Blowing the old record out of the water with the hugest of cannonball leaps, South Africans Ryan Sandes and Ryno Griesel successfully set a new Drakensberg Grand Traverse speed record of 41 hours and 49 minutes.
Drakensberg Grand Traverse Background
Ryno Griesel himself and Cobus van Zyl held the previous record of 60 hours, 29 minutes, and 30 seconds which the pair set in April 2010 and with an adventure-racing, speed-hiking approach over the famous Drakensberg Escarpment, a seemingly unending buttress of rock reaching a high point of 3,482 meters/11,423 feet and spanning the border between South Africa and Lesotho.
The Drakensberg Grand Traverse (DGT) has no set route and is largely off trail. Most people will cover in the vicinity of 210 kilometers/130 miles and climb more than 9,000 meters/29,500 feet. The DGT is seen as a backpacking destination for the very fit and experienced, and DGT recreation-ers have, through time, created a set of ‘standards’ defining a legitimate traverse. In short, you have to pass/get through eight locations, what DGT-ers refer to as checkpoints:
- Climb the chain ladders at Sentinel Peak
- Summit Mont-aux-Sources
- Summit Cleft Peak
- Summit Champagne Castle
- Summit Mafadi
- Summit Giants Castle
- Summit Thabana Ntlenyana
- Descend Thamathu Pass
To set their record, Ryan and Ryno passed all these checkpoints, starting at the Sentinel car park and ending at Bushman’s Nek Border Post. Finally, Ryan and Ryno traveled in the self-supported style that’s been used during previous record attempts. GPS units and maps are permitted under the DGT gentleman/woman’s agreement.
Ryan Sandes and Ryno Griesel Drakensberg Grand Traverse FKT Interview
iRunFar: Congratulations to the both of you.
Ryan Sandes and Ryno Griesel: Thanks. Thanks very much.
iRunFar: It’s just been 15 hours since you’ve finished. How are you both feeling this morning? What hurts? What feels good?
Griesel: I think our feet are quite broken because of the terrain. Yeah, my calves are quite sore from the downhill running. Ryan doesn’t seem to hurt too much. He’s not human.
Sandes: My feet are also completely bashed up, especially from the final descents were really rocky and technical. I’ve got loads of hotspots on my feet. My ankles also took quite a beating. The terrain is so rugged and varied. You’re always running on grass tufts and rocks are always moving and are super sharp. Yeah, I think both our feet don’t look too pretty this morning.
iRunFar: I know that there were a fair number of water crossings. What’s the skin situation on your feet today?
Sandes: There are loads of water crossings. You probably cross a river every three to four kilometers along the route. Because there has been so much rain up here, some of the water crossings were quite deep. I think both our feet, yeah, I’ve got some pretty big hot spots. Actually, Kelvin Trautman took a photo of my feet yesterday when I took my shoes off. They look like when you get the wrinkly feet from having your feet in the water for a long time but a million times worse.
iRunFar: You were about five hours away from trench foot?
Sandes: Yeah, pretty much. I’d imagine we do have trench feet. They’re not looking too healthy.
iRunFar: Last night did you guys sleep like babies or did you have nightmares about being out there still?
Griesel: I just had a big slab of chocolate before I climbed into bed, and I slept like a baby. It was awesome to be finished.
Sandes: Yeah, I also slept pretty well. I kept dreaming about helicopters. The guys from [The] African Attachment were filming [the attempt]. I kept on hearing these imaginary helicopters. [laughs]
iRunFar: That’s great. I want to start with a little bit of background on you, Ryno. Most people who read this will be pretty familiar with Ryan, but not you, Ryno. You’ve done a bunch of trail running but also a bunch of adventure racing. Can you tell us about yourself?
Griesel: My background is mainly adventure racing. I’ve raced overseas for the last 10 years or so. That’s pretty much my preference of endurance sport. Trail running has always just been kind of an outflow from adventure racing. But also, I’ve been into climbing mountains and mountaineering in general most of my life. I figured out early in my life that if you can run from one climbing route to another then you have more time to play during the day. That’s kind of how trail running developed for me—being a climber and moving in the mountains. The Drakensberg became a passion for me over the last couple of years.
iRunFar: When I Google you and your race results, you seem to be drawn toward the really long adventure races—700k, 900k. You must like to suffer?
Griesel: I think it’s by default. I’m not that fast. I have to go far to be competitive. I’m not a sprinter. I generally have a fairly strong head and I enjoy pushing my limits, and seeing how far I can go. I’ve always chosen the endurance side purely because I don’t have that much speed.
iRunFar: This was a short outing for you at just 200k?
