Ryan Sandes, From Unintentional Marathoner to World-Class Trail Runner
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Ryan Sandes in his element in Cederberg, South Africa. Photos courtesy of Red Bull.
Since Ryan “Hedgie” Sandes made his debut on the international trail-running scene 10 years ago, he’s ascended the ranks to become one of the world’s top trail athletes.
Sandes, 33, grew up near Cape Town, South Africa, where he still lives. He’s set a number of fastest known times and bagged podium finishes at high-profile races like the Western States 100-mile Endurance Run in California. But perhaps his most notable accomplishment was becoming the first person to win an ultra on each of the seven continents.
In 2008, Sandes placed first in both the Gobi March and Sahara Race, six-day, 250K stage races that take place in, respectively, the Gobi Desert in China and the Sahara Desert in Egypt. In 2009, he won the five-stage, 230K Jungle Ultra Marathon in the Brazilian Amazon; in 2010, the eight-day Gore-Tex Transalpine-Run in Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Italy, as well as the 250K Last Desert Challenge in Antarctica; in 2011, the Leadville Trail 100 in Colorado; and, finally, in 2012, The North Face 100 in Australia to cap off the seven-continent run. Did we mention he won all of those?
“I never planned to run on all seven continents,” says Sandes. “After winning races on five continents I decided that it would be a cool mini goal.”
Since then, Sandes has been testing out adventure runs in and around Cape Town. In 2012, he set the record for the 90K Fish River Canyon in Namibia, and in 2014 won the Ultra-Trail World Tour’s Transgrancanaria 125K in the Canary Islands.
And although a run with the mononucleosis virus earlier this year kept him from toeing the start at the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc—one of the most competitive trail 100-milers in the world—he’s now recovered and has the race in his sights for next year.
Trail Runner caught up with him recently to ask about his training regimen for ultras and stage races, the South African trail scene, racing in the Sahara and Antarctic and the similarities between running and surfing.
How did you get into trail running?
In 2006, during my final year at university, I joined a bunch of friends running an out-of-town half-marathon. Unfortunately (or fortunately!) I decided to join late. Entries were full, so I entered the full marathon, as I really didn’t want to miss out on that weekend. My friends thought I was mad and that I wouldn’t finish, but to our surprise, I finished and really enjoyed myself.
I live on the back slopes of Table Mountain [in Cape Town] and before I knew it I was spending more and more time on the mountains, getting my daily fix of the trails.
When did you start running ultras?
I have always been an all-or-nothing person and was looking for a cool adventure. I had just started working in the corporate world after finishing university and it all felt a bit overwhelming. I wanted an excuse to explore and travel, so I Googled “extreme trail races” and up popped the Racing the Planet 4 Deserts series [the organizer of the Gobi March, Sahara Race, Atacama Crossing and Last Desert].
I had just read Dean Karnazes’ book [Ultramarathon Man] and saw he was running the series, so I decided the enter the Gobi Desert race in 2009. I did not know what I was getting myself into, and the next six months were some of the hardest and most grueling training I have ever had to do.
The experience was epic, and I knew after that first race that I wanted to do more of this.
Which of your races has proved the most challenging?
The Jungle Marathon in the Amazon Jungle, in 2009, was definitely my most scary race. Everything in the jungle is 10 times the size of any normal animal or bug—I saw some gigantic snakes, swam in piranha-infested rivers, got stung and bitten by all sorts of things, and the heat and humidity in the jungle was really bad.
What was it like racing in the Sahara Desert?
It felt like I was running with a plastic bag on my head. It was hard to breath. It was pretty surreal—just white sand as far as you can see. At times it felt like I was running on the moon with crazy rock formations popping out of the sand.
Running in the Sahara was also really slow, as the sand was so soft. We ran up some really big dunes and along the ridges of these dunes—one wrong foot placement and you slide 30 to 50 meters down.
I was still really new to ultrarunning in 2008 when I was prepping for the Sahara race. My main focus was getting used to the extreme heat—I did a few runs with two rain jackets and pants on to acclimatize to the heat. I also trained in an environmental chamber—a room with a treadmill where you can control the heat and humidity. I did some training along the beach and in the sand dunes to get used to running on soft sand.
Taking in lots of salt was also really important as I sweated a lot.
What about Antarctica?
Antarctica was incredible. We travelled to mainland Antarctica and to the various islands on a giant expedition boat. Many competitors got really seasick—I was lucky not to. I remember eating dinner one night and we hit a giant swell and everyone’s plates got flung off the tables and a few were people also flung out of their chairs.
We were completely at mercy to the weather. When conditions where good, we were given two-hour notice that we needed to get ready and that the stage was starting. Each stage consisted of a lap format due to the extreme weather conditions—the organizers needed to be able to get us back on the boat really quickly if the weather closed in. When we started the second stage, within 45 minutes the weather closed in and we were rushed back to the boat on zodiacs.
It was an incredible experience, though, and one of the highlights of my running career.
How do you typically train for an ultra?
I always focus on the major challenges of each ultra—the distance, the climate and the environment and terrain. Once I figure out my major challenges, I set up a training plan with mini goals leading up to the race to help me stay motivated and gauge if my training is on track or not.
On average, I run 90 to 160 kilometers [about 55 to 100 miles] a week and do two to three hours of strength and mobility work. More recently, I have started to cut down my training a little as I know what works for me and I believe recovering properly is just as important as training.
How do you train for a stage race, versus an all-at-once trail ultra?
For stage racing you need to get used to running shorter distances over consecutive days with a heavy pack. To train, I did a number of multi-day runs, where I would run 30 to 40 kilometers [about 19 to 25 miles] each day for four days with all my race gear and a heavy pack. I would do this at least once a month.
For a one-day ultra, I focus on doing one long back-to-back run every three weeks. That would include doing 40 to 60 kilometers [about 25 to 37 miles] on one day, preferably during the afternoon, and then waking up really early the following morning and doing another 30 to 40 kilometers. This trains your body to run on tired legs, and does not take as much out of your body as if you did the run in one go.
You grew up surfing. How does that play into your trail-running career?
I learnt from an early age to respect the ocean and nature. When running on the trails and mountains, I always have a healthy respect for the environment, as anything can go wrong out there. Nature is unpredictable, whether a wave or mountain, and you always need to be prepared. Surfing and trail running are some of the few sports—lifestyles—where you get that direct contact with nature.
Most importantly, you have to be excited and love what you do; if you lose that passion and stoke then it just becomes like another job.
What’s trail running like in South Africa?
Trail running is booming in South Africa. It is a relatively cheap sport to get into, and we have some awesome trails.
The ultra scene has still not quite hit yet, and most people here enjoy running races from 10K to 35K. It is a very social sport in South Africa, so people like to run and then be able to have a barbecue in the afternoon and spend time with their family and friends. There are a few more ultras starting to pop up, so I think it is just a matter of time.
What is your ideal trail run?
I love the mountains and the ocean, so runs that combine those are my favorite.
There is a race in South Africa called the Otter Trail Run, which runs along the coast and goes over a number of high points and valleys—the scenery is crazy beautiful. There is something very special about being able to smell the sea breeze while running on epic, technical singletrack.
What’s next for you?
Since I have been battling to shake off the virus, I have taken it really easy the last six to eight weeks. Next year, I want to focus on UTMB and run a few races as build up to that. I am also planning an FKT project in the Ruwenzori Mountains in Uganda.