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Beyond Running with Ryan Sandes

ryan sandes
Image: Craig Kolesky

When I shook Ryan’s hand in front of The Roost in Noordhoek, a small town in the Cape Peninsula, I could see his grimace of pain coming from his injured shoulder. Just two days before he fell while running a descent at UT100, but this did not stop him from getting a top 10 finish at his home race.

If you followed trail running in the past 15 years, you already know why I wanted to meet Ryan. During his career, he stayed at the top of the sport defying what an endurance runner is. His accomplishments span from winning all 4 Desert Races and Western States to multi-day personal projects like the Himalaya Trail FKT (fastest known time) with his friend Ryno Griesel. Last year, he completed Navigate Lesotho, a 16-day running journey around the landlocked country within South Africa, setting another FKT with Ryno in his homeland.

Ryan has been the face of South African trail running for the past decade. He is more than a runner. He is a race director, a mentor for fellow South African runners and a Laureus Foundation ambassador. While he rediscovered his passion for racing in 2023, he prepares himself for life after running and how he leverages his influence to grow the sport in the country.

You took a break from racing in the past couple of years, then this year you went back to UTMB and closed the loop for the first time after many DNFs. What did it mean for you?


It was tough, to be honest. Since 2018, I focused more on personal projects. Last year, while I was circumnavigating Lesotho I got a stress fracture that made me realize that I should race till I can. At this point, there are only two races that appeal to me: UTMB and Hardrock. This year I focused more on those and started working with a coach, Jason Koop.


I had a good build-up to UTMB this year. I was feeling confident and hoping for a top-10 finish. I know the level of trail running improved massively in the last four years and I got a bit older as well. But having said that, the first goal was to finish the race because I'd never finished it before. The furthest I got was only 50 kilometers, which is not good. The first 40 kilometers went well. It was probably the best I felt. I was comfortable and nicely placed. Suddenly, my stomach turned. I couldn’t eat anything all the way to Courmayeur. I had no energy and I wanted to drop out. Then at Lac Combal, I saw one of the Salomon guys and I told him: I’m done. I'll get a lift with you and call my day. He refused and forced me to continue. So, I kept going. Then at the next aid station, I saw my coach and he suggested to stay focused on the small victories and see what I could do to finish the race. I took my time and felt better. Things started to get better, and I was able to move up 100 positions and finish 40th. It was nice to finish the race after how terrible I felt. It was a relief and a disappointment at the same time. I was happy to finish the race but I want to go back next year and give it one more go.

ryan sandes running
Image: Craig Kolesky

Beyond the race itself, what’s your sentiment about UTMB and its place in the sport?


There is a lot of negative stuff about UTMB, but at the same time, it has been great for the sport. It pushed the level of the sport. All the best athletes in the world are there racing each other. I've been part of the sport for a long time and I was part of its evolution. On one hand, the sport needs to grow and commercialize itself. On the other hand, you must do it in the right way preserving its ethos and spirit, which they are lacking at times. They can prevent taking the wrong direction and becoming too commercial. One thing I believe they don’t do well is looking after the athletes. The ratio between what it takes to win the race and the prize is unbalanced. This surprises me knowing they are owned by IRONMAN and how things are in triathlon.


In the end, there are different directions the sport can take. The two races that appeal to me the most are UTMB, which is super commercial, and Hard Rock, which is the complete opposite. There is space for different kinds of events in a growing sport like trail running.


The recently announced World Trail Majors seems to offer another direction. What was your reaction to the news?


Like I said, I've been around the sport for a long time and I took part in the Ultra Trail World Tour years ago. I ran Hong Kong 100, Transgrancanaria, and, obviously, Ultra Trail Cape Town. I know the race directors. It is exciting. They don’t want to be owned by UTMB but still collectively feel like they're part of something. They can help each other and look at ways to improve and grow the sport.


As an elite runner, I think it is another series. We have UTMB, Golden Trail, World Trail Majors, and Skyrunning. It feels too much. The big races are still going to be the ones that people care about. Not the series. My dream has always been to win Western States, not the Ultra Trail World Tour.

Ryan sandes and Ryno Griesel Navigating Lesotho
Ryan and Ryno Griesel during Navigate Lesotho. Image: Craig Kolesky

Why Hardrock then?


When I did Leadville for the first time in 2011, I didn't know about Hardrock. That year Kilian [Jornet] ran Western States, Julien [Chorier] ran Hardrock and I ran Leadville. I paced Julien and it was an incredible experience. This is why I want to go back.


