The following interview took place on June 30 over the phone, just 5 days after Ryan Sandes won the 2017 Western States 100 mile endurance run. In this extensive interview Sandes talks with me about his training going into Western States and how his experience as an ultra runner helped him get to the finish line despite some very difficult moments. As a South African, Sandes also shares his feelings about the importance of Nelson Mandela and the dismantling of apartheid when he was just a child, and what he is doing now to help disadvantaged children in his country. Finally, Sandes talks of those who inspire him, what he sees in his future as a runner and his most difficult challenge during a race. I hope you enjoy.
Western States 2017
Will Cooper: First thing I want to say is congratulations to you on Western States and I know you’re just getting back and all. How does it feel? Has it sunk in yet, winning that race? I know you’ve been gunning for that race a few years now.
Ryan Sandes: Yes. Thank you very much. It has sunk in, but when things calm down it will probably sink in a little bit more. I think getting home today from Western…I realized I achieved a dream. It is starting to sink in more and more, but definitely unpacking the Cougar Trophy it definitely feels a lot more real. I’ve been after that race for a few years…it is a really rewarding experience especially because it has been quite a rollercoaster with a couple of ups and downs along the way.
WC: Are you going to defend your title next year?
RS: Yeah! I think I really want to go back to Western. It is a special race to me…and I kind of know which races are important to me and it’s what I enjoy. So definitely I want to go back to Western. I know so many people in that community and that is what makes the race so special. So I want to go back to the race and to catch up with those people again.
WC: You finished second in 2012 and actually ran at the time what was a record breaking time. Just kind of curious, did you do anything different training for this year’s Western States than say in 2012 or even 2014?
RS: I think this year was a little more specific in certain ways. I think I have been racing for quite long time and I kind of reduced some of my volume in training but picked it up for 6 weeks before the race, so I was a lot more specific with it than in 2012 or even definitely 2014 when I did a lot more racing and it seemed to be like this big spray of volume if that makes sense. More race specific, then getting some really long endurance runs in the 6-week block before the race where as in previous years maybe that block of training is a little bigger.
WC: So, long endurance runs, I am assuming 30 plus miles…kind of thing?
RS: Yeah like anything say from 20 to 40 miles, and one or two at 50.
WC: How would you compare this year having won it this year to the previous years in terms of difficulty and what not?
RS: This year was definitely by far the most difficult Western States I have run. The course was pretty brutal. It just felt like really unforgiving. I think with the snow in the high country made the going really tough. I think we were expending say like 20% more energy in the high country. And then you got into Duncan Canyon you’re behind the normal split and then suddenly you get wacked with this wave of heat really early on in the race. So, I think that made it really difficult with just kind of a really slow start in then really high temperatures in the race.
WC: When I was following you, it looked like when you were going into Forest Hill, the front runner was out almost an hour ahead of you at that point. I’m just kind of curious what you’re thinking at that point. Are you thinking hey he has got this in the bag or there’s no way he’ll be able to finish this. What was going through your head?
RS: Yeah, I think obviously with Jim Walmsley saying he was going 14 hours flat on Saturday, I knew if he kind of stuck at that pace, there’s no way I would be keeping up with him. So when he was that far ahead I kind of forgot about him. I realized he was going to have an absolutely magical day or he was going to come unstuck. I was kind of more focused on what kind of lead I had on the guys behind me. But even then I was pretty focused most of the time on running my own race. I told myself a few times to focus on my own race and do the best I can, try to finish the race as quick as possible and to manage to survive the conditions. So yeah, I wasn’t too concerned about the guys around me. I did get one or two reports that Jim was way ahead, but he wasn’t looking as amazing and as fresh as last year. I definitely kind of knew that if things were going to go wrong for him they were going to go pretty wrong.
WC: Did you have a race strategy that you kind of played out in your head as to what you wanted to do and where you wanted to be in the race? If so, did that play out the way you expected?
