Ryan Sandes is internationally renowned as a trail running legend. He has completed some of the most grueling trail runs across the world in some of the most magnificent settings. He is also the first person to win an ultra trail race on all seven continents.
Run Life asked Ryan a few questions about his time on the trails and what it takes to be the best.
How did your trail running journey start?
It all started with running the Knysna Marathon in 2006, which was my last year at university. The plan was to run the half-marathon with a bunch of mates. I was pretty young and naïve and entered quite late and thought – half marathon or full marathon, same thing – and ended up doing the full marathon. I actually really enjoyed it and enjoyed the fulfilment of going out and achieving something that I didn’t know I could do, and which a lot of my friends thought I wouldn’t be able to complete. When I got back to Hout Bay where I live in Cape Town, I joined my local trail running club. From there, I very quickly discovered the trails while living on the back slopes of Table Mountain. I guess then the rest is history.
Your list of running achievements is quite extensive. What are you most proud of?
Looking back now, it’s probably winning the Canine Search-and-Rescue 4km doggy race in 2013 with my dog, T-Dog. After writing my book, Trailblazer, and having to rehash everything, I realised that it’s not always the big race wins that are important but more the smaller moments that really stand out as being special.
If I look at big races though, winning the Gobi March Desert Race in 2008, which was also my first ultra, was really special. A few others that are also definitely highlights for me are winning the Western States 100-miler in 2017, winning the Leadville 100-miler in 2011 and completing the Great Himalaya Trail in 2018.
What kind of training and preparation goes into getting ready for a 100-mile race?
The closer I get to a race, the more specific my training becomes and I focus on specific elements. For example, if it’s a very high altitude race then I include some altitude training. I’ll also look at how much elevation the race has. So if it’s relatively flat, then I’ll include more faster running or if there’s a lot of climbing, I’ll include more climbs and descents in my training. I generally work on a six to eight week race-specific block in the lead up to a race. Up until that point, I just try and stay consistent.
Four or five years ago I used to do a lot more volume in training. Then in 2015, I picked up glandular fever and since then, I’ve really done less. After having competed for 13 years now, I think that is less is more and focusing on specifics is more important.
I also do a lot of strength and mobility training which is really important for longevity and having good movement on the trails.
Rest and recovery are often under-rated by runners. How do you balance this to avoid over-training?
I think that rest and recovery is vital. I’ve been going for 13 years now and it’s really sad to see that a lot of new ultra runners come onto the scene, and they’re really good for 2 or 3 years, and then they disappear. That’s largely down to just overdoing it. There was a trend in the USA a couple of years ago where these guys were aiming to hit 200-mile weeks every week, and they got some great results, but it’s just not sustainable. You need to build in some rest and recovery.
You’re no stranger to running insane distances on the trails, which must take incredible mental strength. What is your secret to mentally pushing through?
There are a number of things. For me, when running a 100-mile race, it’s really important to break it down into bite-size chunks and just focus on, say, 10km at a time or getting to the next aid station. Deciding to run 100 miles can feel overwhelming but if you can break that down into four marathons, and then in-between those four marathons, you break it down into 10 kms, it feels easier. If things get really bad, then just focus on getting from one tree to the next.
With trail running, it’s about running in incredible surroundings and I really try to focus on that and just enjoy being out there. I also try and embrace the suffering and concentrate on the fact that it’s not going to last forever.
Of all the crazy runs you’ve done, 160 kilometers around your home during lockdown must be one of the craziest! What was your motivation for this?
I put it out there on the 1st of April as an April Fool’s joke that it felt like a good day to run laps around my garden. It really was a joke but it got me thinking. I’m not someone who enjoys running around in circles or doing laps. For me it’s about getting out there and experiencing new places but I always believe in thinking outside the box and finding cool things to do. So, I thought it could be a pretty cool idea to have one wild adventure at home during the lockdown and see if I could run 100 miles. I knew that mentally it was going to be one of the toughest things I’ve done and it definitely was. It was much slower going than I thought it would be with lots of stop/starts and it was very hard to get into any kind of rhythm, but I’m glad I got through it. I won’t rush back and do it again but it was pretty cool to do.
There is always a list of mandatory items that a trail race will require you to carry. What is the one thing that you personally won’t leave behind when running trails?
I guess it depends on where you’re running but I think it’s really important to have a waterproof jacket or something to keep you warm, even a space blanket. The weather can change so quickly on the trails and running out there is generally much slower going, often in areas where there isn’t great cell phone signal. Anything can happen out there, so having something basic that can keep you warm is really important.
Which was your toughest trail race and which was your favourite?
That’s a difficult one because everything is relative to the situation. I definitely think back to my first ultra, the Gobi March Desert Race, where I had to get used to running on consecutive days with tired legs. That was really tough.
When I ran Leadville, which was my first 100-miler, my quads and legs were absolutely destroyed for the final 40km and never having been through that before was also really tough. Also thinking back to the 2017 Western States 100-miler, I had to dig really deep during the last 20 to 30 km. Those are the ones that come to mind.
In terms of my favourite race, it’s always hard to pick one but Western States was the original 100-miler and the one I always dreamed of winning, so that holds a very special place in my heart.
What is the secret to running the downhills on a trail?
Practice makes perfect, so the more you train on the downs, the better you’ll get at them naturally. It’s a bit like mountain biking where you actually need to pick the right lines. You also need to look far enough ahead so you’re not looking down at your feet the whole time. Look about 2 meters ahead of you to give your brain a chance to register what’s coming next and be ready for it. Looking slightly up is really important and also good for your posture.
Of course, you need to concentrate but you also need to go with the flow and find a good rhythm without breaking too much. Practice will give you confidence and that really helps a lot.
Road and trail running are really very different. What tips can you offer a road runner wanting to transition to running more trail?
If you’re transitioning to trail running, there will generally be times when you’re going to be doing a lot of power-hiking with a lot of stop/starts, so it’s a matter of getting used to that, especially on the really technical trails.
It’s also getting used to the different types of running and terrain. Sometimes you’ll be running up really rocky stairs or other times some really steep ascents and descents. So I think it’s just about getting out there and getting out of your comfort zone, even if it’s just for a hike to start with.
An important thing to remember is that running on the road is much more predictable and it’s easier to gauge your distance and times along the route. Whereas the trails are unpredictable. The same distance on the road can take two or three times longer on the trails, so you’ll need to account for that. And as I said, take some kind of safety gear with you, especially if you’re heading out there on your own or there’s no signal.
Follow Ryan Sandes on social media:
Facebook – @Ryan.Nicholas.Sandes
Twitter – @ryansandes
Instagram – @ryansandes