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When Ryan Sandes, 35, of Cape Town, South Africa, toed the line of the Western States 100-Mile Endurance race last weekend, he was unusually nervous. Despite being a wildly accomplished, international sensation (Sandes has finished top five in 27 international ultras since 2008), Sandes has a tremendous amount of reverence for Western States.
“There’s so much history to the race,” he says. “It’s the original.”
Sandes is used to the heat, for which Western is known—he prefers it in fact. He began his career doing desert races “in really hard conditions,” he says. He was the first person to finish all four of the events in the 4 Desert Race Series, which features demanding seven-day, 250-kilometer stage races in Chile, China, Egypt and Antarctica. Partly because of the conditions, Sandes has always been drawn to Western. “The course suits me,” he says. But he’s had a long and tenuous relationship to it.
In 2012, Sandes finished 2nd at Western, despite an ankle injury. He thought he’d easily grab the title the following year with a clean bill of health, but had to drop because of his ankle again. In 2014, he set his sights on the race, dedicating the better part of a year to training for it. He came in 5th. In 2015, he fell ill the day before the race and didn’t start, even though he had traveled halfway across the world for the chance to snag the win. When he left, he was defeated. “It was the end of my Western States ambitions,” he says. He didn’t even sign up for 2016.
However, the lure of the race wouldn’t let him go. “All the legends who have come before,” he thinks out loud. “Western for me is the ultimate race to win.” He committed this last year to preparing for the race and brought his mom, wife and new nine-month-old son, Max, to help calm his nerves.
He knew he faced stiff competition and ran briefly with Jim Walmsley at the start, who was unabashedly aiming to finish in less than 14 hours. He let Walmsley go without a fight.
“I start slow. I knew Walmsley was going to head out on a stupid-fast pace,” he says. “I got a few splits in and realized he was way ahead. He would either blow up or I would see him at the finish.”
Sandes kept his cool, not letting the high-country snow and mud ruffle him. “I actually fell quite hard and almost destroyed my soft flask,” he says, “and at one point I thought I’d lost my shoe [in the deep mud].” He knew not to let the slow pace get him down. “Once I got through the snow I got into the canyon and was in 2nd. I was feeling really comfortable and smooth.”
Sandes’ desert training came in handy in the canyons, which were reportedly 100 degrees. “I would hit these hot-air pockets. It’s like suddenly you feel like you’re being smacked in the face. My core temperature went through the roof.” He utilized ice hats and ice baths to lower his temperature and continued to remind himself, “If I can keep it together, I can win this thing.”
Once he passed Walmsley, who couldn’t keep nutrition down past mile 78 and had to drop, Sandes knew he had it. Walmsley remembers Sandes in this moment as “soaking wet and moving really well. He said he had respect for trying what I did. It meant a lot.”
Near the 90-mile mark, Sandes was about 22 minutes ahead of 2nd place. “The final miles were really emotional,” he remembers. “I didn’t have a headlamp and was running through the dark streets filled with people cheering. I finished completely shattered and annihilated. Even now, it hasn’t really sunk in.”
After the race Sandes found his way onto a cot in a medical tent to recover. Next to him laid a wrecked Jim Walmsley.
“I had an extra race shirt,” says Sandes. “I asked him to sign it and he asked if I would sign his.”
“It was really special for me,” says Walmsley. “I didn’t feel like I deserved it.”
Undoubtedly, moments like these are part of the magic for Sandes. “The community of this race is really different,” he says. “I’ve run most of the races in the world I want to run. I know what I enjoy, and I’m really excited to come back.”