SA runners conquer Great Himalayan Trail in record time

26 March 2018 - 08:37 By Claire Keeton
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Ryan Sandes and Ryno Griesel on the 1,406km Grand Himalayan Trail.
Ryan Sandes and Ryno Griesel on the 1,406km Grand Himalayan Trail.
Image: Dean Leslie, The Wandering Fever/Red Bull Content Pool

Life-threatening chest spasms and frostbite did not stop South African trail runners Ryan Sandes and Ryno Griesel from setting a new fastest-known time along the 1‚406km Great Himalayan Trail on Sunday.

The team‚ which set out on March 1‚ were four days faster than fellow South African Andrew Porter’s 28-day record‚ when they finished early on Sunday – after running the equivalent of an ultramarathon every day at high altitude over 24 days‚ 14 hours and 47 minutes.

Porter – another outstanding South African trailrunner who holds the solo record for the 220km Drakensberg Grand Traverse — did the Great Himalayan Trail on his own.

On Monday‚ the team made the risky decision to keep running into the night after Griesel had rested for a few hours at a village tea house‚ recovering from chest spasms‚ hyperventilation and a temperature.

Of their death-defying determination‚ filmmaker Dean Leslie said: “When Ryan and Ryno started the Great Himalaya Trail they knew it would be physically tough. But no one ever thought this run would be life-threatening.”

Sandes said of his partner: “He had a high heart rate and a fever. I literally thought he was going to drop dead on the trail‚ but he kept going.”

“My body just didn’t want to move‚” said Griesel‚ an experienced mountaineer who knows the dangers of altitude.

Despite this he set off at 9pm with Sandes‚ running 40km to the next town‚ Patan‚ and catnapping along the trail.

The pair supported each other during the feat which “felt like an eternity”‚ finishing the traverse as friends.

Sandes said on Monday: “I was joking with Ryno‚ saying that this crossing has been such a huge adventure‚ but at the same time so overwhelming that I have almost been tempted to say it might be easier to go back to a nine-to-five corporate job.”

But the professional runner has no intention of hanging up his shoes‚ though he thinks this is an experience he will never top.

Sandes struggled with stomach problems and Griesel with sore and sensitive hands over the past week. Griesel also suffered a painful leg injury along the way.

The two ran through remote regions such as Dolpa and crossed touristy areas like Annapurna and Manaslu on their traverse.

“I’ve really enjoyed the contrast‚” said Sandes. “I’m really enjoying the way we’re doing this because we get to enjoy some big iconic mountains of Nepal and more remote areas‚ but then also the farming‚ [and the] touristy areas – all on foot.” 

Griesel said he was looking forward to a shower and “good South African food” when they got home. The duo are expected to arrive in Cape Town on Tuesday.

Porter said on Friday that his traverse and the one completed by Sandes and Griesel could not be compared because they were run in different styles.

In an open letter to Sandes‚ Griesel and their support crew‚ titled “Why you will not be beating me and anyone else”‚ Porter objected to the support crew trying to give them a remote resupply by helicopter‚ an effort which failed.

“The whole idea of the Grand Himalayan Trail is to be in remote mountains and to raise your own game to match that of the environment around you‚” he said. “The cost of that single helicopter flight probably equalled the entire cost of my Grand Himalayan Trail effort.

“The sheer cost of your trip has ensured that there is no way to possibly compare your effort to mine. Or anyone else['s]‚” said Porter‚ nevertheless wishing them luck for the last few kilometres.

The support crew on the expedition said in a post they were trying to resupply Griesel with medicines against frostbite. 

Sandes said: “If people think that this attempt is just about beating a record‚ they have clearly missed the point entirely. This attempt is more about the experience and the amazing adventure that we have had. This is a once-in-a-lifetime type experience‚ not just a record attempt.”

Leslie‚ who is making a documentary about the feat‚ said the runners had no support crew. “We are here to document and film everything. The helicopter is not for Ryan and Ryno‚ it is just for the film crew to get them around and to get the high mountain shots. 

“They tried once ... to get antibiotics to Ryno via helicopter as it looked like at that stage that Ryno would be losing those fingers. They didn’t find them though.”

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