Anyone who knows anything about Ryan Sandes knows he epitomises the phrase less is more. The less I’m referring to isn’t less training, less speed or less talent – not even by a smidgeon. Instead it’s less talk, more action. Unlike others on the start line, the winner of this year’s Western States 100 is renowned and respected for his humility, and for his knack of approaching races with a quiet self-confidence.
Now two weeks on from his US win, Rockhoppin’ Trail interviewed Ryan at his favourite coffee shop in his home town of Hout Bay, Cape Town, South Africa.
LD It’s now 2 weeks on from your WS100 win, and you’ve had a chance to digest the experience. What are your thoughts about it? (physically, emotionally, etc.)
RS Crossing that finish line brought huge relief because it had been such a tough day, but also a great sense of fulfilment. But having come 2nd in 2012, and during that race passing Timmy and then having him then overtake me, meant that this year I did run scared the last 20 miles or so.
At the river crossing, about 30km to go, I hit my lowest moment, I felt really shattered. The crossing only takes about 30 secs so it’s not much of a rest. From there Ryno ran with me, for the next 20km, which really helped me mentally. Physically I managed to cool myself down in a couple of creeks – the water was pretty cool because of snow melt.
At the aid station after Green Gate (about 20 miles to go) I learned I was about 22 min ahead. But then when I came into Pointed Rock aid station (about 9.5km to go), I got conflicting reports that Alex was only 5 min behind me! I panicked and took off – I even ran straight through an aid station where Vanessa tried to give me stuff but I just ran through. Then thankfully one of the guys I know drove ahead and at about 8km to go told me the info I’d been given was incorrect, so I knew I could back off a bit, I didn’t have to kill myself! So the sense of relief crossing the line was huge.
And since then I’ve had a great sense of fulfilment, and of course pride. It’s hard to describe. Max at a race finish was super cool. I visualised that for weeks leading up to the event. During the race, with our times so slow, I started to worry that my finish might clash with Max’s napping time and he’d not be there!
I think my achievement only really sunk in the next day when I was holding the cougar trophy. Vanessa joked with me that I’ve finally got my second cougar. I told her it was harder to get than my first!
And the other huge confirmation for me was looking back at Bruce Fordyce’s inspiration message to me in my copy of Tim Noakes’s book Challenging Beliefs. Finally achieving this goal I’ve wanted for so long means a lot to me.
LD Six years ago you won Leadville in 16:46. That was a massive win on the US trail-ultra fraternity, how does Western States compare to Leadville?
RS Leadville is a bit more mainstream – it has the biggest participation of all 100 milers in the US, and with the exposure that “Born To Run” gave it, it will always be popular. But in the last few years, Western States has attracted a far stronger field, particularly internationally, since being on the Ultra Trail World Tour.
They’re both tough – Western States for its heat and Leadville for its altitude. But it’s difficult to say which is tougher – it’s all relative to the individual, and to the day.
LD Analysis of your times and splits during WS100 have shown you ran a near to perfectly executed race. What was your race plan, how did you plan it, did you stick to it precisely, and would you regard this one as your perfectly run race?
RS I generally don’t run according to planned splits, but because I knew the route, I had a pretty good idea of the splits between points. I expected the pace would be fast, and I think we all under-estimated how slow going the first section of the course would make us, because of the deep snow. People used up a lot of energy trying to keep to their planned splits in those conditions, and I think that’s what contributed to the big drop-out rate. I was fortunate, I felt pretty good from the start, and although I kept the splits in my mind, I stuck to my strategy of running according to how I felt. That meant I ran quite a bit harder in the first half than I’d done in previous races, but I had expected the pace to be fast and I knew that I wanted to not be far off the front pack during most of the race. There’ve been other races when I’ve hung back a bit far and then when coming through the field not had quite enough time to make up positions, and ended in 3rd or 4th place.
I knew Jim would either do something amazing or completely blow up, and I wanted to be within reasonable distance to be able to act. But when he was 40 or so minutes ahead (Forest Hill area, 100km), I realised it would be crazy to push to close the gap.
After I passed him, I ran pretty much according to feel. I had slower and faster sections – like from Rucky Chucky River up to Green Gate I was slower, but I picked up nicely when Ryno joined me. Then from Pointed Rocks I was on my own again – that was when I was told incorrect splits and I took off!
LD I know this win has been a goal of yours since you signed up for your first WS100 in 2012. You’ve had a testing past couple of years since contracting glandular fever – it knocked your system good and proper, leading to issues with gut issues during races and seeing you having to pull out of a few big events. This must’ve have tested your confidence in a big way. Speak me through that, and through the deep determination you’re known for that has seen you to the achievement of this win.
RS I’d always planned to give myself three years to do the best I can be at Western States, and then give UTMB the next three years – because they’re such different races. When I came 2nd in 2012, and had what I still consider to be the best 100 miler I’ve ever had, I thought I could come back in 2013 and do even better. But I sprained my ankle badly about six weeks before the race so I was out. It was my focus then for 2014, but that year I packed far too many races into my schedule – I did Ultra-Trail Mount Fuji, the Drakensberg Grand Traverse, etc. and I went into the race feeling a bit overcooked. I was happy with my 5th place, but I knew I hadn’t been able to give it the build-up I’d wanted because I’d just got carried away with races between January and June. In 2015, I picked up a bug – the Friday morning before the race I woke up with my worst nightmare, a stomach bug was going around the Squaw Valley and a lot of people got sick. My system is usually strong enough to resistance those sort of things, but I think my immune system was still so low from having had glandular fever that I was prone.
