South Africa’s Ryan Sandes starts 2014 off right with a big win at the The North Face Transgrancanaria. In this interview, Ryan talks about his conservative race start, where he started to make his move, who he worried about as competition, and what happened during his temporary disqualification the day after the race. He also talks about his next adventure, an FKT attempt on the Drakensberg Traverse in his home country and Lesotho.
For more on the race, you can read our 2014 TNF Transgrancanaria results article.
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Ryan Sandes, 2014 TNF Transgrancanaria Champion, Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Bryon Powell of iRunFar here with Ryan Sandes after his win at the 2014 TNF Transgrancanaria. How are you doing?
Ryan Sandes: Yeah, good. I’m pretty chuffed with how the race went. My legs are a bit sore this morning, but I suppose that’s expected.
iRunFar: You sort of knew what to expect. You were here last year and ran the 80-some-kilometer version.
iRunFar: How did last year’s race go?
Sandes: It went pretty well. The season started off for me well last year. I won it. Obviously I had a couple of setbacks later on in the year, but yeah, obviously I knew kind of what to expect. The course was a bit different this year, but yeah, it’s obviously quite a brutal course with lots of climbing and descending.
iRunFar: You came back this year. You weren’t up in the front pack really. You were off that. Was that the plan all day or did you have a rough patch to start?
Sandes: I wasn’t feeling the greatest to start, to be honest. But I’ve never done that much climbing and descending in a race before, so I really wanted to pace myself and take it easy since I didn’t know how my legs were going to do. The plan was to take the first half of it easier, and then if I was feeling good to push on in the second half. Luckily it all seemed to go according to plan.
iRunFar: Did you wait until—there’s sort of a start of 50k of downhill 75k in—did you wait until that to make a move or did you do some on the final climbs?
Sandes: No, it was actually that second big climb or second of two big climbs going into Garañón at 82k where it’s like 20k of climbing. I just started to push and my legs actually felt quite strong, and I started passing a couple of guys. Obviously when you start to pass a couple of guys you kind of get amped, and I just kept on going.
iRunFar: When did you know you sort of had a chance to catch the lead group because they were five to seven minutes up on you? There were a couple of them. You figure somebody is going to keep rolling.
Sandes: For sure. Timothy [Olson] was looking really strong because at Garañón you do an out and back loop so you pass all the guys. I realized I was two or three minutes behind them. I saw Sebastien [Chaigneau] looked like he was taking a bit of a strain, but Timothy looked really strong. I remember from two years ago at Western States that Timothy doesn’t give up too easy. He’s a super-strong guy and competitor. So I kind of caught up to him and thought he was going to really make me work really hard, but luckily we were on a really big descent and I took off a little bit. He didn’t follow.
iRunFar: So it was a pretty distinct move and he didn’t mark it?
Sandes: No, we were just going and I caught up to him and we chatted for a bit and I kept on going. Obviously I think it was still really early in the season for him, and I’m quite sure he’s focused on Hardrock.
iRunFar: You do have the somewhat advantage of coming from the Southern Hemisphere and you’ve had all summer to get your training and your vert.
Sandes: Yeah, for sure, it’s been really hot in South Africa, so I really enjoy the warm conditions. Yeah, I’ve been doing a lot of training out in the Drakensberg where there’s a lot of up and down. I think my climbing has improved over the last couple of months.
iRunFar: It was quite cold at night on the north side of the island, but even standing around yesterday midday it was quite warm.
Sandes: It was. It felt really warm the last 20 to 30k. I always like to race in hot conditions, but I actually think I preferred the cooler temperatures in the night.
iRunFar: How was navigating with the four or five races combined? Coming down the descent, how did you deal with the flood of humanity?
Sandes: Yeah, it was a little bit tricky because the marathon started at exactly the same time I left Garañón, so I got stuck right at the back of the marathon group. It was a steep climb going up from the start for 200 or 300 meters, so it took me about 10 minutes to get through everyone. I was a bit tired, so I wasn’t shouting or screaming too much. I just had my head down trying to power through. It was pretty cool seeing a lot of other people out on the course. It’s always nice to be passing people. I think from a racing point of view, it’s always quite tricky because you never know if the person catching up to you is a marathon runner or a half-marathon runner or an actual competitor from the 125k.
iRunFar: Fortunately that late in the race you probably know…
Sandes: I never know with Timothy because he’s a great competitor. Every time I looked back I saw a couple of…
iRunFar: There were a lot of green shirts…
Sandes: Yes, a lot greenish shirts as I’d look back a couple of times and got a little bit nervous—that turned out not to be too much.
iRunFar: You hung on. You said you were training up in Drakensburg. Yesterday you announced that you’re doing an FKT with one of your buddies. What is it?
