Sandes’ Epic Journey To Western States 100 Victory!
Ryan Sandes shocked the running world when he won the 2017 Western States 100 – this is what it took to win one of the hectic races in the world. – Written by Corinna Halloran, Red Bull
At the end of June 2017, shortly before the sun peeked over the mountains of Tahoe National Park in California, Ryan Sandes and 368 other runners from around the world gathered at the base of a snow-covered mountain to begin the Western States 100 Endurance Run.
Ten days earlier there’d been a blizzard on top of these mountains, but on this Saturday the runners were gearing up to get punched in the face by a late-June heatwave descending on the area. Nonetheless, they weren’t going to let the extreme weather stop them from finishing this ultra-marathon – and it sure as hell wasn’t going to stop Ryan from winning it.
“On paper this isn’t the hardest ultra-marathon,” Ryan says. “But then you go out and it’s just brutal and it sucks everything out of you. But there’s something magical about the race.”
The Western States 100 Endurance Run is also known as The Original because it is the oldest 100-mile (160km) ultra-marathon. Most of the course is only accessible via horse, helicopter and foot; it brings runners over snowy mountains, down into dusty canyons, through streams and over a river. Runners climb over 5,100m and descend 7,000m before reaching the Auburn High School track. That’s not all: runners must complete the gruelling race – roughly four marathons’ distance – in less than 30 hours.
However, if you want to win the race you must be willing to take risk after risk from right out of the start gate. “Over the years it’s gotten super-competitive,” Ryan explains. “From the beginning you’re running out of your comfort zone. You have to push yourself a little harder, and things can go wrong so quickly.”
Not only are you constantly battling and managing the heat – which in the 2017 Western States 100 was above 37ºC the whole day, with 80 percent humidity – but you’re also managing your stomach and your mind. Once either of those go, your race is over. And 2017 was no exception.
Ryan’s journey to the start line of the 2017 Western States 100 didn’t begin earlier that year, nor the year before. Rather, it began roughly five years earlier when Ryan first set out to claim the race’s famous Cougar trophy. In 2012, Ryan’s first run, he had one of the best races of his life; for the whole race he was calm, cool and collected, but it was in the final marathon when Timothy Olson passed him (Olson then went on to smash the course record). It was just one of those heartbreaking races – so close yet so far.
In the years following, winning the Western States 100 began to turn into a bit of a pipe dream for Ryan – each year he thought it was his year to take home the victory, only for something to stand in his way. One year it was his ankle, another year it was a nasty stomach bug, and then finally it was overtraining syndrome that forced Ryan to pull back and reassess.
But it was during this time that Ryan had a dream: “Before I even had my son, I dreamed of winning the Western States 100 and carrying my son on the final run into the finish.” From that point forward, this dream served as the fire for Ryan to head back out West and win.
After taking a restful break around Christmas 2016, Ryan began ramping up his training, bringing in new styles of training that would make him stronger than ever on race day. Living in the seaside city of Cape Town, Ryan trained relentlessly on Table Mountain.
To get even more altitude training, Ryan used an altitude mask and a watt bike. He trained for the heat in steam rooms, and he worked on his speed. But he did make sacrifices – rather than heading to the mountains for the typical WS100 training, he chose roads he could run on so he could spend time with his newborn son.
24 JUNE 2017
On June 24, 2017, all eyes were on Squaw Valley and the Western States 100 – but they weren’t on Ryan but instead on Jim Walmsley, the 27-year-old running sensation from Arizona who’s made headline after headline in the running world; he’s become synonymous with smashing records, and the 2017 Western States 100 was going to be no exception. In fact, despite never winning a 100-mile race, he boasted that he was not only going to win the Western States 100 but also do so in 14 hours.
Then there was Ryan, certainly considered as a contender for top 10 but definitely not first place. He was flying under the radar, despite all of the time he had thrown down at the Western States.
‘I think I’m a lot more dangerous when I’m kind of an underdog. Going into the race I wasn’t too worried about Jim – he’s obviously a phenomenal athlete and phenomenal runner.’
Ryan and Jim started the race together, but the young American was soon to shake the South African, although not before Ryan asked Jim if he was going for a sub-14 race. “He said, ‘Yeah, baby,’ and I was like, ‘Cool,’ because I knew that wasn’t possible in those conditions. I realised then he was going to do something pretty magical or go up in flames.”
With the notion that it could go either way for Jim, Ryan made sure that he stayed within jumping distance should something happen to Jim. The moment came shortly before the course’s river crossing at ‘Rucky Chucky’ – 125km – when Jim started suffering from stomach issues.
From ‘Rucky Chucky’, Sandes was able to make steady headway in the lead – despite the ever-growing fear that it was then his race to lose. Following kilometre 125, Sandes had to “dig deep and go wild” in order to win – ‘Once I passed Jim, I knew the race was on and I had to do everything I could to not come in second.”
‘Every time I thought I was on top, I got punched in the face. Crossing the finish I was broken, I was nauseous and I hurt. It was a really hard day from the beginning, but it was the biggest win of my career – it was a dream come true.’
But crossing the finish was unlike any other race victory for Ryan. In 2012, when he had the best race of his life, Ryan didn’t have a wife or a son – now, five years later, he has both and his life is in a very different place. In 2017, it’s no longer just about the race – it’s about being a strong runner and, more importantly, being a stronger father.
Winning is an important part of being a professional athlete, but becoming a father has given Ryan a renewed perspective. It’s no longer just about competing. As a result, this has taken the pressure off his performances – and with that, brought a new level of success.
Ryan won the 2017 Western States in 16 hours, 19 minutes and 37 seconds. There to cheer him on were his wife and son, as well as friends from around the world, including Dean Leslie, the film-maker of the video at the top of this page, Dedicate, who’s been Ryan’s best friend since the age of six.
This article originally appeared on redbull.com.
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