The first man to win an ultramarathon on every continent, Ryan Sandes, is literally taking the world in stride, one calf-busting step at a time.
The South African endurance ace eats miles for breakfast, and his passion has taken him to every corner of the planet. From tropical rainforests to freezing fjords, if it's challenging, the 33-year-old has been there, done that and got the (probably very sweaty) T-shirt.
But even an adventurer this well-traveled still has a bucket list. Amazing places where, if the run doesn't take your breath away, the view definitely will. Scroll down for Sandes' descriptions of his most treasured trails and the places he wants to conquer next.
Thabana Ntlenyana, Drakensberg
Where: South Africa
What: Drakensberg Grand Traverse — 137 miles over the mountain range
Three words to describe it: Epic, harsh, beautiful
I spent a lot of time there last year as I traversed from one side to the other for the Drakensberg Grand Traverse. They’re so remote, wild and rugged that when you’re up there you get the opposite feeling of claustrophobia — it's a complete escape. On top of the main plateau, there’s just nothing. You could run for days and not see anyone. Growing up in South Africa, I’d heard about this mountain and it always sounded quite intimidating, but the sunrises are some of the most incredible I've ever seen.
Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, Patagonia
What: Patagonian International Marathon
Three words to describe it: Windy, awesome, mountainous
Snowcapped mountains, blue glaciers — this has to be one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever run in. It’s incredible, postcard stuff, but it’s also dangerous. You’re literally at the bottom of the world and you can’t take risks there. You have to be patient and wait for the right opportunity — that’s the beauty of nature. I was there in October and it was supposed to be the "good" season, but those were the strongest winds I’ve ever experienced.
The Atacama Desert
Where: Western South America
What: The Atacama Crossing — 143 miles across the desert
Three words to describe it: Dry, hot, barren
This place reminds me of the saying "Running in heaven, feeling like hell." It’s the driest desert in the world. NASA tests there because the conditions are just so harsh. It has temperatures of over 100 degrees Fahrenheit and the air is really thin, but you‘re surrounded by snowcapped mountains and iced rivers. There are huge salt flats, which are like running across rugby fields of hard-packed snow, but every now and again it turns kind of like coral. Break through the surface and it slices your leg as you drop up to your knee into piles of salt, which is pretty painful! You can’t replicate that kind of stuff in training.
What: Jungle Marathon — 155 miles
Three words to describe it: Green, humid, scary
Without doubt, the scariest place I’ve ever been to in my life. In the jungle, nothing is your friend — grab a branch of the wrong tree and it will poison you. You’re running through tracks littered with anacondas and you have to cross huge rivers wearing a big, heavy backpack. Everything is 10 times bigger: Ants are like cockroaches, and it’s super scary at night. You’re in a hammock, and the whole jungle comes alive with noises. You can just see all these different sets of eyes looking at you. But it was an awesome experience. As a kid it was always my dream to go running through the jungle, so to do it was pretty rad.
Aiguille du Midi, Chamonix
Where: The Alps
What: Ultra-Trail Du Mont Blanc — 103 miles over the mountains
Three words to describe it: Alpine, awesome, cold
I’ve just spent three weeks in this place, and it’s epic, an outdoor paradise. On top of Aiguille du Midi at the top of Chamonix, you can see white glaciers for miles. Running on the mountains is incredible, with massive rock faces and turquoise landscapes to cross. Strap on a headlamp to go out running at night and you see so many people out on the trails. But the weather can turn very quickly, so you have to always have respect for the surroundings. I know that the weather can move faster than I can, so if it does, it’s time to get off the mountain.
Bucket list No. 1: The Rwenzori Mountains, Uganda
They call this place the Mountains of the Moon because it’s so magical. It’s the highest mountain range in Africa, with tons of amazing wildlife and glaciers which are melting very quickly — by 2020, they could be gone. It’s really brutal and at high altitude, so it’d be a great test for me. I’m hoping to do a project there in the next year with Ryno Griesel, who came with me for the Drakensberg Grand Traverse.
Bucket list No. 2: Yellowstone National Park, USA
I’ve been to the USA a lot, but Yellowstone is definitely on my bucket list. There’s a supervolcano there and the Teton mountains just next door look unbelievable. I went to Whistler in Canada last year, which was right up there with the best. Northern Vancouver and all the national parks around it were epic. In road running, I don’t think I’ve ever been able to push myself quite as hard as in trail running, just because you’re racing through such beautiful places.
Bucket list No. 3: Mount Kenya, Kenya
I’ve traveled around the world so much, but I’d really like to discover more of Africa. As a kid I spent most of my time on the beach, and it was only in my final year of university that I really started running. For the beauty and unpredictability, it’s much more exciting to run on trails than on the road. I’d love to test myself against Mount Kenya. It’s the second-highest peak in Africa after Kilimanjaro.
Bucket list No. 4: Fiordland National Park, New Zealand
This place looks epic. It’s on the South Island and it’s got a bit of everything. When I’m running, I try to take my surroundings in — if you’re having a bad patch, it really inspires and motivates you to push further. I went to New Zealand a few years ago but I’ve not explored it enough. Hopefully I can go there for Red Bull Defiance in January.
Bucket list No. 5: Vatnajokull National Park, Iceland
Some of my friends went to Iceland recently and I’ve been looking at all of their photos with envy. I’ve fancied Iceland and Greenland for a while now — I’ve already visited Antarctica and I survived the cold! No two runs are ever the same, but that makes it so much more exciting, and keeps you in the moment. You just have to worry about putting one foot in front of the other, not about what’s happening tomorrow or in the future.