Griesel: In comparison to adventure racing, but the big difference is never in adventure racing do you spent 200k on your feet. You typically are more varied in the disciplines. That’s what made this thing quite tough. Your hiking legs are very seldom over 40 hours. The only hiking legs I’ve done in adventure racing over 40 hours would be in Patagonia. We hiked for four and a half days for one leg.
iRunFar: Ryno, you are the current record holder and previous record holder, too. The press release that came out a couple of hours ago said that the two of you hatched your plan for this new record attempt two years ago. How did the plan come about?
Griesel: Obviously Ryan has always been a hero of mine and I’ve always followed his progress. Independently I’ve spoken to some people about wanting to push the record a little bit further, people with which Ryan also had contact. We met up and said, ‘Let’s see if we can make this happen.’ A project of this magnitude requires that you can’t just jump in and do it. We’d been talking about it for quite awhile, but I’d say the last eight months we’ve been working at it as our main focus.
iRunFar: The two of you, do you have background together prior to this from the endurance-racing community there? How did you get to know each other?
Sandes: Yeah, I’ve known Ryno and seen his achievements through adventure racing and Ryno is in the Salomon South Africa team. I’ve gotten to know him a bit through that. I think basically we formed a much stronger bond and a much stronger friendship through doing this traverse together. Like Ryno said, the past eight months since October of last year really focused on doing the attempt. I’ve come out here to do a lot of recces as well. For me, I thought it was quite important to do my homework. Ryno knows the Drakensberg mountains really well and probably spends about every second weekend here, probably one weekend a month. He knows these mountains really well. I wanted to make sure I also got to familiarize myself with these mountains and pay my school fees, in a way, and make sure I knew the route—that I wasn’t just rocking up here and trying to run from point A to B with limited experience.
iRunFar: That seems like one of the crucial differences between this and an ultra race. Most ultras are much more straightforward than this.
Sandes: Yeah, obviously there are no markings on the mountain. You don’t follow any trails. Now and again you’re running on cattle trails, but the cattle trails can lead to wherever. You’re following a GPS track a lot. Ryno knows the mountains really well. We really focused on getting the most efficient GPS track. The route can vary slightly depending on what’s happened with the rivers and what areas are overgrown or not. It’s definitely not straightforward. It’s taken a lot of homework.
I think a massive thank you also to Cobus van Zyl, the previous record holder with Ryno. He’s put in a lot of effort to help us get the most efficient track. I think even just going on the GPS track, even yesterday with about eight k’s to go, it was really tricky getting off the mountain. There are so many different routes you can take. Getting cliffed in—there were some guys who hiked in a few weeks ago and actually got cliffed in on the mountain and had to spend an extra night on the mountain with only about four k’s to go. It’s really tricky. You’ve definitely got to do your homework and know the routes 100%.
iRunFar: To be those guys would be heartbreaking. You can probably see the trailhead and have to bivy out.
Sandes: Yeah, for sure. It was going through my head a little bit yesterday afternoon when we were double checking the trail. The trail at that point was quite overgrown. I think both Ryno and I for a couple of minutes were a little bit worried. The last thing we wanted to do was get stuck on the mountain for an extra night.
iRunFar: I want to ask you about your personality match-up. It’s a commitment to go out in the wilderness with another dude for a couple of days in addition to all the planning you had ahead of time. How did you realize that you would be good partners?
Griesel: I’ve always followed Ryan’s achievements. But to get to know him as a person—Ryan is just so easy going and humble, super strong. So from the word ‘go,’ I knew I would be 100% safe with him in the mountains. We’ve gelled really well together. I think what helps is that we both did this as a personal journey. We didn’t really have this record as the main focus. We wanted to experience the mountains together and put the record in the back of our heads. Otherwise, it’s just another race, which obviously makes things more difficult. The fact that we both had similar goals made it easier.
Sandes: I think Ryno’s just being nice. He has a lot more experience than me in the mountains. My navigation is pretty pathetic. It’s getting better. But even with following the GPS, I just follow the lines. Ryno can read a map really well. He knows how to read contours and is just so good at reading maps. In that sense, Ryno definitely helped a lot. We’re both pretty focused. As Ryno said, we both had the same intention and goals in mind. I think generally we’re both quiet people. We’re not one of those people who have to be chatting the whole way. We really did gel quite well together during the attempt.
Griesel: Yeah, all good.
iRunFar: It’s interesting to hear you say that you treated this as a personal journey. From the outside looking in, Red Bull hyped it as a record attempt. You say that from the inside looking out, you didn’t necessarily treat it like that.
