045: Ryan Sandes/Mind Over Body
“I try and see pain as a positive. It’s a choice I’ve made. You just have to accept it. You can’t fight it. You just have to be willing and open to it, as crazy as that sounds”
You never know how these conversations are going to go. But my favourite Looking Sideways chats are the ones that take on a life of their own, following their own conversational ebbs and flows. And episode 45, my conversation with ultra runner Ryan Sandes, is definitely one of those chats.
For the uninitiated, Ryan is an ultra runner but you could also describe him as an adventure runner. He made his name on events such as the 4 Deserts Series, in which competitors race 255 miles over seven days in separate races across the Sahara, Gobi, Atacama and Last Desert in Antarctica.
He followed this by clocking wins in prestigious endurance events such as the Western States 100, and undertaking a succession of phenomenal endurance running feats that culminated in a Fastest Known Time (FKT in the parlance) attempt on a version of the Great Himalayan Trail with compatriot Ryno Griesel. That effort saw them race 1500km across the length of Nepal km in a time of 25 days, 4 hours and 24 minutes, battling frostbite, starvation, injury and harrowing mental challenges along the way.
I was keen to find out the details of these feats, of course. But what I really wanted to explore was Ryan’s intimate knowledge of the relationship between physical pain and mental fortitude, and how athletes like Ryan deal with the inevitable pain and hardships such feats engender.
Ryan was as keen to talk about this as I was, and the result is a classic chat in the best Looking Sideways tradition, in which we delve into the specifics of an extraordinary way of life, and find out the reality of what it takes to operate at this exalted level.
Massive thanks to Ryan for coming on the show and sharing his story so openly.
If you only have five minutes…
Listen to this section - How Ryan balances necessary and excessive physical damage on endurance events.
- Trip to London
- Travelling with the family
- Ryan’s Great Himalayan Trail project
- Project overview.
- Altitude difficulties and preparation.
- Why Ryan and Ryno chose their route.
- Aiming for a Fastest Known Time (FKT).
- Experience over milestones.
- Camaraderie among Ryan’s peers.
- How the ultrarunning scene has exploded – and got more competitive.
- The ethics of aiming for a FKT.
- The debates around Ryan and Ryno’s GHT expedition.
- The expedition on the Red Bull site.
- Day-to-day reality on the trail.
- Coping mentally.
- Does the mind rule the body or does the body rule the mind?
- How a race like this takes a physical toll.
- Learning to cope with the relationship between physical pain and mental fortitude.
- Relatively raising the bar of your own experience.
- How Ryan breaks things down into manageable chunks that can be more easily digested.
- Coping with the mental highs and lows that characterise endurance events.
- The lowest point of the GHT expedition.
- The consolation of nature.
- Understanding when physical damage is real – and when to stop.
- ‘I was worried Ryno was going to run himself to death. But I didn’t want to be the person to call it off’.
- The importance of absolute self-honesty.
- Judging the recovery time.
- The next ambition – UTMB.
- When to ramp it upon to the next event.
- Dealing with the mental lows that follow an event.
- “I think your mind can break your body”.
- The addictive nature of endurance pain.
- Enjoying the dark places – and the attendant highs.
- Murakami on pain being the point.
- Choosing to see pain as a positive.
- The significance of Ryan’s first Leadville 100, and how he has chased that mind-state ever since.
- Ryan’s Western States tactics.
- Importance of focussing on yourself.
- Immersing yourself in the experience.
- How Ryan got into the game late.
- First race – a sub 4 marathon.
- ‘I’ve always been an all or nothing person’.
- The distinction between single distance and multi stage races.
- Tackling the 4 Deserts Race Series.
- Dean Karnazes – early mentor.
- What’s next – Ryan’s Skeleton Coast project.
- Working with Red Bull.
- Working with the Laureus Foundation.
- The transformative power of sport in South Africa.
- 1995 Rugby World Cup