When I first started doing 100 milers, Leadville and Western States were my choices because they are flatter. After running Ultra Trail Mount Fuji, Grand Raid, and UTMB, I feel I am ready for Hardrock. The other thing I have on my mind is that no one won Western States, Leadville, and Hardrock. I just need to be lucky that Courtney does not put it on her list [laugh].


Apart from the races, are you currently planning any personal projects?


I have a couple of ideas. I would love to attempt Skeleton Coast in Namibia again. It is hard to get permission because that area is very political. Then, I talked to Red Bull about a concept on Kilimanjaro. Another one always related to Lesotho is connecting all the peaks above 3,000 meters. Any of these won’t happen next year anyway. As I said, I still want to race. These projects take months of planning and training, so it is not easy to fit them into one season.


Looking back to when you started your journey into trail running, what is something that you could have never predicted?


I never expected the sport to grow this much. Even looking at South Africa, when I first started running in 2007 there were few races. The Hout Bay Trail Challenge, PUFfeR, and the Old Fisherman's Trail Challenge. Now, every weekend something is going on. The sport took off.


Another thing I did not see coming was live streams. I thought there would always be media around the races but nothing like live streaming. I thought it was impossible to stream a 100-mile race in the mountains.

ryan sandes utct
Image: Zac Zinn

 Looking at the future, what do you think is going to happen in the next five years?

I think it will get more segmented. UTMB will keep pushing forward on the commercial front, but there will be people who won’t go in that direction at stick to low-key events.


As you pointed out earlier, we might be at a point when we have too many circuits. Do you think some will disappear or lose importance in favor of a small group of races that will polarize the media, sponsors, and fans' attention?


The more professional and competitive the sport gets, the more similar to road running will be. The top runners do two marathons per year. Runners will become more specialized in terms of distances and terrains. This process already started. If you look back at what Kilian was doing years ago by winning any type of race, right now it is not possible anymore. This dynamic will disappear.


South Africa running culture is famous around the world and, after spending 10 days here in the country, I can testify that it holds up to the expectations. Why is running rooted in the local culture?


South Africa has always been big on endurance sports. Comrades and Two Oceans Marathon are two historical events. I remember every Easter weekend supporting my dad running. I think it is part of our DNA.


When it comes to trail running, it is growing right now. From a competitive point of view, I feel we dipped off a bit of pace compared to the rest of the world. There is a lack of competitiveness in the country that prevents athletes from growing. I would love to see more South Africans racing in Europe to compete with the best. There is a lot of talent in South Africa and Africa in general. I organize the Cape Town Trail Marathon and I am looking at ways to allow the best runners to travel to Europe. Then, I also want to find ways to have more international runners travel here, similar to what happens at UTCT.


One problem that I see is the focus on the ultra distances. Even this morning, three guys asked me why I did not run the 100-miler last weekend. Everyone looks at the long distances and I don’t think it’s good for the sport. I like the Golden Trail World Series which focuses on the short-distance races. It would be nice to see shorter races in South Africa. This will allow more up-and-coming guys to break into the global stage.

ryan sandes mountains
Image: Craig Kolesky

You are not just a runner, you are a race director and a mentor. How do all these projects fit together?


From early on in my career, I realized I couldn’t just run. It is important to do other things and create opportunities for life after running and at the same time being mentally stimulated. I can't just wake up and train. This is where the sport is going. When I was in France with other Salomon athletes before UTMB, I noticed that the only things they did were run, eat, and rest. I am not able to do that. Realistically, I have a few years of racing left. I want to be involved in the sport for as long as possible, even not as a pro athlete.


The Cape Town Trail Marathon is a new venture you embarked on recently. How do you plan to grow the event in the next years?


The event is part of the Cape Town Marathon, a race that always inspired me. Their objective is to become the first Marathon Major in Africa. The fastest runners in the world are from Africa so it would make sense. On the trail race, I would love to have more international athletes compete with the local guys. This works for both sides. I want to get the local guys in front of more eyes. This will help them massively.


Do you feel like the unofficial ambassador of South African trail running?


I guess I do. I'm very passionate about the sport. For me, it's more than just a sport. It is my lifestyle. I don’t want to be defined as the guy who dropped out of UTMB four times or who won Western States. I’d rather be known as someone who created something and helped others. I feel I can do this with my projects. For example, when I started the 13 Peaks Challenge [a route connecting the 13 peaks in the Cape Peninsula], I simply wanted people to go out and experience it for how beautiful it is. Running or hiking doesn’t matter.


South Africa is a beautiful place but there are big inequalities. Some people feel they have no hope. I am a Laureus Foundation ambassador. We use sports to uplift kids from disadvantaged areas. Trail running as a sport gave me a lot, so it is important to give back to others.


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