Sandes: Yeah, even in a race, I find I generally don’t run as well if I’m thinking about the times as if I’m there for the experience. But I think for both of us, just being in the Drakensberg mountains—the biggest mountain range in South Africa—just to be able to traverse it from one side to the other, that was kind of the main goal for me. In 50 years’ time, I’m not going to be worried that I ran the Drakensberg Traverse in however many hours. I think it’s more that I traversed the Drakensberg mountains on foot that will probably be the biggest thing for me and I’m pretty sure for Ryno, too.
iRunFar: Can you place these mountains in South African outdoor culture for me? I get the sense that doing this traverse or part of the traverse is a bucket-list-type item for people with backcountry experience in South Africa. Is that how it is?
Griesel: The biggest thing about the Drakensberg is, first, that it’s very remote. There is no road that leads in and around the mountains. The accessibility to the Drakensberg is that there are very specific spots you can get to the mountains. The drive around to the next spot is three to four hours. A lot of the foot of the mountain is occupied by rural communities. From previous history and how South Africa was divided up, a lot of the local communities and the black people, they have the biggest towns and cities at the foot of the mountain. So there are not roads. It’s quite inaccessible.
Also, once you’re on top of the mountain, if you decide that you don’t want to continue and you want to get down, it’s between six and 10 hours of hiking out. So the reality is different from European mountains, for instance, that there are no roads over the top and there are no easy exits. It’s kind of this untouchable, iconic route to do because it takes a lot of commitment especially the way we did it where we took minimum gear. You have to have the experience in the mountains. It’s kind of this elusive, very difficult to access mountain. That’s what’s created the awareness and the hype behind it, I guess.
iRunFar: Ryno, it seems like you have quite a defined relationship with that mountain range. You have done a bunch of time out in it. You were the previous traverse record holder. It was worth it to you to go through 60 hours of suffering a few years ago and then another 40 this time. What is it about the mountain range that keeps drawing you back? Is it that remoteness factor?
Griesel: Yeah, I think that, firstly, I’m super passionate about mountains in general. I just love spending time in the mountains and trying to get to the summit of various peaks. I think the Drakensberg is the closest possible range from home where I’m staying in Pretoria and Johannesburg. It’s four to five hours drive. So initially it just started as the most accessible mountain.
Then over the years, I’ve just spent time there. As Ryan said, you pay school fees. You get snowed in. You get in trouble. You get out of trouble. Over years, you develop that love relationship with the mountain to see how far you can push your limits. Initially it started as an easily accessible mountain in the sense of closest drive. Then you realize that not everybody… it’s not a quick fix in the Drakensberg. You’ve got to spend time to figure out how to drive in and out of points and then where to hike up and down the mountain nevermind spending time on top of the escarpment as we did now. So, a bit of perspective, I could give our GPS track to a lot of other people now who wouldn’t necessarily be able to follow it because you need the background and the reference of previous school fees and previous experiences to be able to interpret that track. It’s just over time paying the school fees and developing the relationship with the mountain.
Sandes: I think Ryno is the only crazy person who has done the traverse three or four times.
Griesel: The full one—three times now.
Sandes: He’s also on numerous occasions tried to do a winter traverse, doing the same route but just trying to do it in winter when the whole route is snowed in.
Griesel: It was 63 hours for halfway [on the winter attempt], so we decided to call it a weekend.
Sandes: Yeah, so he’s done some pretty crazy adventures.
iRunFar: Ryno, was that on skis when you did the winter attempt?
Griesel: No, I’m from Africa. I don’t even know how to use skis. I just use trekking poles and tights. The problem is all of the southern slopes are very deep snow, so it’s very slow moving and every second step you fall in. Because of the terrain being so technical, you actually step in holes between the rocks and the grass holes the whole time. It was actually a sufferfest—good in hindsight, but we wouldn’t advise it to anybody.
iRunFar: Ryan, you ran Transgrancanaria just three weeks before this. That’s a pretty brutal race. I know you had to push yourself to win. Either that works out to be beautiful training or a beautiful mistake in terms of preparing for the traverse.
