The Running Man
South African trail legend Ryan Sandes discovers the world by foot.
Watching him at full stride is like witnessing a video game avatar— dashing through unspoiled wilderness, hopping over boulders, dodging wild animals, ducking under trees.
His feet at times tread so lightly that he seems to not even touch the ground. On steeper cliff faces, where metal chains and footholds are built into the rock in lieu of dirt paths, Ryan Sandes handles the sudden inclines with Spiderman-like agility.
His running style involves a precision and confidence that comes from thousands of hours of training; yet when he smoothly gives chase across the earth’s uneven surfaces, it’s certain he was designed for this.
“Running is about the purest thing a human can do,” he says, “and trail running is how I explore the world.”
So far he’s explored all seven continents by foot, tackling ultramarathons by the dozen — including a six-day travail in Madagascar in September 2014. Divided into various stages of varying distances, including several marathon-length sections, the 250-kilometer race took him across tropical beaches, lush paddy fields, vast savannahs and ancient baobab forests. Such seemingly untenable terrains bring with them snakes, crocodiles, vicious insects, blistering heat and dripping humidity.
“Pretty crazy conditions,” says Sandes, who won the endurance race in 22 hours, 46 minutes and 25 seconds. Slower competitors would take over 70 hours, many not finishing at all.
It’s easily assumed that Sandes’ fleet-footedness is the result of a lifelong endeavor.Yet his determination to run epic distances — and his capacity for endurance — were discovered only in his mid-20s.
A latent talent emerges
In 2006, he entered his first marathon on a whim, part of a mid-winter festival in the South African holiday town of Knysna. Friends had egged him on to enter the half-marathon for fun, but it was sold out, so he gave the full-distance race a bash instead. He’d played team sports at school but had never been a runner, so he surprised himself by finishing very comfortably — revealing innate talent and igniting in him a desire to explore the world by running.
Growing up in Cape Town, Sandes had dabbled in surfing, but now his attention turned to the trail-strewn mountains in his backyard. Fueled by an adventurer’s spirit, he entered and trained seriously for a 250-km, multiday race across China’s Gobi Desert in 2008, part of the same global series that took him to Madagascar last year.
At first, the race was a kind of challenge; he was keen for a life-altering adventure and relished the need for self-reliance, and he says the distance served his fondness for solitude. Because it was a self-supported race, only water is available along the way; Gobi’s competitors must be otherwise self-sufficient and prepared for sudden extreme changes in temperature and terrain. All of this is on top of the reality of running a marathon-or-so each day for almost a week.
Part of what kept him going, he says, was the experience of encountering a new part of the world. He recalls running through ancient villages where local people don’t see many outsiders. “Those interactions were quite special,” he says.
His goal had been to simply survive and make it across the finish line, but fate and fortitude took him further. He nabbed first place and kickstarted a
professional trail-running career, his easygoing charm and broad smile making him an instant hit with fans and sponsors such as Red Bull and Salomon alike.
Within three years of winning the Gobi March, he’d won similarly brutal races in a string of extreme locations — including the Sahara, Chile’s Atacama Desert (“one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen”), and the frozen Antarctic wilderness. For the latter, he trained on a treadmill in a sub-zero ice-chamber.
Of all the challenging conditions, he says he’d be hard-pressed to return to Brazil’s Jungle Marathon. “Nothing is your friend in the Amazon,” he says, “and I was very happy to make it out of there alive.” Yet he not only survived the jungle’s bugs and anaconda-, caiman- and piranha-infested rivers,but he also won the 235-km multiday race in record time.
In 2010 he began also mixing single-stage races into his schedule, starting with a succession of South African victories. For the Puffer — which traverses 80 km of tar and trail — he arrived over an hour ahead of the second finisher. Distance-wise, though, the Puffer paled alongside his first 100-miler: Leadville’s notoriously tough “Race Across the Sky” through the Colorado Rockies. Known for its knee-shattering ascents at high altitude, the race was Sandes’ first attempt to run more than 100 km in a single stretch — and he won that, too, in 2011.
More to running than winning
His victory at Leadville then signaled a shift in focus toward single-stage
ultramarathons. He racked 100-miler victories in Hong Kong and Australia, and he placed second in his first attempt at the Western States Endurance Run, heralded as the “world’s oldest and most prestigious 100-mile trail race.”
These were the kinds of races that hammer both mind and body — to the extent that competitors undergo mandatory medical checks and weigh-ins, to ensure they’re sufficiently hydrated along the way. Runners often lapse into hallucination, and along with the lost toenails, chaffing and blistering, there’s the kind of muscle fatigue, aching knees, cramps and sore feet that would cause the undoing of many.
