Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, Western States 100 Miler winner RYAN SANDES talks about clinching his dream race, keeping up with the young guns of long-distance running and the threat of overtraining.
Sport24 asked: You’ve become a trail running sensation, but how did you get started in the sport?
Ryan Sandes: During my last year at UCT in 2006, where I was doing my honours in quantity surveying, a couple mates of mine planned a road trip to the Knysna Oyster Festival and decided to take part in the half marathon. After missing the entry cut-off for the half marathon, at the last minute, I decided to enter the full marathon. I had never run a 42.2km race before, but I have always been an all-or-nothing person. I ran the Knysna marathon on very little training and, to my surprise, I did well and really enjoyed the experience. When I returned to Cape Town, I joined my local running club in Hout Bay. And before I knew it, I was going to bed earlier on Friday nights to go running on Saturday mornings. In 2008, I entered the Gobi March, which spans 250km and comprises six stages. Entering the Gobi race was a way of escaping it all and seemed like a cool journey. A sense of adventure is what first attracted me to the sport. I managed to win the race and, upon my return to the Mother City, I quit my office job because it wasn’t much fun having a boss shouting at me. I decided to take the plunge and become a fully-fledged ultra-runner. I have been in the sport for close to a decade and I’m proud to have forged a successful career for myself in a competitive world.
Sport24 asked: How has trail running changed since you first made your mark as a 20-something?
Ryan Sandes: When I started in trail running, traditionally older guys from the ages of 35 to 45 took part in the races. However, the sport has now completely changed with 20-year-olds coming to the fore and winning races. I feel a bit like an old ballie now (Sandes is 35) and after completing the 4 Deserts Race Series and doing plenty of multi-phase events, the 100-milers and 100km races were starting to become really popular and attracting strong fields. I decided to shift my focus and do something completely different. For me, it has always been about setting myself new challenges. I wanted to experience Europe and more of America. I decided to shift my focus, which was risky because I have done really well in the desert and flatter multi-day races. As such, shifting to mountain was a bit of a gamble and a tricky move over. However, the most important thing for me is to be constantly evolving and trying to improve. I see it as the next phase in my trail running career.
Sport24 asked: What type of preparation do you complete to train for and win a multi-day event?
Ryan Sandes: I would probably do between 12-15 hours of running a week and then jumping forward to 100-milers, I do anything from 15-25 hours of training a week. For multi-day races, the most important training sessions for me were the block sessions and I would try to do four or five back-to-back runs in full race kit. It’s important to get used to running with a heavy backpack and try to mimic training in really warm conditions. Before I was fortunate enough to team up with Tim Noakes and the Sports Science Institute, I was having to run with four or five winter jackets on to try and simulate the race conditions. Generally the stages during the multi-day races are shorter and I always try to focus on the key specifics of the race in question. Whereas now with the 100-milers, you need to be able to run 100 miles in one day… I downplayed my athletic ability at the start of my career, but now I am proud of it. I might come across as a chilled out guy, but I’m pretty competitive and I don’t like losing at all. However, I’ve found that the trick is to be competitive at the right times.
Sport24 asked: How does it feel to have won the gruelling US ultra-marathon only a few days ago?
Ryan Sandes: Claiming the 2017 Western States 100 Miler in California is a dream come true for me. It’s one of the most iconic races and I have always dreamed of winning it. My previous best result was second-place behind Timmy Olson (who set a course record of 14:46:44 in 2012) and I was determined to go one better this year. During a race, there are always so many highs and lows, and half the time by the end of the race you are feeling like death and are hanging on. It was a brutal day out, with thick snow in the early stages and then extremely high temperatures later on. For me, it was all about pacing myself in order to finish stronger, but this time I made a point of starting the race off faster and taking more chances in order to win it. I won’t lie, I don’t think I have ever been so shattered, but at the same time so stoked at the conclusion of a race (Sandes was able to overtake race favourite, Jim Walmsley, to claim victory in a time of 16:19:39 in his fifth appearance.)
Sport24 asked: The over-training syndrome is a concern for any elite athlete. What is the solution?
Ryan Sandes: Overtraining is a huge concern within ultra-running, but it’s also prevalent in the mountain biking and ironman industry. Athletes who are super competitive want to go out and achieve and, as a consequence, do massive volumes of training. It gets you really good results in the short-term – and many of the young up-and-coming long-distance runners are doing 200-mile weeks. It gives them great results for a year or two, but then you never hear from them again because they get multiple stress fractures and overtraining syndrome. As the sport of trail running has grown, there are so many opportunities for athletes. With an increase in prize money and appearance fees, the temptation as an athlete is to want to take every opportunity. From a sport that was relatively unknown 10 years ago, long-distance running has become really big business especially in Europe. Overtraining becomes a vicious cycle and I don’t think enough research has been done on it pertaining to ultra-running. For me, the optimum race calendar is one 100-miler (160km) a year, two 100kms and then one or two shorter races, either marathon distance or 50km in length. Unlike a number of marathon runners, who take part in a maximum of three big races a year to preserve their bodies, some ultra-runners compete in up to eight big races a year, which is too physically taxing and will catch up with them at some point. I’m now at the stage of my career where I pick and choose my races. My main aim is to remain healthy in order to prolong my time at the top.
Sport24 asked: What impact has fatherhood had on you as a person and professional sportsman?
Ryan Sandes: While ultra-running is my livelihood and what I do professionally is really important to me, becoming a dad has had a big impact on my career and has made me realise that racing is not the be-all and end-all. My son, Max, has chilled me out even more and has made me shift my priorities. I am at the point in my life where I’m going with the flow and making the best of what I have, which has been really refreshing. I’m enjoying my running more than ever before because I’m feeling less pressure. As long as I get to the start line and always give it my best, that is good enough.
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