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Griesel’s Grand Traverse

Griesel’s Grand Traverse

Words: #CountryRunner Ian Macleod

#CountryCyclist with Ryno Griesel
#CountryCyclist with Ryno at the Salomon store
he runs when he’s not running.

“I’m a shoe salesman,” says Ryno Griesel. But not even if he was Al Bundy himself could that be less accurate. A chartered accountant by training, he’s also one of South Africa’s most accomplished adventure athletes and recently broke the record for the fastest traverse of the Drakensberg Mountains by foot, alongside Ryan Sandes.

I chatted to Griesel for inspiration ahead of my attempt at the joBerg2C.

#CC: Ryno, you already held the record for the ‘Drakensberg Grand Traverse’ – 60-odd hours to run from Sentinel car park to the Bushman’s Neck border post (+-220km). What made you attempt to break it in March?

RG: It was partly just a good excuse to go running with Ryan Sandes. To be honest, the record has never been super important to us.

The film coming out at the end of May is the big focus. It will portray the Drakensberg for what we believe it is. The record was a tiny part of a project to put the Berg on the map worldwide, because we’re so passionate about the Berg. A lot of people go to Cape Town or Kruger, but not a lot of overseas visitors see our mountains, but they’re just a few hours from Gauteng.

Synching watches...
Synching watches…

#CC: How did you get to know Ryan Sandes?

RG: I know Ryan well now, because I spent a lot of time with him over a compressed time ahead of the run. But I’ve always known of him and been super intrigued by what he does and why he does it. I had a world of respect for him.

I did the Salomon Skyrun in 2012 and came third. Ryan won it and I asked him to sign my cap. He wrote there “Live your dreams”. That got me thinking. Six months later I gave away all my businesses and decided to follow my dreams full time. Those few seconds Ryan took to sign my cap was enough to convince me to go all out for my dreams.

#CC: The DGT covered extremely rough terrain. Was it the toughest you’ve experienced?

RG: As far as foot placement goes, definitely. It was just long grass, big rocks, no trails going in the right direction. But it did kind of equal the playing field. If it wasn’t like that I’d have only seen Ryan at the start and the end. On a normal trail there’s no way I could keep up with him. Even at the Skyrun, I was three hours behind Ryan. He is a freak of nature.

Highlighting the beauty of the Drakensberg was a key goal of the expedition.

#CC: I reckon the mental strain of cycling nine days in a row will be harder than the physical element of the J2C. How tough was the DGT psychologically?

RG: Combined with navigation was tiring. I have good knowledge of the Berg and I navigated the whole way. So I was focusing on the GPS screen for 40 hours, not really able to look at my feet, but you’ve got these technical conditions under foot. I fell so many times – I even fell in the last 100m.

#CC: How does one deal with that?

RG: Step one is always to break your challenge down into manageable components. More important than that is to be very clear about your goal, both personally and as a team. You have to know why you’re doing what you’re doing, because you definitely will question that all the way.

I love running in the mountains, but to be honest there’s little enjoyable about the DGT. You’re going at such a pace you don’t get to enjoy the scenery. You’re suffering. The goal might not make sense until after you cross the line, so until then it’s all about focusing on the goal and nothing else.

#CC: You had some physiological issues to deal with too…

RG: We were flying those first six or seven hours when it was cool [the pair departed at midnight]. But then it got hot – it was the hottest I’ve ever experienced in the Berg – and I struggled to keep food down. I had to fight hard and Ryan had to talk me through it. I managed to eat small bites, but still got totally exhausted.

The pair’s only respite was two short spells (roughly 30 minutes and 10 minutes) where they got what sleep they could on the rough terrain.

#CC: Did you learn lots from running with such an experienced, world-beating athlete?

RG: I learnt a huge amount from Ryan, but it wasn’t so much about running, because we’re completely different runners with different goals. It was really about the way he handles himself and pressure. He’s super humble and focussed. He’s a brilliant runner, but he’s the most approachable top athlete I’ve never met. What he does is not as important as who he is. I’m not sure I could be so humble if I could do what he can.

#CC: What’s next?

RG: I have a few ideas. Now my horizons are quite broad. Things I didn’t think were possible suddenly are. I’d like to combine some mountains higher up in Africa. There are some tall peaks around Lake Victoria which I have some crazy ideas about, maybe combining running with paddling and cycling. Being a competent climber, I have options you might not have as just a trail runner.  Whatever I do will be somewhere in Africa and something adventurous.

Sandes and Griesel completed the traverse in just under 42 hours. They had demolished the record.

Watch a short video that previewed Ryno and Ryan’s adventure:

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