account of my race in China a few weeks ago. But it has morphed into something quite different and I hope more interesting and worthwhile. I believe it is another example of what can be achieved through dedication and hard work. Also it is my story: from fear, self-loathing, and depression to revival, self-respect and contentment. Read into it what you will…it may be dull, you may choose to quit after a few paragraphs. But it is cathartic for me, and I hope inspiring for a few.

Seven years ago, when I started triathlon I had a goal, a dream and a quiet belief that one day I would race with the best at the Ironman World Championships in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. The best include my friend Andy, and we had always said that we should try to qualify and race in Hawaii for the first time together. Unfairly perhaps I thought the task would be relatively simple for Andy, after all he was awarded the title of Best Amateur Triathlete in Asia for 2016 – quite an accolade. It is easy to believe that Andy was blessed with talent, while I was unfairly burdened with various athletic shortcomings. But the truth is that Andy has been training like a pro since he was 9 years old. Swim practice before and after school….more than 60,000 meters of swimming a week when he was a teenager. While his friends went to parties and the movies, Andy trained. Because of this dedication and focus he has achieved so much: swimming world championships in Canada and Australia, the Athens Olympics in 2004, and SEA games medals. He has represented Indonesia at swimming and triathlon; and finally in October 2016 he qualified for Hawaii at the first attempt becoming the first Indonesian male in history to qualify. I have been very fortunate to meet and train with him. I have been pushed and inspired. I mention all this to laud Andy of course but also to illustrate a contrast and to show what can be achieved with a very different background like mine.

Because of our improbable plan of qualifying for Hawaii in the same year and as Andy had already qualified, the pressure was on me and it was now my turn. So on April 1st at Ironman 70.3 Liuzhou in China I lined up to take my chance…and I had the race of my life. Without overstating it, I exceeded all my expectations, won my age group and qualified for Kona. A few months ago I signed off my Taiwan race report stating “this is just the First Chapter”. I was hoping and not expecting that the book would just be two chapters… it was more likely that a book as fat as the bible was waiting to be written before this Kona dream was achieved. Thankfully for all of us that has been avoided. So in October I will be joining Andy, our buddy Mark Clay and our friend Inge in Hawaii. Four of us who live and train in Indonesia will be on the plane... amazing really. 
I had always promised myself that if I did reach Kona, the pinnacle of triathlon for both amateurs and professionals, I would spill the beans of my past…so to speak. I would expose the younger Muz, and reveal the type of person I was and the life I lived up to 2001; way before I had even heard of triathlon, and long before I knew many of you. I do not mean to exaggerate the affect my story will have on anyone…hell, there are so many people who have overcome far more than me. People who have clawed their way from apparent hopeless situations to almost unbelievable achievements in sport and life in general. My story does not compare at all. I fell into a deep hole through my choices and my decisions. Nobody or nothing contributed to the mess I made of my life. There was no misfortune, it is not a hard luck story.
I talk and write about it like it was a different life, like it was somebody else’s story – and that’s because it feels that way some times. I own it though, it is part of me and without it I would not have my beautiful family or the privilege of writing this story for those of you who will read it. However, today I am a very different person. I can confidently boast that I am way nicer, more honest and caring now than I ever was then. Before 2001, which is the year my life started to improve, I was selfish, deceitful, and immoral. A few of my friends reading this knew me back in the 90’s so they know what I was like – but those of you who I have met since then likely do not know that I was a drug addict and alcoholic.

When I was a child in England most of my free time was preoccupied with sport. I played cricket, football and rugby for my school. I competed in schoolboy national athletics meets when I was twelve, and proved to be a decent rugby player - representing my school and county. I loved sport, but I never had the application or character to work hard enough to achieve more than I did.
As a kid I guess you would call me just “naughty” but by the time I was a teenager I was a total fucking nightmare. Smoking and getting drunk at thirteen, taking drugs a few years later. I was forever getting into trouble and being punished: whether it was being sent home from school, being flogged with sticks and shoes by teachers (it was allowed in those days) or having the police come to my mum’s house with complaints or warnings. After leaving school I would have liked to have played rugby more, I tried for a while but I could not restrain my rebellious instincts. Finally my “couldn’t give a toss” attitude won over my sporting ambitions and by the time I was twenty I had stopped all sports, taking up a life of work and hard partying instead. 