Sandes: Yeah, it’s basically the Drakensburg Grand Traverse. It’s 220k basically crossing the Drakensburg Mountain Range. It’s in Africa. It’s quite a gnarly mountain range. There are no proper trails there; it’s really unforgiving terrain. We’re going to have a go. The current record is about 60 hours or just over. You’re kind of moving at 5k to 6k/hour. It’s really, really slow. From recce-ing the course initially, I thought we should really be able to go a lot faster, but the terrain is so brutal obviously being as high altitude as all the peaks are at about 3,400 meters.
iRunFar: What’s the total vert on that?
Sandes: It’s about 9,500 meters.
iRunFar: So not much more than this.
Sandes: No, a lot of the time you’re traversing around the sides of mountains, but there are no trails and you’re on the sides of pretty steep faces. That makes it pretty tricky.
iRunFar: So that’s by far going to be… you haven’t done any adventures near that long?
iRunFar: What’s the longest race or outing you’ve done so far?
Sandes: We were out there for one of the recces for 30 or 33 hours. That was pretty… mentally it’s mind-numbing because you’re moving so slowly and you hit the first peak really quickly and the next peak is 55k later. It just kills you. But also the sleep deprivation is going to be quite interesting. I’m doing it with Ryno Griesel who is an adventure racer.
iRunFar: That will help. He can tell you what’s coming and what’s legit.
Sandes: For sure. He’s super experienced. He can go for seven days without sleeping so it’s going to be quite interesting.
iRunFar: Have you guys thought about when you’re planning to start? Are you starting at night so you have… how long are you trying to finish it in? Two days?
Sandes: Yeah, anything between 45 to 50 hours we’d be happy with. We’ll be looking to start at 12 o’clock at night.
iRunFar: So a lot of the end of the second day will be during daylight.
Sandes: Yeah, ideally it would be awesome to finish at the end of the second day so we’d only have two nights.
iRunFar: Congratulations on your great race here and good luck on your project.
Sandes: Thanks. Yeah, I’m looking forward to it. Thanks for all the great coverage of the race. I know the folks back in South Africa really enjoyed it.
iRunFar: Our pleasure.
Reinstatement as Champion
iRunFar: Bryon here again with a quick follow-up with Ryan. There’s a little bit of drama today. The awards ceremony for Transgrancanaria 125k was scheduled for noon. At 11:00, I get an email from the press office saying Ryan’s disqualified for lack of a thermal blanket. I forward that to you. This is like 40 minutes before the awards ceremony. What are you thinking?
Sandes: I was actually walking out the door to come down to the awards ceremony. Luckily I saw your post on Twitter and my heart sank and I got a bit of a fright. I had all the gear at the finish. I couldn’t understand what the issue was. But obviously yesterday there was a bit of a miscommunication or a language barrier. I was asked for a ‘cover’ which I didn’t quite know what it was. Obviously they were referring to the space blanket. I did show all my stuff, but there was chaos at the finish and they kept saying everything was okay. Then it was all forgotten about until this morning.
iRunFar: At Garañón or one of the later checkpoints, I don’t know, maybe at 50k to go, they checked your bag.
Sandes: Yes, I had all the gear and the space blanket. There’s no way I’m going to drop a space blanket which weighs 50 grams, but also I’ve always been a big believer in having all the mandatory gear.
iRunFar: And you’ve run a lot of stage races where that’s a huge component of the race.
Sandes: Yes, for sure.
iRunFar: If you don’t have 2,000 calories/day of food, you’re out.
Sandes: You’re done. Yeah, so I normally double check things four or five times.
iRunFar: This morning after getting your heart racing, you did have a meeting with the race organization.
Sandes: Yes, it was very cool. They sorted it out really quickly and very efficiently. Obviously the organization of the Transgrancanaria is separate from the sports body that governs the rules and the regulations, so I managed to meet up with them both and got the decision overruled.
iRunFar: So they understood that you wouldn’t know what a ‘cover’ is?
Sandes: Yes, they said it was a clear ‘lost in translation’ issue. So luckily it all turned out well.
iRunFar: So there was excitement, but congratulations on the now official win.
Sandes: Thank you.
iRunFar: And a quick bonus question for you, Ryan. There’s a lot of wildlife in South Africa. Here you are going to be out by yourself or with one mate, what are you most afraid of out there?
Sandes: Probably snakes. Especially back at home I see so many snakes. Last year I had one or two close encounters. Luckily I actually think they’re more afraid of us than we are of them. I was running down a trail early on last year and came across a big cobra across a trail but I couldn’t slow down in time. It kind of reared up. It must have been this far away from me. I finally managed to stop and just froze. I thought he was going to bite me, but luckily he kind of just stood up and kind of went down again.
iRunFar: So are you bringing anti-venom or do you just have an emergency contact?
Sandes: Yeah, when I’m running I try to let people know where I’m running just in case. The problem with anti-venom is there are so many different kinds of snakes, and also it expires pretty quickly if you’re running in the hot sun; so it would be quite an expensive process. Generally, I think we are pretty safe. Otherwise there are no real wild animals in the Drakensburg. Again I think they’re more scared of us.
iRunFar: Cool. Stay safe out there.