Few people understand the liberating power of free running as well as Cape Town-based Ryan Sandes. One of the finest trail runners on the planet, he’s the first human being to have won an ultra marathon on every continent. That’s all seven continents.
Sandes probably clocks more miles on a standard race day than most people run in their entire lives, and he relishes the simple fact that his workaday offices are the mountains in his backyard. If you weren’t aware, or live in a city where mountains and countryside are in short supply, “trail running” means hoofing it off-road, quite often on hilly hiking trails, but just as easily through wilderness, forest, coastal headlands, and even across barren desert. As you might have guessed, winning on all seven continents means Sandes has even raced in Antarctica. Yes, there are crazy athletes who’ll go to the ends of the earth to turn sport into an adventure.
What makes Sandes’ story a little extra astonishing is that the nimble-footed Capetonian emerged out of nowhere, quite literally winning on his first attempt at an ultra long-distance race. Neither he, nor anyone else for that matter, saw it coming. His story, though, has inspired thousands of fans and helped spark a trail running revolution in South Africa where the sport has rapidly evolved from obscurity into one that occasionally sees half a dozen races happening over the same weekend.
More remarkable, perhaps, is that Sandes (32) only discovered an innate talent for running in his mid-twenties. Back in 2006, on a dare, he’d entered the Knysna Forest Marathon (the half-marathon was sold out, so what the heck…?), and surprised himself by finishing very comfortably. He hadn’t trained much, but the experience revealed an inborn ability. It also ignited a dream of exploring the world in the most natural way possible: by running.
Career summaries barely hint at Ryan’s determination or mental edge – or to the fortitude that led to what happened next. After Knysna, he thought to set himself a really serious challenge, one that was fuelled by his love of adventure. He entered and trained hard for a gruelling seven-day self-sustaining 250km race across the Gobi Desert in China. His goal was simply to make it to the finish, but fate took a remarkable turn: Instead of merely finishing, he won his first ultra-marathon. The Gobi March forms part of a series of incredible stage races lined up by RacingThePlanet in some of the most challenging regions on earth.
With one in the bag, Sandes tried them all. What started as a personal challenge sparked a professional trail running career. Within three years, he won brutal races in a string of astonishing locations - the Sahara, the Amazon Jungle, Chile’s Atacama Desert, and Antarctica. Treating each event not just as an athletic feat, but a chance to discover the world, he describes, too, how running gives him the freedom to take flight in his own world, achieving a kind of meditative state as he absorbs the natural beauty of the environment.
In 2011, Sandes perceptibly switched gears. New challenges awaited. Having won all four permanent RacingThePlanet races, he headed for the Colorado Rockies to compete in the Leadville Trail 100, a notoriously tough, high-altitude race. At 160km, it was by far the greatest distance he’d yet covered in a single stretch. Previous adventures were longer, but split into several days of hardship. This was the kind of race that hammers the body (and mind) to such an extent that competitors must undergo medical checks and weigh-ins (to ensure sufficient hydration) at aid stations along the way. Typically, runners lapse into hallucination, many describe losing toenails, and the chaffing and blisters are beyond description. Plus, of course, there’s the tremendous internal stress – muscles, knees, aching feet.
In any case, Sandes won that race, too. Since Leadville, he’s racked up more extreme-distance wins - in Nepal, Hong Kong, Australia, and then also on Spain’s Gran Canaria island, where his first-place finish was also his first European ultra win. He’s also taken a few knocks here and there, injuries striking when least anticipated.
But there’s more to running than winning races, Sandes says. Always in awe of adventure, in March this year he set aside time to tackle a dream that had been simmering for two years. High up in the Drakensberg (literally “Dragon’s Mountain”) mountains that sweep across the eastern part of South Africa, he teamed up with fellow runner, Ryno Griesel, for a different sort of running challenge. The Grand Drakensberg Traverse is a self-navigating run with no paths and no set route, but traversing six of the highest peaks south of Kilimanjaro. Setting off at midnight, with checkpoints in place, the duo covered 207km in 41 hours, 49 minutes, clocking an hour’s sleep, and knocking more than 18 hours off the existing record. It wasn’t a race, really, but a unique and incredible way to explore a rugged wilderness.
Sandes says there are still countless adventures in store, but when pressed to name the five ultra marathons that stand out as the toughest he’s conquered so far, here’s what he says…
1. Known as the “Race Across the Sky”, the legendary Leadville Trail 100 has been held in the Colorado Rockies since 1983. “It’s at high altitude,” says Sandes. “Besides which running 100 miles is always tough work.” (Next race: 6 August 2014)
2. Most challenging of the races on home turf, says Sandes is South Africa’s Salomon SkyRun 100, in the Witteberg Mountains, near a little town called Lady Grey (a seven-hour drive from Johannesburg). “It’s only 100km,” says Sandes, “but the terrain is brutal and so unforgiving. You inevitably move really slowly, having to focus on every foot step.” (Next race: 22 November 2014)
3. The North Face TransGranCanaria, on Spain’s Gran Canaria island. Sandes says: “There’s just over 8,500m of climbing over the 125km distance, and that makes it very tough on your legs.” (Next race: early 2015)
4. Deep in the Brazilian Amazon, Sandes says the Jungle Marathon “is one race you would struggle to get me back to. Nothing is your friend in the Amazon and I was very happy to make it out there alive. It was a great experience though!” Sandes won the 235km stage race in a new record time back in 2009. Part of the “experience” included dodging numerous animals, including deadly snakes and insects. (Next race: 2–11 October 2014)
5. Sandes’ first major multi-stage victory in Africa was RacingThePlanet’s Sahara Racein Jordan. He says the monotony of the environment made it especially testing. “The sand is soft and temperatures reach over 45 degrees Celsius, both of which make it extremely difficult to run. Plus we were traversing some massive dunes. But mentally, the hard part is dealing with the way everything looks the same.” (Next race: February/March 2015)
So, with all those miles logged, is Sandes ready to tackle the Comrades? “Perhaps one day,” he says. “But the idea of spending that much time running on the road scares me.” Opportunities to go head-to-head with Nature are what set trail running apart from pounding tarmac. Plus, he believes running on a flat, even surface is harder on the body.
“Actually, I find road-running a bit boring,” he says. “I’d rather stick to the trails.”
Who can blame him.
Header photo: Ryan with Lion's Head © Nick Muzik
Are you a trail runner? Have you participated in any South African races? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.
Written by Keith Bain
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About the author: KeithBainKeith Bain
Cape Town-based writer Keith Bain has co-authored guidebooks to India, South Africa, Eastern Europe, Kenya & Tanzania, Ireland, and Italy. He also co-wrote A Hedonist's guide to Cape Town, and is the co-founder of Best Kept (www.bestkeptshhh.com), a bespoke trip-planning company that tailors holidays in India and Africa.