In 1989 I found myself living in Bali making tie dye shorts and dresses for a friends clothing company. Several weeks after arriving, on a cloudless June afternoon, I remember standing knee deep in the sea with my hands outstretched like a preacher, looking out towards the bobbing boats beyond the bay and shouting in utter joy: “Yes!….This is the life”. For the first few years I gorged on all Bali had to offer. I fell in love several times; and worked and partied with equal vigor. I was twenty three years old and had a lot to forget, and for a few years I actually believed that I had moved on and could live a rich and carefree life. 
For a while the partying was a lot of fun, it was innocent in way but ultimately it turned to misery. I was proof to the theory of how “one drug leads to another.” Alcohol to ecstasy and LSD, to cocaine, crack, and finally my drug: heroin, or as we called it: smack or putaw. From 1996 until 2001 my life in the paradise of Bali consisted of the pain, danger, and boredom of heroin addiction and the depressing monotony of endlessly trying to quit. A feeble attempt at suicide, arrests, friends dying, police drug raids and imminent jail all past over me with little feeling and less worry. I would wake up in bed each morning with fear and anxiety as my two constant companions. I was a junky, the normal kind, the boring kind….penniless, lonely, and dull. Every day my first thoughts and energy were focused on one single-minded endeavor: finding money and buying some heroin so that I could function for the next few hours until the dreaded withdrawals started…then it was time to look for more. It was that simple and that depressing. If I had no money I would sell my clothes, or I would beg, or cheat. I became an expert at deceit. My life fell apart very quickly. I would find myself waking up on sidewalks outside bars at five in the morning, or on the floor of closed nightclubs with the cleaners sweeping around me. The white tiles around my toilet bowl were as much a place to sleep as my bed. Many times I crashed my motorbike whilst drunk or stoned. One time I opened my eyes to find I had crashed my bike and I was lying, bloody in the road. I was punched, beaten up, and woke in places I had no idea how I got there. I thought perhaps I could leave Bali and all would be fine – but then I found that it made no difference: I ran from police in Madrid, blacked out in Ecuador, got arrested in Paris and woke up in a park in Singapore at dawn. It was not Bali that was the problem, it was me. I hated my life, I was dying. I wanted to be clean, I wanted to be normal. I endlessly tried to stop heroin. I went to rehab in New Zealand but managed only 5 weeks before leaving and running back to my dealer in Bali. I thought a girlfriend would help, after all love conquers all right? Wrong, when you are incapable of loving yourself then nobody can help you. I locked myself in rooms for a week, tried meditation, methadone, everything….all potions, nothing worked. I felt I was irredeemable, a fucking mess forever, a desperate case - but for some brief, rare moments I had an inkling that I could beat it. Hope was very rare but I did glimpse it, fleetingly at times.

At the age of thirty three I entered another drug rehabilitation clinic with the belief that it was my last chance. I had flown back to England to finally face my family and confront my demons. I was extremely ill and after the compulsory medical at the clinic the doctor told me that I was dangerously malnourished and if I wanted to live I had to clean up immediately. Some members of my family suggested that I should not bother going to rehab because I would be dead in a year anyway. Understandably they had given up on me and my few steadfast friends were wondering if I would ever sort myself out. 
Ten weeks later, having endured endless group sessions, therapy and counselling, I left rehab clean and frightened with a commitment to finally do what was suggested, to finally listen to other people….They called it surrender; I called it the last of my nine lives.
Most of the friends and acquaintances I took heroin with in Bali back in the 90’s are dead; only a few of us have survived. As I said earlier: I have been privileged, I had money and a way to escape – many of the others did not. They were put in jail and never came out. They were killed, committed suicide, overdosed or died of disease. I was just fortunate, others clearly less so. I am not a religious man at all but the phrase: “There but for the grace of God go I” certainly helps to explain the humility I feel.
I guess I was born without an “off switch” which if directed with care and forethought can be a positive attribute for some. But for me it was a disaster. I hated it when the party was over or when the normal people went to bed. I would be depressed when the last line of coke was sniffed, or when there was no more ecstasy – it confused me and made me deeply sad. Heroin absolutely helped, it was like a friend that would comfort me. 