Sandes: For sure. I think with anything, sometimes it goes your way and sometimes it doesn’t. Your body sometimes recovers quickly and at other times it doesn’t. I was quite confident, though, with it being a three-week gap that it was going to be perfect training. The traverse is so slow moving. You look at it’s 207k over 41 hours—to any person who doesn’t know the route, that seems really slow going. I knew the route was going to involve a lot of powerhiking, a lot of really slow running, a lot of stopping, a lot of starting. So for me, I was actually more trying to be mentally ready and to get my legs as strong as possible doing a lot of powerhiking and stuff like that. Actually, I think it worked out quite well. I recovered fairly quickly from Transgrancanaria. It was my first race of the season, so generally your recovery is a lot better. I’m doing Ultra-Trail du Mont Fuji in a couple weeks’ time. It will be interesting to see how I recover for that. I think that’s going to be a lot, lot more tricky than recovering from the Transgrancanaria for the traverse.
iRunFar: Yeah, I will look forward to seeing how your legs bounce back for that race as well. I want to ask about the specifics of the attempt. There was a lot of media build-up to it. Did you guys feel any pressure going into it, or were you just like, It is what it is. The pressure is the mountain rather than the hype.
Sandes: Yeah, I try not to worry too much on the external elements. Obviously, doing the attempt while having The African Attachment guys here doing a video and having Red Bull really helping us make it all happen, you obviously want to do them proud. There’s always that concern. I think, for me, it was never about the time. As long as we finished I’d have been happy with that. Like we said, the terrain is so brutal and so easy to get lost or if the weather closes in… the weather definitely plays a big, big part in it. There were those kinds of concerns for me that we wouldn’t actually be able to complete the project.
Griesel: For anybody, to run with Ryan is enough pressure on its own. I haven’t really done anything on that level. So to be honest, my biggest pressure was running with Ryan. I was not at ease. For Ryan, it’s just one [event]. One or two weeks ago, I was like ‘Um hmm, I’m an accountant.’ It all worked out well. We enjoyed the mountain. On the filming side, a bit of passion for myself has always been to showcase the Drakensberg mountain range to the world. I think that in the back of my head I knew the filming would add pressure. That was a big part. It was never just about the record. It was about showcasing what we have in South Africa to a bigger part of the world. It’s always been a big project. The run at the end was just finalizing it. The project has been bigger than just the record to me.
iRunFar: Talk about, for a moment, your start. You guys chose 12:00 midnight to begin. There must have been some strategy to that?
Sandes: Yeah, we were originally looking to start at two or three in the morning, but then we thought if we were going to start at that time, we’re not going to sleep anyway. We decided to start at 12:00 a.m. We did rough calculations and came up with a best-case scenario. We realized if we did close to 45 hours, we would be able to do a lot of the running in the daytime hours which, obviously with not following any paths at night, your pace is really slowed down. The key is to try to run in the daytime as much as possible.
That being said, we actually were so lucky with weather. It actually got a little bit too hot during both of the two days. Making sure you stay hydrated was quite tricky at times with carrying minimal gear and not wanting to take too much nutrition. Yeah, but the general strategy was to start at 12:00 a.m. and hopefully in two days’ time, finish in early evening.
Griesel: Because we ran with minimum gear and the risk of bad weather and maybe the need to sleep, what we also took into consideration was our fifth summit, Giant’s Castle, we wanted to hit that at about halfway. So it’s 118k of the 215-odd kilometers, so it’s just over halfway [distance-wise], but mentally it’s halfway. There’s quite a big valley leading up to Giant’s Castle as well as leading down from Giant’s Castle. The plan was to try to line it up with your normal body clock and your sleeping clock and to try to maybe sleep a little bit before we hit Giant’s, which would be 10:00 p.m. and afterwards, which would be maybe 2:00 a.m.—which we never needed as much sleep. We knew we had to plan that if we want to sleep, to sleep somewhere in a valley because it’s a little more sheltered. We didn’t have any bivies to sleep in. That was also a big part of why we started at 12:00 a.m. the previous night.
iRunFar: That first night was about six hours of darkness. The press release that just came out said that during that time, Ryan, you rolled your ankle. Was that the main challenge of that time, successfully navigating and not wrecking yourselves by falling over in the dark?
Sandes: Yeah, for sure. Running at night, I was concerned with the terrain being so rough. I also took a tumble and cut my hand a bit. I think that was in the first hour. Then like you said, in the second hour, I tweaked my ankle; luckily it wasn’t too bad. It was more a mental thing. You realize, if that all happens in the first two hours, what’s going to happen over the rest of the time? Luckily for navigation, Ryno was in charge of that so obviously that was a big help for me. I know Ryno knows the mountain so well and he’s done a lot of homework. I was pretty confident that he had that down to a tee which he did.
The first six hours, I really enjoyed them. The weather was really perfect. We started off in a t-shirt and shorts. I was feeling warm and pretty surreal just to finally get started. It’s been building up for awhile now, so I was just keen to get started. To be honest, I think the first six hours were probably some of the best memories you have. Obviously, you start feeling relatively fresh and you’re a lot more aware and you’re taking a lot more in. I think that sunrise was pretty special on the first morning.
iRunFar: Ryno, where were you at sunrise?
