Bowled away by the monumentous acheivements and extreme staying power of Ryan Sandes, we had to find out for ourselves exactly what makes him tick. Cheryl Stevens catches up with Ryan in an interview. Your running career started in June 2006 ' your friends were entering a half marathon and you decided to enter the full marathon. Why?
We were all going down to Knysna and my friends were doing a half marathon there. By the time I got to register the half marathon was full ' so I decided to do the full marathon. I thought, half marathon, full marathon, how different can it be?
You went on to run two further marathons and then decided to enter the Gobi March, (250 km, seven day, six stage race)? How could you even begin to think you could run that? (Considering 42km was the farthest you had ever run?)
I was on the internet looking at different races when I came across the 4 Desert Races ' I am naturally competitive and wanted to try a desert race. It never crossed my mind that I couldn't do it. I realised that for this sort of race I would need a proper structure and proper training. Four months of training was key. We did every race specific training, I would run with a backpack and simulate the desert heat by running in a winter jacket wearing a beanie and gloves.
During the Gobi March you heard on day 1 you were in 8th place, and went on to win every stage? What was going on in your mind and body at that moment to change gear and win every stage and the race?
The race was important to me, I had saved up all my money to go and I wanted it to be a great experience. When told I was in 2nd position, my competitive attitude kicked in ' 'live everyday like it's your last' is my motto. With this in mind and my adrenalin pumping, I managed to catch the leader and then knew I could overtake him. On the last day I felt big pressure to do well. I had seen the Cape Times were following my race and had done some international newspaper interviews at the race ' I didn't want to let anyone down in SA.
You talk about hitting a wall ' and finding your ultra marathon mojo? Tell us about that?
On the last day of the Gobi, I hit the wall big time. I was exhausted and probably dehydrated. I was sure I wouldn't make it to the end, so I focused on every step. Literally concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. How important it is to eat correctly and hydrate was a big learning for me. I learnt that pouring water over my head was very helpful in cooling me down and rehydrating me.
In the next 3 years you ran all 4 desert races and become the only competitor to have won every stage of every race? Was that your ultimate goal? Did that drive you?
When I got home after the first race, I thought I would never want to wear another pair of running shoes in my life. The Gobi was some of the hardest training of my life. After the race I felt quite empty, I had been focusing on the race for so long and now it was over. When I got home I had to think about, what next, and more running just seemed like the next thing to do. The thing is I love running and I will keep running as long as I love running.
In the desert how do you manage the heat and the solitude?
I enjoy the solitude, I am good on my own and with my thoughts. Running on your own in the desert means you have a lot to do; you have to keep checking your direction and time, you have to keep eating and drinking. As for the heat, I ran in the summer across sandy beaches, fully clothed in my winter running gear. Your body gets used to the heat and the more you can simulate and prepare the body for something, the better chance you have of success.
You then take on the most famous single day ultra-marathon trail races ' up to 100 miles (160km) in a day? Why?
You evolve as an athlete. Single day races were becoming popular ' there was not much trail running at that stage of my career. It was the next step for me, a 1 day trail run covering 160 km.
What does your mind and body go through when you run at your peak for 7 hours non-stop? Surely there must be patches when you want to stop or give up?
No you get into a rhythm. The mind can get in the way and start to complain on a 3 or 4 hour trail run. On longer runs the mind may start cluttered but as you start to connect with the nature around you and focus on yourself in the present moment the mind becomes uncluttered.
You are now an elite ultra marathon runner. Probably the (number 1) best in the world? How do you become that in such a short time?
It has been very specific training, weather and terrain training that simulates the race I am going to run. I have trained in the Drakensburg for altitude training and have been lucky to train in my back yard which is Table Mountain.
What makes you able to do this and why can most of the population not do it? Most of us get sore knees and joints from running and have a very short lifespan to run.
It gets easier year on year. I had a bad year in 2014 ' I pushed myself too hard and did not find a good balance, but I have learnt over the years. I think some adapt quicker than others and I have been lucky to adapt quickly. Rugby players have a limited lifespan in rugby, they can only take so many knocks, same as trail running ' there is a life span and I am still able to run and enjoy my running. I have had my injuries, but think trail runners have less injuries than road runners due to the constantly changing terrain.
Our June issue is about mental clarity. What exactly do you go through to train and prepare you mind for a race? What does a mind training day look like for you?
A few days before a race, I shut the world out and zone out. I get myself into race mode. I go through the whole race and imagine myself running a good race ' I also think about what might go wrong and get all the options straight in my head. During a race I stay calm ' even when I hit a crisis, like get lost or not have the right nutrition, I keep a positive mind set. I have to believe 100% that I can run the race and win the race. I don't need anyone else telling me that ' only I can tell myself!
Can you briefly touch on your diet? You need to consume a lot of calories in a day ' how do you manage to consume that amount (especially if you are running for most of it)?
I eat mostly healthy non-processed food at home, but I enjoy life and will eat a burger! When I run I mostly use GU's and sugar to keep me going. I find sugar converts best to glucose and works best for my body. It is more important to make sure that my metabolism can efficiently digest both carbs and protein, than worry about which one to eat. Sometimes I eat carbs and sometimes I do an easier run on fat. I am not a protein or carb person ' not one or the other. I don't believe in carbo loading days before. We only have storage capacity for 2 hours of stored glucose ' you can't store more than that, so there is no point in loading more than that.
You have achieved so much, will there be a point where you can't achieve anymore? What then?
I am entering the 'Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc' that I had to drop out of last year. I would also like to do The Hardrock Hundred Mile Endurance Run in Colorado and traverse the Rwenzori Mountains in Uganda. I am making a documentary at the moment on the progress and growth of trail running. Running is a lifestyle for me.
What have you learnt, above anything else from having a life time of running?
To make the most of life. To live your dreams and to be in control of your destiny. In Nepal and Madagascar the people are poor and have nothing, no material wealth, but they are happy people.
Your life is about your own choices and you can choose the material things or you can choose to have less material things and live your dream. Put a plan in place for your dreams ' start with mini goals and as you realise your goals set higher goals. Your goals may shift and move, but keep motivated and tick off your goals as you reach them. If your life's dream is to travel more, then sell your material things, keep the basics and travel. It is all your choice.
PHOTO: Kolesky Red Bull Content Pool
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