Sandes says his training schedule varies according to what he’s preparing for, but he typically spends between 12 and 22 hours each week running on the mountain trails he considers his “office.” He uses the gym for core and balance, strength and mobility work, and he tries to mix mountain biking and surfing into his schedule — especially during post-race recovery. Plus there are massages, chiropractic sessions and physiotherapy to help his body deal with the extreme lengths he runs.
And yet for Sandes, these grueling distances are charged with philosophical significance. “There’s no hiding when it comes to 100 miles,” he says, explaining that the physical pain and what it takes mentally to endure keep him grounded.
“Winning doesn’t make you feel invincible,” he says, “because the scale of distance makes you realize that you’re pretty insignificant on this planet — that you’re only a small aspect in the grand scheme of things.”
His humility disguises incredible mental fortitude. Although Professor Tim Noakes, co-founder of the South African Sports Science Institute, and other experts explain his endurance capacity in terms of his stronger-than-average will and an extremely positive mind space, Sandes says it’s that he’s simply doing what he loves. “I suppose it’s a form of meditation,” he says, “an escape from reality.”
Of course, being able to escape professionally requires regularly scoring more victories and meeting new challenges. When Sandes won the North Face TransGranCanaria Advanced in Spain in early 2013, for example, he not only gained his first European victory, but he also became the first person to win an ultramarathon on all seven continents.
It was a significant accolade, but Sandes maintains there’s more to running than winning races. With this mentality, he teamed up with fellow runner Ryno Griesel for the March 2014 Drakensberg Grand Traverse — a self-navigating adventure across six of the highest peaks south of Kilimanjaro.
With few paths and no set route, its terrain includes sharp ascents, climbing ridges, steep ravines and ledges carved into soaring basalt peaks — requiring much scrambling in places where the slightest misstep could prove deadly. The participants also contended with fiercely unpredictable weather and thin high-altitude air that plays havoc with the lungs.
Setting off at midnight, Sandes and Griesel covered 207 km in 41 hours and 49 minutes, clocking a mere hour’s sleep while slicing nearly 19 hours off existing records. For Sandes, the race wasn’t about times; it was a personal test, arriving at the finish not to a podiumbut to the knowledge that he’d endured against significant odds.
“When you’re running high up in the Colorado mountains or the remote
Drakensberg, it’s just you,” he says, “and maybe one or two herdsmen and their cattle.
“You are truly in the middle of nowhere, properly out in a wilderness,” he adds. “I enjoy those wide-open spaces. It’s not just you versus other people — it’s you versus nature. It’s a kind of exploration, a kind of adventure that comes out of me.”
Ultimately, says Sandes, trail running is for him a form of discovery — both of himself and of the planet. When all is said and done, it’s a way of seeing the world. “It’s not only about running,” he says. “It’s a kind of travel — a way of getting from point A to point B.”
Hit the Trail
Africa’s most exciting ultradistance races.
Morocco | April 3, 2015
Although it’s not the only race across the Sahara, this one is hailed by many as the world’s toughest ultramarathon — a grueling, 250- km desert-survival travail in one of earth’s harshest climates. Runners need to be self-sufficient, carrying everything except water. Tents are provided for well-deserved nights following days spent trudging across an expansive sandy wilderness.
Namibia | July 4, 2015
Ryan Sandes shaved four hours off the existing record for this race when he ran it in August 2012, covering 96 km in under seven hours. It’s a non-stop, single-stage, self-supporting race that starts at the top of Africa’s largest canyon, descends into it, follows the river, and finishes at Ai-Ais hot springs. There’s a 24-hour cut-off and the option of a 65-km “Lite” race, too.
Mauritius | July 12, 2015
Delivering paradise at its untamed best, this 50-km trail cuts up and over the rugged mountains of southwest Mauritius, including the island’s highest: Black River Peak (828 meters above sea level). Runners take in the tropical forest of Black River Gorge National Park and finish on the beach. There’s also a 25-km version and a mini 10-km run.
Ethiopia | Aug. 9, 2015
Launched last year, the Ethiotrail event takes place in the Great Rift Valley, 200 km south of Addis Ababa within the Abijatta-Shalla Lakes National Park. There are various races to choose from, including a marathon, half-marathon and two 12-km races — all of which wind through beautiful scenery and offer the chance to rub shoulders with some of the world’s fastest humans.
South Africa | Sept. 6, 2015
Spanning a raw wilderness of undulating hills, craggy cliffs and unspoiled beaches, this race offers a 112-km adventure with heart-stopping scenery. There is no specific route; competitors follow the shoreline, occasionally jumping in rivers and wading in the sea. The organizers of this classic event arrange similarly scintillating races in Lesotho and South Africa’s Richtersveld.