South Africa’s most successful desert runner is a shooting star. Ryan Sandes from Capetown came out of nowhere when in 2008, he scored a start-to-finish victory at the „4 Deserts Gobi March”… Gripmaster got to go for a run with him on Sandman’s rest day for a few hours and used the opportunity for a sweaty interview….
Gripmaster: Ryan, you weren’t exactly a celebrity in desert running, when you showed up at the „Gobi March“ (a 7 day, 250km race in China) in march 2008. But you surprised everyone by winning the race and all stages! Did you surprise yourself, too?
Sandman: : Yes, before entering the Gobi Desert race my furthest trail race was only 35km so I did not know what to expect. I did trained really hard for the race and being quite competitive I was hoping for a top ten. Winning the first stage was a huge surprise and it is a moment I will never forget. I woke up so stiff on day two that I thought I would come last on the second stage but I managed to repeat stage one and ended up winning all the stages.
Gripmaster: You went on to also win the „Sahara Desert Race“, beating celebrities like Dean Karnazes. It seems safe to assume you like the heat and the sand?
Sandman: The Sahara was really tough; the temperatures were in the high forties on a few of the days and it felt like I was suffocating from the heat. The sand was very soft and for every two steps forward I slid one step back, but I still managed to have loads of fun. Yes so it would be safe to say I like heat and the sand!
Gripmaster: You are now doing the complete „4 Deserts“ series. Was that your initial goal when you went to „Gobi March“? And how did you end up entering such a long stage race in the first place?
Sandman: : I found the 4 Deserts site on the internet and decided to enter the Gobi without giving it much thought, I liked the challenge of it as I did not know if I was capable of completing it. After entering the race I realised I had to do some serious training and put my love for beer on hold. My initial goal was just to finish the Gobi Desert race and I promised to give up running and have a social life again, but after the Gobi I was hooked.
Gripmaster:Your next race is the „Atacama Crossing“ in Chile in a few weeks. Do you feel ready for it?
Sandman: Yes I think so, training has gone well to date. I am going to the Drakensberg (highest mountain range in South Africa) next week to do some training at altitude as the Atcama desert race takes place at abut 3000m above sea level. I live in Cape Town which is at sea level so I think my main challenge in the Atacama Crossing will be the high altitude.
Gripmaster: Have you been to Chile before? What do you expect from the Atacama Crossing?
Sandman: I have never been to Chile or the Atacama Desert before, but watching the Dakar Rally it looks awesome. The Atacama Crossing is known to be the most beautiful desert but also the hardest desert so it is going to be a big challenge but I am very excited about it.
Gripmaster: To complete, and possibly win the „4 Deserts“ series, you will also go to Antarctica in november. That is a different kind of desert altogether. Living in South Africa, have you any snow running experience at all?
Sandman: : I have no snow running experience so Antarctica is going to be very interesting. I have never run in conditions as cold as Antarctica and don’t know how my body will handle it
Gripmaster: How will you prepare for Antarctica?
Sandman: We have a group of outdoor shops is South Africa called Cape Union Mart and they have agreed to let me run in their ice chamber on a treadmill – I just hope the treadmill does not freeze. I have heard that if you have the right clothing and gear then running in cold conditions is Ok as you can insulate your body from the cold. So lucky I am sponsored by Salomon.
Gripmaster:Will you need any specific gear?
Sandman: Yes, the race organisers have given us a nine page list of specific items we need. These include snow goggles, chains for shoes to grip on the ice, base layering etc. I still need to do some research on the gear but I first want to make sure I get past Atacama.
Gripmaster:Is the cold there a worry for you?
Sandman: No, I see it as another challenge. But I suppose if my hands and feet turned black from frost bite I would start to worry.
Gripmaster: Are those long races taking a toll on your body? Do you need to rest when you come back?
Sandman: : I find trail running is a lot gentler on my body compared to road running so my body is holding up OK. I go to my physio at least once a week and for regular massages to keep my body in one piece. After a long multi stage race I always take ten days to two weeks off to relax and recover. Mentally I also feel tired and it is nice to do nothing and recharge.
Gripmaster:How did you get into trailrunning? Did you do other sports before?
