Ryan Sandes takes the high road

Ryan Sandes does not do "normal" things – not unless you consider running long distances in some of the world's most inhospitable terrains as normal. He also does what he does extraordinarily well.

Sandes, a Cape Town resident, is one of the world's best trail runners. He has run races on all seven continents and in 2010 became the first athlete to win all four of the Four Deserts races. Each self-supported race was a six- or seven-day event in which competitors had to run 250km.

The four races took place in the Atacama Desert in Chile, the Gobi Desert in China, the Sahara Desert in Egypt and the series ended in Antarctica. Time magazine described the Four Deserts challenge as the second-toughest endurance race in the world.

Sandes is only 30 years old, but he has won 20 ultramarathons around the world and collected a hatful of awards along the way.

It would be easy to expect him to be full of swagger and bravado, considering his achievements, but he is polite and humble about his career.

Sandes believes that the random nature of trail running is what attracts him to the sport.

"I've run on all seven continents and I find trail running quite unpredictable. One minute you are going up a really steep mountain and the next you are jumping down a steep slope," Sandes said.

Unpredictable nature
"You never know what could happen next. People say I must be crazy to do it, but I find it is a way to express myself."

It is the unpredictable nature of trail running that stops Sandes from attempting traditional ultra-distance road races such as the Comrades.

"I find trail running a lot more exciting than running on the road, where you seem to spend your time dodging cars and breathing in car fumes. And it is quite repetitive just putting one foot in front of the other," he said.

Running long distances in terrain so rough that the average person would think twice about even driving the route would make it easy for any athlete to lose focus, but Sandes said he kept going by paying attention to the scenery around him, breaking the race down into manageable distances and thinking of all the people who support him.

"I try to absorb the beautiful areas that I'm running in and focus on the scenery. I also try to break the race down into small goals. The thought of running 100 miles can be mentally difficult, but if you break the race down to 10 to 15 kilometre sections, it helps to get you to the finish line.

"The thought of the people behind me, like my family and sponsors, also keeps me going. When I'm running, I don't feel like I'm doing it just for myself."

Sandes's rise in the world of trail running has been meteoric, because he ran his first marathon only in 2006 when he took part in the Knysna Forest Marathon.

Two short years later, he won his first big international event when he conquered the Gobi March, a 250km self-supported race over six days.

Physical fitness
Sandes described the win as the most special of an illustrious career.

"The first big race I won was the Gobi Desert. It was my first major ultramarathon win and it was massive for me because I didn't expect it," he chuckled.

Winning races all over the world is not an easy task and Sandes has to work hard to maintain his physical fitness.

His success has also meant that he has acquired enough sponsors not to have to hold down a job – a difficult achievement in South Africa for someone who competes in what is not a mainstream sport.

"For a 100-miler, I run about 15 to 22 hours a week plus time in the gym. With physios and so on, it works out to about 30 hours a week flat out. It is like a full-time job, but luckily my sponsors have helped me to live my dream.

"It was quite difficult in the beginning [to find sponsors] and quite frustrating, but I did get it right fairly quickly. You have to look at the bigger picture and trail running is not a mainstream sport in South Africa.

"But media commitments take up time and I also give motivational speeches, so I'm usually busier than if I had a nine-to-five job," he said.

Specific elements
Sandes also has to tailor his training schedule to the different types of races he might be running and the different terrain in which the race might be taking place.

"I like to focus my training on each individual event. I will pick two or three big events and gear my training to the specific elements of those races.

"Some self-supported races you run with a backpack weighing 5kg to 10kg, whereas if you are running a 100-miler in America, you could be running with only a water bottle."

But it is not all fun and games for Sandes and he said running in the Amazon jungle was not something that he would like to do again.

"Running in the jungle in the Amazon was quite an eye-opener. I don't think I'd go back. You see big snakes, some guys saw jaguars and, when you cross the rivers, there are piranhas. When you are sleeping in your hammock you can see lots of red eyes around you. The wildlife is not your friend in the Amazon," he said.


Sandes has been battling an ankle injury recently, but overcame it to win the gruelling Saloman Sky Run in the Eastern Cape in a record time of 12 hours 35 minutes.

He describes it as "probably the biggest trail run in South Africa" and it was his first self-navigation race.

Sandes is also the creative force behind the Red Bull LionHeart event in Cape Town on November 23 and 24.

The event is simple. Athletes run up and down Lions Head in Cape Town in a knockout format until the last athlete is left standing.

The style of the event is appropriate, because it is often Sandes who is the last man standing.




Some of the world's ultra-ultras


Badwater Ultramarathon, United States
Beginning at 85m below sea level in Death Valley, eastern California, and ending 216km later, 2530m above at Mount Whitney, Badwater is considered one of the toughest ultras going – and temperatures of up to 55C don't help. This year, Mike Morton won the race in 22 hours and 55 minutes. – 2013 dates to be confirmed

Highland Fling, Scotland
An unsupported 85km race along the West Highland Way from Milngavie near Glasgow to Tyndrum, the Fling is fast becoming one the United Kingdom's most popular ultras, with 363 people finishing this year. The shores of Loch Lomond offer plenty of scenery to contemplate while you pound out the kilometres. – Next race April 17 2013

Yukon Arctic Ultra, Canada
If you fancy upping the ante a tad, try running on snow – for up to 690km (there are 160km and 480km options for any lightweights), from Whitehorse to Dawson City. You can run, cycle or ski it, but you can't argue with the organiser's declaration that this is the world's coldest ultra – it can drop to 50Cdegrees below freezing. – Next race February 3 to 16 2013

Norseman Xtreme Triathlon, Norway
Sometimes going wild for one sport simply isn't enough. The Norseman takes three to their extremes, dropping competitors off the back of a ferry 3.8km off shore in the Hardangerfjord. After swimming to the shore they then cycle 180km, followed by a 42.2km run – uphill. – 2013 dates to be confirmed

Dragon's Back, Wales
This five-day stage race was revived last weekend after 20 years – with the original winner, Helene Whitaker, in the line-up. It starts at Conway Castle and traces the spine of Wales, finishing 320km later at Carreg Cennen Castle. It's fully supported, meaning hot tea and a tent with sleeping bag will greet you every night. – 2013 dates to be confirmed

Amazing Maasai Ultra, Kenya
Kenya's only ultra began in 2010 as a way of supplying scholarships to sponsor Maasai girls through secondary school. Runners follow a 75km dirt-track course through the foothills of Mount Kenya, which is open country with steady uphill stretches. – © Guardian News & Media 2012

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Jason Humphries
Jason Humphries works from Tallahassee. Writer, Filmmaker and Video Editor, and lover of Vanilla Cream Soda. Jason Humphries has over 50 followers on Twitter.

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