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Q&A Sessions: Ryan Sandes on how to conquer the mind, body and 100 miles

Ryan Sandes will set off from Sani Pass, Lesotho, for the Ultra-Trail Drakensberg 100 miler (160km) on 23 April. The accomplished runner on the overseas circuit talks to Luke Feltham ahead of his first 100 mile event on home soil

I must ask, what compels someone to run 100 miles?

Ha, I guess 100 miles has a huge physical challenge to it but also a big mental aspect to it too. I like marrying the two. I do find that when it comes to racing 100 miles it is probably my favourite distance. Like I say, it’s a big challenge so there’s a cool feeling of fulfillment once you’ve actually managed to get through it. During 100 miles there’s just so many ups and downs along the way, it really tests you. 

What was it about the Ultra-Trail Drakensberg race that appealed to you this year?

In a career of 14 years I’ve spent the majority of my time racing overseas. I’ve actually never raced a 100 miler on home soil. I actually was planning on doing it last year but unfortunately due to Covid the event was cancelled and I ended up running 100 miles around my house. Also I guess 100 milers are relatively new to South African trail running. Generally I think the events are between 50km and 100km. For me I think the Ultra-Trail Drakensberg would be the ultimate 100 miler in South Africa, because you start up in Lesotho with big mountains. I’ve spent a lot of time in the Drakensberg mountains running and training, and I really love it up here. You do a big loop up in Lesotho and you kind of drop down at the Twelve Apostles which kind of skirts along the side of Sani Pass, and then you do a big loop in South Africa before finishing back around Sani Pass. 

What has your preparation looked like ahead of this week?

I wouldn’t say it hasn’t been ideal but my plan was to run a 90km race and a 100km race in Europe in May and June. So I was doing some shorter and more intense training two weeks ago. It was only 10 days ago that I fully decided to run Ultra-Trail Drakensberg just due to being not able to travel overseas and that being risky, having to quarantine and stuff like that. Not my standard 100 mile buildup, which has bigger volume training weeks, but I think I’ve been running ultramarathons for 14 years now so I think I should have enough muscle memory come Friday.
I also think it’s a good thing to have less running in your legs and be a bit more fresh come the race. I’m relatively confident and looking forward to the race. And when I say “relatively confident” I mean that with a 100 mile anything could happen. You never get too far ahead of yourself going into a race like this.

And during the racing itself, how often will you refuel? What are you snacking on and drinking?

There are set aid stations. Up in Lesotho there are three aid stations; they’re quite far apart, maybe 20km to 30km apart. When you drop down into South Africa there are a couple more aid stations, probably between 15km and 25km apart. In Lesotho I’ll have someone crewing for me at two of the aid stations. And then in South Africa my wife will crew for me at three of the aid stations. At those stations, because it’s such a long way, I’ll have quite a variety of nutrition — from more solid foods, like potatoes and some fruit, all the way to water and Red Bull. Lots of liquids, some gels and sweets. I do mix it up quite a bit. Obviously up in Lesotho, running at such a high altitude, I’ll get in a lot of electrolytes. It’s quite interesting because I think it will be quite warm during the day but they’re also expecting it to be quite cold in the late afternoon, we might even be getting some snow up there. So yeah for a 100 miles I always prepare for everything. 

Marathon runners often speak about the cliché of hitting a wall. Do ultra-marathon runners have an equivalent? Presumably you’re dealing with it more than once in a 100 mile race? 

For sure. When I mentioned you have a lot of ups and downs, another good way to describe it is you’re hitting a wall. You generally do hit the wall a couple of times during a 100 miler. Hopefully it’s not too bad and you can recover. But generally I find you just need to back off a little bit, make sure you’re eating and drinking enough. Maybe get your heartrate down a little bit if it’s too high. And also just mentally regroup, not over panic: I always say that the person that remains the calmest over the event does the best. I do think that a 100 miles is such a long way that you do recover. It might be that you go through a really bad patch for an hour but then when you come out the other side you almost get a high again.

What’s the comradery like among the competitors in an event like this? On one hand you’re professional athletes chasing a victory, but on the other you’re all enduring this gruelling experience together over about 24 hours.

I think one of the cool things about trail running and ultrarunning, there is a really strong camaraderie and respect for one another. As you say, when you’re out there you’re racing against each other and you want to win and do the best you can do. But I think there’s also a respect for being out in big mountains like that. If another competitor had to run into trouble, generally guys would help each other out — if that person’s life was in danger or they were really struggling. It’s also quite a close-knit circle: the community is really tight and that’s something I really enjoy about trail running.

There must be a glorious cheat meal waiting at the end of the race. What are you tucking into?

It depends but I’m quite a big fan of hamburgers. Maybe a pizza. If it’s been a really long run then maybe both.

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Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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