July 20, 2010

Interview: Ryan Sandes (the worlds leading ultra marathon runner)


Image courtesy of Nick Muzik.

I recently grabbed the chance to interview Ryan Sandes. If you have not heard of him, shame on you. He is probably one of the 3 most awarded athletes in South Africa. His sport, ultra STAGE marathon running (across deserts no less) is quite niche and like a Greg Minnaar, he is not a household name. I wanted to get some background questions to why he is so good, but in reality I ended up with the knowledge that the guy works harder than anyone I know. Plain and simple. He is willing to out train every single other hopeful ultra STAGE marathon runner in the world. Period. Full Stop. #BOOM Let’s get to the questions:

1. We have as many nerve endings in our feet as in our nether regions, hence the joy of running. Runners “high” is something I am sure you can contest to. Are you more affected when running by what you feel, or by what you see, seeing as you are someone who runs in the beautiful wide.

I would say it is a combination of both, but definitely what I see effects how I feel. When running in places like the Amazon Jungle, Atacama Desert, Fishriver Canyon, and Table Mountain I am on a constant “runners high” and running up a hill, dune or through a swamp does not feel like hard work. I become like a little kid exploring a new play park and I want too see more and hence keep running. One of the main attractions of trail running for me is the awesome environment I get to run in.

2. I have a suspicion that you have an inherent engine of economy. The way you have risen to the top has been miraculous to some, but I would hope to think you spend 10 000 hours doing something to build your engine as a kid. Economy is surely the biggest factor to your kind of running. What was your childhood like in terms of (subconsciously, of course) teaching your body to run/function on as little effort as possible? How much focus do you place in your current training on economy of movement?

My Dad ran a few Two Oceans marathons when I was about four or five years old and some of my earliest childhood memories are of me running around the garden with his medals on pretending I had just won the Two Oceans! But this was short lived and my main focus was rugby as I think it is every South African kid’s dream to play for the Springboks. Playing flank at school I always had to be one of the fitter guys on the rugby field so maybe that was the start of were I learnt how to run far..

Naturally I have quite an unusual running style but it is really economical so I have not tried to change anything, as it seems to be working. I spend a lot of time on the trails getting my body used to running long distances and this definitely helps my body adapt to being more economical.

3. Your sport is so much more niche than mine. Running is the biggest sport in the world, but Ultra STAGE Race Running is tiny. A niche which you are the worlds leading athlete at. Would you move to a more mainstream version of running if the opportunity existed to improve your professional career or are you focused on your niche for the foreseeable future?

I have set myself three major goals that I would like to achieve as an ultra distance runner. That is to win the 4 Desert Series (, the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc and the Badwater Ultra marathon (

The 4 Desert Series and the other multi day races I have run have been loads of fun and it has put me on the map as a runner but if all goes well I would like to focus on running the Mont Blanc Ultra next year. This is a different style of race to what I am used to…it is a non stop 100 miler through the Mont Blanc mountain range. I see this as a progression from the multi day stage races and the 100-miler scene is a lot more commercial. It will be a huge challenge to be competitive at the Mont Blanc, but I am excited to keep pushing my physical and mental boundaries.

And then in a few years time I would like to end off with a Badwater Ultra or few…. To me this is the ultimate challenge!

Dean Nam pics2

Namibia Desert Race pic by Dean Leslie

4. I talk about solitude a lot. You seem like a guy who understands that. I have never heard you qualify a statement you have made, which is a very rare commodity. Are you someone who runs because it puts you in scenarios of pure solitude, where you may have to question how the hell you are going to make it back home, or do you find the solitude of your sport leaves you craving contact with the “normal” world?

I am someone who enjoys being on my own and in my own headspace. After about four or five hours of running that’s is when I think most clearly. Running long distances is just a state of mind… I love doing what I do and spending 7 hours on the trails is not hard work for me – I see it as play! I break my longer runs down into mini segments focusing on the present and taking in the surrounding environment… time seems to fly by when I am in the “zone” and I don’t have a worry in the world. Endurance events are all about keeping a positive state of mind and having fun out there…

5. I heard that you sleep on the floor, in tents and have to carry your own food. I also heard you don’t have water to wash your kit in and that its very rough at these stage races. Not quite Sani2c vibes where there is decadence on tap, so to speak. Tell us about the unglamorous side of your races. People underestimate how tough your races are, in fact.

Yeah these races are fully self-supporting, the only thing competitors are given is rations of water and we sleep in massive ten man army tents. To be competitive during the race I go as light as possible and therefore take the bare minimum… I take one pair of race kit so things get smelly (I am not a hit with the chix during the race), I don’t brush my teeth and I live on freeze-dried meals, smash and Perpetuem. I also don’t take a sleeping mat to save weight which has backfired a few times…the Fishriver Canyon is quite a rocky place!

6. I also heard there is no prize money. How are you funding trips, training and all the recovery processes?

Multi day stages races are really expensive because of the remote areas they take place in. The average cost of a race entry excluding any flights etc is $3 000 and my Antarctica entry is $10 000..

