Next Saturday, Sandes races the Western States 100 miler. Together with Ultra Trail Mont Blanc in the French Alps, the American event is regarded as trail racing’s most sought-after title.
The Californian race is known for its extremes of weather. It is not uncommon for participants to sweat in uncomfortable heat in canyons shortly after running through snowfields at high altitude.
Having been successful in the Saharan deserts, Amazon jungles and frozen Antarctic wastelands, Sandes is equipped to cope with these challenges, and is determined to bounce back from recent disappointments at the event.
“Ja, there’s something about this race,” Sandes acknowledged. “These days I’m trying to explore new places to see as much as possible, so I don’t often return to races. But the Western States is different – it’s one of the few races I’m fixated over.”
After placing second to a record-setting Tim Olson in 2012, a sprained ankle days before the start ruled him out of the 2013 event. A fifth place finish in 2014 was followed by another “DNS” when a stomach bug laid him low 24 hours before the starter's gun.
Struggling to shake off lingering glandular fever, Sandes battled to return to success in 2015 and 2016 until he took fourth position at the Grand Raid 100 miler in Reunion last October.
“I’ve had a solid five to six week block of training at home,” said Sandes. “I stayed in a cottage at the base of the Matroosberg, just outside Ceres, for the final week and trained on the mountain tracks up to 2200m. I’m feeling positive for the race this time around.
“I know I’ll have to take risks if I’m to be competitive, and I’m certainly aiming for a podium finish. The race has changed over the years. You can no longer jog the first half if you are aiming to win. You have to be somewhere in contention. But on the other hand, I will not go out with the leaders – that would be suicide.”
American Jim Walmsley is favourite to win. Since blowing up in the latter stages of last year’s race, and then running off the trail to eventually place 19th after running ahead of record pace for much of the way, Walmsley has been breaking records wherever he goes.
His aim is to run the race in 14 hours – 44 minutes inside Olson’s record – and no one will be able to stay with him if he can achieve that goal. Sandes’ hope is that his rivals might try and then come unstuck in the latter stages, leaving him to come through to a high-placed finish.
Swede Jonas Buud, who has earned gold medals in the Comrades Marathon, Tofol Castanyer of Spain, Erik Clavery of France and Paul Giblin of Britain will also be strong contenders.
Three weeks after a Comrades Marathon victory, American Camille Herron will aim for a double at the Western States, with Swiss Andre Huser and last year’s winner, American Kaci Lickteig most likely to challenge her in the women’s competition.