After that I started thinking that maybe a win for me at WS100 just wasn’t meant to be. I gave the race a complete skip in 2016, but e-watching it gave me huge FOMO, so when the race director Craig Thornley sent me a special consideration entry to Western States after my Grand Raid of Réunion last year, I changed my mind – I realised I’d never actually put it out of my head, and that winning Western States was still a goal I wanted.
I think I’ll go back next year. While I feel I’ve achieved what I wanted there, it’s a race I really enjoy – it’s one of the few races I want to go back to.
LD You kept your support team at WS100 small, and made up of some of your nearest and dearest – Vanessa and Max, your mom, Ryno,Griesel, Dean Leslie. I’m a great believer in heart-happy-run-strong. Do you think this played a role in your success on the day?
RS Dean was there filming for Red Bull and came to join us – he and I are old friends, we’ve known each since junior school, and he’s filmed a lot of my races. And then Ian Little came over from Portland and it was great to see him along the route. And then there’re a couple of great local guys like Bill and Tony, who I know from previous years, and they’re super helpful. And Bill’s friend Karen, who helped Vanessa crew, and whose house we stayed at for a few nights. They’re all such awesome people. It’s one of the things I love so much about this race – the sense of community. The whole vibe is more low key than something like UTMB, where for the week leading up to the race Chamonix is just crazy with media and hype. The community in Auburn are so laid back, and everyone gets involved in the race.
This year I managed to keep quite below the radar, which I far prefer. We only arrived at Squaw Valley a couple of days before the race. And having my mom and Vanessa there meant such a lot to me. Ness hasn’t been able to come to any of my races for the past year and half now, because of Max, and having her there was great – it was a good distraction. Often before a big race I’m often almost too focused, and leading up to this race I tried to keep as busy with other things, fun distractions, as possible, which helped me to not over-analyse things. I went into this race as relaxed as I could’ve been.
LD What do you consider to be your strongest characteristic where your running is concerned?
RS I guess I’m quite adaptable, which has meant I’ve been able to do well in different types of races, from self-sufficient multi-day, to long distance, to ultras. I don’t think I’ll ever be as strong as someone like Francois D’haene on the mountains, just because I’ve not grown up exposed to mountains that big.
Also head strength is a strong point of mine. I guess I’m also stubborn – I keep on going back until I achieve my goal (Ed: I’d rather refer to it as determination!)
I’m certainly not the most talented athlete – I don’t have the natural ability of a Jim Walmsley, for example, I have to train hard. I also look after my body with cross training and strengthening, which definitely helps with longevity of performance. So many of the elite guys out there last just two or years at the top. I’ve had a fairly long career so far, and hopefully I can still keep going for a bit longer.
LD You’re well known and much loved for your humble approach to your talent and to your achievements. Asking you to explain it is You have a quiet confidence, a determined self-belief, and the ability to always to ahead to the bigger picture and the long-term goal. Not easy for you, I know, but speak us through this winning attitude.
RS I think ultra-running is quite humbling – it doesn’t allow you to get too far ahead of yourself. As soon as you get too confident, you get knocked down pretty quickly. I guess I’ve always been quiet about things – always super-competitive but mainly with myself, wanting to do the best I can do. If I know I’ve done absolutely everything I can to achieve a race, and it’s only good enough for last position, then so be it.
With some races I’ve just had a really good feeling beforehand. This year’s Western States was one of those – going into the race I felt quietly confident. Dean, who’s known me since junior school, told me afterwards that he’s not seen me so laid back and relaxed before a big race as with this one. I just had a really good feeling about how it would turn out.
But I think I get the humble approach from my dad. While my mom’s quite outspoken in her approach to life, while my dad has a quieter way about things.
LD Ever-interested in race nutrition as I am, tell me about your fuelling throughout this race.
RS It was really super-hot. There was no way I could get any solid food in, so my fuel involved a lot of gels and GU chomps – all the soft stuff. From as early as Michigan Bluff (90km) onwards, I drank a lot of Red Bull mixed with water, which is something I usually only do near the end of a race, but in those conditions it called for it! At one point I tried to smash a rice pudding, but it just wasn’t going down, so I stuck to gels and diluted Red Bull. All that sweet stuff meant I felt pretty yuk the next day – enough was enough.
LD Next up – what are your race plans for the rest of the year?
RS In two weeks’ time I’m off to compete in the pack burro racing champs in Colorado. It’s a 30 mile (50km) race, and you have to run next to, push or pull your donkey, you can’t ride it. I spent some time with Micah True when I did Leadville, and I watched him do some burro racing – it looked brilliant and I put it on my bucket list straight away! So that’ll be fun. I suppose I should read up on mule-whispering techniques beforehand!
But my next proper race will be CCC at the end of August. It’ll be my second race of the 2017 Ultra-Trail World Tour. This year you only need two races to get a ranking. I might also do Ultra-Trail Cape Town, but it all depends how the next few months pan out.