Most of the races do not have prize money so when I tell people I run 250km with all my food on my back and pay up to $10 000 in race entry fees I get a few strange looks… my answer is cross that finish line and you will know why I do it!!..

So I would not be living my dream without my major sponsors Velocity Sports Lab and Salomon.

Then there is also Oakley, Suunto, Hammer Nutrition, and Imazine – thanks for your support guys!!

And I have just finalised a Red Bull sponsorship – super stoked!!

7. What was your comrades experience all about? Is it a race you could see yourself competing as a contender? I heard you were rumored to be running?

I did not end up running the Comrades this year…. 89km on tar scares the sh..&%..t out of me! My race schedule got to busy and it was a toss up between the Trans Alpine Trail run or Comrades…. Comrade is on my door step so another year.

I think the Comrades is the greatest ultra road race in the world but as road running it is not my focus and I would not be competitive at it I will wait a few years until I attempt it. But I defiantly will be running it at some stage!

Ryan - Greg pics2

Jungle Marathon in the Amazon – pic by Greg Fell

8. What are the 5 races you would most love to do and why those specifically?

1. The Mont Blanc Ultra – it is 166km up and around the Mont Blanc mountain range and it the ultimate test when it comes to ultra distance mountain running.

2.Racing the Planet Nepal – it is a one off race next year taking place in the Nepal mountain range. I do not think you will get a more beautiful race than that.

3.The Badwater Marathon – 135 miles (217km) non-stop through Death Valley…the road gets so hot that the racers shoes start melting. This race scares me but is one of the things I have to do before I die.

4.The Skyrun – I was injured last year but went up with Salomon to watch the race. I think this race is the ultimate trail / mountain running challenge in South Africa.

5.An Ironman – I have watched Ironman South Africa for the last two years and the race leaves me with goose bumps. Seeing guys like yourself and Greg Goodall smashing the course really inspires me to get out there one day! Unfortunately I will more than likely watch it from the sidelines again next year…. But a Greg (Ed’s note: Greg Goodall is who I would consider to be my primary rival in my age group in South Africa for Ironman. His balance across all 3 disciplines, ability to focus and do the right kind of training and calm demeanor make him the most balanced athlete out there. We have never raced an Ironman head to head but have raced many other races together. He went to Kona in 2009.) vs Raoul showdown could make for some interesting watching??:)

9. In terms of nutrition, I realize you are a Hammer Nutrition prophet. They make fantastic products, but on your long weekend runs (up to 9 hours I read somewhere), what are you eating out there for that amount of time and do you ever run with music?

Yeah I am a huge Hammer fan, especially of a product they make called Perpetuem. I run for up to 12 hours on only Perpetuem and a few Endurolyte tablets here and there. Perpetuem keeps my energy levels constant with no spikes or drops… I mix it into a thick pancake batter and have some about every 20mins washed down with water.

I listen to a bit of music on my runs, but this is more so on my road runs where things can get a bit monotonous. On the trails I like to be able to hear my surroundings like a hissing puff adder I am about to stand on.

10. I am a gear head. I have seen some siiiick gear that you have had going at African X with that snazzy back pack Salomon have developed. What is the testing process like with them for new gear and how custom is the stuff you are using from them? How much do you think the gear affects your training and racing?

Going to France and testing out all the new Salomon gear was awesome. I got to meet the guys who make the gear and you see just how passionate these guys are about making the lightest, fastest and best fitting shoes and gear for the athletes. The Salomon international group is relatively small and everyone is treated like family. They have gone out of their way to make me prototype gear to keep warm in Antarctica and are also making me custom shoes to fit the exact mould of me meet (I have fat feet!).

Endurance trail running is all about comfort while running and looking after your body so that it can recover as quickly as possible. Salomon have gone out of their way to achieve this and so I definitely feel it affects my training and racing in a positive way. A Salomon athlete wins one in every three trail races around the world so they must be doing something right.

That was that.

Ryan was off to run shortly after the interview (seriously) for a 7 hour run in prep for his Trans Alps run. 7 hours??? The guy just gets the work done, which is probably his biggest secret. I would reckon its taken him less time to get to his 10 000 hour mark in this sport than anybody else, which is why he is so ahead of the competition. His training partners are there for his shortest runs only, from what I have been told.

His results are incredible and he is the leader in ultra STAGE marathon races so far in his career, in the world. Someone equated it to walking into the ring as a first time fighter and knocking Ali out in the first round. He is easily comparable to an Armstrong, a Shumacher or a Wellington. He is local, he is lekka and we should be proud of his achievements so far. I do, however, feel that they are just the beginning.

12 Comments on “Interview: Ryan Sandes (the worlds leading ultra marathon runner)

[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Raoul de Jongh, Michelle Clarke. Michelle Clarke said: RT @raouldejongh: The Ryan Sandes Interview: Finally managed to pin him down for 10 questions… […]

steve burnett
July 21, 2010 at 1:25 am

A great read.
He is a real legend and a nice guy to boot. Really interesting how he is so much younger than anyone who has achieved in this sub sport, it’s a given that you almost need age and maturity for this extreme endurance (think kotov)

Hate to be a wet blanket and point out an error, but I think he got a second in a namibian ultra early on. A harsh lesson on his learning curve that contributed to his resolve.

