South African ultra runner Ryan Sandes wins Western States endurance run
Since 2008, South African ultra runner Ryan Sandes has won some of the toughest ultra races throughout the world — all except the one he’s been chasing — the world’s oldest 100-mile race, the Western States Endurance Race.
Sandes has attempted the race multiple times, finishing second in 2012, fifth in 2014, and was derailed by illness in 2015.
“It’s that one race that I still dream of winning,” Sandes said. “I really want to win it. Western States is very much a community race, I really enjoy how the whole community embraces the race. It makes it really special, and this is the original 100-miler.”
Beginning at Squaw Valley, the grueling race forces runners to deal with summer heat as they grind through altitudes as high as 8,750 feet, following trails used by gold and silver miners during the 19th century, before descending into Auburn for the finish.
“With a 100-miler guys tend to go out really fast, often like throwing a whole bunch eggs against the wall and hoping one or two don’t break, and those are the guys that end up doing really well,” Sandes said.
“You’ve got to take chances out there. I’m generally a little bit more cautious. I’d like to start off a little bit more slowly and finish strong. So much can go right and so much can go wrong, and you need a lot to go right to have the ideal race.”
For the 35-year-old Sandes, running in extreme conditions is nothing new. Over the past decade he has become renowned for his feats on the ultra scene, specializing in running in the heat and high altitudes. His list of accomplishments includes becoming the first person to win the 4 Deserts Race Series, which is a series of four, 250-kilometer races across deserts in Africa, Asia, South America, and Antarctica.
“Those are really tough,” Sandes said. “A race like Western States is 100 miles, but it’s nonstop. Some of the desert races I did were multi-stage. You stop each day, but you’ve got to carry all of your nutrition and stuff you need. That’s really, really tough because you’re carrying a really heavy weight on your back every day. It’s also like, day in and day out you’re running for six or seven days consecutively. It takes it’s toll on you, and also just the conditions are so extreme … you’re at the mercy of the elements. It’s quite humbling in a lot of ways. Nature’s always going to be greater than you.”
In order to prepare for the Western States, Sandes said he runs 18 to 25 hours per week, often using an altitude mask to reduce his oxygen intake while training at his home in Cape Town, South Africa. He then arrived at Squaw Valley two weeks ago, in order to acclimatize himself to the altitude before the race day on June, 24.
“It’s quite a big travel gap, so just trying to get used to it,” Sandes said. “It’s also Western States — it’s the most prestigious 100-miler in the ultra trail running scene. It’s quite a big one, so I wanted to make sure I’m as acclimatized as possible.”
The race kicked off at 5 a.m. in Squaw Valley with a field of 369 men and women, but only 67 percent of those runners would make it through the mud, snow and water to reach the finish line in Auburn.
“The last 20 or 30 miles, I suppose you kind of go into beast mode.” Sandes said. “You kind of do everything you can to power yourself to the finish line, just getting really focused on that goal of getting to the finish line. Everything hurts, your body tells you to stop, and your minds just got to tell it to keep going.”
Sandes said his strategy was about pacing himself, allowing runners with goals of reaching the line in 14 hours to shoot ahead, knowing that the final 50 miles is what separates the elite runners from the rest.
“There’s no hiding. It really brings out who you are,” Sandes said. “It strips you down like an onion, layer by layer until your to the core of who you are.”
After over 16 hours of pounding away on trails in the backcountry of the Sierra Nevadas, Sandes battled through all of the aches, pains, and mental fatigue to capture the victory that had eluded him for years. He’d finish the race with a time of 16 hours, 19 minutes, 37 second, defeating the next closest competitor by nearly 30 minutes.
“It becomes a little bit addictive when you cross that finish line,” he said. “You forget about all of that pain and suffering you went through, and you kind of want to do the next one.”
With all that Sandes has achieved during his running career, he said he’s still driven by the feeling of accomplishment and fulfillment of crossing the finish line.
“In general, I really enjoy pushing myself, and trying to see how far I can take myself both physically and mentally,” he said. “I also just love adventure.”