After five attempts, Ryan Sandes will be bringing the Western States 100 champion cougar trophy back to South Africa with him. In the following interview, Ryan talks about what it is about Western States that brings him back, how fatherhood has chilled him out, and how winning Western States is a dream come true.
Ryan Sandes, 2017 Western States 100 Champ, Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Meghan Hicks of iRunFar, and we’re here at the finish line of the 2017 Western States 100. We’re here in Auburn, California, with South Africa’s Ryan Sandes who is the men’s champion. Congratulations!
Ryan Sandes: Thanks so much. It was a dream come true yesterday.
iRunFar: When I think of you and Western States, I think of quite a relationship. You’ve been here a number of times. You have two finishes and two did-not-make-it-to-the-finish-lines, and now this win. What is your relationship with this race like?
Sandes: I suppose it’s like as you said, a little bit of a love-hate relationship. I came here in 2012 and finished second to Timothy Olson. For me it was the best or easiest 100 miler I’ve run in the sense that everything clicked and I felt so good, but Timmy was just in another league that day. Then in 2013, I thought I’d come back here and try to go one better but sprained my ankle badly about a month out, so that was done. In 2014, I came back again and just had a bit of a rough day and probably had too much racing. Then I really tried to focus on it in 2015 and woke up the day before the race with a stomach bug. Last year I actually skipped it, and I kind of thought that was the end. Then I think missing it for a year, I kind of realized how much the race means to me and how badly I wanted to be a part of it again. Luckily, I managed to get a special-consideration entry and everything seemed to line up yesterday.
iRunFar: Can you articulate what it is that draws you here? You’re from the other side of the world quite literally. This is a race that has conditions that are just tough all the time. It’s brutal, but there’s something that’s attractive about it. What gets in your blood about this race?
Sandes: I think there’s just so much history about the race. It is the original 100 miler. But also, I think the people make the race. I’ve met so many special friends here. They’re always so welcoming. I think that’s always a big draw card. Like you said, the race is just brutal. It’s probably not as exotic and pretty as other races, but I also think when you’re racing at the front end of the field, you’re not looking at views either. If it’s a little bit boring, who cares? I think I also really enjoy the course. It’s fairly runnable, and I think that suits my style of running. I suppose a lot of the gradients are kind of ‘douche grade,’ and I kind of find it easy to get into a rhythm and keep trucking along.
iRunFar: So, you’ve been here a number of times. You’ve also been here extra time ahead of the races. You know this course to probably really close to the back of your hand now. Can you talk about the parts of this course you really like and maybe the parts you like a little bit less?
Sandes: I think it always changes every year. I kind of really enjoyed the high country. I normally really enjoy the high country and enjoyed it yesterday. It was pretty tough going with all the snow. I nearly removed my knee cap once or twice just falling through the snow, so to see Jim [Walmsley] get through there so fast was pretty mind blowing. Other parts of the course—previous times I’ve run it I really enjoyed the river section as I just seem to get into a really nice rhythm there, but yesterday I kind of really battled, especially the last 5k of the stretch to the actual river crossing. I was just completely out of it. I tried to put on a bit of a poker face and just get across the river and just really keep on going because I knew Alex [Nichols] was making up ground. Obviously, it’s always nice to get onto the track and get across the finish line.
iRunFar: I think one of the tricks yesterday was to run your own race. You were in second place from the first time we saw you at mile 15 until you took over the lead coming down toward the river. Was it hard to race your own race given the antics of what was happening in front of you?
Sandes: No, I kind of realized with Jim going out so hard it was either going to be something really magical or he was going to go up in flames. Unfortunately, to me, it didn’t go his way. Like I said again, I was pretty skeptical of him being able to sub-14 hours in these conditions. As I said yesterday, he’s got bigger balls then me to try and do that. That was pretty impressive. Also, I give respect to him just the way he’s handling it. Speaking to him yesterday he was saying, “I went for it, and it didn’t work out.” He didn’t have any excuses or anything like that. I’m sure he’ll come back to get that sub-14 someday. Yeah, I really focused on running my own race, but I also felt in my previous races that I ended up coming from too far behind. I tried to push it a little bit just so I was in striking distance and didn’t have to try and make up too much ground in the really hot part of the day. It seemed to work. I think I kind of felt pretty smooth and comfortable in those early phases, so I thought I’d may as well push it while I was still feeling good.
iRunFar: An interesting facet in the top five in the men’s race is that it was pretty tight for a long time. You had very close chasers. Were you thinking about what was going on behind you and who might be coming and what pace you needed to maintain, or were you just trying to do your own race?
Sandes: No, definitely, I think coming into Foresthill… well, I suppose especially crossing the river and picking up my pacer, I was nervous about the guys behind me, and he told me that everyone was close. So I thought I could go from leading the race to ending up ninth or 10th.
iRunFar: Which could have happened the way it was.