Griesel: We were just past what’s called the Mweni area which is quite exposed and has some sharp peaks. We were on our way to our second summit, Cleft Peak at 55 kilometers. It’s a beautiful area. The sunrise just brings out all the sharp edges close to the escarpment. It was really special as was the sunrise of the second morning just as we summited Thabana Ntlenyana which is the highest peak in southern Africa.
iRunFar: Ryan, when we interviewed you after Transgrancanaria, I think you said you’d be lucky if you could do 5k an hour, but you guys were basically on 5k an hour pace that entire first day. The press release said, Ryno, that you had a bit of a setback with dehydration at some point in the heat of the first day?
Griesel: Yes, I generally struggle in the heat. I’m more used to high altitude colder conditions. Yeah, I definitely started struggling to keep liquids and food down. I had to work around that by taking little bites. Actually, that haunted me for the whole attempt until last night at the finish. I really struggled to eat which obviously influences your energy level.
iRunFar: And did that set your pace back at all?
Griesel: The big thing about the traverse is just constantly moving. We managed to do that. With Ryan’s motivation, I don’t think we slowed down. We had 45 hours in the back of our heads that we wanted to do in total. Even that was just a theoretical figure because I knew how hard it was to initially do 60 hours. I think we managed to, definitely with Ryan’s help, keep the pace we wanted. It just wasn’t as enjoyable as I was hoping. From adventure racing, you learn to suffer through it.
Sandes: It was good to see that Ryno actually does suffer. In all the recces, I was suffering with the altitude. He was always the one having to look after me. It was good to see also that he was a little bit human. I was starting to get a bit worried leading up to the attempt. [laughs]
iRunFar: Since this was self-supported, you had all of your nutrition in your packs, and you were probably filling up [water] in the stream crossings. What was in your bags?
Sandes: I took a space blanket in case of any mandatory-gear stops from Transgrancanaria. [laughs]
iRunFar: [laughs] Maybe you had 10 space blankets just to be sure?
Sandes: Yeah. No, basically I think I the majority of the pack was nutrition. Then, it’s really important to be prepared for anything on the mountain. You get all four seasons in one day here. So we took two waterproof jackets, waterproof pants, a base-layer top, waterproof gloves. Our running gear we ran in. I had a buff and a beanie, shoes, socks. We both had GPS’s. We took two. Ryno was in charge of navigation, but just in case anything happened to the GPS; otherwise we would have been pretty stuck out there. We both each had a headlamp with another as a backup in case something went wrong. We also had the Yellowbrick tracking devices as well. We also had some emergency gear. We took one emergency bivy blanket.
Griesel: Yeah, a very thin space-blanket version of a bivy bag if somebody should get hurt and for visibility.
Sandes: We had a really basic first aid kit, some strapping, lots of sunscreen, hats as well. We both got pretty fried out there. We’re feeling a bit sunburned today. What else did we have?
Griesel: The big thing you have in the back of your head, How light can we go? But then we also felt that we had the responsibility to take the necessary emergency equipment. We didn’t want to go out there and be cowboys with one jacket and nothing else because you might be fine and you might not. The two jackets worked really well even in the good weather. The second night was really cold.
iRunFar: How many calories did you carry?
Griesel: I’ve never been that scientific, but I carried a lot of protein bars and nougats. I’ll leave all that scientific stuff to Ryan.
Sandes: Yeah, I’ve never been that scientific. I think the main thing was that I basically wanted to have one bit of energy or one Llama Bar per hour. I took about 50 to 55 items of food with me—Gu Chomps, Llama Bars, some Gu Roctanes, a bit of FUTURELIFE meal replacement , some peanuts, some sweets to mix it up and to have a nice variety. In hindsight, I took way too many sweet things. I used Gu Chomps a lot, no disrespect to them, but I don’t think I’ll be eating Gu Chomps until I go to Mount Fuji again. You just need a lot of variety because it’s such a long period and you crave all sorts of things.
iRunFar: Would you guess 5,000 calories? Less? More?
Sandes: I’d say a lot more. I can tell you what I took in total. I know I took 15 packets of Gu Chomps, five Roctane gels, 25 Llama Bars, two meal replacements (FUTURELIFE and Ensure), quite a bit of Gu Brew. I’d say more like 10,000 to 15,000 calories.
iRunFar: I want to ask you about sleep. Did you take a nap?