RS: To be honest going into this year’s race I tried to be a lot more relaxed. I know in 100 miles you can have a lot of different plans and then basically most of the time that strategy or that planning goes out the window. But I kind of self-consciously made that decision in the first 4 or 5 miles that I wanted to get a good start and kind of be up there. Like I’ve said I kind realized Jim was going to have one of those days where no one was going to catch him or he is going to come a little bit unstuck, and if he did come unstuck, I wanted to be within a distance where I wasn’t too far off the pace that I couldn’t make it up. Obviously, as you mentioned, at Forest Hill he was that far ahead and was going to be very difficult or something would have to go drastically wrong [for him] for me to make up that time on him. But strategy wise I was pretty relaxed, and I didn’t have a set strategy in my head but after about 4-5 miles I wanted to have a good start and I was feeling good. I wouldn’t say I pushed at the start but I ran it at a decent pace. I didn’t back off too much. I realized in a race as competitive as Western States you have to take a couple of chances on race day and luckily those chances paid off for me.
WC: I noticed in some of your comments there is a point where you’re hitting the wall a little bit or having some challenging moments. Like when you did the river crossing. Can you talk a little bit about that and what your thoughts were going through your mind?
RS: I think about 6 or 7 k up from the river crossing I passed Jim. Obviously passing Jim and suddenly leading Western States, my dream race, I got a bit of a spark in my tail and was definitely running well, and got to the river crossing. Probably about 3 k up from the river crossing, or about 3k after I passed Jim, that final 3k stretch before the river crossing, it was hot and dry and I didn’t have any water. I got to the river crossing feeling really terrible and then getting out of the boat on the other side. Just the climb up to Green Gate I was feeling really drained. Kind of a bit like a hunted animal. I kept waiting to hear clapping for someone else to be crossing the river. I was also feeling really low energy. I think I was also overheated. My body wasn’t absorbing any nutrition. That was a really tricky phase for me. Mentally I was feeling the most drained then. And I know how runnable the last part of the course is. I worried going from leading the race to being outside the top 10 if I lost my legs in the final 30k. That was a challenge but luckily, I picked up my pacer at Green Gate. It made a huge difference. He really was quite strict with me and kept me going. I think it was about 4 or 5k off the Green Gate I managed to pick things up. I dropped down to a few creeks to get my core temperature down. I managed to put in a bit on Alex from that stretch to pointed rock.
The Importance of Experience
WC: You’ve been running for a while now. You’ve done a lot of competitions and you’ve been in a lot of situations, and I’m guessing that experience helped you not panic, if you will, but kind of understand that…if you give yourself some time that you will be able to regroup. Do you think that experience helped you?
RS: Yeah, as you said, I think experience really helps. It plays a huge role like you said. Being able to relax. I think in general I was a lot more relaxed on race day even leading up to the race. I think at times you can be too focused on the end results or play the race over and over in your head and get worried with the “what ifs.” I really try to relax as much as possible and I try to focus on the things I could control and try to be as present as possible and not get too far ahead of myself. Yeah. I think going through the low moment I really wanted to try to keep going as fast as possible but also relax and try to not beat myself up too much. And just say “do the best you can do” and if five runners come past you then there is nothing I can do. Worrying and freaking out is probably just going to make things ten times worse, so I try to relax as much as possible. As you mentioned my past experience helped a lot because I’ve been through low patches like that before and you do get out of them and try to ride them up and do as little damage as possible. I did take it quite slowly up green gate especially at the first part after the river crossing which I think was quite important. I realized that from my past experiences of running you push yourself over the edge when it’s really hot and it’s really hard to come back and recover from that. You have to really be careful. It’s a fine line your riding when it gets really hot.
WC: I looked at your bio and I noticed that in grade school you played other sports – Cricket, Rugby, Water Polo and so forth. Did any of those help you adapt to ultrarunning at all?
