Catch Him if You Can: Ryan Sandes Ultra Distance Runner
South African trail runner, Ryan Sandes, is one of the top endurance athletes in the world. In 2010, he became the first competitor to have won all four of the desert races, each a 6/7-day, 250 km footrace through the Atacama Desert in Chile, the Gobi Desert in China, the Sahara Desert in Egypt, and Antarctica. This impressive feat won him international status. We caught up with him, briefly, and found out what makes him tick…
Is it true that your decision to become an ultra distance runner was on a ‘whim’?
Yes, I ran the Knysna marathon in 2006 on very minimal training and quite enjoyed it, so I kept on running. I never aspired to be a runner growing up so it has been a crazy journey over the past nine or so years. My first Ultra I entered was the Gobi Desert Race in 2008 and to be honest I didn’t even know where it was. The idea of running in a really remote place and the whole adventure of it appealed to me.
Were you always sporty? What was the allure of trail running specifically for you?
Yes I have always been sporty and enjoyed the outdoors. I played rugby at school and did a bit of surfing but only during my last year at University in 2006 did I discover trail running. I love the feeling of freedom trail running gives me and it has taken me on a journey to all seven continents. It is a form of meditation for me and allows me to escape the business of everyday life.
Have there been moments on tough runs that you’ve thought, “I can’t do this”? What gets you through those moments?
Yes for sure. It’s important to stay calm and focus on the positives. I am the person that has chosen to be out there and no one is forcing me. When I am going through a tough situation I break the run down into mini goals and just focus on getting through one kilometre at a time. Mentally I find this more achievable and it helps me get through any low points in a race.
Do you ever find this sport lonely since often you’re running on your own?
I really enjoy running on my own so it is very rare that I get lonely. In my earlier days of racing before I met my wife, Vanessa, I used to get a bit lonely when traveling to foreign countries and being on my own the whole time. I am lucky that Vanessa now does a lot of travelling with me.
You must have seen some incredible vistas on your runs. Do you take moment to enjoy the views or are you too busy concentrating?
That’s what I love about trail running. I always try and take time to enjoy the epic scenery. It’s this kind of scenery that inspires me to run and why I love trail running so much. I have been lucky enough to run on all seven beautiful continents.
Is there one place that has stuck out as incredibly beautiful?
The Atacama Desert or Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia, they are both incredibly beautiful. I really want to go back to Patagonia!
Tell us a little bit about your diet. We know you have to eat healthy, so what is a typical day’s food for you?
I don’t follow a very scientific or specific diet and I believe in enjoying life. I do try and eat mainly whole foods that are organically grown. I love coffee and nut butter on toast for breakfast. I tend to snack a lot on nuts and biltong during the day. I eat quite a lot of red meat and I really enjoy hamburgers. I sometimes have a bun-less burger in the evenings to cut down on carbs. I have a weakness for chocolate!
Do you have a favourite treat that you indulge in?
An affogatto. A shot of coffee over some ice cream.
What is a typical day’s training for you?
It varies a lot depending on the race I am training for. I have reduced my mileage a bit over the last year as I think ultra runners tend to over do things. I run on average about 12-22 hours a week and then do some strength and mobility work on top of that. It’s important to make sure your body is moving correctly and efficiently to run your best.
Being a professional athlete takes incredible commitment, what would you say is the best advice you could give someone that you have learnt along the way?
Never be afraid to follow your heart and dreams. You only live once so make the most of your life. It is very easy to put stuff off until another day, I would suggest doing it today. Stay patient.
Just for fun…
Dream job if you weren’t a professional athlete? Sports marketing or a trail running shoe tester … yes, some people have that job!
Last expensive thing you splashed out on? Coffee machine.
Thing you can’t be without when you travel? Phone to stay in touch and a neck pillow for long flights.
Superhero talent you’d most like to have? (We think you might have this one covered already) Be able to fly!
Sweet treat you’d pick off the dessert trolley? Gelato or ice cream … lots of it!
Photos courtesy of Red Bull