Sandes: Going into the traverse, that was one of my major concerns. I know Ryno from adventure racing can go seven days without sleeping. I generally like to run during the day and sleep at night. We did actually, after Giant’s Peak, as Ryno was saying after 118k, take a 30-minute power nap. I personally didn’t sleep too much during that 30-minute power nap. As soon as I laid down I couldn’t sleep which was quite frustrating. It was also quite cold. Then we started running again after our 30-minute power nap, and I was really tired about two hours later which I think was about 3:00 a.m. in the second night. We took another 10-minute power nap. Again, for the first few minutes I couldn’t fall asleep. I think I only slept for about three or four minutes, but when I woke up I felt really fresh again. I was able to keep going. Then again, just before sunrise I got really tired and was feeling dizzy.
I actually thought I saw helicopter once or twice. I told Ryno, ‘Do you see a helicopter there?’ He was like, ‘No, it’s a reflection.’ I seem to have a helicopter on the brain over the past few days. As far as sleep deprivation, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. It was just that three or four hours just before sunrise again, it was really tough for me to keep focused. Obviously, your pace drops a lot when you’re so tired. Also with the terrain being so technical, you just have to be focused the whole time.
iRunFar: Ryno, I want to ask about pacing. I did rough calculations for you guys at 78k, 100k, and at the finish. Basically, your pace was the same the whole time. There was no drop-off in the second day. Was that intentional or were you just trying to move by how you felt and it just happened to stay so steady?
Griesel: We took a more adventure-racing approach, if I can put it that way, where you’re constantly moving rather than trying to sprint any section. Firstly, knowing the terrain very well, you know where you can push or not. Honestly, there aren’t too many areas where it’s really runnable. It’s more jogging than really running. We kind of worked out that if we want to do 45 hours, we worked it back based on our previous times where we wanted to be at each point in terms of times. But to be honest, that 45 hours was purely theoretical. We didn’t have too much to base it on except it was what we really wanted to do. Then we just based on the GPS trying to keep that pace.
To put the route into perspective, after 160k, it really becomes brutal. Up to that point, you’re combining valleys, either going down or up a valley and eventually summiting and then going down and up a valley. After 160k, you start hitting all the valleys sideways, so you’re literally just climbing up, down, up, down the whole time. Some of those valley walls are maybe 10 meters less than any of the summits. There are some serious, serious climbs. To try to keep our pace in those last 45k was definitely the biggest mental challenge. In previous attempts, that’s where we’ve lost all our time—in the last 45k.
iRunFar: Were you striving for 5k an hour pace?
Griesel: I think we just tried to move at a pace which we could keep up until the end and not let the wheels come off completely. I must say you work really hard to try to maintain 5k an hour. It’s really depressing looking at the GPS and realizing with all this effort you’re actually standing still. Like Ryan said, trying to explain this to anybody, you have to be out there to experience it.
Sandes: Yeah, moving so slow, I think for me, is such a big mental challenge. When you say it’s 10k to go until we get to the next summit and you suddenly realize that 10k is going to take you two hours, it’s taken awhile to mentally get used to that. It basically just feels like everything is in slow motion. Mentally on some of the recces it just completely broke me. The section from the first summit, Mont-aux-Sources after 8k, and then it’s 47k to the next summit, Cleft Peak. Mentally, on the recce that completely broke me. On the recce we split the run up into different stages. To do that in the daytime, it’s beautiful out there, but a lot of it is kind of rolling hills and valleys and it starts to look the same. Mentally that was quite challenging. But luckily with us starting at 12:00 a.m. we managed to get that out of the way before sunrise.
iRunFar: Were there any moments where either of you was just, ‘Oh, dear Lord, make this end?’ Or were you pretty checked into it the whole time?
Sandes: Luckily I felt relatively good and strong throughout most of the attempt. I had a few low patches. I think, for me, the biggest scare was in that first hour, falling and cutting my hand and then a few minutes later rolling my ankle slightly and then doing it again two or three hours later. Mentally, I was a little concerned if I’d been falling two or three times already in the first four hours or so, what was going to happen the rest of the time. For me, obviously, that was in the back of my mind.
I almost felt like I was running scared. On some of the descents I was really scared. I didn’t want to push it too much. I suppose since it was such a long distance, it doesn’t really matter too much. I definitely think the final… you descend for the final 16 to 20k. That just seemed to go on forever and ever. You just want to get to the finish. My feet weren’t actually too bad until then. That final 14k or so destroyed my feet. There’s one pass—what’s the name of that pass?
Griesel: Thamuthu Pass.
Sandes: Yeah, that pass. It’s just super rocky. It’s just like this gorge that just drops off the mountain. You’re kind of just boulder-hopping but it’s really sharp rocks and shale. That destroyed my feet. Then you still have another 8k of downhill running after that also on some pretty gnarly terrain. My feet were just so shot. The last two or three k, I could just feel all the blisters on my feet forming and popping. That was quite tricky. It was a relief to finally see the finish.
