Losing weight and gaining friends, thanks to the ultra community
Bryan Sands ends his correspondence with, “Written while dreaming about wandering on a trail somewhere in the mountains or desert.”
While that sentiment is common in Flagstaff, Ariz., Boulder, Colo., and other places known for trail and ultra running, Sands is far from there – physically – in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
He dreams big (as I encouraged all runners to do throughout 2021 in a recent post) and inspires the running community with his unflinching support, and inspirational story.
After all, it was only five years ago when Sands was obese, taking insulin and lacked the energy to play with his kids. Now, he is more than 100 pounds lighter, plays with his kids without getting tired and preparing for a 250-mile race.
‘I just felt lousy all the time’
Sands admits he had been overweight throughout his life, even though he had gastric bypass surgery about 15 years ago.
“I was the fat one on the playground and I was never terribly active,” he recalls. “I've always been heavy but I saw a picture of myself after my first son was born and I was huge.”
At his heaviest, he weighed 351 pounds. Now, he checks in at 234 pounds.
“I'm a diabetic and had gotten to a point where I became insulin dependent,” he says. “I didn't have energy. I just felt lousy all the time. One day, I just got fed up and decided that I've got to do something. I just feel awful and I need to get control of myself and get my health under control or I'm not going to be around for my kids.”
After completing a 5K, he was inspired to do go further. He knocked off the Walt Disney World Half Marathon in the fall of 2016. Then he entered the Chicago Marathon lottery — “I won't get in but I'll throw my name into the lottery for the next year because why not?”
Of course, he was drawn and ran Chicago in 2017.
“It was hard. Of course, everybody's first is hard but truly an amazing experience. I think they said there were over 2 million people along the marathon route cheering. And you get to run through all the different neighborhoods in Chicago, so it was just an amazing experience.”
Then the ultra community beckoned.
Road to ultra running
Early in his running journey, Sands paused while he recovered from foot surgery. In his downtime, he started watching YouTube videos, including some by Ethan Newberry, the Ginger Runner. Soon enough he joined and support Newberry’s GR crew.
“They were cheering me on through the marathon. And when I finished they're all like, ‘Oh, you finished a marathon? Well, you can do a 50K now because trails they are much easier on the feet and they're more scenic and you should really try a 50K.’ I'm like sure why not?”
In 2018, Sands finished his first ultra, the Skyline 50K in Oakland, Calif., followed by the McDowell Mountain 50K in December. “I really enjoyed it and found that I really love the trail running. I love the scenery, being able to run up hills.”
As he shed weight and the need for insulin, he looked forward to more – and longer — adventures.
“I'm really enjoying the running and I love this community,” he says. “The community is wonderful. So let's keep going and see how far I can go.”
Two days before the Javelina 100K last year, he broke a toe on a rock. His coach, Megan Roche, gave him the go-ahead to race if the toe felt OK. Sands pushed through for his longest run ever, but had to stop at 42 miles when the pain became too much.
The Roches not only construct training plans but also exude a philosophy that keeps runners happy and motivated.
“There are times when I have a bad day, or a bad couple of days, or a bad week, and am feeling down,” Sands says. “And when I put my feelings in the spreadsheet that they use, they say, ‘Hey, that's fine, look at what you've done so far. We'll change this.’ And then when I've had a good day, she's basically my cheerleader. Having her there for positive reinforcement and as a coach has just been amazing.”
With Megan’s guidance and the community support, Sands took on his biggest challenge at the end of October.
At age 53, he’s in better shape physically and mentally.
“Who would think at 53 that I'd be running better than ever? If you told me a couple years ago even I'd be doing a 100-mile race, I'd told you you're crazy.”
100 miles? Try 250, as in this year’s inaugural Cocodona 250, conceived by Jamil Coury and Aravaipa.
Sands was hooked when he learned it would be in Arizona, starting in Black Canyon City, going through the desert and finishing in Flagstaff. But first things first, he needed to get a 100-mile qualifier.