I met Reni soon after leaving rehab and she was the rock I needed during those first couple of years back in the real world. A few years later we married and Georgia was born in 2004, and Oscar followed in 2006. By then I had not played any sport since 1986, some twenty years earlier. I started going to the gym three or four times a week after Georgia was born and I found that pushing weights was a great stress reliever, but I always looked at the cardio machines with dread.
Then in 2010 my life changed again and my triathlon journey began. My friend Bobby and I decided to enter the Bali Triathlon on a whim. When the idea blossomed I didn’t really give it a second thought. “Yeah….sure…why not….what the hell,” was kind of how it went; and even though I had been an enthusiastic sports fan since childhood I had no idea how to train or prepare for a triathlon. The last bike I owned was my beloved red chopper, and I last rode that when I was twelve. I could hardly swim. In fact after two weeks of swim “training” I finally swam fifteen laps of a twenty five meter pool and proceeded to call up my buddy in triumph with grand plans of a top ten finish in the race. My running was no better. The only way I knew how to run was to run as fast as I could until I couldn’t run any further. So it took many weeks and a lot of pain before I managed to run ten kilometers in training at a snail’s pace. I bought a cheap road bike and after downloading a free triathlon training plan from the internet I was all set and on the way to breaking records and winning races.

On the morning of the Bali Triathlon I was convinced I was going to make the top twenty at the very least. Some equally delusional friends were certain I was going to win the whole race; after all they had never seen anybody train so hard or become so obsessed about a sport. To cut a painful story short: I almost drowned in the sea and in transition after the swim my hands were shaking so much I could not do up the strap for by bicycle helmet. I struggled through the bike course, and ambled through the run. I arrived at the finish line dizzy and faint. I was greeted by my relieved wife, who said: “What happened? Why did you take so long? You almost came last….We were going to send somebody out to look for you.” My Balinese office staff, looking distraught and disgusted, declared that I had even been beaten by several grannies. But my four year old son seeing my big shiny medal thought I had won and to be honest despite the pain, I felt like I had won too. And so that was it…..I was officially a triathlete and I knew immediately that I wanted to do it again.

Seven years later, many races later and thousands of hours of training later I found myself standing next to Andy on the start line of Ironman 70.3 China with the goal of qualifying for Kona. To be honest my race history would suggest I only had a very slight chance of winning my age group because that is what I had to do to achieve my goal. But for some reason I just felt great from the moment I dived into the icy river alongside my friend. When things go right in a race it makes for quite a boring story, it is much more entertaining when there is drama and chaos. I mean, Ironman and triathlon races are generally a battle with yourself, a fight to see how long you can withstand the pain and mental torment. But when there is no pain or mental torment, when all seems to go exactly as you had imagined then the story is kind of boring. So my race report is not really going to be a race report. I will just tell you that I cannot really describe what a wonderful feeling it was during the last five kilometers of the run knowing that I was not hurting, that I was finding running easy, and that I was winning. As I crossed the finish line instead of feeling feint, exhausted and disappointed I just felt fucking amazing. I had done it. A seven year endeavor. 
I am not fishing for compliments or attention by writing this. I just want my story to be viewed from the perspective of: “My god, if that loser can get to Kona then I can too”. However there is one caveat: for all of us who were born with little or no talent then we really need to work our asses off. For seven years I have been waking up at 5am and training for fifteen to twenty hours a week. There are no shortcuts, no excuses….it is hard…it’s painful…but every day you are rewarded and finally your dream will come true.

When I read this through I had concerns that it all sounds overly dramatic. I was prepared to delete any bit of it that was hyperbole or inaccurate. But every time I read it through I deleted nothing. Because the story is my reality. In fact if I had the time to write about the years before I came to Bali, and the struggles after I got clean then there would be even more drama. Perhaps it is the way I write and if that is the case I apologize, but I can tell you that the only part of the story I have not described well is the loneliness and depression...that I find too difficult to put into words. Since 2001 I still experience fear and anxiety but I am now able to find perspective. Oh yeah, I have not had a drink or taken drugs for almost sixteen years.
Love to my wife Reni – Georgia and Oscar; and thanks so much to Andy, Lia, Colin, Fika, Bobby, all of Team Hope and especially Alan, Bec and Sara for the amazing support in China.

Hang on….there will be a Chapter 3 …….

(Photos of me circa 1998 - and April 1st 2017)

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