Griesel: Yeah, I think those last 45k, the only place you really see civilization on the mountain, we have this Sani Pass road, which is an access road into Lesotho. Once you cross that road, you know there are 45k of sideways valleys. It started heating up again. I was still battling from the heat of the previous day not having eaten enough. I knew, because I’ve done that section so many times, what it would require climbing over all those saddles. Quitting was never an option. Snake bites—I wished for a few other things, but quitting wasn’t an option. Ryan just talked me through it. He was super strong throughout, so we just got through it.
Sandes: I was a little bit worried. Ryno was running a little bit close to some of the cliff edges. I thought he was going to jump off once or twice. [laughs]
iRunFar: How did you guys end up passing the time? Were you listening to music? Did you chat with each other? Was there some Timothy Olson-style grunting? [laughs] How did the camaraderie pan out?
Sandes: [laughs] It was a combination of all of that. Generally when I race I listen to music. It’s not that loud, so you still can talk if need be. Personally, I was actually surprised that I didn’t listen to too much music. For me, I haven’t been up here that often. These mountains are relatively new to me. In South Africa, I come from Cape Town which is at the very bottom, where the Drakensberg mountains are up a lot higher in northern to central South Africa. I think I was really enjoying taking in a lot of the scenery and absorbing a lot of that. We did chat a bit. But as I said, I think we’re both fairly quiet and felt pretty comfortable running together. We didn’t feel the pressure that we had to chat with each other continuously. We did chat a bit as well.
Griesel: On the navigation side, that keeps your head busy the whole time although it’s also mentally quite draining. I literally checked the GPS at least every minute. The terrain is not marked. A lot of it’s off camber. You want to stay on a specific contour line. You never want to lose or gain height unnecessarily. So you’ve got to take the GPS the whole time. I did listen to music as well, but that kept my head busy the whole way.
iRunFar: You followed your track almost to a tee. There were so few deviations.
Griesel: Interestingly, some of the deviations might be because we [intentionally] went off track. I actually changed the route quite a bit still in the last few weeks. From the time I gave that track to the website guys, we actually did quite a few recces and fine tuned the route. A lot of the deviations would be on purpose.
Sandes: With Cobus van Zyl, it was really cool how involved he was with the project. He was the previous record holder with Ryno. I think it just goes to show the camaraderie like with trail running. He basically helped us get the most efficient and economical route. He’s still out here. He was still really involved in the attempt helping out with logistics. He did all the recces with us. It’s really cool to see someone that you tell, ‘We’d like to break your record,’ and then he goes and helps you. At the start and at the finish, he may have been more excited than we were. It’s pretty special to see that. I think Ryno and I are very grateful for Cobus’s help. I don’t think we would have been able to do all of this without him.
iRunFar: Take me to that finish line. You do that gnarly descent. Your feet are killing you. You’re ready to be done. Red Bull set up a finish arch for you to run through.
Sandes: Yeah, we actually had two river crossings within the last 100 meters. Then for the Drakensberg Grand Traverse, the rules say you’ve got to run through the Sentinal car park gate [at the start] and the Bushman’s Nek Border Post [at the finish]—you’ve got to run through that. Basically we ran through the Red Bull arch and 20 meters later was the Bushman’s Nek Border Post and you’ve got to actually touch the gate. That’s the rules. We could actually see the Red Bull arch when we were running down the mountain which was pretty cool to see, but I think it was also quite difficult. You could see it, but you also knew you had another two or three k’s to run. It just seemed to go on and on and on. It was a relief to finally run through the Red Bull arch.
iRunFar: What were you feeling, Ryno?
Griesel: When I went underneath the arch, I touched the fence and then sat down for a few moments. Mentally, the moment I finished, I left the PR and the interviews for Ryan and I just sat alone in the grass. It’s overwhelming to think the project that I’ve dreamed up over many, many years and having that privilege to share it with Ryan was really emotional for me. To realize that if you have a dream, you can go for it. It wasn’t necessarily being so tired, I just enjoyed that moment to think that something that seemed impossible—that doesn’t even mean the record time, but it means sharing my passion for the mountain with so many people—that’s been a dream for a long time. I had a few moments there where I just thought, Flip it’s just amazing—you live once, we must really go after our dreams.
