CAPE TOWN – Ryan Sandes has been around the block and then some.
The 35-year-old South African athlete has been near the top of the world ultra-trail tree for many years.
Arguably Sandes has enjoyed a longer career as an elite ultra-distance trail runner than anyone on the planet, having tasted success in his first multi-stage desert run all of 10 years back.
Sandes has achieved almost everything he could have dreamed of when he started out in his career after quitting his job as a quantity surveyor.
He has set the gold standard for professional trail athletes, not just in South Africa, but globally.
And yet there is one big fish in the Sandes sea yet to be caught. Next weekend the ‘Hout Bay Boytjie’ will again be baiting his hook.
“There are two races in the world that every top ultra-trail athlete wants to win – the Western States 100 and the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc,” Sandes said.
“I’ve done the business with Western States (he won last year after previously placing second and third), but I have failed completely in two attempts at UTMB.”
The 2018 version of the iconic 170km trail race around the Mont Blanc massif through France, Italy and Switzerland gets underway next Friday night, and Sandes will be lining up against the strongest field ever in the long history of the event.
“My memories of UTMB have only been negative,” admitted Sandes this week.
“I was forced to quit after 40km on both occasions. I didn’t want to go into the race with negative feelings, so I organised a five day run on the route a few weeks ago with some of my South African friends.
“We had lots of fun in the five days – had a blast. The primary reason I started running was the search of the unknown and the fun of doing that, so that’s what I’m taking with me this time.
“I’ve been fortunate to have enjoyed a long career and now a new breed of young, talented, fast athletes have emerged.
"But 170km is a long distance, and I think we older guys can still teach the youngsters a thing or two!”
One of the most talented to emerge in recent years is the brash American, Jim Walmsey, who has set new records for ultra-distances all over the planet.
But Sandes came from behind to give him a “snotklap” at the 2017 Western States.
Walmsey then learnt an important lesson in humility in ultra-trail and came back to win Western States in record time this year and will be a formidable opponent for Sandes.
One other athlete looms even larger as a threat – three times UTMB winner Kilian Jornet. A podium for Sandes at UTMB would be exceptional and represent a definitive burial for Sandes’ Mont Blanc dragons.