RS: I was always slightly smaller. I always had to work harder and spend a lot of effort behind the scenes like a lot of gym work to kind of get bigger or to do a lot of fitness and stuff like that. I kind of realized then that if you want to achieve a goal, you have to work really hard. And then also, I guess growing up surfing and being outdoors. I think surfing and trail running have a lot of similarities. They both have direct contact with nature. Which is very cool because there are very few sports where you get that direct contact or interaction with nature. So, I think growing up surfing and at the beach in the ocean [gave me] a healthy respect for the environment.
Nelson Mandela and Apartheid
WC: I noticed in some of your interviews you had referred to Nelson Mandela as an inspiration to you. Can you talk a little bit about that?
RS: For sure. He has been instrumental in South African history. He is someone I really look up to, the way he lived his life, and what he has done for our country. But I guess someone who can be in prison for 27 years and come out and make a difference and not be like really bitter and twisted. Like If I had spent basically my life in my prime years in prison, I think that would be really hard to handle. I think that I’m just so proud to be able to call, or to know Nelson Mandela is also from a South Africa, the same country like myself. I definitely get that extra bit of pride.
WC: What were you about 9 or 10 years old when apartheid came to an end?
RS: Yeah. I was 9 years old.
WC: Do you remember that, and if so, can you talk a little about what that was like?
RS: Yeah. To be honest, I don’t think there were any major changes straight away. For me, I can just remember watching tv and seeing Nelson Mandela being released from prison on live tv and it was pretty massive. I guess I realized what was happening about 2-3 years aft. I was old enough then to be told what was going on and know a little bit about the history of apartheid etc. There were a lot of people that were scared with Nelson Mandela’s release and…change in government from the traditional National party government to the African National Congress, the ANC. I guess a lot of people were worried that things were going to go to shit and there might be a civil war. Luckily they were wrong. I think there were a lot of good changes that happened since then and obviously there is a lot that needs to happen and unfortunately our current president has kind of done a terrible job, and put himself first for the last couple of years. I suppose with change in apartheid, I’ve lived a very sheltered life. Even schools, that I went to. There were only really white kids and after apartheid there was a change and there would be more children of color and my friends changed a bit etc. Having said that, it wasn’t kind of like the end of the apartheid and the release of Nelson Mandela wasn’t like the next day everything changed. It was quite a slow process. I say about 4-5 years, and it is even kind of happening now. I was almost kind of sad at school and stuff. I only started to notice this 3-4 years down the line.
WC: How has the environment that you’re in in South Africa and the political environment affected you as an athlete?
RS: I think trail running has almost enabled me to make a difference, like I’ve done some trail running camps for under privileged kids that traditionally came from really disadvantaged backgrounds where there is a lot of drugs etc... So yeah through trail running it enabled me to hopefully make a bit of a difference. And also, it’s been an eye opener for me going in…knowing the lifestyle those kids live is a real challenge for them and even now I work with the Laureus Foundation being able to be getting involved and play a small part in the projects that they do has been really cool. Like Nelson Mandela said sports can uplift the country or uplift our youth. I definitely agree with that. That’s why I’ve been quite involved with the Laureus Foundation just to try make a difference.
Inspirational Runners, Thoughts on the Future
WC: Are there other athletes that inspire you that you can share with us?
RS: Yeah. I think there are a number of athletes that inspire me. Off the top of my head in trail running someone like Kilian Jornet, what he does, and Timothy Olsen, I’ve always looked up to him, just how he has done it and as an all-around person and family guy. He is a massive inspiration. And even South African ultrarunner, Bruce Fordice, who won Comrades nine times, he has really been an inspiration. I think there are a number of people. I think in the trail running community like just being at Western States on Saturday and seeing the final competitor finish 5 seconds before cut off, that is quite inspirational. I know she is also the oldest female competitor. I know she has gone through a number of highs and lows along the way. Just the same experiences as what an elite runner at the front goes through, but twice as long as what I’ve experienced before. That was really cool. For me I really look up to people like that and often, I think I draw quite a lot from them, like there have been one or two difficult patches in my career and to get in a group or community run and you just see how stoked people are just to be out there running and it makes you realize I might be missing the point here, just kind of relax, take a deep breath, kind of live in the present and just enjoy the moment. I think that’s kind of what I always try to focus on.
