For those familiar with his career, failure seems an odd word to associate with Ryan Sandes.
The South African has spent 15 years as an ultrarunner, earning accolades that established him as one of the sport’s very best.
But in an intimate documentary from Salomon, Sandes reveals that “the fear of failure” has been a major driver of his accomplishments. While he acknowledges a life and career that he “could have only dreamt of,” it often hasn’t felt like a dream to him.
On the contrary, everything he’s done felt like an outgrowth of “a series of setbacks, disappointments, and failures,” he says in the film.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned is to never give up, and that everything we need is within us,” Sandes says. “And that’s the journey.”
Ode to Failure: Life Lessons From Running
For all that Sandes talks of feeling like a constant failure, the scope of his running career tells a different story.
He first made a name for himself by winning four desert stage races. By 2010, he had won in the Atacama Desert in Chile, the Gobi Desert in China, the Sahara Desert in Egypt, and Antarctica. Each of these grueling races involves six to seven days of unsupported running over 250 kilometers.
Yet when he placed second in the Western States 100 in 2012, an accomplishment many might call a career highlight, “it was such a disappointment,” Sandes says. While calling that feeling “petty,” he also couldn’t deny it.
That failure chased him for years, pushing him to train harder and suffer longer, until he finally won the iconic race in 2017.
“People love to ask: How do you run 100 miles?” he says. “It’s about breaking the race down into bite-size chunks … And I think it’s the same with life, and having setbacks.”
The Challenges at UTMB
Perhaps no failure has haunted Sandes quite like UTMB.
The massive, 100-mile race through the Alps has always been one of his biggest goals. Yet he has failed to complete it four times. Never one to give up, he planned to return to try once again in 2022. But the documentary follows him to the doctor’s office, where Sandes gets imaging done on his pelvis.
The video doesn’t tell us what he learns from that visit, but the result is clear: Sandes decided against competing.
“I’m bummed not to be a part of it this year but I am feeling really motivated to get back there next year,” he wrote on Twitter on August 10, 2022.
For Sandes, it’s clear that these setbacks affect him deeply, despite the understatement of his words. Failure doesn’t just make you work harder, he says. It gives you the opposite of what you might expect: faith.
“It’s easy to look back on things, you know. Wax lyrical and get all deep and poetic,” Sandes says. “But you do learn slowly. Your faith kind of increases. I have more faith now knowing that as I failed along the way, failure itself has become a driving force in my motivation.”
Call for Comments
- What did you take from the film?
- Anything you can apply to your own running? Or to life in general?