Ryan Sandes returns to his happy hunting ground this weekend - the Western States 100 miler in California. Photo: Craig Kolesky/Red Bull Content Pool

CAPE TOWN – Ryan Sandes returns to his happy hunting ground this weekend, once again preparing to do battle with the world’s top ultra-trail athletes at the Western States 100 miler in California. The race starts 2pm on Saturday (South African time).

One of the world’s premier trail challenges, the Western States is also one of the toughest, known for its extreme conditions. The race commences in the snowfields of the Winter Olympics resort of Squaw Valley before passing through California’s Death Valley, with temperatures typically soaring above 40 degrees in the second half of the race.

The cancellation of this year’s Hardrock 100 because of the deep snow in the region, points to a particularly challenging start to this year’s race but Sandes, following his extraordinary adventure in the Himalayas last year, believes that this will be to his advantage.

The Hout Bay trail super-star enjoys the tough stuff. His victory in the 2017 race over local favourite Jim Walmsley, was primarily due to his ability to cope with the elements and his experience in judging his race pace.

Walmsley had conquered all before him, blazing to all manner of trail records leading up to the Western States two years back, and was well below record pace for the first half. But he fell victim to the searing heat and Sandes’ mental toughness in the final quarter.

Sandes’ race in 2017 finally realized his dream, following his runner-up position in his debut in 2012 and another top five position in 2014.

“I really enjoy this race - it’s certainly one of my favourites,” said Sandes on the eve of his departure.

“My preparation has gone pretty well so far - I’m feeling more relaxed this time, having won the race before - so it’s quite nice to go back with a little bit less pressure. I’m hoping to go as fast as possible but a hundred miles is a long way and anything can happen. But I’d love to repeat that win.”

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To do that, Sandes will again have to confront Walmsley, now significantly more experienced in ultra-trail competition, and returning as defending champion and record-holder, having improved Tim Olsson’s mark by fully 16 minutes last year.

His speed and endurance - and knowledge of the course - make him a formidable opponent.

@StephenGranger3