Sandes: For me, everything has happened so quickly. I’m definitely super psyched. I think it will still kick in. I think it is probably so much more than the record. It’s been all the build-ups. For me personally, some of the recces were harder than the actual attempt. The first recce I did in October with Ryno and Cobus, I came into the mountains not quite knowing what to expect. In October normally the weather should be pretty decent here, but we went into the mountains in a massive snowstorm and sideways rain. We spent 40-odd hours in the mountains. It was pretty scary for me. I think I left that recce going back to Cape Town wondering if I had decided to do the right thing trying to traverse across these mountains. Some of the recces have been quite difficult.
Then I came back and did a recce in January and the altitude just annihilated me. That was one of the longest nights of my life trying to slog through on some of the routes. It was pretty cool to see everything finally coming together. It’s been a really great experience for me and something I’ll cherish for a really long, long time. It’s not really the time, it’s more the fact that we traversed the Drakensberg mountains which is something not too many people have done on foot.
iRunFar: Did you let yourselves sort of celebrate your record? When we interviewed you, Ryan, at Transgrancanaria, you kind of hedged and said, ‘Oh, if we can get under 50 hours, we’ll be happy.’ Then as we’ve been talking here, you’ve been talking about ‘45 hours.’ In the end you were several hours faster than that. Are you letting yourselves celebrate the fact that you surpassed your own expectations?
Sandes: Yeah, for sure, We’re definitely chuffed with the time. I had two beers last night last night to celebrate, but after two beers I was ready to go to bed so I couldn’t celebrate too much. I think definitely we’re chuffed with the achievement. It probably hasn’t really kicked in too much as we speak. I think we’ll definitely celebrate a little bit more.
iRunFar: When you look back at stuff like this, hindsight is always 20/20. You may not have much hindsight yet because you just finished yesterday evening, but do you look back on it and feel like, Oh, that was super solid start to finish? I get the sense, Ryno, that you’re a pretty analytical guy when it comes to calculating pace and route. Do you look back on it and think, Oh, we could have gotten a couple of minutes here or there?
Griesel: Yeah, I’m an accountant of profession, so that comes through in everything from the packing and preparing right through. Yeah, I was quite calculating through everything. Yeah, I think I’m always strong in the mountains. I’m strong in the mountains because it’s always nice and cool up there. I’ve raced in places like Utah and etceteras where I know I struggle in heat. When I looked at the weather predictions, although most people were happy from a filming perspective because it was going to be a nice clear day, I knew that I was going to be in for a bit of a challenge. When I did start dehydrating, I was disappointed.
In hindsight, I was disappointed that I got a bit sick and I struggled for a couple of hours during the day. But that’s the challenge of life and taking on this challenge, it’s such a long way. In hindsight, I’m happy that on paper we stayed on track. You can’t help thinking, Okay, could we have gone faster? But the reality is, you can’t really think about it like that. I think as a team, we managed pull each other through and put our strengths together to do the best possible time on the day.
iRunFar: Yes, when I listen to you guys talk it seems that you have fairly complementary strengths. You, Ryno, with your navigation abilities in that type of off-trail environment, and, Ryan, with your ability to just keep pushing on at the highest-sustainable pace on foot. It seems like you used each others’ strengths to bring out the best in each other.
Sandes: Yes, for sure, I think we complemented each other quite a bit. With Ryno doing the navigation, it took a lot of pressure on me. I think it put a lot of pressure on Ryno. The whole attempt, that was where it was going to be best. You can be the fastest runner in the world but if you can’t navigate and you don’t know where you’re going and you don’t know much about the terrain, you’re going to be running around in circles. If I was navigating, we’d still be somewhere around the start. I think we made a really good team. I’m chuffed with how things turned out.
iRunFar: Ryan, we’re going to be seeing you at UTMF in just a month. Ryno, what are you going to do now?
Griesel: First, I’m going to see if I still have a job. I work with Salomon South Africa, so they’ve been super supportive. I guess they won’t mind having their employee back. We’ve been spending quite a bit of time in the mountains over the last couple of weeks. Then I’ll have a couple of local races coming up. I’ll probably not race in the next month. From May onwards, I’ll probably race in the local circuit. Then the World Rogaine Champs is in [South] Dakota in June. I just wanted to see how I feel after this. But I’ve been racing the World Rogaine circuit the last couple of years which is 24-hour navigation runs.
iRunFar: Thank you both for taking the time out of your morning to speak. Congratulations. I hope your recoveries go as smoothly as they can.
[Editor’s Note: This is the latest edition of iRunFar’s On Adventure article series, a play on words from the climbing phrase ‘on belay.’ On Adventure strives to document the raddest adventures of sport and life undertaken by trail and ultrarunners. Also, we want to say thanks to our transcriptionist, Kristin Zosel, who so rapidly prepared this transcription.]