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Ironman — in a fire suit?

Vancouver firefighter completes gruelling race in turnout gear

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Long considered one of the world's hardest races, Ironman is a proving ground for athletes.

And while most competitors wear bathing suits and thin sportswear, Stephen Sanderson opted to sport something different when he took part in the Whistler Ironman on July 30: a firefighter's turnout gear.

"It's brutal. It feels like you're in a sauna the entire time," said Sanderson, who wore the heavy flame-resistant jacket and pants, a helmet and an air tank for the last leg (a 42-kilometre run) of the 2017 Ironman Canada.

Sanderson wore the gear in a bid to raise awareness and money for muscular dystrophy, a neuromuscular disorder that affects around 50,000 Canadians.

An accomplished amateur boxer, he began training a year in advance of the event. At first, he wore the air tank on his runs, but noticing the strange looks people gave him, Sanderson decided to purchase a forty-pound weight vest that could serve as a stand in.

He trained a couple hours a day to begin with, then, as the event got closer, he upped his training to a full four to six hours, often trudging through snow in the North Shore mountains, where he did the majority of his preperation.

"I wanted to kill myself during training, so I could have fun during the race," he explained.

Sanderson's story dates back to 2014, when he was a student at the Justice Institute, a post-secondary institution where he studied to be a firefighter. (He now serves as an on-call firefighter in Lions Bay.)

One day, a man named Stephen Rysen visited Sanderson's class.

Rysen — who is in an electric wheelchair and uses voice-activation technology to help him communicate — talked about how he developed muscular dystrophy as a child.

A sharp and charismatic guy, the disorder overtook Rysen's body.

On some days, when it's cold or his fingers are tired, he can't even manipulate the joystick on his chair.

"I was like 'what the heck — this is brutal! How do I not even know about this?'" said Sanderson of that first meeting.

During the presentation, something "clicked," recalled Sanderson, who said that he decided right then and there to raise awareness (and money) for the cause.

He came up with the idea to throw on turnout gear and do the Grouse Grind as a first awareness-raising event.

"I said, 'I'm going to use my muscles for a disease where you lose your muscles,'" he recalled.

After the Grind, he raced a marathon in the gear, finishing in around five hours.

In all, he's raised around $20,000, and an additional $9,000 for his Ironman feat in Whistler. The money goes towards Muscular Dystrophy Canada, a non-profit that provides ongoing support and resources to people and families with the neuromuscular disorder.

In addition to being heart-wrenching, the disorder can be financially taxing on families, as not all of the costs associated with it are covered by medical insurance.

"(Sanderson) is a really ambitious guy," said Rysen. "He's doing this to show how hard it is to live with muscular dystrophy each day."

Firefighters hold an important place in Rysen's heart. Around 10 years ago, he lost a good friend to muscular dystrophy.

The death sent him into a tailspin.

It was only after visiting a firefighter fundraiser — and "spending time with the guys" — that he was able to break out of it.

"If I wasn't diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, I would have been a firefighter or a police officer," said Rysen. "I like the camaraderie."

Since then, he has been on a mission to raise awareness around muscular dystrophy and raise money for Muscular Dystrophy Canada.

Sanderson and Rysen kept in touch through Sanderson's training, with Rysen never doubting Sanderson's ability to complete the run no matter how unlikely it may have sounded.

"I had the belief he was going to make it. I though, because of his background in boxing — he's mentally tough," said Rysen.

The inspiration flows both ways.

During Ironman, Sanderson thought about Rysen.

Contemplating the challenges Rysen faces, Sanderson drew strength from his friend's resolve.

"Everything that he does is a battle. He can't get up and walk to the fridge and get food. He can't go to the bathroom and brush his teeth. He needs help doing everything. I thought, 'at least I have the ability to run or bike. So quit being a baby, and keep your head up and keep going.'"

To donate, visit Muscular Dystrophy Canada's website: www.muscle.ca.

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