CAPE TOWN – Renowned trail athlete Ryan Sandes ran the race of his life to win the Western States 100 miler in California, USA on Sunday (SA time).
The 35-year-old Sandes, from Hout Bay, won by 29 minutes ahead of American Alex Nicholls in 16 hrs 19 min 38 sec (16:19.38) to go one better than his runners-up berth in 2012.
American Cat Bradley was the surprise winner of the women’s race in 19:31:30 after compatriot and Comrades Marathon champion Camille Herron dropped out in the early stages.
Together with the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc 175km race in Europe, the Western States is regarded as the pinnacle of ultra-trail running, and its trophy one of the most sought after in the sport.
Since its origin in 1974, the 100.2 mile (163km) route between the Californian towns of Squaw Valley, near the site of the 1960 Winter Olympics, and Auburn has become regarded as one of the world’s ultimate tests of endurance.
Apart from the challenges of the terrain and the 5 480m of ascent and 7 010m of descent, the elements play a critical part in the outcome of the race, and this year was no exception.
Competitors had to cope with slippery snow and ice for the early morning first 50km, and then toiled as temperatures spiked close to 40 degrees Celsius in the second half of the race in the valleys and canyons.
And ultimately it was Sandes’ experience of racing under the toughest conditions in the world’s deserts, icy wastelands and Amazon forests which proved the difference on Sunday, as his rivals struggled to overcome the testing conditions.
I have dreamed about winning this race for a long time. So stoked to win westernstates100 today… https://t.co/QsLfCsqK3Q
“For me, Western States is my dream race to win,” admitted Sandes shortly after the finish. “It couldn’t be better. I’m here with my wife, my baby, my mom and some good friends. It’s certainly one of the greatest days in my life.
“But I was completely broken – that was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I just wanted to collapse and sleep on the field at the finish, but somehow Vanessa (his wife) dragged me back to our flat. I think I’ll sleep well now.”
Times for the elite athletes were about an hour slower than in recent years, testimony to the challenging conditions.
Strong favourite for the race, Jim Walmsley – who has been besting ultra-trail records over the world and had promised to do so at Western States – went out fast to take an early lead, at one stage running an hour ahead of Sandes.
But he was reduced to a crawl in the final quarter and was powerless to respond as Sandes took the lead with 25 miles (40km) to go.
“I was close to exhaustion, but got a spark when I overtook Jim,” Sandes explained. “We had a quick chat, but then I put my foot down and quickly opened a gap. But 5km later at the river crossing, I felt absolutely broken and expected Alex (Nicholls) to catch me.”
An unusual ruling, which allows competitors to be accompanied by a seconding runner over the final 50km, proved a blessing to Sandes as his close friend and Drakensberg Traverse partner, Ryno Griessel, joined him for the latter stages.
“Ryno made me dig deep and set a mean pace. It made a big difference, and somehow I held on to the finish,” said Sandes.
“I had started the race with Jim and asked him if he was going for a sub-14 hour time and he said ‘yeah’.
“I knew that would be suicide in the conditions we were facing, so held back in the earlier stages. But all credit to him for sticking to his guns and giving it a full go.”
Sandes was in fifth place after the first 25km, but had moved up into second at Duncan Canyon at 40km, 30 minutes behind Walmsley and a minute clear of the Swedish pair, Jonas Buud and Elov Olsson.
Sandes was never overtaken, but the gap to the runaway leader grew to an hour shortly after halfway at Michigan Bluff, before gradually closing as Walmsley tired.
The South African still trailed by 40 minutes with 40km to go, but swept past his rival just 15km later to race to a memorable victory.
Western States Results
Men: 1 Ryan Sandes (RSA) 16:19:37, 2 Alex Nichols (USA) 16:48:23, 3 Mark Hammond (USA) 16:52:57, 4 Jeff Browning (USA) 17:32:06, 5 Chris DeNucci (USA) 17:36:11.
Women: 1 Cat Bradley (USA) 19:31:30, 2 Magdalena Boulet (France) 19:49:15, 3 Sabrina Stanley (USA) 20:11:44, 4 Kaytlyn Gerbin (USA) 20:46:55, 5 Fiona Hayvice (NZ) 20:51:27.