South Africa

‘Growing and evolving’: Veteran trail runner Ryan Sandes still going strong

There’s a competitive fire that burns in elite athletes, and while trail runner Ryan Sandes doesn’t race as much as he used to, his desire to win still rages deep within.

At the age of 42, Sandes is still a top-flight athlete, but he has far more to his life now than competition. He has various other commitments, including a family.

A born-and-bred Capetonian, the veteran athlete was one of the most feared ultra-distance trail runners in the world at the peak of his career.

After taking up distance running at the age of 24 in 2006, during his last year studying for his honours in quantity surveying at the University of Cape Town, it took only a couple of years for Sandes to discover he was talented enough to quit his job and run full time.

Racking up victories

By 2010 he had become the first athlete to win every event in the 4 Deserts ultramarathon series which at the time included the Atacama Crossing in Chile, the Gobi March in Mongolia, the Sahara Desert in Egypt and The Last Desert in Antarctica, each contested over a distance of 250 kilometres.

And it was just the beginning of an explosive career, as Sandes travelled the globe to take on the best athletes on the international circuit.

The list of prestigious races he won included the Leadville Trail and Western States 100-milers (160km) in the United States, and the 126km Transgrancanaria in the Canary Islands.

In 2013, he became the first person to win an ultra-distance trail race on every continent, and the following year he finished second overall in the Ultra Trail World Tour.

Ryan Sandes
Trail runner Ryan Sandes during the Tarawera ultra-marathon in New Zealand in 2016. Picture: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

Perhaps even more impressive, however, have been his exploits on foot when he’s not racing, often alongside trail-running partner Ryno Griesel.

Sandes and Griesel have done all sorts of things. Most notably, in 2014 they set a fastest known time (FKT) on the Drakensberg Grand Traverse, an unmarked and self-navigated 200km route with 9,000m of elevation gain, and in 2018 they set a new FKT for the Great Himalaya Trail, running more than 1,500km across the Himalayas in a little more than 25 days.

And though his appearance at international races has been limited in recent years, Sandes has continued to perform well on home soil, most recently winning the Ultra Trail Drakensberg 100-miler in 2021 and the George Mountain Ultra Trail 100-miler last season.

He and Griesel are also still breaking ground and raising the bar on trails at home and abroad.

‘Mixing things up’

“I am still racing and still competitive. I’m also mixing things up with doing projects and ‘fastest known’ attempts,” Sandes said this week.

“Most recently I circumnavigated Lesotho with Ryno two years ago, so I’m mixing up adventures with the competitive side.”

Sandes has a lot going on away from the sport as well, keeping him active in his personal and business lives.

“I’ve got a son, Max (with his wife Vanessa Haywood-Sandes) who is seven now, so obviously that keeps me busy and it’s super cool,” he said.

“I’m also working on growing some things on the side. I’ve got a sports marketing company with Ryno, Peak Sports Management, and a couple of other projects that I’m working on. I’m also very involved with some of my partners and sponsors.”

Ryan Sandes
Ryan Sandes speaks to the media ahead of the Two Oceans ultra-marathon in 2019. Picture: Roger Sedres/Gallo Images

In an attempt to give back, Sandes is an ambassador of the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation. He is also an ambassador for the Wings for Life World Run, an annual international event which was held last weekend, raising funds for spinal cord research.

“Running has given me so much and allowed me to see so much of the world, and I can’t imagine a day without being able to run, so the Wings for Life World Run is very close to my heart and it’s super important to me in giving back,” he said.

“The experience last week was absolutely amazing. The atmosphere was incredible and it’s really cool to see how the event has grown over the years. I had a great time out there, running for those who can’t.”

Next race planned

And there’s some bad news for his trail-running opponents, with Sandes confirming he will be strapping his racing shoes on again soon.

“I’m definitely doing less racing these days, but this year I’ll be doing Ultra Trail Mont-Blanc (a 170km race in France in August) and then next year I’m looking at maybe doing a 200-miler (320km) as well,” he said.

“I’m still enjoying the sport and loving the challenge. It allows me to keep growing and evolving.”