Sandes: Yeah, to be honest, when I got out of the river, I shuffled along to get around the corner so no one could see me and I ended up walking or five minutes to kind of get my core temperature down. I realized in those conditions, it’s easy to get it wrong and end up walking it in. Yeah, that was a concern. Luckily Ryno [Griesel] pushed me quite hard. By the time I got to Pointed Rocks, I think I had a 20-minute gap. That definitely helped. Then I could kind of back off a bit because my legs were a bit bashed up by then.
iRunFar: So you got a report when you got to Pointed Rocks at mile 94 that you’d increased your gap and maybe could relax a teensy bit?
Sandes: Yeah, the aid station before where Hal Koerner was at…
iRunFar: Mile 90, the new ‘Quarry Road?’
Sandes: Yeah, he told me I was actually 22 minutes. I was like, Cool, that little climb up to Pointed Rocks, I could back off a little bit. But then actually a friend said there might have been conflicting reports and he might have only been five minutes, so then I actually panicked.
iRunFar: “I have to run now.”
Sandes: Yeah, so then I took off down to No Hands Bridge, and at No Hands Bridge, I heard it was 20 minutes, so I could back off a bit there.
iRunFar: Cruise in a little bit.
Sandes: Yeah, but I suppose the times were pretty slow yesterday. I was hoping to… I thought I would go a bit faster yesterday, but obviously the conditions kind of slowed things down.
iRunFar: I think it became one of those days where the actual time was irrelevant, and you were racing for the win under whatever the conditions are.
Sandes: Oh, for sure. Like I said, out of all my races, it’s the slowest one, but it will definitely be the most memorable.
iRunFar: You said at the finish line last night that winning this race was a dream come true. You’ve been here a number of times. You’ve had a second-place finish. You’ve had some heart-breaking not-make-it-to-the-starting-lines. What is it like to win a race you’ve thought about for so long?
Sandes: It’s pretty epic. To be honest, I probably haven’t really thought about it too much. I was pretty out of it last night.
iRunFar: It’s pretty amazing.
Sandes: Waking up this morning, it’s kind of slowly but surely sinking in. I suppose getting the cougar trophy will really let it sink in. This is the one race I’ve always dreamed of winning. Obviously a race like UTMB is huge, but there’s something special with this race being the original and just kind of all the history that goes with it is really special.
iRunFar: You’re life has changed a lot recently. You’re a dad to Max. We got to meet and spend some time with Max at the finish line last night. What’s it like trying to keep things at a high level and keep your training at a high level and keep yourself healthy with that little booger in your life?
Sandes: It’s been really awesome. I think the last I spoke with you was at Grand Raid Réunion, and I think he was born a few weeks before. I didn’t have a lot of sleep then, but it has gotten better, and Vanessa has been really cool. I think it’s chilled me out a lot more. I just realize that a race is just a race. There’s so much stuff you can’t control. I think you can control the whole process, but you can’t control the end result.
iRunFar: Where the chips fall for your best day.
Sandes: Yeah, I think that helps just being a lot more relaxed. It was awesome seeing him out there yesterday when I had one or two low moments. It was definitely cool to see him. Yeah, I think a lot has changed but for the better. Yeah, sometimes you do get a lot less sleep, but I think two years ago I’d have been a lot more stressed. I’m a professional athlete. I’ve got to get eight or nine hours of sleep per night, and now it’s just like, make do. It’s not that I get a heck of a lot less sleep, but you make the best of what you’ve got. Sometimes you have a few short nights, but it’s not the end of the world.
iRunFar: I was quite impressed with Max’s endurance yesterday. He was all over the course and had a good attitude the entire time. I feel like he might have a little bit of ultrarunning blood in him.
Sandes: Yeah, he’s quite big, so he’s going to have to drop a few kg’s to be an ultrarunner.
iRunFar: Just baby weight at this point.
Sandes: Yeah, I think he might be a climber. He seems to be pulling himself up everywhere. Yeah, he was a little trooper yesterday. He didn’t moan once, and he was out there. I think he even crossed the finish line before me yesterday.
iRunFar: Yeah, he beat you. He also beat you to putting his face on the track and licking the finish line. Let’s see what this tastes like. Last question for you—what’s next? What does your 2017 season involve?
Sandes: I’m going to go to Chamonix. I’m down for CCC. I’m always kind of toying with the idea of upgrading to UTMB, but I think it would be stupid for me coming from 2015 where I was a bit overtrained and stuff like that. Yeah, CCC will be the next focus, and then I’ll take it from them. I may do Ultra-Trail Cape Town at the end of the year which now part of the Ultra-Trail World Tour.
iRunFar: CCC looks as competitive as CCC’s ever been. To me, it looks like CCC is as competitive as UTMB two years ago—super competitive race this year.
Sandes: Yeah, it’s exciting. I think that’s what’s really cool about the sport. It’s definitely getting a lot more competitive. There are so many new guys just breaking out everywhere. I think it will be a really interesting race. I think CCC is the part of the UTMB route I really enjoy.
iRunFar: I think we actually have the final finisher of the race coming down from Robie Point now… over the finish time but going to complete the whole distance. Pretty amazing.
Sandes: Wow, that’s crazy.
iRunFar: Congratulations to you on your win at the 2017 Western States 100. We’ll see you at CCC.
Sandes: Thanks so much. Thanks for your awesome support of the race.
iRunFar: Yeah, we’re tired, too.
Sandes: Get some sleep.