With races canceled and/or going virtual, Sands received permission from Coury to create his own 100-mile run to qualify.
The first challenge was to find a suitable course. Ultra runner Kaci Lickteig suggested the flat Wabash Trace Nature Trail, where she has three Fastest Known Times (FKTs) to her credit.
Sands was sold and started planning.
“That was a big learning curve, just learning how to set it up,” he says. “My wife was going to be crew chief so she followed me around in the truck that we had. We were able to recruit a pacer on the Ginger Runner crew and she was so sweet. She drove down from Wisconsin to come pace me. And Kaci was great. She told me about where her aid station stops were. So that helped me out too.”
With the support of his wife, the Ginger Runner community and coach Megan, Sands indeed did finish his 100-miler around Halloween. Next up: the Cocodona 250.
250 miles in the desert
Soon Sands won’t have to just dream about Arizona. He’ll see plenty of it during the race.
“When I ran out in Arizona for McDowell and Javelina, I fell in love with the desert running area,” he explains. “I don't know if it's the beautiful starkness or the stark beauty or however you want to put it. I really liked it out there. It was just amazing for me. The chance to be able to run through all of this, the different environments and ecosystems there is amazing.”
He also liked the idea of doing an inaugural race.
“I would love to give it a go and see how far I can go,” he says. “We'll see how far I can go. If I finish it cool. If not, it's going to be a hell of an experience.”
There will be plenty of cheerleaders. In addition to supporting the Ginger Runner, Sands also contributes to Rob Steger’s Training for Ultra, Coury’s Mountain Outhouse and Billy Yang.
“It started with Ethan when I was recovering and felt pretty down because I had had my foot surgery from running,” he recalls. “I watched him and his shows were inspiring. The community is so supportive. When the Ginger Runner went to Patreon and started offering levels I knew I wanted to give back because the community had given me so much love and so much support through the years.”
Sands treasures the friendships he has made in the ultra community.
“Growing up I might've had a few friends here and there but not a whole lot,” he says. “With medical school and being a doctor, you just don't have a lot of friends. I've made more friends in this community than I've ever had.”
‘I feel better about myself’
Additionally, Sands has grown closer to his family.
“I'm definitely much happier. I feel better about myself,” he says. “My kids are actually looking up to me. I'm sure they were before, but I hear them telling me that they're proud of what I've done.”
In fact, his youngest child, who is 16, wants to run with him now.
“He’s seen me run in the last couple of years. He's interested in maybe doing a 5K or something like that once they start opening races up again. It's definitely brought me closer to him for sure and my other two kids.”
Along his journey, Sands has learned a lot about himself.
“I'm much stronger than I realized I was,” he says, reflectively. “I'm able to do things that I never thought were possible. It goes back to the 100-miler and thinking I could do that. Just to find that I've got the strength in me that I didn't know was there to be able to do this is truly amazing.”
Name: Bryan Sands
Hometown: Cedar Falls, Iowa
Number of years running: Five.
How many miles a week: It varies, depending on where I am in training for races. For example, 21 miles running last week; when I was in training for the 100, I had a 51-mile week. I also cross-train with biking. That usually is around 20-30 miles a week.
Point of pride: Finishing my first 100-mile race over Halloween last year.
Favorite race distance: I’ll let you know when I figure it out!
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Toast or bagel with cheese, coffee.
Favorite piece of gear: AfterShokz Trekz Aeropex bone conducting headphones.
Favorite/inspirational song to run to: Canterbury by Ethan Newberry (The Ginger Runner) - reminds me of being on Orcas Island, where I did my first real trail runs. Also, The Call of Ktulu (live) by Metallica from the S&M2 album: great when you need to get psyched up or an energy boost.
Favorite/inspirational mantra/phrase: Embrace the suck (Megan Roche). Get through the lows; things will improve within a few miles (several people have told me this).
Where can other runners connect or follow you:
• Facebook: Bryan Sands
• Twitter: @IApyrodoc
• Instagram: IApyrodoc67
• Blog (trying to work on this now!): www.trailstotales.com