Ryan Sandes Interview: The New Marathon Man

South African Ryan Sandes is a record break­er. He does it wher­ev­er he runs, on any kind of ter­rain. His wins include the desert races Plan­et Gobi and Sahara, the Jun­gle Marathon Ama­zon; he’s won in the Ata­ca­ma Desert, in Antarc­ti­ca and Nepal, the Leadville 100, Hong Kong, Australia…this list goes on. And by recent­ly claim­ing vic­to­ry at the 83 km La Advance Trail of the North Face Trans­granca­naria, he’s now the first per­son in his­to­ry to win an ultra-marathon trail run on every con­ti­nent of the globe. Cur­rent­ly he’s in Patag­o­nia for a race in Tor­res Del Paine, and here he shares his thoughts on the joys of long dis­tance run­ning, trav­el, and a life of adventure.

The Clymb: You start­ed trail run­ning only sev­en years ago. What got you inter­est­ed in it, and why have you com­mit­ted to it so ful­ly as opposed to any oth­er ath­let­ic endeav­or?
Ryan Sandes: I ran a marathon with a group of friends back in 2006 dur­ing my last year at Uni­ver­si­ty. I did not do much train­ing for it as I only decid­ed to enter it a few weeks before the start, but to my sur­prise I real­ly enjoyed it. Cross­ing the fin­ish line gave me a sense of ful­fill­ment and I guess it was like a drug and I want­ed more. I live on the back slopes of Table Moun­tain in Cape Town and before I knew it I was spend­ing all my spare time in the moun­tains running.

The Clymb: What’s it do for you?
Ryan Sandes: Trail run­ning is a form of med­i­ta­tion for me, it allows me to escape real­i­ty and brings me a lot of joy. I enjoy the adven­ture aspect of it and love trav­el­ing the world, meet­ing new peo­ple and see­ing some incred­i­ble landscapes. 

The Clymb: You’ve risen to the top of com­pe­ti­tion quick­ly, what do you cred­it that with?
Ryan Sandes: I real­ly enjoy what I do and I am pas­sion­ate about trail run­ning. If you love what you do then it is easy to be suc­cess­ful. I like set­ting myself chal­leng­ing goals and not stop­ping until I achieve them. I sup­pose you could call me stub­born deter­mined – I don’t stop until I achieve me goal. Noth­ing in life comes easy and hard work pays off. 

The Clymb: On a long run, is men­tal prepa­ra­tion as impor­tant as phys­i­cal? How do you pre­pare?
Ryan Sandes: Yes the men­tal side is just as impor­tant as the phys­i­cal side dur­ing an ultra event and at times is even more impor­tant. Phys­i­cal­ly I run any­thing between 12–25 hours a week to pre­pare. Men­tal­ly I try to visu­al­ize the run/race before­hand. I run through dif­fer­ent race sce­nar­ios (good, medi­um, bad, etc.) so that when it hap­pens dur­ing the run I am men­tal­ly pre­pared. It’s impor­tant to focus on the pos­i­tives and not the negatives.

The Clymb: How do you keep from get­ting burned out? What keeps you com­ing back?
Ryan Sandes: After a big race I take a week or two off to men­tal­ly fresh­en up. I stay away from fol­low­ing a set train­ing pro­gram for a cou­ple of weeks and just run for the love of it. If I feel like run­ning 10 min­utes then I only run for 10 min­utes; if I feel like run­ning for 5 hours then I will run for 5 hours. I love what I do, it enables me to be in con­trol of my own des­tiny and I get to push my phys­i­cal and men­tal bound­aries on a dai­ly basis. I also do some cross train­ing like moun­tain bik­ing to mix up the run­ning a bit.

The Clymb: By focus­ing so much on run­ning, do you ever feel like you’re miss­ing out on oth­er expe­ri­ences, or do you make it a point to ven­ture into oth­er areas of inter­est when pos­si­ble?
Ryan Sandes: I have had to make a num­ber of sac­ri­fices along the way and I don’t get to spend as much time with my friends as I would like to. I try and keep a bal­anced lifestyle though and make time to enjoy my oth­er inter­ests. It’s a learn­ing curve and I am learn­ing along the way.

The Clymb: The North Face Trans­granca­naria climbs 4000 meters over 83 kilo­me­ters. How much does that suck?
Ryan Sandes: The Trans­granca­naria is a tough race with some big climbs. It’s good val­ue for mon­ey with regards to ver­ti­cal meters climbed com­pared to KM’s run…It’s a tough race but that’s what trail run­ning is about, get­ting high up into the moun­tains and explor­ing new land­scapes while push­ing our own per­son­al abil­i­ties. My legs were tired after that race!

The Clymb: When you’re not train­ing for a spe­cif­ic race, what are your days like? 
Ryan Sandes: Gen­er­al­ly I will run in the morn­ing, then go to gym. In the after­noons I often do quite a bit of admin: inter­views, some­times pho­to shoots, etc. And on some days I run again in the after­noon. In between I like to eat a lot, take Than­di, my dog, for walks, drink cof­fee and spend time with my fiancé Vanes­sa. Gen­er­al­ly I like to be out­doors and I keep quite busy. Shop­ping malls are not for me.

The Clymb: Do you have a favorite race? If not a race, what about ter­rain?
Ryan Sandes: Every race is spe­cial in it’s own way. I love the West­ern States 100 race­course and race vibe. In South Africa the Otter Trail Run or Salomon Skyrun are my favorites. I like a trail with a vari­ety of ter­rain, rocky, sandy, mud­dy, hilly. As I have grown up on the coast I love run­ning coastal trails like the Otter Trail.

The Clymb: What are you up to in Patag­o­nia?
Ryan Sandes: I have always want­ed to go to the Tor­res del Paine Nation­al Park in Patag­o­nia so when the Patag­o­nia Inter­na­tion­al Marathon orga­niz­ers invit­ed me to come and run the 63km ultra I was, “Yes, please!” Ini­tial­ly it did not fit into my sched­ule but I have had an injury so I had to re-plan my sched­ule and it now fits in. I am get­ting here a week ear­ly to explore the area and the Tor­res del Paine Nation­al Park. As I said ear­li­er I love the adven­tur­ous life trail run­ning enables me to live and I can’t wait to explore Patag­o­nia. Liv­ing the Dream!