It’s a long history with the sport of ultra-running that has finally seen South Africa’s Ryan Sandes lift the Cougar – victory at the 2017 Western States.
Sandes story is an unusual one, he jumped in at the deep-end racing a multi-day race in the Gobi desert.
“An impulsive decision one Sunday afternoon completely changed my life back in 2008. Could I run 250km, self-supported through a Desert? Without another thought, I maxed out my credit card and entered a race I knew almost nothing about. The lead up to the Gobi Desert Race consumed me but most importantly it enabled me to dream.”
What followed was a meteoric race in the sport and he became the first person to win all the Four Desert races – Gobi, Atacama, Sahara and Antarctica. In that process, he gained the pseudonym, ‘Sand Man,’ something that has stuck to this day!. He has won Leadville 100, he was second at Western States in 2012, beating Geoff Roes CR and losing out to a flying Timothy Olson and he has won Transgrancanaria and set personal FKT’s.
Known for meticulous planning and racing a very select calendar, Sandes is very much a perfect example of how someone should plan a career. Each step is thought through, prepared for and then recovery is planned to ensure peak performance and a long life in a demanding sport. It’s an example that many could learn from!
Married to Vanessa and with a son, Max, Sandes is a professional athlete and he admits that two years ago he was a different person, a great deal has changed – he would have maybe been more stressed. “I was used to eight or nine hours of sleep per night for example, and now I make do.” Family life brings perspective.
As Sandes has said on many occasions, Western States is something quite special – it’s the original 100-miler and one with the history. Ever since placing 2nd in 2012, Sandes has clearly made victory a target. It’s not been an easy journey though – that makes victory all the sweeter.
The 2012 Western was the 100-miler where everything clicked, “I felt so good!” sais Sandes in many an interview. In 2013, he sprained his ankle badly about a month out and missed the race and then in 2014 he had a bad day… he went on to say that it was probably due to too much racing beforehand.
In 2015, he woke up the day before the race with a stomach bug. Sandes has been open in saying that 2015 and in some respects, 2016 were tough racing years with a lack of form due to glandular fever and string of poor results and DNF’s. Although confidence returned in 2016, question marks remained in Sandes mind if he “still had it?” He decided to miss Western States.
Missing Western for a year, made him realise how much the race meant to him and he was given a special consideration place by the UTWT (Ultra Trail World Tour) for 2017.
“It’s a course that is runnable and suits my style,” Sandes said. “I’m able to focus and put my head down and the gradients are not steep and there is little or no technicality.”
This year snow was a key factor in the early stages and despite Jim Walmsley setting a blistering pace, Sandes eased back and used his experience, “The high country was tough with so much snow and it was dangerous to run to previous year split times, I think it was 20% harder at least and that is significant so early on.”
Known for taking his time and pacing himself, Sandes surprised himself and onlookers to be running in 2nd as early as 30km into the race.
“I had wanted to test myself this year but also respect the course and conditions. There was no way I was running at Walmsley’s pace but I wanted to be ready to take over should something happen… As we all know it did happen!”
Smart racing! As Walmsley set a blistering pace, Sandes managed his effort and as he passed halfway, news came in that Walmsley was slowing.
“I was getting mixed time gaps but the time was coming down, it had gone from 55-minutes to 20-minutes and then I knew the race was on! I eventually passed Jim, he was walking, he had blown-up and now I was the one being chased. I saw Hal Koerner, he told me that I had a 20-minute lead on Alex Nichols. I relaxed a little and then I was told I only had 5-minutes… it was so hard. I didn’t want a repeat of 2012 with Timmy Olson so I dug deep and pushed on.”
The river section has been a highlight in previous years for Sandes, but this year he battled saying it was a low-point, however, ever the strategist, he didn’t want to show the supporters he was suffering, he pushed on and tried to look cool, calm and relaxed.
“I knew Alex was running well and potentially making up ground. I needed to send a positive message not only to those watching but to myself.”
Focused on running his own race, pushing early on and feeling good had put Sandes in a good place. Crossing the river and picking up his pacer, long-time friend Ryno Griesel was significant for the latter stages. He had been nervous about the guys behind, particularly Alex and Griesel would keep him focused.
Respecting the conditions, Sandes with the advice of Griesel took a walk after the river crossing just to allow his core temperature to drop.
At Pointed Rocks, after Griesel pushing Sandes along, the gap was back to 20-minutes, “That was great, I was starting to feel a little beat up and I could ease up.”
Sandes had prepared and trained to run at a pace that was close to or better than Olson’s 2012 course record time, “I was aware that it would be necessary to be ‘in that shape’ and I was ready for that. I have run just over 15-hours in the past and I believe I was ready for that this year. But the day and conditions were just not the same. Look at my time, it was 16:19! I had hoped to go faster but that is racing – it was a slow day!”
At the end of the day, racing is not about fast times, it’s about winning! Sandes is the 2017 Western States champion and he summed that up well when he said, “It may well be one of my slower performances but it’s the most memorable!”
Recovery is now key and the CCC in Chamonix is the next goal for the South African – a race he feels he still has the speed for due to the vertical gain. Sandes has a mixed history with Chamonix having failed to complete the UTMB twice, “Running the last 100km of the UTMB route will be a good way to prepare for a future run on the full route.”
Never one to rush, Sandes is casual about the remainder of the year but has highlighted Ultra-Trail Cape Town and he also mentioned a new ‘project’ that he is still waiting for permissions on.
Whatever happens, the Sandes of Time will pass and we will no doubt see the podium adorned on many more occasions by South Africa’s favourite ultra-running son.