WC: That’s awesome. As a runner obviously we all have strengths and weaknesses. Curious what your thoughts are as to what you view as your strengths and weaknesses and how do you adapt to those?
RS: Yeah, I suppose my strength is... I think I am good with all around stuff. Where it is fast or flat, more mountainous terrain, or hot or cold. I think I’m quite adaptable. Weaknesses are probably more mountainous terrain like where there are really big climbs or descents kind of those European conditions and I also think because I’ve not grown up in those kind of conditions where you get those really really big mountains. Like I said that is my weakness. I think I am a little bit slow to get started, but I think I have worked and improved on that.
WC: Are you planning on doing UTMB this year?
RS: I am doing CCC. I just think UTMB, I don’t think like I can recover fully and get enough preparation for UTMB. I think these days the ultra-trail races getting more competitive to me I think less is more, and I want to focus more on more specific races. I think going into UTMB I wouldn’t be prepared fully for the race, so I would rather do a race like CCC kind of be a part of a whole UTMB weekend but I just like the shorter race. I don’t like running too many 100 milers too close together.
WC: How about Hardrock?
RS: Yeah. I paced Julian Chorier there in 2011. I’ve been out there and have seen the race. It’s really awesome. I definitely think I’m going to throw my name in the lottery sooner than later. I’m pretty sure I’ll be back to Western States next year. It is a little too close to Western States to do. I know some guys that have done a double, but I just feel like why not give the Hardrock entry to someone else that’s going to put their life and soul to training for that race. I don’t want to just go in and say my main goal is [Western] but I’m going to the Hardrock to see how I do. I think that is unfair and disrespectful for the race. If I put my name in the lottery I want to make sure that if by some miracle I do get in, I am able to prepare 100% for it.
WC: You know one of the things I have noticed about say European races versus the American races is that the American races tend toward everyone has a pacer or a crew and everything else; whereas, in Europe they don’t seem to promote that. In fact, I don’t think they allow pacers in a lot of cases. I’m curious. What do you feel? Do you prefer one approach versus the other?
RS: I’m pretty relaxed. Even at Western States. I just picked up a pacer from Green Gate so I didn’t have a pacer from Forest Hill. For me I don’t mind. I get for safety reasons it is always good to have a pacer. I think again you just need to be adaptable. At times, it is really nice to have a pacer especially with those mental hits going into Green Gate, having a pacer really helped, but I kind of think as long as the rules are the same for everybody, I am happy. Whether or not they allow a pacer or hiking poles as long as it’s the same rules throughout. As I’ve said, I’ve alsways enjoy mixing things up. It is quite cool to do some races where you are allowed a pacer or not. It is a means of availability.
WC: I noticed also in your career you got started in the multiday stage races and then kind of started shifting into the more traditional 100 milers. Do you have a preference on one or the other or do you just like to mix it up?
RS: Yeah. I am definitely much more enjoying the 100 milers and hundred k’s. But when I first started running more the multi-stages, I was really enjoying that. I think for me it’s just kind of constantly mixing things up, evolving, and changing, even with running like there are times when I’m focused on training for a race like Western States which is generally fast and flat. Other times I really enjoy just getting out on the mountains and exploring and running a race at the Grand Raid Reunion which is really technical and kind of a little bit like Hardrock in a way, so it is completely different. So, for me I like to mix things up a lot just to keep it interesting.
WC: How do you train for multiday versus just a traditional 100 miler? Are there big differences in how you approach the two?