I’d like to know what his two watch sponsors think of each other, the one is a celebrated innovator and the other is a little bit iffy scientifically to say the least!

Urban Ninja
July 23, 2010 at 10:29 am

Hi Steve – I have adjusted the text for you. Hope this fits what you wanted.

Lisa de Speville
July 22, 2010 at 9:25 pm

Great interview.
Ryan is certainly the world’s leading STAGED ULTRA marathon runner (especially across desert terrain) and, in time, I’d love to see him become the world’s leading ultra marathon runner. Ryan, add Western States 100 and Leadville to that list 😉

Urban Ninja
July 23, 2010 at 10:33 am

Hi Lisa & Leo (I enjoy both your blogs/sites, by the way),

thanks. I like the discussion element and for sure, I have now adjusted the wording to included STAGED in there, so that you sensitive ultra trail runners will approve. I am sure that in due course, once Ryan gets to his one day Ultra’s like Badwater and Leadville, I could change the wording back to call him the:


Then we`ll have to ship him down to Mexico to take on the Raramuri a la Born to Run? Perhaps then we could throw him in there with that title, because in the end, we all know there is someone, somewhere, who is going to beat us down with a big stick until we are not the best anymore. Right?


Have a great weekend.

leo rust
July 23, 2010 at 9:26 am

Very good point Lisa.
There is a massive difference between STAGED ULTRA Marathons and Ultra Marathons. Let’s not forget the ultra marathon greats like Yiannis Kouros (who probably holds more ultra records than any other person alive), Scott Jurek, Kilian Jornet. Ryan is a nice guy just a pitty that the marketing and hype around him is making silly statements.

leo rust
July 27, 2010 at 11:38 am

great! Psyched to see Ryan take them all on and see him smash it!

Jorg Knorr
August 2, 2010 at 2:50 pm

All about the love……Sandcrab you ARE the schizz nizz….hit it HARD, oh yeah and the races too ahahahahah. You my brother, and the big man upstairs didnt give you the talent you have, just to sit around feeling sand and smelling roses!!!

February 8, 2011 at 5:02 pm

Ryan is amazing in what he does – but people need to stop getting carried away with statements like “best utra-marathon runner in the world”.

The races he does are not professional, and arguably not even competitive. Look he is a very good runner – far better than me. He is not even in the same league as top competitive ultra-runners. probably not even top-100. what is, is very good at marketing himself.

If he is a great long-distance runner – why doesnt he run competive ultas like comrades or world 100k champs or washie?

If hes a great trail runner, why doesnt he run and win the great trail classics in the states that made trully great runners like anne trason famous?

check his pace for his races. he hardly ever goes faster than 5 min a kay. 100k world champs do it at 3 45 a kay. different league. guys have run 24hrs at 4 min a k.

google his results – he NEVER runs normal races like 10k / marathon etc. cos he doesnt want to give the game up. trason, fordyce, kotov, mtolo. could all get around 10 k in 30 min or less. if any of them tried “the grand slam” they would beat sandes by hours.

Anyone who disagrees doesnt know anything about running. sorry to burst bubbles .

Dean Leslie
March 1, 2011 at 2:37 pm

@biltongeater Would you be interested in being interviewed for the documentary on Ryan Sandes? We are looking to make an honest account of his story and as such we would like views from “both sides of the gun”. Please let me know. Drop a mail to

Dean Leslie
March 1, 2011 at 2:40 pm

that offer extends to anyone in the running world with alternate views… if you are keen, please get in touch

March 10, 2011 at 10:13 am

I partly agree with you in sentiment, people are generally too quick to declare new superheroes, but I think you are basing your argument on some rather odd assumptions.

It seems you want him to go all-out mainstream to prove he can rock the casbah, as it were, but that kind of misses the point. Why should he run a race WE want him to? The ‘classics’ sound less interesting than what he’s been doing and in the absense of the real test we can’t just butcher the currently available data into a comparison.

He’s a stage ultra runner, it’s a niche (within a niche), and completely different to the races you compare to. Throwing actual numbers out there must be meaningless, what about terrain, weather, support, weight carried etc? Supporting yourself over days is quite an undertaking, the classics have massive support
and even allow a second to run with you to carry your make-up if the rumours are true. So the pace should be different. The point is not that one is more difficult than the other, but that to compare athletes who are at such high levels they need to be in the same race (an event we can’t force).

Ryan very well might not win any other type of race, but at the moment his record speaks for itself. He hasn’t exactly been racing against the local cross country clubs and has declared his interest in other races like badwater.
Using the if he… then he would… can’t be credible because the outcomes are quite simply unknowable at this point.
I am quite sure I know next to nothing about running, but lets avoid arguments ending with a summary dismissal of all challengers.


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