Sandman: : I decided one day to run a half marathon during my last year at varsity as some of my friends were running it. However I entered to late and there was only space left in the full marathon. So I entered and within a few months I was hooked on trail running. At School and University I spent most of my time on the beach surfing and playing rugby. Maybe all the days spent playing beach soccer taught me how to run on the sand!
Gripmaster: What other sports do you do now?
Sandman: : I have started to do a bit of mountain biking but I fall off a lot! I still try and spend time on the beach but I don’t get to surf that often anymore.
Gripmaster: We’d like to get some of the sandman’s training secrets… What does your training look like, in quantity and in quality?
Sandman: When I am training for a big race my weekly mileage will range from 120km – 200km. During the week I try and get some shorter quality runs in (not longer than 25km). to work on my speed. On the weekends I do my longer runs which can be anything from 3hours up to 8hours. I also spend quite a bit of time in the gym doing core work and strengthening exercises with a bit of swimming for recovery.
Gripmaster: Do you work at all, or are you a professional trailrunner?
Sandman: At the moment I am a full-time trailrunner, but a lot of that time is taken up by doing interviews and stuff for the media etc, organising future races and keeping my sponsors happy.
Gripmaster: You have raced all over the world, but do you get to do some local races in South Africa as well?
Sandman: Yes, I do get to do some local races but not enough of them. There are so many local trail races I still want to do but I would rather do well at fewer races than run them all in one year and get bad results. I am still young so I have a lot of time left!
Gripmaster: Do you have training / running partners or do you mostly run alone?
Sandman: : I mix it up but I would say I run on my own 60% of the time and then with running partners 40% of the time. I do a lot of my training at midday when it is hot so it is sometimes difficult to find a training partner.
Gripmaster: What is your favorite gear? Any particular shoes or clothes you like best?
Sandman: My favourite shoes are the Salomon S LAB 2’s and then for shorter forest runs the Speedcross 2 are very fun – I feel like I am flying in them. The Suunto X 10 is my newest toy and after a run it is very cool to track where I have run on my computer.
Gripmaster: What about food? Does the sandman eat healthy food?
Sandman: : I try to heat healthily but I am not to strict – you have to enjoy life! I love pizza and another favourite is steak
Gripmaster: You have also done (and won!) the JungleMarathon in 2009. Not quite a desert run… Can you tell us about it?
Sandman:: The humidity was extreme – 98%! It felt like I was going in slow motion the whole time. The terrain was very hilly with a mixture of tick infested swamps and rivers full of Cayman. On the trails I was constantly falling over roots, getting bitten by hornets and spotted the odd snake. But I have to say it was lots of fun but will tick the jungle off the to do list.
Gripmaster:You have been quite successful in the recent past. Does that help you find sponsors?
Sandman: Yes, it has definitely helped me find sponsors. Thanks to Velocity Sports Lab, Salomon, Oakley, Hammer Nutrition and Suunto I can keep living my dream.
Gripmaster: What are the greatest challenges when doing a desert run?
Sandman: The greatest challenge is to mentally keep your legs moving when they are screaming to stop. It becomes mind over matter and I am always surprised at how far I can push my limits both physically and mentally. Hydration is also a really important as if you mess that up its race over.
Gripmaster: When competing in the long stage races, what are some basic tricks, to survive the distance?
Sandman: : I always focus on only getting to the next check point which in the desert races is about every 10km. Breaking the race up into mini segments helps me mentally deal with running long distances. If I am going through a bad patch then at least when I get to the next checkpoint I know it is over and I think of the 10km to the next checkpoint as a new race. And before you know it you have finished the race!
Gripmaster:Do you have some specific goals? Where do you want to race, once you have completed the „4 Deserts“ series?
Sandman:: I would like to do a few of the major 100 milers around the world, like the Western States, Mont Blanc etc. I am also very excited to be running the Transalpine Run this year in a mixed team with Linda Doke.
Gripmaster:Is it important for you to race, or can you also imagine crossing a desert or some other great landscape purely for the fun of running?
Sandman: : No it’s not all about the racing and I definitely could see myself in the near future going out and exploring new landscapes just for the love of running. I have a few future ideas and plans. I am passionate about trail running because I enjoy just being “out there” and exploring new territories and setting myself new challenges.