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In the long run

Todd Pitock meets the leading exponent of ultramarathon running

Todd Pitock | November/December 2011

Before 4am on August 20th, Ryan Sandes slipped on a pair of trail-running shoes, red as Dorothy’s on the way to Oz, and joined 624 other people waiting to start the 2011 Leadville Trail 100 Run in the Colorado Rockies. He knew what the rest of the day held: long trails, long climbs, precipitous descents, cold skin, internal overheating, muscle spasms, cramps, nausea, exhaustion and raw, throbbing pain.

“It’s important to be positive about the experience,” Sandes told me before the race. “There are times when you’re running and just feel at peace with the world, you’re all chilled out, and you can enjoy the challenge. I mean, you’re the one who chose to do it.” He acknowledged that there are also times when the agony hunts down the ecstasy, and “you want the world to open up and just swallow you.”

Sandes’s sport is ultramarathon running, or ultra. Pain is its defining characteristic. “They say that pain is weakness leaving the body,” the race medical director, Dr John Hill, told the runners. “Some of you will have a lot of that leave tomorrow.” 

Sandes, a 29-year-old from Cape Town, is unusual in being good at this sport in his 20s. “Ultra was always something older guys ran,” he said, “because mentally it was tough to keep on going. I don’t think you can teach yourself to go beyond the pain barrier. You’re either born with it and have the attitude about staying positive. I know guys who go to ‘head coaches’, but I don’t know, someone else telling you that you can do it doesn’t work for me.”

To register for the 100-mile race, runners had to shell out at least $250; 803 people did this, but 178 of them didn’t show up. Sandes, too, was nervous. He had never run more than 62 miles in a single race before. The field included figures who were well known in the ultra community, and when the experts handicapped the race, his name wasn’t mentioned.

The runners set off in the dark, wearing headlamps. When a shotgun blast sent the pack charging, they looked, from a distance, like a plague of fireflies whizzing through the forest. Most of them just hoped to go the distance within the 30-hour time limit, but Sandes was different. He intended to win, as he had in five of his first seven ultra events. 

He is the only person to win all of the Four Deserts Series, the grand slam of ultra—150-mile races over seven days in some of the world’s most forbidding places, including Antarctica, the Gobi desert in China, the Sahara in Egypt and the Atacama in Chile. The pace for each is a marathon a day, except for a middle-stage ultra of 100 kilometres (62 miles). Participants carry everything they need on their backs, except water. Only 81 people have completed all four runs.

It wasn’t the prospect of extreme running that got Sandes into the sport. “It’s been a way for me to see new places,” he said. He only began running four years ago, when a group of friends invited him to try a half-marathon with them. The list for the half was closed, so he agreed to do the full marathon. He was not, it turned out, a great marathoner. Light and slight, at 5ft 10in and 10 stone, he preferred running trails to roads, and at 26.2 miles, he was just getting started.

In the world of ultras, distance is only part of the battle, and none of the races Sandes competed in was especially long. The TransEurope-Footrace is 2,600 miles, with 64 stages that take place from August to October. There are races in Nepal and Namibia, Mont Blanc and the Sierra Madre. Every race has its special challenges. The Jungle [ultra] Marathon in the Brazilian Amazon features drenching humidity, jaguars, piranhas, large carnivorous snakes and deadly microscopic creatures called carneros.

Ultra running gets hardly any attention from the mainstream sports media, but participation has been growing by leaps and bounds. Leadville began with 45 runners in 1983. In 2010 its list of 850—a limit set by the United States Forest Service—filled up in June; this year it filled up by February. The lack of attention is just fine with many runners, who would like it to stay that way. Others want to see it become more professional, and, Sandes, who makes a living from corporate sponsorship, is one of them.

It’s hard to know whether it could be bigger. A race this long is not easy to watch: for a spectator, the best spots are at the depots, where runners can refuel and are weighed to make sure they’re sufficiently hydrated. The misery etched in some of their faces can make these seem less like aid stations than Stations of the Cross. And although some of the runners have built up a following, most of the spectators are there to cheer on friends and relatives, or hope they don’t hurt themselves too badly.

For many extreme-trail runners it’s all about personal and physical transformation, and they come in many shapes and sizes. I met some who used to be morbidly obese, and heard of another who had been a drug addict. For some, running contains truths that others seek in holy books. The challenge, and the joy of making it to the end, is what they do it for: complete Leadville and you get a belt buckle. Win it, and you also get a miniature model of a mining cart filled with rocks.

Every runner has a game plan, and many have a support crew. The game plan details where they expect to be and what the crew should have ready for them. At the 50th mile, they can pick up pacers, fellow runners who volunteer to run alongside for company and encouragement.

Sandes chose Leadville because it was iconic, the largest of three American majors. It started as a desperate attempt to raise money after the molybdenum mine that employed nearly the entire town shut down. It’s not Leadville’s length that’s mind-boggling so much as the actual route. At the 45th mile, runners ascend Hope Pass, climbing from 9,200 feet to 12,600. On the other side, they have to navigate a descent that would require ropes and clips if it were any more technical.

If you get that far, you’re halfway. And then the race gets difficult. “On the way out it kind of brutalises you,” Ken Chlouber, the founder, told me. “On the way back it kills you. But nobody has actually died—yet.” Chlouber is 72 with a physique more like a 40-year-old’s. (“And I work goddamn hard at it!” he said, as he wolfed down a breakfast of five eggs in Leadville.) He last ran the race in 2009, but only made it to the 44-mile mark.

That was about where Sandes made his move, passing four racers immediately ahead and finding the leader looking half-dead at the halfway point. He had planned to run according to his watch and how well his body was holding up, but he was chary of how he would do after the 62nd mile, his terra incognita. Even so, his gut told him to push the pace.

The 78th mile marked another ascent of 2,000 feet. By then Sandes’s lead was 20 minutes, and the challenge turned to simple survival. His quadriceps felt as if they’d been shredded and wrapped too tightly back together. “Just run your race,” he thought, “and don’t do anything stupid and blow yourself up.”

But as he heard the cheers on Leadville’s main avenue, his race across the sky had elevated him to a new plateau. His time of 16:46—16 hours, 46 minutes—was the third-fastest in the race’s history. The margin of victory was 32 minutes. When a second shotgun blast ended the race at 10am the next day, only just over half the starters had managed to cross the finish line.

Sandes winced just getting up on the winner’s podium. “It’s mind over matter,” he said. “In the end it’s about how much will you have.” 

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