RS: Multiday I try to get back to back training days, like 3 or 4 day back to back runs, that would be like 30-40k’s per day just like back to back to mimic the race conditions. I think for any event I just try to train as race specific to that event as possible. I think it’s more about getting into those back to back long runs and also getting used to running with a heavier backpack. That can be quite tough.
WC: You’ve been doing this for a while and obviously this is what you do. I’m curious. I assume it’s your full-time thing. Are you able to make a living as a professional ultra runner?
RS: Yeah luckily I can make a living and this is what I do on a full-time basis. I worked for a property development company for 2 and half years and then I found that running ultras was more exciting.
WC: How long do you see yourself continuing in this at this level of competition?
RS: I say as long as I am enjoying myself, I’ll go for as long as possible, but I guess for another 4 years at the elite level, give or take. I could wake up in a few months’ time and say I’m not enjoying this anymore but…currently I’m loving what I do and planning a couple of free running projects. So yeah, I think 4 or 5 years, I’ll try to live the dream for as long as possible.
Darkest Moment, Training Regimen
WC: One of my friends asked me to ask you this question and that is what would you consider to be your darkest moment during race? Where you had to really dig deep? Where you look back and say I can’t believe I got myself through that moment?
RS: There have been a couple of experiences like that. The very first multiday ultra in the Gobi desert on the long stage. I went through quite a dog patch. It was one of the first times I hit the wall probably…and I really had to dig deep mentally and physically. To be honest at some stages in that dog patch I didn’t know if I could ever take another step or two. I was just completely out of it. I’d say that would definitely be one of my lowest moments that come to mind, because it was one of my first really dark moments. Yes, I would definitely say the Gobi Desert.
WC: Do you feel like that’s helped you since that time to be able to say hey this is something I’ve dealt with?
RS: Yeah for sure. Definitely, it has helped me a lot like I said it was the first really dark moment I went through and I managed to come through to the other side and survive it. I think that helped me…realize that you can push yourself quite hard and actually be able to come through the other side when you’re feeling quite terrible and you can be feeling that terrible and actually kind of feel better again.
WC: Do you have a coach?
RS: I’ve had one or two coaches in the past. Currently, I just try to coach myself. I’ve bounced ideas off one or two people at times because I’ve been doing this for a while and I just kind of put together a rough training plan and then kind of adjust it accordingly. I like to go according to feel and how my body is. I think you need to adjust things a lot. Like some weeks I’ll be feeling really good and other weeks like not as good and you need to be able to back off a bit, and I think some coaches can be a bit too rigid rather than getting the best from someone.
WC: Do you do much speed work? Like old school runners focus on speed on the track and this and that. Do you do much of that?
RS: No, I don’t do any stuff on the track. I’ve done some out of season speed work blocks, I do a bit of high intensity stuff, but I don’t do a huge amount of speed work like 200’s, 400’s and 800’s. But
yeah, I do do some repeats, like hill repeats etc. I try to make it quite specific to the ultrarunning.
WC: So, most of your stuff is lower intensity, higher volume would you say?
RS: Yeah. I’d say a lot of my sessions are that.
WC: And your wife is a runner? Correct?
RS: Yeah she’ s a runner and also a mountain biker.
WC: Do you guys train much together?
RS: A little bit. Not too much. We do a lot of hikes together or I’ll join her for an easy run or a mountain bike. And our son Max, we hike with him quite a bit. So we definitely spend a lot of time in the outdoors together. But generally I don’t do too many specific training sessions with her.
WC: Well listen Ryan. I’ll let you go and I really appreciate you taking the time and I also wanted to emphasize what a great achievement you’ve just accomplished here by winning Western States. I’m really happy for you. You’ve got such a great attitude toward the sport and I really think you are a great ambassador to ultrarunning, so congratulations and again thank you for your time.
RS: Awesome. Thank you so much and thanks for featuring me. T