‘It’s the person that can suffer the best that normally wins’: 2017 champion Sandes on Western States
Ahead of 2017’s Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, South African athlete Ryan Sandes’ resume on the ultrarunning scene included wins at some of the most grueling races in the world — except the one he’d been chasing for nearly a decade.
“It’s that one race that I still dream of winning,” said Sandes, who’d come up short in two previous bids at Western States, during a 2017 interview with the Sierra Sun. “I really want to win it.”
Sandes went on to capture the Cougar Trophy that year, reaching the finish line of the 100-mile course, which takes hundreds of the world’s top endurance athletes on trails from Squaw Valley to Auburn, with a time of 16 hours, 19 minutes, 37 seconds.
“I feel like it was a big thing for me to win Western States and a big achievement, so I feel pretty relaxed going into (this year’s race) from that point of view, but Western States is still one of the biggest 100 milers in the world, if not the biggest. I’ve still got that drive and hunger and I think that’s why I came back here,” said Sandes ahead of Saturday’s race.
“It would be amazing to get a second Cougar Trophy. That’s a big motivating factor and I’m definitely hungry. It’s not like I’m going to go out there and say, ‘I’m just here to enjoy the scenery today.’ There’s a big drive. Even just waking up this morning, I’m definitely starting to feel those nerves. I know there’s a big race coming up, and I know I’m going to have to put a really big effort out there to do well.”
Sandes didn’t race in last year’s Western States, but was on the course pacing another athlete. This year, he will face a field featuring eight of the top-10 finishers from a year ago, including Jim Walmsley, who set the course record last year with a time of 14:30:04.
“I think it’s one of the most competitive and deepest fields. There’s a number of European athletes this year, and obviously all the American guys, and then there are a lot of up-and-coming, really fast guys,” said Sandes. “A lot of them haven’t run 100 miles before, they’ve done really well at 50 miles and 100 kilometers. It will be interesting to see how they convert and how they approach the race — if they just kind of go for it from the start or if they’re more cautious. I think with egos and stuff and so many people being out there, the race is going to go out pretty fast. It’s going to be really interesting.
“It just goes to show that, with ultrarunning now, just how the sport’s growing and progressing,” he added. “The top racers are starting to get super, super competitive, which I think is really good. It brings out the best in the athletes.”
Course conditions at this year’s race, according to race president John Medinger, will include a handful of miles covered in snow and ice as runners leave Squaw Valley.
As athletes descend from higher elevations, conditions should be ideal for fast times with temperatures forecast to stay below 90 degrees, according to the National Weather Service.
“I think it will be slower initially, but if conditions stay cool for the second half of the race, I think that will be faster,” said Sandes. “I definitely think the second half of the race will speed up compared to other years.”
The key, according to Sandes, will be getting through the first third of the race, while overcoming mental battles as other runners shoot ahead.
“It’s always that first 30 miles,” he said. “After that you kind of click into race mode and the race just starts to flow. It’s always that first 30 miles that I find are kind of the toughest.”
With athletes like Walmsley, and several solid 50-mile and 100-kilometer runners in the field, the opening half of the race will likely be vital for a strong finisher like Sandes.
“To get through the first 50 miles, ideally you want to be in a decent position, not too far off the front, because generally I finish a bit stronger,” said Sandes.
“You have to keep in mind and keep in check with what the guys are doing around you, because with ultras getting so competitive you can’t let guys get too far ahead of you.
“I can definitely feel how guys are doing around me, and there’s obviously that pressure, but I think it’s important, especially up until Forest Hills, you really focus on your own race and run to your own strengths.”
Forest Hills is just past the 60-mile point of the race.
“Some of the guys just push a little bit too hard and suddenly you get like 50 miles in and you’re completely destroyed,” said Sandes. “Pacing yourself right is going to be pretty important.”
In the end, a lot can go wrong during 100 miles of racing with more than 18,000 feet of elevation gain and nearly 23,000 feet of descent as the world’s top endurance athletes vie for one of the sport’s crowning achievements.
“I definitely enjoy it and I’m looking forward to it,” said Sandes. “It’s going to be super tough. Western States is quite a unique race … it’s the person that can suffer the best that normally wins. I know it’s going to be a really tough day out there.”